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America’s anaemic reaction to Egypt’s democratic struggle

The leaders of the United States have this time dropped the ball.
Seyoum Tesfaye
11 February 2011

In the past few days the world had been witnessing a vigorous rebellion by determined people in Tunisia, Egypt and Yemen to assert their basic democratic rights. To someone like me - an immigrant who was lucky enough to have been given the protection of the American constitution and the Bill of Rights - it was puzzling to see the incoherently pallid response of the Obama Administration to what is unfolding.

The consecutive statements made by the president, Vice President Biden and Secretary of State Clinton fall way below my expectation as a US citizen. Coming after the State of the Union reaffirming America’s exemplary role as the most democratic nation on earth, the official US government articulation on the new turn of events in North Africa was at the minimum, equivocation or at worst denial of the new reality. The fundamental choice is between standing on the side of the people or with the authoritarian regimes that have been, for decades, ruthlessly suffocating the rights of their own people. In this case there is no middle ground - not for America, the beacon of liberty. The reaction has been too little, too late and too anaemic.

To hear Vice President Biden stating that President Mubarak of Egypt is not a “dictator” was the most disheartening statement of the New Year to come out of the Obama Administration. Instead of taking this golden opportunity to decisively reaffirm the power of the people to take their destiny in their own hands and chart their own fate, our administration was not only way behind events but more importantly was looking like it was afraid of a genuine people’s revolution sweeping the Arab world. The leaders of democracy were dragging their feet and damaging the American image.

The United Sates has been appeasing and cuddling Mubarak for over 30 years with billions of dollars without demanding that he create a wide democratic space for civil society. Consecutive US administrations, both democrats and republicans, have been unable to deliver in their promise to push for qualitative democratic reforms in the region for decades. Be that as it may, when the indigenous citizens of Tunisia and Egypt master their courage and defy decades of repression demanding democracy and freedom, one expects our government to have the courage of our celebrated constitutional and democratic governance to stand firmly on the side of the people.

Tyrants and authoritarians have been, at times, tinted partners in advancing and protecting America’s interest in some regions as Mubarak has done. But when a genuine uprising is mushrooming, with a capability of unseating fossilized dictators in the Arab world, for the sole super power to be caught like a deer in the headlights rather than boldly and decisively supporting them is not only unwise but will leave a bad taste in the mind of millions in the world who still live under authoritarian system. The leaders of the United States this time have dropped the ball.

I hail from a small nation known as Eritrea, presently suffering under the most brutal autocrats in Africa. I have been vicariously marching with the people in Cairo and Tunis and sharing their glory and wishing to see the day when this kind of courageous civic uprising will take place in the streets of Asmara. Now I sincerely wonder - when that happens, (not if), whether the American government will vacillate and equivocate as it is doing now, instead of outright hailing the democratic voice of the people. 

I will keep my optimism and hope for the best. But I will also keep it in the back of my mind that this is not the first time American administrations have done this. The people who venture to make change have to believe in themselves and clearly chart their own destiny. They must not be blown off course by the knee jerk behaviour of even a superpower who should know better.

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