It looks like 2/11/11 will go down in history with 11/9/89, not 6/4/89. 6/4/89 is when the Chinese military obeyed orders to massacre protesters in Tiananmen Square; 11/9/89 is when East German leaders announced the opening of the Berlin Wall and declined to order border guards to shoot the Berliners who began dismantling the barrier that had stood for 28 years.
On 2/11/11, last Friday, as the Egyptian military remained unwilling to fire on the crowds jamming Tahrir Square, Hosni Mubarak resigned after nearly 30 years as president. When people take to the streets in great numbers, authoritarian and dictatorial regimes can only survive if the police or military are willing to shoot.
They didn’t shoot in Cairo. Instead, cable news showed them shaking hands with the protesters. Military leaders issued statements saying they would address the grievances of the protesters and suggesting that they would transition to democratic elections.
Most Americans cannot help but rejoice to see a distasteful authoritarian regime toppled. The spectacle of masses of people rejoicing at the prospect of freedom and democracy can’t help but be heartening.
But on reflection most of us would probably prefer to have seen a victory of people power in Tehran or Pyongyang than in Cairo. Mubarak’s Egypt was an ally of the United States, at least somewhat helpful in our own efforts in Iraq and elsewhere in the Middle East, and a nation at peace, albeit a cold peace, with Israel.
In contrast, the mullah regime in Iran is developing nuclear weapons to threaten Israel and other American allies within missile range. King Jong Il’s criminal regime has nuclear weapons and has committed at least two acts of war in recent months against democratic South Korea.
The people of Iran did take to the streets in opposition to the mullahs’ election-rigging in June 2009. But Barack Obama and his administration gave a cold shoulder to this green movement, and there was no regime change.
The danger now is that 2/11/11 will have an outcome like that of 2/11/79, the day of the fall of the Shah of Iran. The eventual result of that people power revolution was the victory of the ruthless mullahs and the installation of an anti-democratic, anti-American regime still in power 32 years later.
Shortly after Mubarak’s resignation, I happened to be interviewing former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld about his fascinating memoir “Known and Unknown.” He noted that most of the predictions of supposed experts and government officials during the 18 days of demonstrations have proved to be wrong.
“What we ought to know we don’t know,” Rumsfeld says. “It’s a situation of unknown unknowns.” We have no idea, he went on, of the role of women, of organized political parties and interest groups, and what latent strength they may have. “The entities that are best organized, most disciplined and most vicious can prevail.”
That’s an obvious reference to the Muslim Brotherhood, the one political entity that the Mubarak regime allowed to operate. Director of National Intelligence James Clapper told an astonished congressional committee on 2/10/11 that the Muslim Brotherhood is “largely secular.”
This came on top of White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs’s 1/31/11 statement that a reformed government “has to include a whole host of important non-secular actors.” That was universally taken as an indication that Muslim Brotherhood participation was acceptable to the United States.
That was not the only administration misstep. Its first response was that Egypt’s regime was stable. But as the protesters persisted, Obama and his spokesmen seemed to be shedding their allergy to democratic rhetoric caused by their abhorrence of George W. Bush, and the president said Mubarak must heed the protesters’ demands.
Obama’s 2/11/11 televised statement was more surefooted and forward-looking. He encouraged the interim regime to move toward free and democratic institutions and, by inference anyway, to at least maintain the cold peace with Israel.
In the future, we need to use the positive relationship American military leaders have had with their Egyptian counterparts to give democratic forces time to organize and become competitive with the Muslim Brotherhood.
Nonprofit groups training people in democratic practices can be useful as well. Egypt has not had a history of democratic governance and rule of law. But it still managed to produce a peaceful 2/11/11. There are dangers, but also reasons for hope.