Sunday, January 30, 2011

How Cuba is (and is not) like Egypt (II)

Thousands of anti-government protesters confronted 
police officers in Cairo on Friday. Stones were met by rubber bullets, 
tear gas and water cannons (Photo Victoria Hazou).

Today's New York Times has a number of provocative articles in its "Week in Review" section that shed further light on the Cuba/Egypt comparison I made in my last post.

Helene Cooper makes the point that regardless of what different U.S. administrations SAY (pronouncements), it is what they actually DO (policy) that matters - and that has not changed much in Egypt (or Cuba) in decades.

In 2009, Mr. Obama spoke in Cairo. 
But words count less than deeds (Photo: Moises Saman).

As a fierce Obama supporter, this set of very different quotes from Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice (2005) and Obama (2009), made me cringe.

“For 60 years, my country, the United States, pursued stability at the expense of democracy in this region here in the Middle East, and we achieved neither,” said Ms. Rice, infuriating the Mubarak government and heartening opposition leaders like Ayman Nour, an oft-jailed Parliament member, with whom she even held a meeting as part of her trip.

In June 2009, President Obama stood before an audience of 3,000 at Cairo University, and took a far gentler tone. “I do have an unyielding belief that all people yearn for certain things: the ability to speak your mind and have a say in how you are governed, confidence in the rule of law and the equal administration of justice, government that is transparent and doesn’t steal from the people, the freedom to live as you choose,” Mr. Obama said. But he then added, “There is no straight line to realize that promise.”

Still, it can't be easy to to decide the right approach to foreign policy in charge of a country like ours that has to balance demands that it respect other nations' sovereignty (Yankee, go home!) except, that is, when it is called upon to throw its moral or military weight behind oppressed minorities (or majorities) in authoritarian regimes (Yankee, come back please!).

I got friends on the left who love to criticize the U.S. for its close ties and monetary/military support for the Egyptian and Saudi governments, demanding that we cut those ties and support dissidents instead.  However, these same people cry foul imperialism when the U.S. criticizes the Cuban government and voices its solidarity and support for the right of the Cuban people to choose a government that truly represents them.

No es facil, chico!

Another big difference between Cuba and Egypt is that our relationship with Egypt is "the cornerstone of American policy in the Middle East," whereas our policy toward Cuba seems a muddled throwback to the Cold War and largely unrelated to and even at odds with our policy toward the rest of Latin America.

Here is Helene Cooper again (with my emphasis added):

"The strategic importance of Egypt, the experts said, lies in its role as the cornerstone of American policy in the Middle East. The United States could not have sustained the wars it fought in Iraq without logistical support from Egypt’s government. Oil for Europe comes through the Suez Canal. Egypt is the largest and most militarily powerful Arab country. And most important to the United States, it is the crux of any American effort to resolve the Arab-Israeli conflict. Mr. Sadat’s peace deal in 1979 with Mr. Begin made it next to impossible for other Arab states to contemplate going to war with Israel, and therefore opened a very slow — excruciatingly slow — process for the Arab world to come to terms with Israel."

An Egyptian man recorded the turmoil on his cellphone video camera 
(Photo Scott Nelson).

Cooper's article is paired with one by Scott Shane about the slippery nature of technology (NICT - New Information and Communication Technology) in igniting or forstalling political change in authoritarian regimes.  Here are a few juicy excerpts from the article:

"[I]n Minsk and Moscow, Tehran and Beijing, governments have begun to climb the steep learning curve and turn the new Internet tools to their own, antidemocratic purposes.

"The countertrend has sparked a debate over whether the conventional wisdom that the Internet and social networking inherently tip the balance of power in favor of democracy is mistaken. A new book, “The Net Delusion: The Dark Side of Internet Freedom,” by a young Belarus-born American scholar, Evgeny Morozov, has made the case most provocatively, describing instance after instance of strongmen finding ways to use new media to their advantage.  [...]

[For an opposing view see the writings of Clay Shirky, especially, "Here Comes Everybody: The Power of Organizing Without Organizations"].

"A dissident’s social networking and Twitter feed is a handy guide to his political views, his career, his personal habits and his network of like-thinking allies, friends and family. A cybersurfing policeman can compile a dossier on a regime opponent without the trouble of the street surveillance and telephone tapping required in a pre-Net world. [...]

"Facebook is doing more good than harm, helping activists form virtual organizations that could never survive if they met face to face. But users must be aware that they are speaking to their oppressors as well as their friends. [...]

“There’s nothing deterministic about these tools — Gutenberg’s press, or fax machines or Facebook.  They can be used to promote human rights or to undermine human rights. [...]

"In Egypt, it appears, at least some activists share Mr. Morozov’s wariness about the double-edged nature of new media. An anonymous 26-page leaflet that appeared in Cairo with practical advice for demonstrators last week instructed activists to pass it on by e-mail and photocopy — but not by Facebook and Twitter, because they were being monitored by the government."

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