The stunning news today of Egyptian leader Hosni Mubarak stepping down has all but eclipsed the other political news of the week. Who would have thought, a month ago, that a government that had oppressed its own people for over three decades would fall simply because a bunch of people marched in the streets and refused to give up?
American politicians are still trying to figure out how they should react. Although shocking to some, this is entirely normal. The people of Egypt have spoken, and before it happened, nobody could have foreseen how fast or how effective it was going to be. The demonstrations surprised the Egyptian government as well as the American government. The main lesson to be learned here is that sometimes, in our new cyberspace world, events move faster than analysis can hope to. That's one of the strengths of such "people power" movements -- their inherent unpredictability.
Of course, democracy is unpredictable as well. If Mubarak's exit truly does usher in an era of true democracy in Egypt, then the fact of the matter is that nobody knows what it will mean for the future. Nobody can predict who will win a free and fair election, what the Egyptian government will look like after one, or what it will mean for the region, the United States, Israel, or the rest of the world. But that is the nature of democracy.
George W. Bush spoke to this when he was president. In explaining his vision for the Middle East of democracy spreading outward from Iraq, he directly addressed critics who thought that "some people weren't ready for democracy." Bush soundly rejected this idea, in his belief that everyone, everywhere deserves freedom and democracy.
It was interesting to watch the political commentary from the Right during the Egyptian uprising. Initially, Republicans painted the movements in Tunisia, Egypt, and elsewhere as a vindication of Bush's idealistic view of the future of democracy in the region. Then Fox News started warning of the dangers of the Muslim Brotherhood, and many conservatives had to execute a very quick rhetorical U-turn to side with Mubarak and "stability" (exactly the same Faustian bargain the United States has had with Egypt for decades). Tom Tomorrow captured this turnabout brilliantly this week in cartoon form.
President Obama has had a complicated few weeks as well, to be fair. Obama (and his spokespeople) have been issuing very closely parsed statements over the past few weeks, which at times seemed to fully back the protesters and at times seemed to defer to Mubarak's wishes. This, too, is fairly normal. Obama is the President of the United States, not some minor congressman or (even worse) some media pundit. His words carry a lot more weight and a lot more consequence than some random politico or television talking head. So he's been choosing his words very carefully over the course of the uprising.
But for all the quibbles over what Obama should and should not have said in the past three weeks, the real diplomacy was happening behind the scenes -- where Egypt's military is the biggest actor on the stage. What saved this uprising from becoming a bloodbath was the close ties America has to Egypt's military. This is of enormous importance, and it is why Egypt's mostly-peaceful outcome is not likely to be replicated in other Muslim countries (or at least not in the same fashion). Anyone disbelieving this has only to look as far as what happened in Iran recently for proof.
The Egyptian military is funded and trained by the United States to a degree unfathomable in most other Muslim countries. This is the direct result of the Israeli peace agreement. We agreed to build up Egypt's military to a professional fighting force in exchange for Egypt vowing never to use that force against their neighbor Israel. So far, this has worked.
Specifically, it has held the Egyptian military in check throughout the entire protest era in Egypt. The military, essence, declared its neutrality early on in the crisis, which was a true victory for Obama's diplomatic efforts. The few days of violence during the course of the demonstrations were actually a result of the military being too neutral, and refusing to separate the two sides. They quickly corrected this mistake, and the demonstrations resumed their original peaceful nature.
It's telling, too, that the military forced Mubarak to step down right at what could have been a very dicey point for them -- because after Mubarak's speech last night, the protesters decided it would be a good idea to branch out from the central square to besiege the key government buildings. The military would have had the tough job of guarding the buildings and the government, and possibly turning the crowd back by force -- which they really didn't want to take part in. Faced with this choice, they obviously gave Mubarak an ultimatum, which he (finally) accepted.
Egypt is a very special case, though. There aren't a whole lot of other countries in the region where America has such close ties to both the government and the military. If a popular uprising springs up in any of the other countries in the region, the outcome may not look anything like what just occurred in Egypt, so it's hard to say that the Egyptian revolutionary model is any kind of template for anyone else to follow.
As for the fears that Islamists will now sweep into power in Egypt, well, that's the thing about democracy -- the people get to choose. The Egyptian people will make that choice all on their own, which is exactly how it should be. They may indeed choose a government which decides not to have such close ties to the U.S. as before. That, though, is their right. Self-determination means that America doesn't get a vote at all in how they want to run their country. Realistically, though, an Islamist takeover of Egypt seems like a pretty remote possibility at the moment. The Muslim Brotherhood may win some parliamentary seats, but likely nowhere near a majority. And if the United States can live with an Iraq where Muqtada Al-Sadr holds a minority bloc of parliamentary votes, then we can likely live with an Egypt where the Muslim Brotherhood has a similar political influence. And in Egypt, no American soldiers had to die to reach the same point.
