What the people of Egypt have accomplished in recent weeks is nothing short of extraordinary. If you are born in America, you are born into freedom; most of us will never have to decide whether to go into the streets of our cities, risking imprisonment and worse, in order to demand our freedom. To watch the Egyptian people make this brave decision, and today to watch them triumph where so many other courageous people in similar situations have failed, has been exhilarating.
The job of American policymakers is now to help the people of Egypt ensure that this victory does not evaporate. At various points during the past few weeks, we have been disappointed with President Obama because he has not seemed to appreciate the urgent need—moral and strategic—for America to place itself firmly on the side of the protesters. Going forward, Egyptian liberalism will face many hurdles. It may face threats from the military or from Islamists. It must be the unequivocal position of the United States that we will support liberalism in Egypt forcefully and without qualifications. For the past several decades, Washington has shamefully supported a brutal dictator. Egyptians must know that this era is over—that we are on their side against all threats to their freedom.
Over the past two weeks, several TNR writers have pointed to useful ways the United States might aid Egyptian liberals. Jeffrey Herf has argued that one of the ways America helped to consolidate freedom in Western Europe after World War II was to focus on creating a liberal center in societies where anti-communism was still associated with fascism. Ultimately, Western Europe decided that the choice between communism and fascism was a false choice. This was a decision that Europeans made for themselves, but America played a crucial role in bolstering the European liberals who won over their societies. The sentiments one heard coming out of Tahrir Square in recent weeks made clear that there is, in fact, a constituency in Egypt for liberalism. Egyptian politics, it turns out, is not simply a horrifying choice between secular autocracy and Islamism. Many of these liberals have been looking to America—and specifically President Obama—for moral support. In the weeks and months to come, he should not disappoint them by being too quiet or too cautious.
Then there is the matter of U.S. aid. America has spent an enormous amount of money in Egypt in recent decades, and, as David Rieff argued recently, much of that money has been used to bolster a dictatorship rather than to encourage freedom. We have squandered our leverage badly. This needs to change. American money should henceforth go to support the building of liberal institutions in Egypt. And the military must know that our financial support is now contingent on their willingness to help birth a liberal democracy. They should understand that if they intend to continue running the country as a dictatorship—a step that would only empower Islamists in the long run—then American dollars are not going to help them do it.
For an American administration to say these things publicly and forcefully will not only be a good thing for Egypt. It will let liberals in other countries—from the Middle East to Asia to Latin America—know that the United States stands ready to help them. The events in Egypt give the lie to one of the most enduring myths in our politics: that human freedom is a Western construct and that liberal aspirations exist only in certain cultures and certain regions. This myth has proved enduring because it is useful to people on both the left and the right. And it is most useful of all to dictators themselves—the selfish men in Beijing and Tehran and Caracas and Minsk whose power rests on this myth.
And so the people of Tahrir Square have not just achieved something wonderful for themselves in the last 24 hours. They have also sent a much-needed reminder around the world that freedom is a universal aspiration. Those of us who will never have to face the horrifying choice of whether to go into the streets to attain our freedom can only stand in awe of what they have done. They have our congratulations—and our admiration.