A Tiananmen moment may be swiftly approaching in Cairo – except this time the tanks that could crush the movement for Egyptian democracy in a bloodbath were bought and paid for by U.S. dollars. And this time, our government has the power to prevent brutal repression and bloodshed and stand with the Egyptian people’s just and long overdue demands.
The Egyptian people are fighting, not only to end the 30-year reign of dictator Mubarak, but for democracy. So far, our government has continued its de facto support for the Mubarak regime by paying lip service to the need for "reform" at the same time that it lauds Mubarak as an ally and source of "stability" in the Middle East. President Obama and his spokespeople have carefully avoided the fundamental issue. The Egyptian people are not asking their government to reform itself. They are demanding an end to the entire autocratic and kleptocratic regime they have endured for even longer than Mubarak’s rule. They want democracy.
What may stand in the way? At this point, only one institution of Egyptian society: the U.S.-funded military machine. In the coming hours or days, the Army can either crush the people of Egypt under the treads of its tanks, ending aspirations for democracy for now, or the Army can make clear that it will not serve as an instrument of dictatorship. Mubarak will then flee, and the Egypt people can begin the messy but necessary process of building democracy in their country.
Because our government funds the Egyptian military machine, President Obama could send a clear and persuasive signal to the Egypt Army: the United States will not be prepared to continue funding the Egyptian military to the tune of $1.3 billion a year if the Army turns on its own people and begins shooting them down in the streets.
So far, President Obama has spoken out for free expression in Egypt and has called for restraint by both sides – as though an unarmed populace, demanding democracy, were the physical or moral equivalent of a brutal state security apparatus. But our president has remained silent about the demonstrators’ goal: a democratic Egypt. In his June 2009 Cairo speech, when nothing was immediately at stake, President Obama uttered eloquent words of support for democracy. If he spoke out forcefully in support of the Egyptian people, as he did for the Tunisian people in his State of the Union address, he could tip events in a direction that would earn America the gratitude of the Egyptian people.
This would go far to undoing the damage to America’s standing in the Arab and Muslim world created by the catastrophically wrong-headed foreign policies of the George W. Bush era. It would also do more to undermine al-Qaeda’s international campaign of hatred and terrorism than has been achieved by two wars and over a trillion dollars in military spending.
The whole world is watching. If the tanks of Tiananmen Square roll into Cairo’s Tahrir Square, the people of the Middle East will know who to blame. Tell them "No," Mr. President.
Joel Beinin is Donald J. McLachlan Professor of History and Professor of Middle East History at Stanford University. Mitchell Zimmerman is a California attorney.