Americans like to think of revolutions as simple one-act plays. The colonists rose up against the British, ultimately defeated them at Yorktown and won liberty for us all.
In fact, it was more complicated. The nation’s future was by no means certain in the period following victory. George Washington struggled to keep the Continental Army from revolting after Congress refused to raise taxes to honor its salary commitments. And, of course, it took 80 years before the country began extending the blessings of liberty to the millions held in slavery.
So too today is the fate of the Egyptian revolution uncertain. We wanted to believe that the drama had reached its final, happy conclusion when Hosni Mubarak resigned in the face of widespread demonstrations. But the struggle was not over.
The military replaced Mubarak, an air force general, with a committee of other generals, and this junta has retained many stalwarts of the Mubarak regime. Secret military courts have sentenced civilian bloggers and other activists to long prison terms for criticizing the military. Escalating sectarian violence has frightened millions of Egyptian Christians. The security police continue to arrest and torture peaceful demonstrators, even subjecting female protesters to “virginity tests” in front of male soldiers, according to Amnesty International.
Elections have been scheduled, but without a democratic constitution or credible election laws, it is unclear how free they will be. Despite Egypt’s history of corrupt elections, the generals are so far refusing to allow international monitoring. Indeed, in pursuit of an apparent alliance with the Muslim Brotherhood, the generals initially scheduled the elections immediately following the Islamic holy month of Ramadan. This ploy would inhibit secular parties’ campaigning while giving Islamists captive audiences five times a day in the mosques. The military has quickly recognized Islamist parties but stalled registration of secular ones.
After tens of thousands of people turned out in Cairo’s Tahrir Square, birthplace of the revolution, to protest, the election date was modified slightly. But the army is increasingly allowing heavily armed thugs to move through its lines to attack and sometimes kill peaceful democracy advocates. Two weeks ago, the army itself swept through Tahrir Square, beating and arresting demonstrators and forcibly ending the protest.
The coming months will be a crucial time in determining Egypt’s future, and it’s worth again considering the lessons of our own revolution as the U.S. considers how to aid the cause of democracy. We tend to forget the crucial role that foreign support played in our revolution. Without Lafayette, Rochambeau and the French fleet blocking British reinforcements, Yorktown might have ended very differently.
The U.S. role in Egypt is not as direct as that, but this country does have the ability to influence the Egyptian junta’s treatment of peaceful demonstrators. The United States gives more than $1 billion in military aid each year to Egypt, and hundreds of millions more has been committed to the nation since Mubarak fell.
We can’t allow Egyptian leaders to hide behind that support. In some countries in the region, regime troops have deliberately used weapons marked “Made in U.S.A.” against demonstrators. One democracy activist in the region reported that the secret police played a recording of President Obama’s speech at Cairo University while torturing him, emphasizing that American words about freedom and human rights were hollow.
To date, the U.S. has played into the hands of oppressive regimes trying to cling to power. Vice President Joe Biden insisted that Mubarak was not a dictator, and Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton characterized Syrian President Bashar Assad as a reformer, undercutting and demoralizing brave Egyptians and Syrians as they risked their lives for democracy.
The Arab media have mocked the Obama administration’s self-described policy of “leading from behind.” Coming from the world’s only superpower, this lacks credibility. Democracy advocates found bitter irony in how Obama pushed Rep. Anthony Weiner (D-N.Y.) to resign after Weiner tweeted suggestive pictures of himself, but then waited so long to call on Assad to step down even after he had killed hundreds of his own people. Media in the region have also noted our eerie silence as the Bahraini monarchy, which hosts a large American naval base, brought in Saudi troops to savagely crush peaceful democracy demonstrations.
This month’s brutal crackdown in Tahrir Square came on the heels of a visit to Washington by a high-level delegation of Egyptian generals to discuss the future of U.S. military aid. In the past, assurances of continued U.S. funding also have led quickly to brutal crackdowns on dissent. For example, in 2005 and again in 2006, the regime arrested thousands of activists from the democracy movement in the weeks after House appropriators overrode concerns about Egypt’s human rights record.
But it is not too late. The administration must tell the generals in unmistakable terms that further crackdowns on peaceful democracy demonstrators will bring an immediate interruption in all aid. Taking a firm stand with the generals could help achieve in Egypt what hundreds of billions of dollars and thousands of American lives have failed to win in Iraq: a free, secular, pro-Western democracy in the heart of the Arab world.
David A. Super, a law professor at Georgetown University, is active in Voices for a Democratic Egypt.