The United States so far has been largely irrelevant to events in Egypt. I wish the Obama administration had been doing more to back moderates in the Middle East, overall, but in Egypt, the United States deliberately played the role of mediator rather than decider. The army wanted a public American “green light” for its coup, but it didn’t get one.
Perhaps the best thing that can be said on this July 4th is that the Egyptian people are writing their own history. They may be making mistakes along the way, and I wish we weren’t seeing a general in uniform seizing the stage again. But for once, the Middle East conspiracy theorists who always see America as the controlling force in events seem to have been wrong. President Obama has been a back-seat passenger.
The target of this week’s protests was Morsi, but the mass demonstrations recalled the giddy days of the February 2011 revolution that toppled President Hosni Mubarak. The basic message was the same: We are citizens. We want dignity and human rights. We aren’t afraid of autocratic leaders or their thugs. That revolt led to military rule, too, but its spirit was one of idealism and democracy.
“It’s a second revolution,” Ahmed Said, a leader of Egypt’s National Salvation Front, told the Guardian newspaper. He was right. The danger is that, as in the French, Russian and Iranian revolutions, we are in a prolonged period of violence and instability that will only end with a new dictator.
What’s fascinating is that the new challenge to religious parties in the Middle East transcends sectarian lines. The protest against the Muslim Brotherhood in Sunni Egypt is matched by a similar renewal of dissent in Shiite Iran, where the 2009 Green Revolution was crushed by government repression.
The unlikely emblem of change in Iran is Hassan Rouhani, who was elected president last month. He’s part of the clerical establishment that has run Iran for the past three decades. So it’s premature to assume that Rouhani’s election signals any breakthrough in stalled negotiations over Iran’s nuclear program.
But Rouhani’s victory does tell us something about the Iranian public mood: Among the six candidates who ran in the June 14 election, Rouhani was the most critical of the status quo; he called for reforms and new ties with the West. The fact that he won 51 percent of the vote (with a 73 percent turnout) marked a break from the tutelage of Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, who appeared to favor national security adviser Saeed Jalili.