The ongoing events across the Arab world should serve as a reminder to sitting Heads of State and their governments that they must always put their people’s interests over and above anything else. As I write this, there’re reports that the Egyptian army – which has hitherto been largely restraint in the wake of the massive protests across Egypt – was increasingly moving in to exert its authority.
For about a week now, Egypt has been in flames, with thousands of angry protesters pouring onto the streets, calling for an end to three decades of President Hossin Mubarak’s rule. What started off as a demonstration of largely frustrated middle-class citizens evolved into a full-scale popular revolt across the country, attracting Egyptians of all walks of life, and openly supported by the judiciary, media and other critical groups.
As earlier predicted, the mass protests in Tunisia that ended over two decades of President Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali’s regime, a fortnight ago, have fast spilled over to the rest of the Arab world, with uprisings in Egypt, Algeria and Yemen. Many pundits have generally blamed the protests on high levels of unemployment, official corruption, rising food prices and restricted freedoms.
If there’s anything that these protests have shown, it is that no amount of repression or political manipulation can, forever, silence the popular will of the people. As the riots unfolded in Egypt, it was unclear whether President Mubarak would genuinely feel the heat and introduce major reforms. Yet, while he may still hang onto power for the foreseeable future–the besieged Egyptian leader partially succumbed to the rising pressure by sacrificing his entire cabinet as he struggled to contain the situation. He quickly appointed his first-ever vice president and a new prime minister – both men former military officers, just like himself.
But the anti-Mubarak chants remain widespread across Egypt with the demonstrators showing no signs of backing down, throwing the north African nation into further uncertainty.
As it stands, not even the mighty US, the longstanding allies of President Mubarak’s government, seems capable of keeping their friend in power any longer. The crisis in Egypt has pushed Washington between a rock and a hard place, leaving it with a difficult choice to make. For a long time, Mubarak has been a strategic ally of the successive US governments in the volatile Middle East region, particularly on the security of state of Israel. Egypt is one of the very few countries with diplomatic relations with the Jewish state. But the Egypt-US relations, too, are critical for Washington’s geopolitical interests in the wider region, which explains why the Arab nation is one of the world’s top beneficiaries of America’s aid– around $1.5 billion each year.
Yet, the Obama administration – like others before it – is known for pouring scorn on governments it deems autocratic and brandishing all sorts of tough measures, including aid freeze, economic and travel sanctions on such regimes. On Egypt’s Mubarak, though, the US appears to have taken a different path – a strangely respectful and guarded approach.
This sort of reaction is a far cry from Washington’s usual harsh criticism towards undemocratic states elsewhere, the recent case being Ivory Coast, whose incumbent leader Laurent Gbagbo, Obama told in a letter: “… if you go forward down the path that you’re signaling that you’re going down, you will face greater international isolation, that you will be ignoring the will of your own people and that you will bear the consequences of what is an unjust action.”
That the US is actively pushing for the will of the Ivorians on one hand – where election-related violence left 20 people dead by the time Obama wrote the letter– and dithering on how the will of the Egyptian people should prevail, on the other – with over 100 dead since the riots erupted – is an indication of continued double-standards on the part of the US government.
Nonetheless, recent events in the Arab world should serve as a lesson to African leaders. Our governments should seek to derive their legitimacy from their people, even when it means ignoring the rest of the world. Citizens despise leaders who are detached from them. Citizens hate to be hopeless and will surely jump at every opportunity to oust a government that has lost touch with reality, because they no longer identify with it.
However, a government that is seen to care for the wellbeing of its people will grow stronger by the day. Even the poorest of citizens will rise in defence of their government because they see hope ahead.
The author is a training editor with The New Times and 1st VP of Rwanda Journalists Association