From Tunisia to Egypt: Protests for Democracy in the Arab World

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Egyptian demonstrators protest in central Cairo amidst tear gas fire by Egyptian police to demand the ouster of President Hosni Mubarak and calling for reforms on January 25, 2011.

Welcome to Politics Bites, where every afternoon at It's a Free Country, we bring you the unmissable quotes from the morning's political conversations on WNYC. Today on The Brian Lehrer ShowMona Eltahawy, a columnist on Arab and Muslim issues, talked about the protests in Egypt and the government's response.

Following the ousting of Tunisian ruler Zine al Abeddine Ben Ali in Tunisia, experts on Middle East politics had speculated that other parts of the region might also erupt in protest. On Tuesday, Egypt did just that, with thousands of protesters in the streets in Cairo and other Egyptian cities calling for the removal of President Hosni Mubarak and demanding greater rights and increased jobs.  

Mona Eltahawy said the Shoura counsel and Mubarak senior advisors are making no concessions and instead claiming that the ruling National Democratic Party cares about youth and will continue its reform program. The administration police have blocked access to Facebook and Twitter and rounded up protesters, but the protests continue.

For the past three days now we have heard of violent crackdowns in many Egyptian cities. The city of Suez ... has seen some of the worst violent crackdowns by Egyptian security forces there. It was under a state of curfew and security forces are using rubber coated bullets, tear gas, and water cannons.

Despite the violence, the uprising in Tunisia gives Eltahawy a lot of hope for Egypt and the region.

I have to temper everything by saying how absolutely worried I am for everybody on the street, their courage is beyond description. [A]s an Egyptian who knows the Mubarak regime has been in power for thirty years, who’s heard over and over again it is impossible to topple a regime like this — we are seeing the impossible become possible. People thought these red lines were never surmountable, people were always saying you cannot get across the idea of Mubarak and his security services we’re seeing it happen.

The big question now is whether the armed forces will show loyalty to Mubarak or side with the protesters. Eltahawy said there is reason to believe the protesters have a chance.

All these so-called experts on the Arab world who’ve always told us, Arabs are apathetic and they cannot revolt. Well, we’re seeing them now revolt. We’re seeing this unbelievable uprising. What Tunisia did to the Arab world is it set the imagination on fire. It showed people across the Arab world that you deserve freedom and dignity. We did it, and you can do it.

A caller from Queens has a brother who's a lawyer in Egypt who was arrested a few days ago for supporting arrested protesters.

If the U.S. government stops supporting Mubarak regime, the regime will fall. People there don’t want Mubarak. Simple as that…. It’s time to get rid of the dictatorship in Egypt…. It’s a democratic country, we’ve got to hand it to the youth.

Speaking about the New Year's Eve bomb attack that killed more than twenty people, Eltahawy said it was a turning point for people to realize that the Mubarak regime’s policy of discrimination against Christians was behind much of the sectarianism in Egypt. The revolution, she stresses, is not religiously motivated.

What we’re seeing on the street is Egyptians of every age and religious background, it doesn’t matter if you’re Christian or Muslim, it doesn’t matter if you’re secular or from the Muslim Brotherhood. This revolution in the making is without a leader, and it was called for by young people…This will continue because Egyptians are fed up with the Mubarak regime.

While the Obama administration was initially hesitant to support the protests, in his State of the Union speech, President Obama embraced the revolution, and on Wednesday, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said the United States supports the rights of the Egyptian people and urged the government not to stifle their right to protest. The U.S. has historically treated Egypt as an ally, despite the ongoing political repression, because of its diplomatic value as a stable country in the Middle East. Now, however, the administration will have to choose between supporting democracy versus possibly compromising regional stability.   

What Obama and the U.S. administration as a whole must understand is that this idea of stability has come at a price of the freedom and dignity of the Egyptian people, and President Obama has said again and again, he has warned tyrants around the world that they’re on the wrong side of history. And he promised people around the world fighting those tyrants that the United States would support them. It’s time to show that now.

Either way the U.S. is on shaky ground, as too much support might undermine the protests due to the wide distrust of the U.S. by young Egyptians who understand too well that aid from Americans allowed the Mubarak regime to continue its repression, Eltahawy said.

It is fundamental hypocrisy to tell people you believe in these values and to enjoy these values yourself in your country, while for the sake of stability for your country, other people are paying the price through their own freedom, through torture, through human rights violations. It’s unconscionable.

Yet Eltahawy warned against going to far, and creating another Iraq-style war for democracy. “Radicalism is the result of invasion for the sake of democracy.” Instead she said the U.S. must support of human rights of the people and move away from the idea that the countries will either be ruled by a dictator or under strict religious law. While many countries in the region have seen revolution lead to religious ruling, in Egypt, the call to protest was led by youth activists who have learned from Iran and other countries and from experience under oppressive regimes. “For the sake of the Islamist threat,” warned Eltahawy, “we must not give in to the tyrant’s threat.”