A Philosopher's Blog

Unrest in the Middle East

Posted in Politics by Michael LaBossiere on January 29, 2011
CAIRO, EGYPT - JUNE 4:  An Egyptian man lights...
Image by Getty Images via @daylife

Obviously, this post’s title is almost eternally accurate. However, the focus today will be on the more recent unrest, namely that in Egypt.

Many people in Egypt appear to have had quite enough of the government and are actively engaged in protesting the regime. In response, the government has attempted to suppress the protests, cut off communication, and silence the media. This is, of course, to be expected from this sort of government.

While Obama praised the folks in Tunisia, the administration is taking a different approach to Egypt. This is hardly surprising-though the government has been fairly repressive and is hardly a bastion of freedom, it has been fairly consistent in being on what we see as the right side of American interests in the region.

The situation in Egypt does present the usual interesting dilemma for Americans. On one hand, we profess a set of values that include freedom, self-government, democracy, and justice. These values and our own historical revolution would seem to give us good reasons to support those who are pushing for freedom against a repressive state. On the other hand, we seem to always be in a war against an opposing ideology and this leads us to support almost any government that promises that it will be on our side against the communists/terrorists or whoever the enemy is at the moment in question. That these governments are often repressive, undemocratic and lacking in freedom never seems to be a major point of concern-at least for those in power.

While it is tempting to see this policy as being pragmatic and realistic (“yeah, we talk democracy, but that is for us…we need these states to repress their people so that they don’t go over to the commies/terrorists/whoever”), it is well worth considering the price that must be paid for this.

The largest price is, of course, paid by the people who live under the repressive regimes. They get to live without freedom (or at least far less freedom) so that the United States can have a “reliable” ally in the region or so that American interests can be advanced.

We also pay a price. The first part of the price is that we become hypocrites: we speak of freedom while tolerating and supporting tyrannies and repressive states. This, of course, seems to be quite contrary to our professed commitment to democracy, freedom, liberty and all that. Given how we throw these words about, we should be the ones supporting revolutions against repressive states, rather than trying so often to keep them propped up against their own people.

Second, we pay a rather ironic price: our efforts to prop up repressive states as allies against the enemy of the day sometimes ends up leading to that state falling to that enemy (Vietnam) or another enemy (Iran). People tend to remember who backed the government that jailed their relatives and murdered their friends.

Of course, it can be argued that the people in the Middle East are not yet ready for democracy and must be kept under the watchful eye of authoritarian states. It could also be argued that the threat posed by radical Islam means that we have to support states that will keep repressing the radicals. Of course, this strategy might (as noted above) turn out to have a result that is opposite of the one we desire.

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9 Responses

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  1. T. J. Babson said, on January 29, 2011 at 10:39 am

    Is it clear that people are clamoring for freedom? Perhaps they want theocracy? Should we support an Islamist regime?

    • Asur said, on January 29, 2011 at 11:29 am

      Although it’s true that Egypt is a Muslim country, a religious state is not necessarily hostile to freedom and the well-being of its people — if they actually want an Islamic law government, it’s best that they have one. The protesters are calling for freedom and open elections, however, in response to Hosni Mubarak’s declaration that he intended to dissolve the National Democratic Party government yet remain in personal power.

      • WTP said, on January 29, 2011 at 1:20 pm

        Hmmm….Although it’s true that America is a Christian country, a religious state us not necessarily hostile to freedom and the well-being of its people. If people actually want a Christian law government, it’s best that we have one. So no need for scary, over-the-top scenarios when Palin or Huckelberry speak of simple Christian values.

        Granted, significant differences in the aims of both sets of outsiders, but at the same time less true of the degree. Surely if it’s no big deal that Islamists run a strategically critical country like Egypt, it’s certainly no concern what very little power the religious right in the US exhibits. But that’s admittedly a weak argument and not my point. What I mean is that democracy isn’t the whole ticket. Democracy must exist in an environment of free expression. One without the other is as bad as a dictatorship. At best, it’s simply mob rule. Ask the young people of Iran what they think of their “elected” president.

