Super on Egypt and the Trajectory of Civil Rights Movements

My colleague David Super has an insightful op-ed in today’s Baltimore Sun entitled “In Egypt, Treading the Path of Civil Rights.”  Many of you know David’s important scholarship, which reconstructs an intellectual framework for anti-poverty law (see here, here, here, here, here, here, and here).  Here is his superb op-ed:

These opportunities come once in a generation, social movements whose cause is so manifestly just, and whose potential is so transformative, that they rise above the clutter of ordinary politics. The civil rights movement led by Martin Luther King, Cesar Chavez and others inspired a generation as it overcame Klansmen, brutal sheriffs and growers’ thugs. Two decades later, we watched in awe as the brave people of Eastern Europe brought down one repressive communist dictatorship after another. Over the past three weeks, millions of Egyptians matched the bravery of these visionaries.

These movements have a palpable continuity. The civil rights movement refuted Soviet propaganda that free societies are incapable of social justice. Likewise, the people of Tunisia, Egypt and other Middle Eastern countries find inspiration in the popular revolutions that brought down communism. But they are also heirs of King and Chavez: As ubiquitous as the slogans against the regime have been calls of “Peaceful!” and calls for giving voice to the poor and unemployed.

The contrast between Egyptians’ jubilation over President Hosni Mubarak‘s departure and the trepidations expressed in the U.S. and elsewhere is disappointing. Some seem eager to see the military preserve the oppressive regime that former generals Mubarak and Vice President Omar Suleiman led. This would be tragic. Parallels from the civil rights movement and Eastern Europe’s liberation suggest these fears are unfounded.

Opponents of each movement similarly dismissed them with prejudice posing as sophistication. Supposed sober heads painted African-Americans and farmworkers as cheerful simpletons content in their exploitation, rising up only because of nefarious “outside agitators.” These same kinds of assumptions led some to see farmworkers as puppets of “activist priests” and others to question whether Eastern Europeans were capable of maintaining stable democracies.

Today, we hear eerily similar warnings about Arabs’ supposed need for an iron fist to stave off chaos. And today’s experts insist that the overwhelmingly secular democracy movement is a mere tool of Egypt’s 20 percent Islamist minority. No one would stand to lose more in an Islamist tyranny than Egypt’s Coptic Christians, yet they have joined in the uprising. Seeing Christians form a protective human chain around Muslims at Friday prayers in Tahrir Square had to inspire anyone who remembers the Freedom Riders and the Protestants and Jews who stood with largely Catholic farmworkers against growers’ thugs.

Just as the Polish resistance sought safety in the shadow of Catholic churches, Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood has maintained networks through mosques while the regime’s dreaded Mukhabarat arrested, tortured and killed secular activists operating elsewhere. Poland is probably as devoutly Catholic as Egypt is Muslim, yet after the dictatorship fell, the church became influential but by no means dominant in Polish politics. The best way to put Egypt on a course to Islamic domination would be to leave the regime in place long enough to round up and eliminate the secular opposition.

Some crassly opposed the farmworkers because higher wages might increase food prices. So, too, some would sacrifice Egyptians to a brutal dictatorship to protect Israel. This view is as foolish as it is craven. To distract Egyptians from corruption, economic mismanagement and repression, the regime has vilified Jews (and Americans). The Egyptian state sharply restricts freedom of the press but happily publishes “The Protocols of the Elders of Zion,” the notorious fraud that has spawned generations of anti-Jewish violence. We cannot promote Israel’s long-term security by supporting a regime that incites violence against foreign journalists by suggesting they are Jewish spies.

Growers hired thugs to assault peaceful farmworkers and then sought injunctions against picketing to “restore order.” Similarly, the Egyptian regime that claims it is indispensable to maintaining order withdrew the police from neighborhoods and sent them to brutalize peaceful protesters, freed masses of common criminals while arresting journalists, and sponsored mobs throwing firebombs near the Egyptian Museum’s priceless antiquities. It converted that museum into a Mukhabarat torture center.

