Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Mubarak Lets Go of the Leash

If you're watching anything other than Egyptian state run television, you already know this. And if you listened to Mubarak's speech yesterday with a critical ear, you're not a bit surprised. Pro-Mubarak "demonstrators" in Cairo have lashed out violently against the pro-reform protesters. Mubarak is trying to take back the streets of Egypt, and he's turning to the darker elements in society to do it.

Or he's turning to the police. Or the police and the darker elements in society are the same thing. CNN's Ben Wedeman reported Sunday night that a source in his neighborhood in Cairo, a member of the Egyptian military, claims that several captured looters had forgotten to take their police identification cards out of their pockets before they started smashing up shops. Al Jazeera has made similar reports. No wonder Mubarak's thugs have been trying to intimidate foreign reporters; their work is making it impossible for the regime to claim that the violence started with the anti-government protesters.

Mubarak's cops might have wised up and and stopped carrying their badges, but it's too late. The transparent attempt to fool people into believing that some Egyptian citizens love their corrupt dictator enough to fight for him spontaneously won't be believed. The agents provocateurs are unmasked. While it's unlikely ever to be conclusively proven that those police officers were acting under orders, the circumstantial evidence is clear. Desperate to hold onto power, Mubarak is hoping to turn this narrative into a story about order battling to overcome chaos--and hoping that nobody will notice that the forces supposedly responsible for order are the ones creating the chaos.

It's not. It's a story about freedom crying out to be released from oppression. It's a story about justice trying to overcome corruption. It's a story about the weak finally discovering that, when they stand together, they are powerful.

Or at least it can be. There are still too many ways that this story could end for anyone to state conclusively what it's going to be about. The important thing right now is to deny Mubarak the privilege of writing the next chapter.

What Egypt Needs Now

Is it presumptuous of an American blogger to post an entry with a title like that? Probably. But I've heard a lot of talk about how Americans--specifically, the political elite--think that we call it a revolution? in Egypt ought to go, and I think that it's a lot more presumptuous to think you have a say in the outcome of another country's elections than to talk a little bit about what meaningful reform might look like.

American policymakers do not have a say in the outcome of any elections that take place in Egypt or anywhere else. Established democracies might be of help in ensuring that elections are truly free and fair. And if those elections are free and fair, we don't get to decide that the government that results isn't legitimate simply because we don't like it. America does not have a right to ensure that Egypt's next government will be pro-western. Look up sovereignty--it means that a state has a fundamental right to seek its own interests. An ally isn't a foreign state that we control; a true ally is a sovereign state whose interests coincide with ours, such that we can cooperate on pursuing those common interests. But to think that our allies' interests should be determined by or subordinate to our policy goals is an example of the kind of arrogance that has undermined goodwill toward the United States all around the world.

It's a lesson we haven't learned even after decades of propping up brutal dictators because we fear what democracy will bring. Instead, we should courageously embrace democracy every place that it takes root, trusting that if we work in genuine partnership with our democratic allies, we may not get everything we want, when we want it, but we can be secure in the knowledge that we haven't sold our freedom-loving souls for the promise of cooperation today and the risk of enmity tomorrow.

There's been a lot of talk about the need for meaningful reform in Egypt, and some discussion of the timing. Yes, faster would be better. And dictator Hosni Mubarak's declaration last night that he intends to serve out his term in office so that he can make sure to shape the reform process and determine what sort of government will follow him is clearly unacceptable. It's a transparent attempt to consolidate state power, perhaps in hopes of passing the baton to his son, but certainly in hopes of making sure that the form of government he has maintained over nearly thirty years will not fundamentally change. That's not good enough for the citizens of Egypt, and it shouldn't be good enough for anyone who values government by the people, for the people.

What should meaningful reform look like? In a country which, on paper, already has a robust democracy (Fun fact: Egypt's constitution was modeled after those of France and the United States), how can the next generation of leaders secure the hard-won gains of the movement now under weigh? I have a few suggestions.