        • magus71 said, on January 31, 2011 at 10:00 am

          A few words rarely describe the entirety of a situation. Not all religious states are created equal. It’s like saying heroin should be a legal drug because caffeine is a legal drug. Or that coal and gasoline are both flammable. Sure, but chuck a match on a pile of coal and than a bucket of gasoline and see the difference. Check out the Aztec’s religious state: 40,000 human sacrifices in a day? Impressive.

          Such is the case with the modern fundamentalist Islamists: They’re a bucket of gasoline.

          The Muslim world population is predicted to grow 35% in the next 20 years. Again, read The Coming Anarchy. This will not be pretty, and it very well see the end of the West as we now know it. Some will accuse me of over-reacting. But I’ve looked into it and I believe our culture is in trouble.


    • Michael LaBossiere said, on January 30, 2011 at 7:56 pm

      That is a reasonable point of concern. If they are on the path to an even more repressive state, then we should not support that. Of course, it is worth considering the impact of our previous support on the situation. In the case of Iran, our actions seemed to raise the likelihood that the winners would be the more radical elements.

  2. rhein-main said, on January 30, 2011 at 7:13 am

    The poor people of Egypt. Why can not such power transitions occur peacefully. In the violent nationwide protests against the government in Egypt on Friday after information from the health ministry 38 people have been killed. As representatives of the Ministry announced on Saturday in Cairo, twelve people died in the capital and killed in the city of Suez. About 1,900 people were injured, including 500 police officers. Since the protests began on Tuesday it has thus nearly 50 deaths and 2500 injuries given. The people I feel really sorry.

  3. T. J. Babson said, on January 31, 2011 at 8:16 am

    This about sums it up:


    Jimmy Carter will go down in American history as “the president who lost Iran,” which during his term went from being a major strategic ally of the United States to being the revolutionary Islamic Republic. Barack Obama will be remembered as the president who “lost” Turkey, Lebanon and Egypt, and during whose tenure America’s alliances in the Middle East crumbled.

    The superficial circumstances are similar. In both cases, a United States in financial crisis and after failed wars loses global influence under a leftist president whose good intentions are interpreted abroad as expressions of weakness. The results are reflected in the fall of regimes that were dependent on their relationship with Washington for survival, or in a change in their orientation, as with Ankara.

    • Michael LaBossiere said, on January 31, 2011 at 3:08 pm

      Whatever we do, it must be calculated to maintaining Egyptian stability, our alliance with Egypt and the prevention of a radical Islamic take over. Fortunately, the local dominant Muslim party seems to be fundamental but not radical. They have generally acted in what we would regard as rational ways. As with the US, I have no problem with parties having strong religious elements.

  4. magus71 said, on January 31, 2011 at 9:45 am

    This is what happens when one half of the world falls so far behind, it simply cannot compete with the other half. I talked about this in my blog post: “The Coming Anarchy.” This will happen at an ever increasing pace. With America in decline, but the West as a whole pulling further and further away economically from many Arab nations, the situation will give purchase to Islamist victimologists who will place blame on the Middle East’s Boogeyman: America. They will blame the winner of the race because he ran too fast….

    The people of Egypt will suffer even more now. There is nobody that can step into Mubarak’s position and make it better. What’s more likely, is that Egyptians will fall under the thrall of a fundamentalist who promises them riches and glory and will make an enemy of much of the rest of the world.

    The same forces that killed Anwar Sadat are at play here: The Muslim Brotherhood. Sadat tried to appease them, even releasing hundreds of terrorists from prison. He was then assassinated by them.

    There is little that is truly noble about this, and very little good will come from it. If Mubarak leaves, the entire world will be quite different and more dangerous for the next 20 years–at least.

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