Of course, it is still "early days" in the new future Egypt is forging for itself. It remains to be seen where this path will lead, and what will change as a result both for Egypt and for the U.S. The Egyptian military is now in control, which is probably the best outcome at the moment because of our close ties to them. As long as they move the process along of amending Egypt's constitution, ending the "emergency laws" which have resulted in a police state, and setting up free and fair elections, they are probably the most stable group in Egypt to referee the whole process. There may be some bumps in the road along the way, but as long as the military doesn't decide it likes running the country so much that elections aren't going to happen, then things will likely turn out fairly well from this arrangement.
Mubarak had to go, and now he has gone. The ironic thing about watching Mubarak was how behind the curve he was throughout the crisis. He kept making concessions which likely would have been acceptable to the crowds -- if he had only made them about a week or so earlier. Each new round of concessions Mubarak announced were similarly behind the curve, reacting to events which were days old. By last night, nothing short of the symbolism of Mubarak stepping down was going to satisfy the crowds. Quite obviously, the military explained this to him in no uncertain terms today.
While Egypt's future is uncertain, the feeling of optimism among the people who succeeded in demanding change is palpable today. It wouldn't surprise me if February 11th becomes an Egyptian national holiday in the future. No matter what happens to Egypt in the future, today is indeed a day of celebration for them to enjoy.
We've got to slightly alter the name of the award this week, and rename it the Most Impressive democrats Of The Week award.
Because while the people in the streets of Cairo are obviously not members of any American political party, they do indeed qualify as "little-d" democrats.
The Egyptian uprising began as a youth demonstration. It grew into being supported by a wide swath of Egyptian groups -- including professionals, doctors, lawyers, unions and labor (the strikes were a key ingredient), and women and children. Whole families risked their safety to go stand in the square to have their voices heard. After the few days of violence, it was even more impressive that large and diverse crowds turned out, day after day. Because, at that point, the physical danger and risk weren't just hypothetical, but very real. People had been killed by that point, and yet still the flood of Egyptians down to the square continued.
They wanted Mubarak out, and they wanted free elections so they could choose their own leaders. They wanted an end to the emergency laws which banned political parties who disagreed with the Mubarak regime. And in the end, they got everything they demanded (at least, for now).
That is pretty downright impressive. Especially the part about the deaths. Who among us would publicly demand our rights if we knew that there was a very real possibility of a beating or a bullet for our efforts? We all like to think we'd be that brave, but likely none of us has ever been tested to such a degree.
The Egyptian people were so tested, and they responded in overwhelming numbers. They peacefully demanded their rights, and they got them. Which is why we simply have to award the Most Impressive democrats Of The Week to the Egyptian protesters. Truth be told, I haven't been this impressed by a political group in quite some time.
Senator Jim Webb announced he would not run for a second term in Virginia, which was a disappointment in some ways, but also was to be commended in others. Webb took a look at the polls and decided he would have a tough time winning, and so he announced he was not going to run. Because this is so early in the process, it leaves plenty of time for another Virginia Democrat to mount a serious campaign to hold Webb's seat for the party. Virginia is a "purple" state, with some areas dark blue, and some deep red. But there are other Democrats waiting in the wings who might have a better chance of winning than Webb, so it's not all that disappointing that he made his announcement now, while there's plenty of time before the election. Webb actually chose the honorable route for leaving Congress, so we really can't give him any sort of negative award for doing so.
Representative Jane Harman, on the other hand, is to be excoriated for how she is leaving the House. She's in a pretty safe Democratic district in California, but that's not really the point. She was just re-elected to her ninth term less than three months ago. And she is leaving to take a cushy think tank job in a few weeks. What this means is that California has to come up with a big pile of money to run a special election in her district (and California has massive budget problems of its own). Solely because of Harman's timing. She will not serve out the term she was elected to, she is taking the money and running. Not that she needs the dough, as she is reported to be quite wealthy in her own right.
For forcing a special election so soon after a regular election, for costing the state money it doesn't have, and for throwing all her constituents under the bus, Jane Harman is our Most Disappointing Democrat Of The Week this week. The only thing which would change our minds is if Jane offers to pay for the entire special election out of her own pocket (which she is reportedly fully able to do). Until then, however, we have to say: "For shame, Jane, for shame."
[Contact Representative Jane Harman on her House contact page, to let her know what you think of her actions.]
Volume 154 (2/11/11)
Welcome to this week's Friday Talking Points. You can read our full article every week at ChrisWeigant.com, DemocraticUnderground.com, and DemocratsForProgress.com. At my site, there are no word limits on comments, and the moderation is almost non-existent (unless we get truly abusive comments, which is extremely rare). Just to let everyone know.
