The Silence of Friends

Friday, January 28, 2011 - 02:26 PM

British Prime Minister Winston Churchill once observed, “It has been said that democracy is the worst form of government—except for all the others that have been tried.” As democratic protests erupt all across Egypt from Alexandria to Cairo, culminating in what protesters in the country have dubbed “Angry Friday,” I couldn't help but be grateful for being an American, and I watch in dreaded anticipation for the next shoe to drop on those seeking freedom and justice in one of the oldest nations in the world.

Inspired by protests that broke out in Tunisia recently, where citizens ousted their longtime leader, President Ben Ali, and now similar calls for the removal of Yemen's ruler, President Ali Abdullah Saleh, the popular uprising in “the land of the pharaohs” is the latest in a series of democratic outbursts in repressive countries around the world. And, lest we forget the protests that erupted in Iran in 2009 by those who yearned for liberty, it is abundantly clear that a curious phenomenon is taking place all around the world, as oppressed peoples rise up against their oppressors and declare there desire to live in freedom—by any means necessary.

For nearly thirty years, President Hosni Mubarak has ruled Egypt with an iron fist, having assumed power after the assassination of Anwar Sadat in 1981, and imposing a national “state of emergency” that has been in place ever since. Today, however, his own citizens are rising up to finally oppose a dictatorial government — a government that has moved to squelch these protests with water canons, police batons and a complete shutdown of cell phone technology and the internet. Mubarak and his cohorts may be in the final throes of a dying regime, as average Egyptian citizens flout a government-imposed curfew to march in the streets against the status quo in their country.

One thing that is troubling about all of this is America's apparent lack of support for the student leaders and regular citizens, who have risked life and limb to bring about a government that abides by democratic principles. Just Thursday night, Vice President Biden caused quite a stir when he declared that “Mubarak is not a dictator and should not have to resign,” presumably for fear of upsetting a key American ally who receives more U.S. funding than any other nation in the world except for Israel. This does, of course, fly in the face of President Obama's declaration just three days ago during his State of the Union address, that “the United States of America...supports the democratic aspirations of all people. We must never forget that the things that we've struggled for and fought for live in the hearts of people everywhere.” That is, of course, unless those people live in nations that are strategically important to our own foreign policy interests. In that case, we do our best to walk a fine line so as not to upset our “friends” in power.

Former United States Ambassador to the United Nations Adlai E. Stevenson once said, “A hypocrite is the kind of politician that will cut down a redwood tree, mount the stump, then make a speech for conservation.” As Americans, we have come to expect our leaders to stand up for the rights of those who want to be free—calling on other nations to foster democracy and not to squelch it. This time, however, we need more from the White House than labored fence-straddling between what our national interests and the principles we profess to uphold.

As the world watches and waits for its leaders to do the right thing, I am reminded of the late Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., who said, “In the end, we will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends.”

For the Egyptian protesters — with friends like us, who needs enemies?

Elvin J. Dowling is the former Chief of Staff for the National Urban League. An independent who's been both a Republican and Democrat, he serves as chairman of the Destined for Greatness Foundation. He also writes at his website and on Twitter.


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Comments [2]

Erika Byrnes from Brooklyn

written on Friday, January 28, 2011

A couple of weeks ago, when I turned on the radio before stepping into the shower to get myself ready for work, the voices were choppy and animated. Something major had happened or was happening. I stopped and waited. Crowds of people rioting, following a suicide – where in the world? Tunisia, it turned out. A revolution was underway. All eyes were on this nation and the news unfolding. Speculation about what this meant for the Arab world, and the world at large, if the government was overthrown.

Then, on the morning of January 28, 2011, more choppy reporting. This time, however, the tone was more ominous. In Egypt, there had been protests since the uprising in Tunisia, but the largest of them was planned for today. In anticipation of it, the government had cut internet access and blocked cell phones. The only communication coming out was through telephones using land lines, and reporters were commenting that those too may be cut off.

I thought about how, historically, printing presses would be smashed by repressive regimes to disable communications. How even now, journalists are attacked – in Mexico, in Russia – for the role they play as conduit in communications with the world beyond their borders. And also about young Neda and the other men and women beaten or killed in the Iranian protests two years ago.

On my way into work, I stopped into a small cafe near my office. The owner of the shop was bereft. He was shouting at the French reporters on the radio. “Thousands will die... but that won’t stop the revolution. Why? Because they are poor, they have nothing else to do but fight to make it better. It’s criminal... he’s a criminal. Mubarak. Someone should kill him and end this before so many others die. Or send him away. Your Obama should pick up the phone and say – you’re done. Move on. Your Obama, he’s a good man, I listened to his speech this week. But he can’t stand there in the middle. He must help the people.... I am from Libya. These nations are beautiful, rich... the people shouldn’t live in such poverty. Such desperation. While these dictators, supported by the United States, use aid money to buy tanks and guns to keep the people powerless.”

I stood and listened. It felt right to pause and think of how people at that very moment were suffering. Being hit, disbursed with water canons and tear-gas. I thought of those cut and bruised, those in jail or hospitals, and those who would not survive the day. And their families and friends. This ancient and still powerful nation, twisted and writhing in pain.

Feb. 09 2011 01:22 PM

amen for the protest in's sad that this is what it takes for Mr. Change to come out publically say something concrete about the situation....unfortunately it will be too little and too late and will be remembered by his voters.

Jan. 30 2011 02:38 PM

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