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Posted at 5:31 AM ET, 01/31/2011

Bookends of Egyptian history

By Jonathan Capehart

Watching events unfold in Egypt is like watching the placement of a second bookend on my mental bookcase. The first was placed on Oct. 6, 1981.

It was a typical ride on the school bus to Raritan High School in New Jersey. Kids were chattering away and WPLJ, then a hard-rock station, was playing on the radio. The deejays were at once astonished and amused by the news out of Cairo: President Anwar Sadat had been assassinated by what appeared to be his own troops during a military parade. I was already a total news nerd. I had closely followed and admired Sadat's work with the Israelis to bring peace the region. And I had been excited to watch the signing of the accord on television in 1979. The report of his murder ruined this then-13-year-old's day.

Hosni Mubarak was there that day. The then-vice president of Egypt, he was seated right next to Sadat. Mubarak became president of Egypt on Oct. 14, 1981 -- and has ruled that Arab nation ever since. Like Sadat, Mubarak has been a staunch ally of the United States. Just how staunch was laid out nicely by Helene Cooper in the Sunday New York Times.

The strategic importance of Egypt, the experts said, lies in its role as the cornerstone of American policy in the Middle East. The United States could not have sustained the wars it fought in Iraq without logistical support from Egypt's government. Oil for Europe comes through the Suez Canal. Egypt is the largest and most militarily powerful Arab country. And most important to the United States, it is the crux of any American effort to resolve the Arab-Israeli conflict. Mr. Sadat's peace deal in 1979 with [Menachem] Begin made it next to impossible for other Arab states to contemplate going to war with Israel, and therefore opened a very slow -- excruciatingly slow -- process for the Arab world to come to terms with Israel.

This helps to explain the cautious response out of the Obama administration, which has been trying to walk one of the slimmest tightropes in foreign affairs. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton has called for "real democracy" in Egypt without calling on Mubarak to hit the bricks.

But Mubarak hasn't exactly been open to the virtues of democracy. He's violently cracked down on dissent. And before the uprising that led him to sack his cabinet and appoint a vice president for the first time last week, he was maneuvering to put his son in line to succeed him.

The protests roiling Egypt have been inspiring to watch. It is a reminder of how precious freedom is and the lengths to which people will go to slip the yoke of oppression. That the army appears, at least for now, to have sided with the protesters can only lift the spirits of the Egyptian people as they seek to decide their future and the future of their nation. How Mubarak responds to freedom's fire now burning in Egypt -- relinquish power as the longtime president of Tunisia did earlier this month, or try to hold on even more tightly through suppression -- will determine whether this bookend of its history is as tragic as the one before it.

By Jonathan Capehart  | January 31, 2011; 5:31 AM ET
Categories:  Capehart  | Tags:  Jonathan Capehart  
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Comments

Mubarak needs to accept that his time is over, and let the Egyptian people determine their new ruler for themselves.

Posted by: 1toughlady | January 31, 2011 10:09 AM | Report abuse

I do think it's a little hypocritical to say Mubarak is not running a democracy (paraphrased): what's the difference between arresting protesters in Egypt and arresting protesters in the US in 1970? (Read http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Opposition_to_the_U.S._involvement_in_the_Vietnam_War)

And, in the US, maneuvers are the norm to place cronies in power as successors. I'm thinking of Bush II (and Hillary Clinton). When it's put that way, they sound more and more democratic. Mubarak needs to make some real changes, or he won't be king for long.

Posted by: jimster1 | January 31, 2011 10:48 AM | Report abuse

The revolution in Egypt (which has only surprised ignorant and stupid Westerners (including Israelis)) is a rejection of the U.S. (and therefore, Israel's) foreign policy, which is based on paying dictators to keep their people in line by all means necessary. Of course the West "talks" a good game, what with freedom of the press and democracy, but when it's time to put up or shut up, usually they back off their "morals" and get to the nitty gritty.

When will Israel learn that it can't create stability for itself without dealing with the Palestinian issue. When will America learn that it can't prop up dictators and win "hearts and minds." Just because all these people are poor doesn't mean they are stupid.

