Your View: Musings on freedom in the Middle East


A woman on the radio talks about revolution, when its already passed her by. Bob Dylan didnt have this to sing about you know it feels good to be alive. I was alive and I waited, waited. I was alive and I waited for this. Right here, right now there is no other place Id rather be. Right here, right now  watching the world wake up from history.
Jesus Jones  
I hadnt intended to return to this topic so soon after my last column, but events in the Middle East are too compelling to ignore. Watching images of protesters in Tunisia opposing and then deposing long-time dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, and the fascinating, mostly peaceful demonstrations in Egypt, I was transported back to November and December 1989. Back then, in a span of a little over six weeks, first the Berlin Wall fell then long-time Romanian Communist dictator Nicolae Ceausescu was overthrown. I recall sitting with a friend in Au Pied de Cochon in Georgetown during the Berlin Wall protests, watching on TV as the Germans hacked away at the despised barricade, which had kept families and friends separated for 28 years. 
We could not avert our eyes. The joy felt by Germans that day was palpable through the TV screen. They had just tossed overboard the yoke of Communist subjugation: years of economic stagnation, lost opportunities and political oppression. Like human beings everywhere, they had longed for freedom. After 28 long years, they were free.
Those were amazing times in the late 80s and early 90s, as Eastern Europe and then the Soviet Union were indeed part of a world waking up from history. From the spring of 1989 when the Polish communist government agreed to free parliamentary elections, until August 1991 when a coup spelled the end of the Soviet Union, the seemingly indestructible communist bloc fell, nation by nation: the domino theory in reverse. Jesus Jones got it right in his description of the events of those years. The repressive regimes collapsed quickly once people began to believe freedom was in their grasp.
Fast forward to todays Middle East, where the same desire for freedom is powering protests across that region. The longing for liberty is the same as in Eastern Europe, though the outcomes will likely be different and less to the liking of the United States. In 1989, we were pretty sure that democracies would emerge from the ruins of communism, as most Eastern European countries had at least some history with democratic institutions. Positive outcomes are much less certain in the Middle East of 2011.
Because the outcomes are uncertain, many people Ive talked with these past two weeks have been either ambivalent about or against this Middle Eastern revolution. I am absolutely dumbfounded by such sentiments.
First of all, the genie is already out of the bottle, so what Americans think is largely moot. History tells us that once people get a taste of freedom, only overwhelming brute force will make them submit. The Soviets had the might and political will to crush revolts in Hungary in 1956 and Czechoslovakia in 1968. The Chinese massacred the Tiananmen Square protesters in that same year of 1989. The same could happen in Egypt now, though I personally dont think the Egyptian military has the stomach for the widespread slaughter of innocents. 
Second, as Americans who enjoy sweeping political freedom, I believe we must side with and promote liberty when we have the chance. In moral terms, we should do this because its the right thing to do. If, as Americans, we believe that freedom is a universal, natural right, how can we in good conscience side with oppressors? During the Cold War national security sometimes necessitated American alliances with autocratic regimes. But since we won that war, we have little justification for siding with dictators. Politically, short-term instability is a small price to pay for helping to establish democratic institutions that should aid long-term stability.
Though Im not a fan of much of President Barack Obamas foreign policy, I applaud and support his handling of the Egyptian crisis. After an initial few days of ambivalence, he has forcefully sided with Egypts freedom protesters. Regardless of the short-term outcome, President Obama has placed America on the right side of history.