1. Clear separation of powers. The powers of the executive, legislative, and judicial branches of Egypt's government are too muddled up. The most vivid example of this is the fact that no candidate can stand for election to the presidency unless parliament approves. The party that controls parliament controls the presidency--and the president who controls that party controls the country. The opposition doesn't get a look in.

2. No proscribed political parties. Or, at the very least, clear and specific criteria for which parties may be banned. A political group that isn't engaging in any violent acts and wishes to participate in the democratic process must be allowed to do so. There's no such thing as democracy in a one-party system. No single leader or party is ever going to get it right all the time; when those with opposing views are able to mount a genuine electoral challenge, the people win every time.

3. Limits on police power. Americans take this for granted. If the cops want to arrest you, they have to show probable cause. They don't even get to beat a confession out of you. And you get to see the evidence against you, seek the advice of an attorney, and have a real trial. Democracy in Egypt won't survive long unless Egyptians secure the same rights, with the backing of an independent judiciary (see point 1 above).

This stuff is all so fundamental that my American readers will think I've gone off my rocker for even bringing it up. But anyone who's lived in Egypt in the last thirty years knows that these fundamentals will have to be secured for the future of the country. There's so much more I could talk about...the corruption, the poverty, the crumbling infrastructure. But if you've got to put out the fire before you rebuild the house, think of these three points as my idea of a fire hose.

And not a fire hose that's turned on the protesters.

Friday, January 28, 2011

Embracing Democracy, Wherever It May Be

Let me start off by saying I understand, and am deeply grateful for, the luxury I have as a citizen blogger to be able to look at things solely in terms of principle. I'm not responsible for anybody's strategic interests and I like it that way. I know that people in public office sometimes must walk a tightrope between commitment to a philosophy they may believe in deeply, and the need to protect the interests of the nation they lead.

Now I'm going to make use of that luxury.

It is time for America to stop propping up corrupt dictatorships. It is time to support popular movements for democracy wherever they occur. I know that it's scary. I know that a dictatorship like that of Hosni Mubarak is something that American officials feel safer with because it can be controlled, it can be kept on a leash in a way that a democratic Egypt could not be. Maybe a democratic Egyptian government wouldn't be quite so cooperative in negotiations with Israel. That must be frightening to an American president. But I deeply believe that America can work with a democratic Egypt in peaceful ways.

It's long past time for the Mubarak regime to go, for ordinary Egyptians to stop fearing their own police, for a real election to take place in that country. Egyptians deserve a parliament that represents them in all their diversity of opinion, and a government that works, not for its own enrichment, but for the best interests of all citizens.

And it is long past time for American leaders to embrace a broad, courageous vision of democracy, not as a privilege for the well-off few, but as a fundamental right of all peoples.

Monday, October 4, 2010

Hello World: A belated introduction

Since both people who are likely to be reading right now (Hi Mom...Mom? Are you there, Mom?) already know me quite well, this certainly isn't about introducing me. It's about introducing the blog, and clarifying, for current and future readers as well as for myself, what I am trying to do here.

First, please excuse the dust. No, not the real dust, the metaphorical "this is really still under construction and is probably going to be a bit messy" dust. I love me some good, professionally written, well-researched blogs. Someday I hope this will be one of them. But since my writing schedule has to be adapted to the needs of a very small, very important person, I'm doing pretty well if I write anything at all. I wanted this blog to be perfect right out of the gate, but another important person pointed out to me that if I keep aiming for perfection, my little corner of the internet is going to keep on gathering dust, so I decided I'd better just start posting.

Now, about the title... I chose the mama bear reference for blatantly political reasons. Sorry, Sarah Palin--not every mama grizzly bear out there votes for your candidates. Some of us lean the opposite direction, and we care about our children, their futures, and their security just as much. I want to talk to the world about the issues that matter to me, as a mama bear on the other side of the political spectrum.

