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The Silence of Friends

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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.