Prop Up Egypt By Supporting Civil Society, Not Dictators

NJ.com — Thursday, February 3, 2011

By John D. Atlas / NJ Voices

John F. Kennedy famously said: "Those who make peaceful revolution impossible will make violent revolution inevitable."

As the people of Egypt and other Arab nations try to step out from under the boot of tyranny, I hope it's not too late for Obama to seek out and support the civic activists throughout the Middle East who want justice, and to live in a free society.

While many in the Islamic world, including those in the streets, are dangerous anti-American and anti-Israel religious fanatics, many others are concerned about getting things like good jobs and their children an education.

They are professors, members of soccer clubs, work in human rights groups, and in places like the Al-Nakheel Association for Women and Children. They are journalists, lawyers, religious moderates, secular leftists, union organizers, bloggers, filmmakers and artists, some of whom, from their space in the civil society, have fought the despots, without much help from the United States, and usually paid dearly.

New York Times reporter Neil MacFarquar's book (2008), "The media relations department of Hizbollah wishes you a happy birthday"(it refers to an e-mail that the Hizbollah PR folks sent to reporters on their birthday) is about his unexpected encounters with civic activists, reformers and political dissidents seeking change in the Middle East who often paid the price with jail and torture.

His stories show us that justice and respect are major tenets of Islam, but like in all societies these values must be nurtured. egypt protests 2 jpeg.jpeg A peaceful transition from tyranny to democracy is unlikely because of Washington's idiotic long time policy of embracing of Arab dictators at the expense of helping shore up the civil society. This policy, pursued by both Republicans, but Democrats, reaches back to 1953 when the CIA-engineered a coup against a democratic reform government in Iran led by Mohammad Mosaddegh.

Had US leaders pushed back against the Big Oil and aided moderate Muslims, secularists and democrats like Mosaddegh, and nurtured a stronger civil society, a peaceful change in the Egypt would be possible. Civic leaders would be in a position to win the people's hearts and minds against extreme Islamists and move toward a transitional government.

Another great Kennedy, Robert F. said: 'We must [recognize the human equality of people] not because it is economically advantageous — although it is; not because the laws of God command it — although they do; not because people in other lands wish it so. We must do it for the single and fundamental reason that it is the right thing to do.'

Had America pursued the right thing we would have been seen as a strong supporter of the people of Egypt, instead of being its hated enemy.

We call for free elections and democratic reforms, but fail to help build the necessary core institutions needed to support a free society, such as a free press and strong non-governmental civic and moderate religious groups. Hopefully I am wrong and its not too late.

Our Middle East policy failures and it reminds me how important the civic groups right here in New Jersey are. They are the bulwark against those in the federal and New Jersey's government who kowtow to and speak on behalf our Big Corporations, which are growing bigger and bigger, and controlling more and more of what we do and whose policies have led to economic stagnation.

What can we learn from what is happening in Tunisia and Egypt? For starters, even the most powerful respond to large crowds, persistent crowds. With the economic crisis facing New Jersey and the rest of the nation, we should be thankful and support the many engaged civic groups, which give hope for our future. I was reminded of the importance of New Jersey's civic groups.

With smart analysis from research groups like New Jersey Policy Perspectives and action from statewide groups like the New Jersey Citizen Action, the New Jersey Trial Lawyers Association, The Housing and Community Development Network, NAACP, CWA, SEIU, Habitat for Humanity and Sierra Club and local ones like People's Organization for Progress, BlueWave, Fair Share Housing Center, HANDS, and Camden Churches Organized for People, civil society is alive and progressive.

The members of these groups, not a reactionary Tea Party or a gutless Democratic Party, will provide the bulwark against Christie and the rest of the comfortable Big Shots who pal around with the corporate power brokers and assault the work-a-day people of New Jersey. As poverty persists in America and the gap between the rich and the poor grows, just like in the Mid-East, our civic groups may find themselves in the streets, marching in NJ's "Tahrir Square," hopefully with more peaceful results.

Watch John Atlas' interview with Steve Adubato on "One on One with Steve Adubato at Lincoln Center." It airs Thursday, Febuary 3 at 11:30 p.m. on WLIW21. It will be the last time you can catch this interview, which was previously broadcast on Sunday Jan.29 on Channel 13 and Monday Jan.30.

Atlas is the author of a new book SEEDS OF CHANGE.The Story of Acorn, America's Most Controversial Anti-Poverty Community Group.

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