The fall of President Hosni Mubarak is a result of many things: Egyptians' frustration with 30 years of oppression, the example of the successful Tunisian uprising, rising global food prices, the organizing power of Facebook and Twitter. But among all these factors, one important one has been overlooked: the role President Obama himself played in the pro-democracy movement.
We shouldn’t forget the power of what he said in Cairo in June 2009, a speech that history may now remember as the most important of his presidency. He urged young Egyptians and others to take charge of their lives saying, “you, more than anyone, have the ability to remake this world,” and denounced dictators who steal from their own people. Now, it seems, those words were taken to heart.
I recall talking to an Egyptian professor just one month before Mr. Obama's Cairo speech, who told me her country was excited about the president’s visit. “Is it because of his Muslim roots?” I asked. She laughingly explained that his father’s Muslim background brought Obama no credibility and, in fact, some measure of scorn, because in Muslim tradition, the sons of Islam can never renounce the faith of their fathers, as Obama has done with his embrace of Christianity.
Why Obama captivated Egyptians
On the contrary, she said that Egyptians were enthralled for two primary reasons. The first was that the Egyptian people had been spellbound by the 2008 US presidential campaign. When Obama won, it was a moment to reflect on the deficits of their own moribund political system and on the fact that his story could never happen in Egypt. But there was another factor.
“We are excited about Obama’s visit, but we are ecstatic about his wife and two daughters,” the professor told me. In her eyes and that of her friends, it was Michelle Obama who gave the president credibility. The optics of a strong, outspoken first lady and of a president who clearly respected her and his daughters was revolutionary in a society where women are devalued in the public and private sphere.
I think about the meaning of the professor’s words as the world watches throngs of Egyptians cheering Mr. Mubarak’s departure, while continuing their calls for a democratically-elected government. And it seems to me that the West has missed a crucial point: Obama and his family are the personification of the democracy and equality to which Egyptians aspire and, at the same time, a reminder of the limitations of the Egyptian government.
A new page for democracy
For people starving for democratic freedoms, Obama’s words – reinforced by his highly visible state visit to Cairo – were likely interpreted as a radical statement of the possibilities that could be real if Egyptians took matters into their own hands.
To be sure, Obama is the leader of a nation that has historically touted democracy in the Middle East while supporting regimes that undercut this ideal. Despite his administration’s initially muddled response to the crisis, the president’s repeated expressions of support for the Egyptian people – especially the youth – signal that the US may be breaking from its outdated reliance on convenient dictators. This hopeful moment in history should mark the beginning of a new era in US foreign policy, in which support for democracy is not at odds with our geopolitical interests in regional peace and stability.
When I watch the demonstrators on television, I wonder whether the professor I met is among them. Then I shake my head, because I am certain that she is. I imagine her having led protests in Tahrir Square, fearlessly standing up for the same ideals of freedom and equality that inspired the French and American revolutions, the women’s and civil rights movements in the US, the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests in China, and other similar efforts in countries around the world. And now I imagine her among the exultant masses swelling the streets of Cairo with cries of victory and joy.
Ultimately, she and her compatriots look forward to a day when a young man or woman among them with an “unlikely story” like Obama's can rise to lead Egypt toward free and fair elections.
Dr. Maya Rockeymoore Cummings is the president and CEO of Global Policy Solutions, a social-change strategy firm headquartered in Washington. She is the author of “The Political Action Handbook: A How-to Guide for the Hip Hop Generation” and co-editor of “Strengthening Communities: Social Insurance in a Diverse America.”
via The OpEd Project