Freedom In North Africa

“Thank you Facebook!” — Egyptian protester, recorded by NPR

El tahrir
Three cheers for the people of Tunisia and Egypt! May those in every nation rise up so boldly to cast off those who would oppress them! The last few weeks have been “Fall of the Berlin Wall” quality for those of us who care about liberty and the developing world. It’s especially gratifying to see that protesters in other countries are inspired by these grassroots revolutions, and that dictators in Algeria, Jordan, and Yemen are losing sleep over this.

One thing that’s interesting here is the discomfort that U.S. officials seem to express in admitting that their three decades of support for the regime in Egypt means that they can expect the next government there to be markedly less friendly, even as it (hopefully) will be much more democratic. Some American commentators have also remarked that since the U.S. didn’t do more to prop up Mubarak even now that similar dictatorships, especially those in the Persian Gulf, will become less compliant to U.S. interests.

Amazingly, they say this like it’s a bad thing. But one of the lessons of 2011 is that when you stand up for dictators rather than democracy, the world can see that you really stand for nothing. American policy makers have talked emptily about their wish for democracy in the Middle East for years, but it’s obvious to everyone, particularly Middle Eastern democrats, that they really couldn’t care less about this. The Cold War has been over for twenty years. Even if support for right-wing dictatorships was necessary as bulwarks against communism, and I’m not saying it was, that rationalization reached its sell-by date a long time ago.

Another case in point is the Republic of Somaliland in the northern part of what still shows up on the map as Somalia. There has been a functional republic there for years, with peaceful transition of power through elections and everything. It’s completely unlike Mogadishu. But decision makers in the U.S. government won’t even recognize its existence, much less support it. With friends like that….

By the way, I chose today’s quote for a reason. I was one of the ones who was unimpressed that Mark Zuckerberg was Time’s Person of the Year last year rather than Julian Assange. But given the pivotal role that social networks played in coordinating the efforts of those who rose up against Ben Ali and Mubarak, perhaps they weren’t just being cowardly, perhaps they were also inadvertently prescient. Either way it’s nice to see that the Internet is living up to at least some of its promise for being an equalizer when it comes to who gets to wield societal power. But especially given that the U.S. diplomatic cables leak helped to inspire the protests in Tunisia, I still say that Assange — warts and all — deserves to be Person of the Year.