Hundreds of thousands of people are protesting in the streets of Cairo, Alexandria and Suez. What do they want? Democracy! When do they want it? Now! For over 30 years, the Egyptian people have lived under the thumb of dictator Hosni Mubarak. The pace of democratic reform in Egypt has been akin to that of a paralyzed slug. Finally, Egyptians are telling the world that they've had enough. They are asking the world to figuratively stand with them in the streets of Cairo, as they demand the ouster of Mubarak.
But...for the western world at least, Mubarak isn't someone our governments want to abandon quickly. While the west tends to talk a good talk when it comes to democracy, and go so far as to demand and enforce "regime change" when dictators of middle eastern nations become non-compliant (read: Saddam Hussein), when it comes to Mubarak and our friendly dictators in other nations (such as Algeria, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Morocco, Yemen and, up until lately, Tunisia), democracy seems to take a back seat to political expediency.
Just what are western governments afraid of? All of this pussy-footing around really isn't helping the situation on the street. If anything, it's providing Mubarak with a false sense of confidence that maybe he and his regime can survive the protests. He can't, however. The people of Egypt won't let that happen. Mubarak's regime may survive long enough to implement transition measures, and perhaps hold those "free and fair" elections western nations are now calling for (and isn't funny how those buzz-words appeared magically in the media of many western nations just today. Almost as if they were sharing script writers and spin doctors).
Again, what are western nations afraid of? Oh yes...there's the spectre of radical Islam. They talk a lot about that on Fox News to be sure, but from all reports, these protests are not being led by radical muslims. Indeed, the protesters appear to cut through all socio-economic classes, and when religion is raised as an issue at all by the protesters, it's when they're going out of their way to identify the need for christians and muslims to work towards the same goal: an Egypt without Mubarak.
Sure, I'd be naive to believe that the revolution couldn't at some point be highjacked by radical groups. Throughout history, when revolutions have occurred, all too often that's what ends up happening. But it doesn't always happen. As far as Egypt goes, the Muslim Brotherhood, a political party slash charitable organization, seems to be the group often identified in western media as the "radical" organization to be feared. Personally, I'm not completely sold on the notion that the Brotherhood can be equated with Al Qaeda, although I wouldn't go so far as to suggest that they are as benign as Turkey's ruling AK party.
Should Canadians be afraid regarding what might happen in Egypt should Mubarak be forced out? No, we shouldn't be. What we should be doing is standing with the people of Egypt, and letting them know that we share their desire for democratic decision making. We should be telling Egyptians that there is no higher aspiration than to achieve true democracy for one's community, state, or nation. If the democratic door is opened and radical Islam walks inside, then perhaps (and only then) should the west temper its stance with Egypt. Yet, even in such a circumstance, what right does any western nation have to thwart the will of a government elected by people?
Oh wait. I guess Canada thought that was the right thing to do when the people of Gaza elected Hamas in a "fair and free" election. I guess it's possible that the people of Egypt might also elect an Egyptian version of Hamas. But possibility of doing so is not reason enough to deny the people of Egypt the opportunity to participate in a democratic election.
For the "fair and free" election to happen, the primary prerequisite is that Hosni Mubarak must go. Otherwise, there will be no legitimacy to the electoral process. Further, Egyptians might not be satisfied to wait until the fall of this year to hold those elections. An interim government, one without Mubarak, should carefully gauge the will of the people, and call for an election for an appropriate time.
And it may very well take time for Egyptians to bring themselves to a point where a "fair and free" election can be held. It's not as if the democratic tradition in Egypt is particulary strong, and political parties, with the exception of the Muslim Brotherhood and the ruling National Democratic Party, just don't have the depth and experience to participate in a fair and free election. Even Egyptians currently protesting in the streets realize that democracy isn't going to happen over night.
Only the biggest democraphobes out there would deny the people of Egypt their opportunity to form their own government. Pundits worldwide agree that Mubarak's days are numbered. Why aren't western governments saying as much? What do they (and we) have to lose now by simply stating that Mubarak must go? Indeed, to me it seems that the west has everything to lose by not endorsing the Egyptian people's demand for Mubarak's ouster. It's possible that our lack of resolve today might lead to the very outcome which the west fears: a radical Islamic government brought to power in Egypt.
Morally, the west should be calling for Mubarak's ouster. But, as with so many things which prove to be intransigent, Hosni Mubarak represents "sunk costs" to the west. We've invested considerable resources in the Mubarak regime, in an effort to keep the peace, especially as far as Israel is concerned. Abandoning anyone or anything for which a hefty price has been paid is never easy politically, especially when the political gain for doing so is uncertain at best. It's difficult to abandon an ally even when the political reality staring you in the face is that it's all going to come crashing down anyway.
Today, CBC's The National was reporting the leaders of the three main national political parties were calling for measured responses in Egypt. Fair and free elections, sure, but nothing about Mubarak. All this while the people in Cairo, Alexandria and Luxor are clamoring to get rid of Mubarak as the first step. Only Bloc Leader Gilles Duceppe and Green Party Leader Elizabeth May were specific in their calls for the Canadian government to tell Mubarak to exit, stage left. May in particular had a number of things to say about the importance of democracy. May understands that, when it comes to democracy, the west shouldn't try to suck and blow at the same time.
I wasn't at all surprised that Harper and Ignatieff were reluctant to abandon Canada's erstwhile ally Mubarak, given that the Conservative government and previous Liberal governments have done what they could to support the dictator in the past. I was much more surprised to hear (or not hear) the NDP's Jack Layton take the same position. Again, the NDP disappoints me.
Either we believe that people around the world deserve a healthy democracy or we don't. While the situation in Egypt is anything but black and white, democratic principles don't inhabit a greyscale. People throughout the world should be able to participate in the decision-making processes of their governments. Full stop. Democracy can not be paid lip service. Either you're all in, or you're playing a different game.
The people of Egypt aren't playing a game. They are deadly serious, and they are certainly "all in".