Jubilation at Tahrir Square after Mubarak's rule came to an end
In his messages to Egypt, President Obama has been emphasizing
that democratic principles of freedom of speech, assembly and religion are
universal in nature. But the Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak for all practical
purposes rebuffed him in an ABC interview on Feb. 3. Without naming him, he told
Obama, "You do not understand the Egyptian culture."
But Egyptian culture does not reject the concept of universality of democracy. As a matter of fact, Egypt has been a pioneer in showing that Islam and democracy are compatible. Historically the most renowned advocate of this compatibility was the Egyptian religious thinker Muhammad Abduh (1854-1905), who tried to show that Islam is consistent with reason, science and technology. He, like so many other religious thinkers in the Muslim world, believed that the indigenous institution of Shura (consultation) provides for a modicum of participation by the people in the political system.
In rebutting Obama's message, Mubarak took the same stance as other autocratic rulers around the world. They invoke the particularity of their history, culture and religion as a pretext to resist the demand of their people for political freedom. They have done so despite the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights of 1948, which their nations have signed.
The most remarkable exception to this autocratic behavior was displayed by China recently. In response to President Obama's emphasis on human rights, President Hue Jintao stated candidly in a news conference at the White House on Jan. 19, "China recognizes and also respects the universality of human rights," although he pointed out the need for taking into account "the national circumstances" of China. Whatever he meant by this caveat, he did not invoke the particularity of China's culture to reject "the universality of human rights."
Nor do the courageous and patient protestors in Egypt believe their culture and democracy are incompatible. Otherwise hundreds of thousands of Egyptians of diversified political stripes and social backgrounds would not have demanded in unison the end of nearly 30 years of Mubarak's despotic rule and called for a process of transition to democracy.
Mubarak seemed to assume that his authoritarian rule was indispensable to Egypt's order and stability. In his interview of Feb. 3 he said that if he stepped down quickly - as he did in a surprise move on Feb. 11 -Egypt would descend into chaos, presumably because the Egyptian people are not mature enough to receive democracy. His vice president, Omar Suleiman, said unabashedly on Feb. 6 that Egypt was not ready for democracy, and would not be until "the people here have the culture of democracy."
The autocratic shah, too, used to say the same kind of thing in denying the Iranian people political freedom for quarter of a century.
Freedom and democracy have never been frozen in time and place. Democracy is spreading across the world especially in this age of globalized system of communication when about 60 nations of the world are viewed to be democratic.
One may hope that democracy is finally reaching the shores of the volatile Middle East. The world hears the cry of the Egyptian people and witnesses their steadfast demonstrations for democracy despite the draconian efforts of the Mubarak regime to shut down means of wireless communication and to intimidate, detain and beat some international journalists.
The ultimate outcome of the Egyptian revolution is unpredictable. The future of the Egyptian struggle for freedom might seem discouraging if viewed against the backdrop of the region's tragic historical experience. The Egyptian Revolution of 1952, the Iraqi Revolution of 1958 and the Iranian Revolution of 1979 all aspired to freedom, but, alas, none fulfilled the promise of freedom.
I, however, having lived for nearly 60 years under the shadow of Thomas Jefferson at his university, would like to believe that true democracy is finally coming to Egypt - just as, I am certain, Jefferson, the greatest believer in the spread of democracy around the world, would feel. In 1795 he said metaphorically that "this ball of liberty," which is so well in motion in America, "will roll around the globe."
About the author: R.K. Ramazani is professor emeritus of government and foreign affairs at the University of Virginia, where he has specialized on the Middle East since 1952.
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