by Ken Feltman
Voting gave me my dignity.
– A black South African woman who voted in South Africa’s first election after the end of apartheid, April 1994
Hosni Murabak is gone and Egypt’s future is uncertain. But the statement of an elderly black woman who stood for hours in the hot sun, waiting as the line of voters snaked through a field toward a polling place in rural South Africa, tells us why change has come to Egypt. Pragmatic politicians, in Egypt and around the world, react to crises by seeking stability. Others seek partisan advantage. But the people of Egypt are demanding something much more eloquent and elusive – their dignity.
During the Peloponnesian War, an overwhelming force of Athenians demanded that the neutral population of the island of Melos pay tribute and agree to support Athens against Sparta. To refuse meant death or slavery. Negotiations failed and the men of Melos died with dignity. The women and children went with dignity into slavery. The Athenians expressed astonishment at the Melians’ choice.
People have made the choice of dignity with the risk or certainty of death throughout the centuries. The choice is the stuff of countless legends. Egyptians need jobs. Food prices have skyrocketed. Why would we be surprised today that a repressed and humiliated population would finally rise up? Why would foreign countries support unresponsive despots instead of desperate people? Those answers, too, are as old as the Melians’ tragic end.
The Athenians believed in a harsh reality: “The strong do what they have the power to do, and the weak accept what they have to accept.” All despots believe that. The Nazis did and became experts at destroying their victims’ dignity little by little, until nothing remained but degradation and death. This tortuous degradation was evident at Abu Ghraib just a few years ago, meted out by people at once as human but also as inhuman as the ancient Athenians.
Contemporary political realists around the world have echoed those Athenians: The strategic interests of a nation justify the use of life-and-death power. Morality can be a weakness. This reasoning has justified the support of brutality and oppression. It has justified American support of corrupt regimes: They may be tyrants, but they are our tyrants. Ruthless dictators can serve a purpose – a purpose which can justify American support in a region of critical interests.
The politics of a tinderbox region explain why leaders overlook human rights abuses. Stability is threatened when the populace is stirred. The United States is not very good at realpolitik, no matter how dedicated American leaders are at practicing it. Americans remain a more idealistic people, sentimental, weak, suckers for the underdog and a happy Hollywood ending. Applying the modern version of the Athenian belief that the strong do what they will while the weak suffer has led to people suffering for political stability.
Mubarak’s regime was kept afloat by billions of dollars in foreign assistance, mostly from the United States. Egypt’s security force was trained by, among others, French and American personnel. Days ago, when the security forces unleashed bloody violence against demonstrators, France’s foreign minister suggested that with better training, the security forces could learn to put down demonstrations with less bloodshed. The U.S. retreated behind neutral remarks. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton insisted our “strategic ally” was stable. Vice President Joe Biden asserted Mubarak was not a dictator.
In the hearts and minds of many Egyptian people, this was never about stability. This started with more immediate concerns about jobs and rising food prices. Now, with Mubarak leaving, it has escalated into something more elemental: Self-determination. The people want a voice in what happens to them. They will risk instability for something better, even if any resulting instability makes it easier for more oppressive rulers to seize power. It is as eloquent as one person standing before a moving tank in Tiananmen Square in 1989, before soldiers opened fire, killing hundreds.
We can reflect on other examples of this human desire for individual dignity. Athens lost to Sparta. The oppressors prevailed in Tiananmen Square. The Egyptians have a difficult struggle ahead.
Perhaps as we think about what has happened in Egypt, we can reflect on our part in causing the frustrations that made a proud people rise up. It is as simple but as confounding as the ages-old human desire for dignity.