Egypt, the birthplace of human civilization, has erupted in a revolution few saw coming, and hardly any international power knows how to address or resolve. This great nation’s history, long lauded by academics and fortune hunters, has been diluted with considerable effect in the last century by the misrepresentations of Hollywood: making Ancient Egypt appear more akin to a colony of Greece and the Roman Empire, instead of the great African superpower it actually was and has been for many millennia. The casting of Elizabeth Taylor to play the wise Cleopatra is a lasting image in American cinematography, and Charlton Heston’s Moses in The Ten Commandments is equally disturbing for its absolute disregard for the historical truth that Egypt is, in fact, African, and was ruled by Pharaohs whose complexions and hair textures favored Barack and Michelle, not Brad and Angelina.
Fact became fiction, and the delusions of grandeur spilled off the big screen and onto the minds of people everywhere. Myths too often become reality — not just on the silver screen- but even on the grand stage which governs politics, power and economics. Sometimes lies become so deeply ingrained that it takes a revolution to redefine the proverbial “it” that should “be”. And so after years of false impressions, and illusions of freedom, the people are now rioting in the streets to demonstrate the fact, as Dr.Martin Luther King, Jr. once declared, that no lie can live forever.
As America has aggressively promoted democracy across the world, we have blindly tolerated some of the worst human rights offenses from our allies. The youth protests currently underway on the streets of Cairo and Alexandria reflect three decades of an American foreign policy which pretended to see no evil, hear no evil and speak no evil. Indeed the political skeletons in the closet are now on display and in danger of being looted like the mummies which lay in the antiquity museums or at the foot of the Pyramids at Giza.
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Due to Egypt’s position at the pinnacle of North Africa, and the predominance of Islam as its major religion, the country has become more socially and politically aligned to the Middle East, than the rest of Africa. Strategically, the current president, Hosni Mubarak has served U.S. interest well. He has provided a relatively stable government in an otherwise volatile region, and has proven to be an especially important ally between Israel and the rest of the Arab world. Under Mubarak’s regime Egypt has enjoyed 30 years of peace with the Israeli state, but that peace has come at a heavy cost, the least of which has been over a billion dollars in U.S. aid a year, and the systematic repression of domestic human rights.
President Obama’s administration is presented with a unique challenge, to honor the long-standing relationship with an ally, while supporting the Egyptian people who have been denied their own self-determination. And sadly, Mubarak and his regime have a long list of offenses. His National Democratic Party represents an oxymoronic version of democratic ideals. Following the 1981 assassination of President Anwar Sadat, Mubarak’s regime has consistently instituted emergency laws under which Egyptian police powers are nearly unbridled, constitutional rights are suspended, censorship is legalized, and the government can imprison citizens indefinitely without reason or legal justification. Political activity which is not expressly sanctioned by the government is illegal, including street demonstrations. There is no right to a free trial and no right to vote.
Mubarak’s government has used potential terrorism as the main justification for its extension of emergency laws, claiming that opposition groups like the Muslim Brotherhood could institute an Islamic theocracy much like the repressive government that has arisen in Iran, headed by Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and the clerics. But the fear tactics are insufficient to justify the reality of political corruption. In order to maintain Mubarak’s stronghold polarizing political figures and young activists are held without trials and hidden in undocumented detention facilities.In June of 2010, a 28-year-old named Khaled Mohamed Saeed, was arrested at a cybercafé, and beaten to death by two police officers as he was dragged to their vehicle. Family members suspected that Khaled possessed video evidence implicating the two officers in a drug deal, but the lack of due process or respect for human life is the real tragedy, as police brutality has continued to go unchecked.
Likewise, the December 2010 parliamentary elections were preceded by widespread arrests, restrictions on media outlets, and bans on candidates who proved unfriendly to the status quo. The result was the near unanimous victory by the ruling party loyal to Hosni Mubarak.
I must admit my own ignorance on the matter prior to the riots which broke out following the uprisings in Tunisia. The fact that Egyptians were experiencing unprecedented levels of poverty, unemployment and — police brutality all came as a shock to me. Perhaps I assumed, like many Americans, that Egypt because of its rich history and the benefit of natural resources would be thriving. How misguided that opinion was. Over 30 percent of young men in their twenties are unemployed, and far more are affected by underemployment. Egypt remains one of the most populous countries in Africa and the Middle East, with nearly 80 million people, but 40 percent of them live on about $2 per day, and depend heavily on unreliable government subsidies.
And herein lies the even greater conundrum: if Egypt is in crisis, then what does that say for the rest of Africa? Will the events unfolding across this ancient land, lead the Obama administration to implement real changes on how America approaches foreign policy in Africa. So much rhetoric and lip-service has been paid to the atrocities in Mugabe’s Zimbabwe and the political and social unrest demonstrated in Rwanda and the Congo, but instead of real intervention, America has maintained a status quo of inaction.
Over the last decade we have invested heavily in toppling an oil rich Iraqi regime and committed the lives of our troops to nation building in Afghanistan, but there has been no real initiative to transform the human rights platform and economic empowerment of African people from the Sinai Peninsula to the Sub-Saharan desert. Why?
It seems the crisis unfolding in Egypt and Tunisia will provide a teachable moment for Americans to become more politically aware of the true state of democracy (or lack thereof) in these African nations. American diplomacy can no longer hide behind pretense.