Protests in Egypt come down to a demand for dignity

Protesters in Egypt demand they be treated with dignity -- given a real voice in a real democracy. Mubarak's plans to stay in power until elections months from now is an insult to the Egyptian people, as is today's return to state-sponsored violence. Mubarak must resign immediately.

Anti-Mubarak protesters in Egypt voice their demands in various ways, and one of them is a cry for dignity. They want their leaders to treat them with respect. They want a say, and more than that, they want to be able to participate in their own future.

It’s a sentiment common to revolutions past, from Ukraine, to Germany, to South Africa, to the Philippines, where demonstrators demanded “people power.” What dignity requires is real democracy, not the window dressing type that so many autocrats try.

For Egyptians to be treated with dignity means that Hosni Mubarak must step aside immediately and leave behind a caretaker government acceptable to opposition leaders such as Mohamed ElBaradei, who has a broad opposition coalition behind him.

The Obama administration, too, must go beyond condemning violence and requesting change “now,” to publicly calling for President Mubarak’s immediate resignation.

Why should Egyptians have any faith in Mubarak’s promise to oversee free and fair elections months from now? He has promised political reform before, and broken that promise many times.

He breaks it again today, with police and regime supporters apparently inciting violence in the name of restoring “stability.” You can hear in the Cairo protests echoes of incredulity from other countries where authoritarians have tried to hang on in the face of popular uprisings: Are we to be taken for stooges?

Sadly, the Egyptian armed forces are also disrespecting the people, telling them in a statement today to “go home,” as if their job is now done, thank you very much. But their job is not done, especially if Mubarak is still in power and if an Army that stood with peaceful protests on Tuesday suddenly stands aside as undercover police and bused-in regime supporters beat unarmed citizens.

Authoritarian regimes across the region should note this dignity demand, this cry for real change. The former foreign minister of Jordan, Marwan Muasher, warned of pseudochange in an op-ed today in The Washington Post. Protests have spread to his country, where the king yesterday dismissed his cabinet. A “day of wrath” demonstration is planned for Syria on Friday.

Mr. Muasher pointed out that when he was Jordan’s deputy prime minister from 2004 to 2005, he led a national effort to produce a 10-year plan for political, economic, and social reform. It included concrete steps and deadlines, but it was stymied by the entrenched political elite.

“Today, lip service to reform will not be enough,” he wrote. He wisely called for changes in the Arab world to adopt electoral laws that allow for stronger parliaments, checks and balances on power that include an independent judiciary, and schooling that fosters tolerance and critical thinking.

If protesters are to be treated with dignity, they must also be included in the reform process. What’s happening in the Middle East today is an uprising led by youth who feel they have no prospects. This burgeoning population is no longer willing to be disregarded and ignored by ossified regimes that keep corruption money, economic opportunity, and political power for themselves.

Webster’s defines dignity as worthiness. Surely a government can’t move a country forward if leaders don’t value the people, don’t find them worthy. At the bottom, that’s what the uprisings in Egypt and Tunisia, and the decades of revolutions in Eastern Europe, Asia, and Latin America were all about.

Over centuries, people have thrown off serfdom, slavery, and authoritarian governments. They have come to see themselves as worthy individuals, deserving of political and human rights. In the name of those inherent rights, they expect to be treated with respect and dignity. As much as authoritarians in the Arab world may believe otherwise, that can only be fulfilled with real democracy.

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