“These are the times that try men’s souls” wrote Thomas Paine in 1776. But the same line might be written about the current turmoil in Egypt and other nations which so recently were lauded for their “Arab Spring”.
It is easy to condemn the military coup, even before the slaughter of in-custody prisoners. Our nation should not be supporting military dictators anywhere. But we do. Our very close ally, Saudi Arabia, exists only because we provide the military muscle to keep the population under control. Our great enemy, Iran, became our enemy not over any religious disputes but because the Iranian people overthrew the brutal dictator we had imposed on the nation and kept in place with military force.
The Egyptian military coup overthrew an elected government, which followed a popular rebellion against a corrupt, repressive dictatorship with which our government enjoyed friendly, supportive relations. For decades we had supported that dictatorship. Working with a single dictator, rather than a fractious representative government, we had structured a stable, mostly peaceful coexistence between one of the larger Moslem nations and Israel.
The relationship lasted and both nations benefited, even as Israel continued to drive Palestinian farmers off land Israelis want to build on and Egypt protected tunnels built to evade Israel’s blockade of Gaza. Whether one supports or opposes Israel’s expansion efforts, it appears that the Egyptian-Israeli détente has avoided worse warfare and destruction. And the $1.3 billion that we handed Egypt’s dictator and military, every year, is probable a pittance compared to what we would be spending if Egypt were not at peace with Israel.
Progressives don’t like repressive governments. Progressives don’t like military coups. Progressives like popularly elected governments. So it should be easy for progressives to oppose the Egyptian coup that overthrew a popularly elected government.
What then are progressives to do with the knowledge that the Egyptian military coup followed a popular uprising by what appears to be a clear majority of Egyptians, against the government that they had popularly elected less than two years ago? It can’t be that any revolt against an elected government is wrong. Our own revolution was against the elected English parliament, for all the demonizing of King George that we did.
Our objection to ‘taxation without representation’ depended entirely on the definition of “representation”. It is an article of faith in the Randian and libertarian religions that governments should not govern those who did not vote for them. The arguments against the 13th, 14th, and 16th Amendments to our Constitution rest on claims that they are illegitimate because white supremacists and anti-taxists would not have voted for them, and should not now be governed by them.
Even the most strident anti-Islamists do not deny that Moslem Brotherhood candidates were elected to a majority of Egypt’s elective offices. Most observers also do not deny that once in office, the Brotherhood abandoned many of its campaign promises and positions and worked to implement a government in which democracy had little role. Having gained power, the party that had suffered decades of repression and abuse seemed intent on imposing its will with the same tools that Mubarek and his predecessors had used. Sounds a lot like the government we imposed on Iraq.This seems something of a pattern. One of the themes through the recent film Argo is to remind us that in the early days of the Iranian revolution, the new government used young women as spokespeople. They appeared in modern dress and slight headscarves to read official notices and complaints about the nations that had supported the Shah. It would be only a short time before the same women could be killed in the street for wearing those same clothes, or for speaking as honestly about their new government as they had about the Shah’s government.
With the Iranian example so close in the past, should the Egyptian people have waited while the Moslem Brotherhood entrenched itself? With the nearby examples of Iraq and Afghanistan, where the U.S. supported the development of sectarian, repressive, extremely corrupt governments, should the Egyptian people have watched and waited as the U.S. continued its military funding of an increasingly repressive Brotherhood government?
The average Egyptian “man in the street” can see that the U.S. continued to fund the Morsi regime even as it cracked down on dissent and democracy. They can see that the U.S. continues to support the brutal repression of the army coup leaders who overthrew Morsi. And they can see that even as we make vacuous pronouncements about wanting democracy, we throw obscene amounts of money to prop up the Saudi Arabian royal despotism as it aids the Egyptian coup government.
The celebration of the 50th anniversary of the 1963 March for Jobs and Freedom can shed light on the turmoil of the Arab Spring, and throw some cold water on those who want ‘dramatic’ action to protect one side or the other in Egypt or Lybia or Syria or Tunisia. Those who marched in 1963 are now standing at podia telling the world that progress never happens as fast as we want nor in the ways people predict.
In 1963 there were plenty of Americans who wanted our government to lend a hand to Bull Conner and other government officials who wanted to preserve traditional southern “freedoms” to use police dogs, bus- and cross-burnings, and lynchings to ensure the continuation of the kind of “democracy” that was leading to ‘reforms’ at “all deliberate speed”. There were others, at first a minority but then a majority, who saw a better future and demanded immediate change.
This week, NBC reran a 1963 Meet the Press interview with Roy Wilkins and Martin Luther King, Jr., recorded just before the August 28, 1963, March. The interview shows why an August 30, 2013 FBI memo labels Dr. King as “the most dangerous negro leader in the United States.” And it shows us startling behavior of the journalists questioning Mr. Wilkins and Dr. King.
Robert MacNeil, the ‘liberal’ part of public television’s MacNeil/Lehrer News Hour, used his questions to chastise the insistence of negroes for civil rights in such a hurry. Dr. King responded with reference to the 345 years of American slavery, demolishing the “too hurried” argument. It helps to remember that MacNeil was a progressive journalist, who believed in reporting reality. It helps to remember also that from his position as a privileged white man, he was entirely unfamiliar with the reality of black life in the United States.
How many of us are unfamiliar with the reality of life in Egypt, or in Iran, or in Syria? How many of us who criticize the corporate press for the poor quality of its reportage allow ourselves to form opinions based on the networks’ dynamic “news” footage of the Egyptian coup and the Syrian civil war? How many of us actually know anything about the Shariah law that governs both Iran and its deathly enemy Saudi Arabia?
Do we really know what supporting either the coup leaders or the Muslim Brotherhood for government in Egypt might lead to? Do we have any real idea what the Syrian rebels would be like, if they ousted the Assad regime?
We armed the Afghani Mujahaddin/Taliban to oust the Russians. Now we send our young men and women to be killed by the arms we sent. And we have far too many unemployed young men and women willing to enlist and die because they can’t find jobs here at home. Isn’t it time that we remember that the 1963 march was for JOBS and Freedom? Isn’t it time that we stop imposing our “nation building” zeal on other nations and start trying to rebuild our own nation from decades of corporate mismanagement?
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