Speaking at a June 2007 conference of dissidents and freedom activists in Prague, President George W. Bush called for the "immediate and unconditional release" of jailed Egyptian dissident and presidential candidate Ayman Nour, declaring, "In the eyes of America, the democratic dissidents of today are the democratic leaders of tomorrow." The Egyptian regime was not happy. But after the speech, Nour's wife conveyed her husband's jail cell reaction: "A man I do not know, and have never met, has restored my humanity."
Bush's call for Nour's release was intended to send a message to the Egyptian people that America supported their aspirations for democratic change. Over the past week, the Obama administration has been sending the opposite message. While Egyptians marched by the tens of thousands demanding President Hosni Mubarak's ouster, Vice President Biden publicly defended Mubarak against the charge that he is a dictator, while Secretary of State Hillary Clinton expressed confidence in the stability of his regime. As these words reached the teeming streets of Cairo, the perception took hold among demonstrators that the United States is siding with Mubarak against the people. The Post reported Sunday that "many protesters are now openly denouncing the United States for supporting President Hosni Mubarak." One protester complained that U.S. officials "speak about their own interest, not ours." Another declared: "Tell America that we get to choose our president . . . not them." Yet another said flatly: "We believe America is against us."
On Sunday, Clinton made a rhetorical pivot, calling for an "orderly transition" while cautioning that she was "not advocating a specific outcome" (i.e., Mubarak's resignation). Whether this is enough to convince Egyptians that America is on their side remains to be seen. If the perception holds that America remains neutral or aligned with Mubarak, it will be a disaster for the United States - regardless of how the current crisis ends. Should Mubarak fall, Egyptians will believe his ouster was achieved not because of the United States but in spite of it. And if Mubarak orders a crackdown and somehow survives, Egyptians will consider the United States culpable - and they won't forget when actuarial tables eventually achieve what the protests could not. In either case, the resentment could last for generations.
The United States has vital interests in Egypt that must be protected - and the best way to do so is to stand with the Egyptian people as they demand their liberty. Clearly we do not want a radical regime to come to power, as it did in Iran after the fall of the shah. But it is not Mubarak's fall, but his continued autocratic reign, that would strengthen the hand of the extremists.
For years Mubarak has cracked down on the moderate, secular opposition and presented us with a false choice between his authoritarian rule and rule by the Islamists. But the protests taking place today are not being led by Islamists. The de facto leader of the uprising is Mohamed ElBaradei, a Nobel Peace Prize winner and former head of the International Atomic Energy Agency. Nor is the sentiment on the streets predominantly Islamist. The crowds in Cairo's Tahrir Square resemble those that pulled down the Berlin Wall and chanted "we want freedom" in the streets of Warsaw and Prague two decades ago. These ordinary Egyptians are demanding not an Islamic state but a democratic one - and they are asking our help to achieve it. How can we ignore their pleas and be true to our ideals?
Some argue the United States has little ability to influence events in Cairo, but history says otherwise. America has seen popular uprisings against friendly dictators before, and it has used its influence with the regimes in question to help usher in a peaceful transition to democracy. In the 1980s, the United States helped ease autocratic allies out of power in the Philippines, Chile and South Korea. Now the time has come to do the same in Egypt.
Responsible, secular democratic leaders are stepping forward to offer an alternative to Mubarak's authoritarian rule, and they deserve America's support. In Cairo last week, Ayman Nour - finally released from jail in 2009 - was busy rallying the protesters and organizing a committee of opposition leaders to negotiate the people's demands with the Egyptian government. He had a message for Hosni Mubarak: "Our message today consists of one word: 'leave.' We are telling President Mubarak to leave. We do not want you. . . . The Egyptian people no longer want this system."
Nour's message should be America's message as well. Four years ago, President Bush spoke out for Ayman Nour and the Egyptian people. Now President Obama has his chance to do the same. Today, Egyptians believe America is against them. It is up to Obama to change that.