As the streets of Cairo erupt in violence, most of it perpetrated by government-backed thugs, world leaders have begun to take the position they should have taken decades ago. Even US President Barrack Obama is now saying what the protestors have been chanting all week: Mubarak must go.
Not so, the government of Canada.
As of Thursday morning Foreign Affairs Minister Lawrence Cannon still maintains the dictator must remain in power to oversee “an orderly transition to democracy.”
Historically, orderly transition has not been the preferred method for dumping despots and birthing democracies. The English found it necessary to behead a king, the French beheaded a king, a queen, aristocrats, and each other in such numbers they had to invent a machine to automate the process. The US fought a bloody war with England. India overthrew the orderly, but brutal, British raj.
What these countries had in common, and what they have in common with Egypt, was the need to discard repressive regimes before they could begin to build democracies. They used disorderly means to achieve the transition because despots and kleptocrats seldom leave willingly.
Of course, the call for an orderly transition to democracy is really a call to protect Western interests. Mubarak’s regime has suppressed press freedom and freedom of expression, trampled on human rights, tortured and murdered dissidents and kept the vast majority of the population in poverty while a few got rich.
On the other hand, it has been a friend to Israel and the West, and has remained open for business.
There is much talk about managing the crisis in Egypt and other Middle Eastern countries, as though the imminent collapse of a dictatorship was anything but a triumph. For the impoverished and oppressed citizens of countries ruled for decades by the iron fist, life has been a crisis. For hundreds who have already died in the streets trying to end that crisis, it’s too late to talk about a peaceful solution.
If the government of Canada wants to see an orderly transition to democracy in Egypt, it should join in the demand for the immediate removal of the dictator who is currently fomenting disorder in the streets. The people are not willing to settle for less, and why should they? Aside from the title, it’s hard to see what separates President Mubarak from King Charles or King Louis. So far, the protesters have shown admirable restraint in calling only for the oppressor to depart. They could, with some justification and ample precedent,
be calling for his head.
While the transition to democracy is seldom orderly, the orderly march away from democracy is all too common. Give the middle class sufficient freedom, comfort, and prosperity and they become complacent. They turn a blind eye while their freedoms are neatly pared away, their prosperity reduced generation by generation.
In Canada we still enjoy much greater freedoms than the unfortunate citizens of certain regimes we support abroad, but we watch those freedoms erode with barely a murmur. Year by year, our governments pursue policies that shift the common wealth into fewer and fewer hands. We spend ever-increasing billions to lock up the poor rather than tackle the roots of their poverty. Our police riot against peaceful demonstrators and, unless a citizen catches them on video and has the courage to push back against the wall of blue, we turn a blind eye.
The hundreds of thousands of Egyptians who crowd the streets of Cairo round the clock to demand change won’t heed the advice of sleek Canadians who sleep at night. Of course they would like to see orderly change, of course they would rather not die for the democracy and prosperity we take so much for granted, but they know where change begins. You can hear them chant it day and night. Let’s wake up and join the chant.
Al Pope won the Ma Murray Award for Best Columnist in BC/Yukon in 2010 and 2002. His novel, Bad Latitudes, is available in bookstores.