The Egyptian regime showed itself to be composed of bullies, and bullies do not respond to gentle persuasion, especially when they believe the words mask weakness. Gov. Orval Faubus of Arkansas had more plausible moderate credentials than General Suleiman, but when he blocked integration of Little Rock‘s Central High School, Dwight Eisenhower sent in federal troops. Eastern European demonstrators wisely stayed in the streets until civilian transitional governments with clean hands dismantled the secret police. Asking Egyptian demonstrators to settle for less is to demand that they accept their own annihilation.

President George H.W. Bush urged Iraqi Shiites to rise up for freedom and then stood by as Saddam Hussein slaughtered them. President Bill Clinton ignored pleas from pro-Western Bosnian democrats until massive ethnic cleansing had discredited them. President George W. Bush launched a Middle Eastern “freedom agenda,” then abandoned the activists who came forward in response. President Barack Obama’s bold 2009 address at Cairo University inspired many of Tahrir Square’s demonstrators.

Redeeming that speech’s promise, and restoring our credibility with the most important freedom movement of our time, requires unusually public and direct action. The administration must speak with a new clarity in insisting on a broad-based transitional government and dismantlement of the emergency laws that gave the secret police free reign. Doing any less would squander our moral capital, vindicate our most cynical detractors and discredit our civil rights movement’s worthy successors. It would waste a rare, remarkable opportunity to advance our interests and our values at once.

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2 Responses

  1. This is indeed a nice editorial but I’d like to point out a few things lest we be misled by some of the comparisons invoked throughout the article.

    While the social and democratic grounds (which were, in fact, ‘underground’) for the Velvet Revolutions in East-Central Europe preceded Mikhail Gorbachev’s introduction of perestroika and glasnost in the Soviet Union, it was those policies and ideas which clearly gave notice to nonviolent revolutionaries in Party-State communist regimes that their civil resistance had prospects for success heretofore unthinkable in light of previous Soviet interference (e.g., the Hungarian Revolution of 1956 [which ended on the day I was born]). I don’t think there’s a similar precipitating factor in the case of the Egyptian Revolution of 2011.

    And despite the obvious similarities to other cases of nonviolent civil resistance and action, as in the civil rights movement highlighted in the editorial, the Egyptian uprising is rightly termed a “revolution,” a distinction that makes for an important difference. This revolution thus presents its social movement actors with obstacles and opportunities of a different order of magnitude than those faced, say, by the civil rights movement but closer in kind to that confronted by the transitional regimes in the post-Party State era in East-Central Europe.*

    The Obama Administration should continue to tread lightly so as to not give the appearance of superpower/neo-colonialist (especially U.S.) interference, something people in the Middle East are, understandably and rightly, particularly sensitive too. It’s best if it simply endorses statements that originate from the sundry democratic organizations, movements and leaders active in Egyptian civil society or the Arab and Islamic worlds generally, such as this Statement by the Forum of Independent Human Rights Organizations:

    I close with an eloquent quote from a recent article by the editors of Middle East Reports (available online):

    “No matter what happens to the ferment among Egyptians, theirs is a revolutionary moment, along with Tunisians’ the first real one of the twenty-first century. No media-friendly color for this pro-democracy revolt, whose symbolic images are the red-white-and-black Egyptian flags painted on the cheeks of young girls and boys sitting atop their fathers’ shoulders amidst the crowds. No infusions of cash from democracy-promoting foundations and think tanks in the West. No relation whatsoever to any Washington “doctrine.” No marketing campaigns designed by global advertising firms. How deliciously appropriate that the Arab world, a region long demonized for its lack of participatory politics, should supply these truly bottom-up models for others to emulate.

    Historians today are grasping for the right parallel to past revolutions that will predict Egypt’s trajectory. But such instant analysis forecloses the possibility that Egyptians have awakened with their chants democratic and, after all, no one predicted that they would raise it so dramatically and so soon. Egypt is sui generis; it deserves and, in fact, demands to be understood and appreciated in its own terms and on its own merits. Chroniclers of future popular uprisings may compare them to what Egyptians have wrought in early 2011. Whatever its course, the revolution of the Egyptian people is a great and beautiful gift to the world.”

    * See the literature and links in the second half of this post regarding “what’s next” on the agenda for the revolutionaries:

  2. What is remarkable is that Egypt serves as an example for the people of Iran who have also come into the streets to show their hope for a better future for them and their country. Some people said Egypt may turn into another Iran but the opposite seems to be the truth.