I could have maybe called it "Left-leaning Muslim Lady" or "This Is My Country, You Dimwit!" or "I'll go back where my ancestors came from if you'll do the same", but none of those had the same ring. So you're stuck with Progressive Mama Bear.

Really, though, my being Muslim is a big part of why this blog matters to me. I occasionally see Muslims appearing on network television, usually as guest commentators or interviewees on a news program. And don't get me wrong, they do a fine job.

However, I rarely see Muslims who look like me, and I think that matters. Most of those I see on the television have more Y chromosomes than I do (see, I know something about genetics AND basic math. 1>0), and the few women who make it onto the screen almost never wear hijab. Which makes their experiences, as men or as women who are less easily identified as Muslim, different from mine.

Those experiences aren't all negative, but some of them are difficult and the difficult ones mostly seem to happen because anyone can tell at a glance that I am Muslim. Nor are my experiences aren't the only kind out there, or the only valid kind. Nor do I claim that my experiences represent those of every hijab-wearing Muslimah in the United States. But they're part of the picture, so instead of sitting around getting frustrated because nobody who looks like me is out there speaking on my behalf, I figured I ought to do some speaking of my own.

So why am I writing this? This sentence, this post, this blog? Because I want to tell my story, as an American Muslim woman. Because if I don't tell my story, someone else will tell it for me, will seek to define who I am, and if I let them I run the risk of becoming that definition. So I'm here to speak my own truth. I invite you to speak yours in the comments.

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Muslims in America--What Happened to Civility?

On this ninth anniversary of 9/11, let me extend my sincere condolences to all those who lost friends or family members on that terrible day. I honor your grief and continue to condemn the senseless violence which took your loved ones from you.

In light of recent controversies, and indeed events now ongoing elsewhere in the country, I'd like to share a few thoughts. It is my hope to participate civilly in a conversation that has at times become uncivil, but which I believe it is vitally important that we Americans continue to have.

I was glad to hear that the organizers of International Burn a Koran Day changed their minds and chose not to burn scriptures. It's not that I was horrified that someone might defile my holy book; they weren't about to hurt the Quran, or Islam, or Muslims. No matter who burns a few books, the Quran will still be out there in the world, on people's bookshelves and in people's hearts. Muslims will still be out there in the world. Islam will still be the beautiful and peaceable faith my family and I practice. The organizers of International Burn a Koran Day might have been hurting themselves, but they certainly weren't about to hurt Islam.

That said, in light of the threatened reprisals against Americans overseas, I am relieved that the hateful and divisive event has been called off.

I am, however, deeply disturbed about the atmosphere of hatred in which this controversy has occurred; and I could not disagree more with those who have equated plans to burn Qurans with plans to build an Islamic community center in the neighborhood of Ground Zero. Whether those drawing that false parallel are former governors of Alaska, current leaders in Congress, or imams in Florida, they are mistaken.

There is simply no equivalence. Proceeding with Park 51 at its planned location is controversial, to be sure. Reasonable people have different opinions about it, and while I think the case for proceeding with the project is stronger than the case against, there is room for reasonable people to come together and discuss the matter in a reasonable way. Burning a holy book, by contrast, is an act of bald-faced hate. There is no room for discussion here, no room for reasonable people to disagree. It is an act which intentionally throws civility and the spirit of American pluralism out the window.

In the past nine years, Americans have been asked again and again whether Muslims are truly welcome to worship freely and live as neighbors and citizens in this country. In recent years, particularly since the election of a president many still erroneously believe to be Muslim, too many have answered in the negative. If the United States is to continue to be a place where people from all over the world come to escape religious persecution, if it is to continue to be a place where we may not agree with our neighbors but will always speak up when their freedoms are threatened, if indeed the democracy which was assaulted nine years ago today is to continue to thrive, then my fellow citizens will have to reconsider that answer.