The U.S. and Israel would be better served if they handled the Palestinian issue once and for all (giving them their territory to do with as they see fit) and then treat them like any other state (if Palestine declares war or tries to unilaterally bomb a separate country, then you go in and bash them, with the support of the whole world). Then, they can use that "goodwill" to win back their other Muslim allies who have recently weakened their alliance with Israel (Turkey, now possibly Egypt and Jordon).

Israel should support "the people" in Muslim countries and show they are not the goblins textbooks portray them as. Of course, this involvement in internal matters of another country makes Israel nervous, because it doesn't want involvement in it's own affairs (namely Palestine). Take away that issue weakens that argument as well.

Lastly, the U.S. should have one foreign policy, which is to be a beacon light to freedom-lovers anywhere they exist. This is a Republican viewpoint and is the least hypocritical. It lets the world know where we stand (with democracy, against tyrants). This will improve our standing in the world and gain trust that we don't have from activists and "the people" on the ground.

Posted by: sachancp | January 31, 2011 1:33 PM | Report abuse

Insightful column as usual, Jonathan. But can you please ask whoever posts headlines on the home page to correct the link to yours so it reads "a PEEK" instead of "a peak"?! Thanks.

Posted by: DCSteve1 | January 31, 2011 1:37 PM | Report abuse

DCSteve1 called you on it at 1:37 pm EST (GMT+05). The headline still says "peak" at 3:18 EST. In the words of Sherman Edwards (1776),

"Is anybody there?
Does anybody care?"

Posted by: wmadden1 | January 31, 2011 3:22 PM | Report abuse

DCSteve1 called you on it at 1:37 pm EST (GMT+05). The headline still says "peak" at 3:18 EST. In the words of Sherman Edwards (1776),

"Is anybody there?
Does anybody care?"

Posted by: wmadden1 | January 31, 2011 3:22 PM | Report abuse

sachancp - That's just a bit provincial, don't you think? Apparently the uprising in Egypt (or at least its size & tenacity) has surprised a few Easterners too, and I'm not certain that they're all ignorant & stupid.

More generally, the likelihood that something similar would take place has been forecast widely for quite some time, even in the stupid, ignorant West.

Posted by: bobsewell | January 31, 2011 4:21 PM | Report abuse

Hysterical:
Main Page says "Peak at ..."
It's "peek".

COMPOST...do you have Genius Robinson proofreading now?!

Posted by: F-4Phantom | January 31, 2011 4:43 PM | Report abuse

We may well come to miss Mubarak. Egyptians may miss him, too. It is difficult now to understand how things got better for Iranians once the mad mullahs took the reins. The Shah had secret police who tortured their prisoners. So do the theocrats who rule Iran. In fact, all the Islamist complaints against the Shah still exist. It's just that the prisoners have changed. Nothing else has. What we are seeing in Egypt is perhaps the first step in fastening another dictatorship on Egypt. They must be used to them by now. The Pharaohs were not noted for their democratic tnedencies, either.

Posted by: sailhardy | January 31, 2011 4:47 PM | Report abuse

jimster1, you ask about the difference between the treatment of US protesters in 1970 and the Egyptian protesters and how this relates to whether Egypt should be considered a democracy or not.

One striking difference is that the US protesters could vote in another government and another head of state in free and fair democratic elections - Egyptian protesters have never had that option, and _that's_ why it is not considered a democracy in anything but name, not because of how it treats protesters.

Posted by: AForeigner | January 31, 2011 4:48 PM | Report abuse

The US may be fairly criticized for installing dictators and puppets, especially in the bad old days in Latin America, but US reliance on Mubarak's regime has a very different history.

It began when Anwar el-Sadat made his historic visit to Jerusalem, followed by the Camp David Accords. This historic breakthrough earned Sadat (and Menachem Begin of Israel) the Nobel Peace Prize. No one in the international community at the time was complaining about Sadat's domestic policies, and certainly his peace overtures to Israel were not going to be rebuffed.

After his assassination, the US leaned on (and paid off) Mubarak to maintain the peace treaty with Israel, for a lot of very good reasons. What choice did we have? What realistic options did we have in terms of forcing more democratic reforms, especially given the absence of genuine democracy anywhere in the Arab world?

I wish the Egyptian people well and hope that they can establish a genuine democracy that addresses their human needs and remains at peace with Israel. But don't blame the US for Mubarak. We played the only hand we were dealt.

Posted by: Meridian1 | January 31, 2011 4:58 PM | Report abuse

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