It’s just a sound bite, but Barack Obama said the right thing about news that Hosni Mubarak will be stepping down today. “We want those young [Egyptian] people and we want all Egyptians to know that America will do everything we can to support an orderly and genuine transition to democracy in Egypt,” he said before giving a planned speech in Michigan today.
Because the Obama administration adopted a noticeably passive (if not antagonistic) attitude toward regime change in Egypt until it became a certainty, it will now have a lot of face-saving to do. Presidential statements like the one above are more potent when they have not been retroactively defused by a couple of years of bad policy.
One way Obama can build credibility among Arab democrats — without empowering radicals — is to start talking about missing and jailed democratic Egyptian dissidents by name. If the Egyptian government is being handed over to Vice President Omar Suleiman, then Mubarak’s handpicked successor needs to answer for the missing. For a president who is supposedly modeling himself on Ronald Reagan, this should come naturally to Obama. It is exactly how Reagan let Soviet dissidents know that the leader of the free world was on their side. It also saved lives. Here’s what Natan Sharansky wrote in the Washington Post in 2009:
In 1986, the Soviet dissident Anatoly Marchenko died in the infamous Chistopol prison after a long and futile hunger strike for improved conditions. Three years earlier, I had gone on a similar hunger strike in the same prison and been subjected to the same tortuous conditions by KGB thugs. But the authorities eventually gave in to my demands.
Why? Because my nine years of imprisonment were accompanied by a relentless worldwide campaign and steady, unambiguous pressure on the communist regime by leaders of the free world. The regime knew that it would pay a heavy price if I were to die. With Marchenko, it was confident that the world did not care enough to do much more than mount a formal protest.
Obama can start by publicly demanding to know the whereabouts of Egyptian blogger Kareem Amer. The young cyber-dissident was recently released from a four-year prison term only to disappear once the Mubarak regime began its post-revolt crackdown.
American power was needed over the course of the past decade to unfreeze democratic sentiment in the Middle East, but it will be needed even more to keep democratic revolutions on course once they take hold. If the Obama administration has gotten off the fence at last, it can start to make up for lost time by talking about the heroic democrats who have been fighting for liberty the whole time the White House dithered.