"The shot heard 'round the world..." — Ralph Waldo Emerson, regarding American colonists' resistance against British troops at Concord and Lexington.
There is a natural tendency among Americans to see today's Egyptian protests as only the latest in a series of uprisings sparked originally by the American Revolution. The present protests in Egypt probably could be so characterized. They appear to be broadly based and directed toward the kind of responsive, democratic governance we associate with our own revolution.
The current situation also will test the intelligence and judgment of President Barack Obama and American congressional leaders. They need to be truly sure of the facts on the ground before committing the United States to a policy that could result in many unintended consequences.
Mass demonstrations can bestir the emotions. But it is rationality, and not emotions, that should guide us now.
Consider the crowds that stormed the Bastille and cheered the guillotine in Paris, set seige to the Russian Winter Palace in St. Petersburg, attended Hitler's Nuremberg rallies, crowded Budapest streets at the outset of the 1956 Hungarian uprising, surged through Tehran after the Shah's downfall, jammed Tiananmen Square in Beijing, and cheered the collapse of the Berlin Wall. Consider those also that gathered on the Washington, D.C. Mall during the civil-rights and Poor People's marches of the 1960s and in Grant Park, Chicago, during the 1968 Democratic convention. The point: Sometimes these crowds precede and inspire positive change; at other times, their eventual outcomes are less happy.
The Egyptian demonstrations, thus far at least, have been peaceful and not inspired or directed by Islamic extremists who could hijack them for their own purposes. The Egyptian army has shown restraint and not used force against the protesters.
President Hosni Mubarak announced Tuesday that he would retire in September, after making arrangements for fair elections then.
Whether September is soon enough for the protesters will soon be seen.
The Shah of Iran ruled for a long period after it was clear he had to depart. As a result, an extremist clerical regime — now itself resisted by reformist elements — took power. Chinese leaders, by contrast, crushed Tiananmen protesters brutally and continue to repress dissent and resist political democratization in their country. Egypt's interests, and our own, would be best served by Mubarak's quick exit and replacement by reformers seeking democratic (and secular) change. But, if his exit drags out, or if demonstration leaders become "useful idiots" (in Lenin's phrase) manipulated by radicals, we face big trouble.
Mohamed ElBaradei, the Nobel Prize winner and former director general of the International Atomic Energy Agency, is getting high visibility in Western media as an opposition leader. That is because he is familiar to them as the man who oversaw inspections of Iraq and Iran for nuclear weapons. But, in Egypt, he is largely unknown. He has spent most of his professional career in Vienna, working for the U.N., and not in Egyptian public life.
Yet ElBaradei clearly has caught the ambition bug. When interviewed yesterday, he hastened to describe the Muslim Brotherhood, at the heart of Islamic radicalism in Egypt, as an unthreatening mainstream group. The Brotherhood, in turn, has had flattering words for ElBaradei, whom they probably see as exactly the kind of useful idiot who might front for them.
The Egyptian protests began after similar Tunisian protests resulted in the departure of an unpopular oligarch. Leaders in Algeria, Yemen, Jordan, Sudan, Syria, Kuwait, and Saudi Arabia — as well as in Iran, Russia, and China — are watchful now for uprisings in their own countries on behalf of democratization and reform. In most instances the host regimes could be expected to respond with repressive force. (Jordan, on the other hand, is undertaking preemptive reforms to head off rebellion).
We should wish for liberalization in all these places. But we should not make dramatic statements, thousands of miles from the scene, which would encourage people to take to the streets, only to be maimed, killed, or imprisoned. We are in no position to back up brave words with American troops.
Obama and other American leaders are being tested, as others before them, by the sudden emergence of unexpected, wrenching events. Pearl Harbor, the North Korean invasion of South Korea, the Bay of Pigs and Cuban Missile Crisis, the Berlin Crisis, 9/11, the New Orleans hurricane and Gulf oil spill, and the recent financial crisis all were surprises — as was the collapse of the Berlin Wall, breakup of the Soviet bloc, and dissolution of the Soviet Union. On a less urgent, but nonetheless important, note we also have in front of us the U.S. District Court decision in Florida stating Obamacare to be invalid. That was something not foreseen when debate on the issue began in earnest in 2009. It no doubt will remain pending in the courts for several years.
So, you never can tell. Anything unanticipated can happen. We elect our leaders to deal with these occurrences. To the degree they respond with reason, and restraint, we should be encouraged and supportive.