Friday, February 11, 2011

Bit on Egypt

Well, I haven't written much about the Egyptian protests and revolution (I think it seems fair to call it a revolution at this point) that are going on right now because, frankly, I haven't really been sure what to make of the whole thing.
On the one hand, it sounds pretty obvious that Hosni Mubarak and his ruling party have been sticking it to the Egyptian people for a long, long time. Operating under an abuse of Egypt's Emergency Law provision (which was designed to be used during periods of war or extreme national emergency), Mubarak has held power as Egypt's president since 1981, suspending constitutional rights, censoring the media and suppressing free speech, refusing to hold legitimate elections, and holding thousands and thousands of people in jail without trial as political prisoners. Reports on the treatment of these political prisoners include allegations of politically motivated torture and executions. Additionally, allegations of corruption and untoward influence within the government are rampant.
So you can see why the Egyptian people might be sort of eager to receive a new form of government, and, by all indications it sounds like they're more than justified in their complaints and demands for a new, more democratic system.
The problem, of course, is that no one really seems to know or be able to predict what a new government will look like in Egypt. For all of its faults, the current (previous?*) regime in Egypt has been a fairly solid ally of the U.S., supporting peace between Egypt and Israel, discouraging the influence of religious extremism, and supporting the U.S. in many of its economic endeavors.
These sorts of things don't excuse or justify the existence of a corrupt, abusive dictatorship. of course, but they do tend to raise certain questions about what sort of government is likely to arise in a post-revolution Egypt and about what sort of relationship this new government will have with the U.S. and the rest of the world.
The Muslim Brotherhood, an Islamic opposition party which has long been seen by Mubarak's administration as a key political and ideological rival of the current regime in Egypt, has already begun to make comments about how it would like to see some form of democracy arise in Egypt, although they have also been careful to point out that a new, Egyptian "democracy" may not take on the sort of secular, nonreligious form that people are used to seeing in the west. To most Americans and Europeans these sorts of statements, even as they profess to advocate democracy, are a bit unsettling, as almost any form of governmental system that includes religious law as part of its fundamental structure is seen, by its vary nature, as having some exclusionary principles and an inherent tendency to favor the rights of one religious faith over the rights of others.
Americans, as in the case of Iraq, Afghanistan, and other places, seem to have an instinctive reflex toward the support of democracy (although, it seems, we seem to support it a bit more aggressively in areas where its implementation supports our own interests). A government that is by and for the will of the people is a good thing, of course, but Americans also occasionally forget that the will of the people in some places may not reflect the sorts of beliefs and value systems that we more or less take for granted in our own country. What do you do when you want to support democracy in a nation, but the people of that nation decide to unilaterally renew hostilities against an American ally? What do you do when the people of a nation immediately use their new democratic voice to infringe upon the rights of an internal religious minority group? (There's an argument, of course, that a real democracy involves not only majority rule, but also the protection of minority rights, but, once again, what do you do when the majority doesn't want that sort of democracy, opting instead for a more authoritarian, majority-controlled regime? In countries where the citizens believe that democratic rule is a means of instituting divine law, the rights of divergent minority groups may or may not be seen as fully deserving of legal protection).
Anyway, I'm not sure what to make of the situation in Egypt.

* As I was reading through this post before publishing it, I saw that Mubarak had finally stepped down from power and turned over control of the Egyptian government to the military. Protesters are celebrating in the streets of Egypt.
I guess that we're about to find out what sort of democracy will take form in that country. I'm assuming (I'm not sure how naively) that the military will maintain control of the country until new elections can be held in the fall. Let's hope that the Egyptian people insitute a government that effectively represents all of its citizens, providing a voice for differing groups without oppression, suppression, or outright hostility. Now that there's not a dictatorship to unite against, it will be interesting to see what happens as Egyptians struggle with what will undoubtedly differing views of what a "new Egypt" should look like.

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