Each week, we provide talking points for Democrats to use to explain their positions in catchy ways, primarily for those Democrats who are being interviewed on television this weekend, but also for any Democrat to use around a water cooler as well.
This week's talking points are somewhat disjointed, and have no overarching theme to them. I would have thrown one in poking fun at Chris Lee's "Craigslist Congressman" sex scandal, but the whole thing happened so fast that I doubt many people will be talking about it for long. Also, there were a few other things going on this week. So let's get to it without further delay.
Why are you so afraid of democracy?
The first is to be used in response to Republicans who, in recent days, have been calling for America to fully support Mubarak and come out against the protesters. A quick Google search will quickly unearth a few quotes to use in this context.
"I find it interesting that many Republicans seem to be on the wrong side of history in what is going on in Egypt. Flowery words about 'freedom' and 'democracy' are the stock in trade of the Republican Party, when talking about America and even when talking about Iraq. But in Egypt, Republicans have come out against freedom and democracy for the Egyptian people. So I'd like to ask you, why are you so afraid of democracy? Why do you believe that some people deserve to elect their leaders, and some people don't? What gives you the right to make that decision -- a decision which condemns millions to live in the exact opposite of 'freedom' and 'democracy'?"
You don't have the courage of your own convictions
Google a bit deeper, and you can probably find plenty of other contradictory Republican quotes over the past ten years on the subject (when we had a different president, of course).
"You know, back when George W. Bush was president, Republicans were singing a mighty different tune on the subject of democracy in the Middle East. Back then, Republicans would rhapsodize over the wonderful future democracy was going to bring to the region, starting in Iraq. Now, you've come out for Mubarak instead of for democracy. How times change, huh? Bush used to specifically say that anyone who argued that these people weren't ready for democracy was flat-out wrong because democracy was a universal right. Why don't Republicans have the courage of their convictions, when spontaneous democracy breaks out? Is it that democracies in the region are only allowed when we impose them by force, or what?"
Can Boehner count?
I wrote a whole article about this earlier in the week. Seems Boehner's making a few rookie mistakes as Speaker. Which would be a dandy thing for Democrats to bring up for discussion, wouldn't it?
"It seems that Speaker John Boehner is having problems counting votes these days. Either that, or he can't keep his own party members in line. Boehner had two embarrassing unforced errors this week on two separate bills, including the Patriot Act extension where twenty-six Republicans crossed the aisle and voted with the Democrats. Well, I guess the guy is learning on the job... or perhaps Republicans are beginning to end their lockstep partisan voting records in the House. Either way, I think Boehner needs to learn to count noses a little better."
Republican Party infighting
Always a fun subject to explore -- and one that will be getting more and more obvious as the budget battles progress.
"Boy, it seems the political story of the year so far is how the Republican Party is starting to fracture into infighting amongst themselves. The Tea Party Republicans are voting against the Republican establishment in the House, Republicans are squabbling over the budget cuts they promised, and now I hear that major conservative groups boycotted the annual C.P.A.C. conservative-fest. It seems the right wing and the far, far right wing can't agree on their agenda, doesn't it?"
Taxes lowest since Korean War
Here's a story most of the mainstream media missed.
"Did you see the recent story that Americans are paying the lowest amount of taxes this year since 1950? Yes, you heard me right. We're paying lower taxes than we've paid since the Korean War. For three years in a row, Americans are paying lower taxes than under George W. Bush, due to Democratic tax cuts that seem never to get discussed in the media. Obama lowered everyone's taxes, and it's time the American public knew the facts of the matter."
The culture wars versus jobs
This needs pointing out at every opportunity: where is the Republican jobs plan?
"I notice that the Republicans in the House are considering three bills on restricting abortion, but I still haven't heard of any job-creation bill from them. They have, quite obviously, shown their priorities -- to fight the culture wars and ignore the economy. Maybe it's really a vote of confidence in Obama's economic plans in disguise -- Republicans are doing nothing, because Obama's plan is working. The unemployment rate has come down eight-tenths of a point in the past two months -- a faster decline than we've seen in decades -- while Republicans continue to do nothing about jobs. I just hope the voters are paying attention to the Republican agenda, and how they prioritize things."
OK, this falls into the "you just can't make this stuff up" category, obviously.
"Donald Trump just hinted that he might actually run for the Republican presidential nomination. Donald Trump? Really? Wow... that's just... wow. Well, I heartily encourage Mr. Trump to throw his hat into the ring. I thought we had the Republican laughingstock candidate slate covered pretty well already, but hey, there's always room for one more, right?"