Can Obama save Egypt? Should he?

    Photo by Timothy Kaldas from Tahrir Square, Cairo, on January 25, 2011.

    There has been a lot of blame heaped on Obama for his rather cautious remarks about the Egyptian uprising. Nicholas Kristof is pleading with him in the Times today to do more. Secretary Clinton has certainly been driving me up the wall all this time with her ice-queen persona and creepy evasiveness in responding to direct questions; Biden has been characteristically uncouth. But Obama’s delicate middle path, though, seems to me quite appropriate. He has not insisted that Mubarak step down, but has made clear that violence against the protesters will not be tolerated. He has affirmed the democratic aspirations of the Egyptian people and made clear that a just transition of power should be imminent. His administration has even indicated that it is reevaluating its aid relationship with Egypt, as if to attach consequences to these demands. That’s about it, though. He hasn’t demanded that Mubarak step down.

    As someone filled with hope and excitement by recent events in Egypt, I find myself wishing that my president would go further. I’ve heard Egyptians wishing he would too. But I think this is a wish worth resisting. American presidents aren’t the good guys here, and it’s a mistake to ask that one should pretend to be. Obama stands atop a government that has spent decades supporting undemocratic regimes in the name of its short-term interests, and the bizarre interests dictated by those policies will probably suffer with Mubarak’s departure. Like the Wikileaks incidents, these protests are a force of truth that stands firmly against the US government’s practices of deception. The Egyptians have caught American Empire with no clothes, and it’s beside the point to ask that we flex a bit to look good naked.

    Really, what is at stake is a whole habit of thinking about how things get done in the world. For the last decade, when you wanted “regime change,” you called up the US. Our military provided it, while destabilizing a region, tanking the domestic economy, and inventing perverse new meanings for the word “victory” in the process. Now, say the Egyptian people, that era is over. Change comes from below, from the governed, and through largely-peaceful protest. This is how real democracies are born. And it’s a whole lot cheaper.

    Speaking of which, it’s time to end the massive economic aid meant more to prop up Egypt’s military and its alliance with Israel than the well-being of its people. It’s time to start imagining a world in which the US is doing less, not more. Get used to it: we’re not the heroes here (though we did invent Facebook and Twitter). We’re a large part of why Mubarak managed to hold on to power as long as he did. In the future I hope that those kinds of policies change, and that I will be prouder of how my country carries itself in the world. But for now, victory is for the Egyptians, not for us.

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