Saturday, February 12, 2011


With the electrifying news of President Hosni Mubarak’s departure, the pin has been put back in the Egyptian grenade. Change is now possible and should be welcomed. But it’s worth remembering that in a worrying sense, the Mubarak regime continues even without Mubarak. Maybe that will change in an Act Two, as imagined in President Obama’s inspiring statement of February 11. One thing that must change is the state of emergency that has allowed the Egyptian people to be abused without redress. It must change for both American and Egyptian reasons. There is no escaping the fact that new Egyptian leader Suleiman was Mubarak’s intelligence chief, earlier accused of torture, and recently quoted as blaming the demonstrations on foreigners. The other new leader, the army, played the role of wizard of OZ, exercising power behind the curtain, but tends to be politically neutral, owns major industries, is committed to order, and doubtless oversaw Mubarak’s ouster. Can it tolerate a liberal populist government?.

Before the transformative denouement, US policy confused others with uncertainties and flip-flops. We can sympathize with the struggle to combine US strategic interests with efforts to teleguide the upheaval in constructive directions – constitutional reform, unrigged elections, and eventually a rule of law. But US policy can be brought into much sharper focus by expanding the campaign to end Egypt’s 30-year state of emergency law that made possible arbitrary seizure, brutal incarceration, torture, and sometimes disappearance and official murder.

Why prioritize that issue?As both a political scientist and former government official, I have dealt for years with large abstractions like democracy, elections, conflict management, and the rest of the policy apparatus. But in the Egyptian drama, even from afar a familiar smell issued from police stations and detention centers.-- the stink of human fear felt by people with an idea, a complaint, a dream for the future, or a journalist's notebook, people who felt naked and vulnerable in the face of arbitrary abuses. The Egyptian climate, according to the few reports by victims,has been no different from the pervasive smell of fear one saw in Chiang Kai-shek's China, during eight visits to the Soviet Union, and lecturing in Ceausescu's Romania, pre-democratic Korea and Indonesia, and other police states -- all tyrannies that sickeningly abused their citizens for thinking, speaking, writing, assembling.

A traditional American aversion to such abuse (including abuse by US agents) takes specific shape in a core US policy that is not only right but popular. Vice President Joe Biden’s February 8 call on the Cairo leadership to end the 30 year state of emergency that made Egypt an oppressive police state was the most unequivocal American message yet. It called for lifting the law that legitimized arbitrary arrest and imprisonment. President Obama was wise to pick up that theme and share it with an Egypt-wide audience.

US Middle East policies are delicately balanced, for good and bad reasons., and quiet diplomacy often goes unappreciated on the Egyptian or any other public. Until the Obama February 11 statement, it left the impression of an unsympathetic America. The Middle East future will belong to a younger generation that is fed up with an oppressive status quo, Internet-savvy, and unemployed thanks to grossly mismanaged economies. Human rights policy is one way to address that weakness. The US handles human rights concerns as a subtext to the big-ticket political, economic, and security issues. American politicians like to proclaim “American values” but these are often unspecified. There is in fact one clear value that directly affects the human person. It is the only value with unequivocal moral content. It is the right to civilized treatment by those in charge. It belongs at the top rather than at the fringe of American priorities when a tyranny is confronted by a fed-up citizenry.

As a practical matter, Washington would be doing well by doing good if it continually insists on an end to official abuses. For an American president to proclaim this as the litmus test for a civilized country is admittedly interference in internal affairs. But it would be supported by 305 million Americans, and would help clear up our ambivalent image in a new era of popular rejection of tyranny.

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