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U.S. establishment fears real democracy

While Sen. John McCain said that Mubarak must step down on Wednesday, he now is expressing his fear of the pro-democracy movement in Egypt and the potential that it may spread throughout the region. In an interview with Fox News’ Greta Van Susteren, McCain actually equated the nonviolent movements against authoritarian regimes in the region with a “virus,” warning that:

This virus is spreading throughout the Middle East. The president of Yemen, as you know, just made the announcement that he wasn’t running again.

This, I would argue, is probably the most dangerous period of history in — of our entire involvement in the Middle East, at least in modern times. Israel is in danger of being surrounded by countries that are against the very existence of Israel, are governed by radical organizations.

As shocking as these statements are, McCain is far from only one in the US establishment that is worried about what would happen if there was real democracy in the Arab world. An article in the New York Times yesterday quotes Leslie H. Gelb, president emeritus of the Council on Foreign Relations, as saying:

“The worry on Mubarak’s part is that if he says yes to this, there will be more demands… And since he’s not dealing with a legal entity, but a mob, how does he know there won’t be more demands tomorrow?”

So let’s get this straight: The millions of courageous people who have peacefully gathered in Cairo and around the country to call for democracy are a mob or virus that risks infecting others?

The reluctance of the Obama administration to take concrete action (i.e. cutting off US aid to Egypt) to support the anti-Mubarak protesters – and its proposal that Egyptian Vice President Omar Suleiman take power in a transitional government – is a sign that McCain’s worries are shared even by the White House.

As Ahmad Shokr, an editor of the Egyptian newspaper Al-Masry Al-Youm, told Democracy Now! this morning, Omar Suleiman:

…was the director of the Egyptian intelligence for almost 20 years. He basically ran the Egypt end of the rendition—U.S. renditions for torture program. He’s the architect of Egypt policy towards Israel and Palestine and is largely responsible for Egypt’s complicity in the blockade on Gaza, which has strangled the population of Gaza there for almost five years now.

[…]

So I think many people are likely to see his rule as an extension of the Mubarak regime rather than a dramatic rupture. The real question is, will people then continue taking to the streets and opposing him the way they did Hosni Mubarak, or will they let him rule for an interim period and trust that real democratic change will take place over the course of the next few months? Public opinion in that regard seems to be divided, I would say.

From the interviews I’ve heard with protesters in Tahrir Square, it’s hard to imagine that the pro-democracy movement would be appeased by Suleiman coming to power, even transitionally until elections are held. Those on the streets have already sacrificed too much to accept such a superficial changing of the guard. (A couple profiles of Suleiman worth checking out can be found here and here.)

While I’m not surprised by the actions of the Obama administration or the above remarks by McCain and Gelb, they still make me sad that the United States never seems to be able to simply do the right thing. Instead, we worry about the threat of Islamic extremism, not realizing that our policy of propping up these authoritarian regimes in the Middle East – and supporting Israel’s occupation of the Palestinian territories – is at the root of the anti-American sentiment in the region.