Anybody who vaguely follows the news has likely heard about the successful revolution in Tunisia and the growing political turmoil in Egypt. It's incredible to see scenes like this on the news as I couldn't imagine something of the same nature happening in Western society. That leads me to consider "How should we, as a country, respond to this turmoil?"
The standard response from American and "Western" governments is to support and prop up the known, because the unknown is frightening. Questions arise. What if an Islamic government, akin to Iran, takes power in Egypt? What if the new government doesn't support us in the War on Terror? Will the new government be any less repressive than the current government? These are all valid questions which cross political ideology (see Pakistan). These questions have caused our government to support repressive, authoritarian governments over the will of the people in times of popular upheaval. Is this our best course of action? To figure this out, I'd like to use the thoughts of someone more knowledgeable than myself.
I've been reading a book by Natan Sharansky, "The Case for Democracy", over the past few weeks. Natan is an ex-Soviet dissident who was imprisoned, charged with high treason, and eventually allowed to emigrate from Russia as the Soviet Union crumbled. He has a first-hand account of authoritarian governments in action. As Natan points out numerous times throughout the book, "A country that does not respect the rights of its own people will not respect the rights of its neighbors." It's an interesting premise that we should consider.
Natan divides the world into two camps: "Fear" societies and "free" societies. It's a fairly black-and-white breakdown, and he admits that there are shades of grey in between, but black-and-white works best for illustrative purposes. His test for the difference between the two? "Can a person walk into the middle of the town square and express his or her views without fear of arrest, imprisonment, or physical harm? If so, then that person is living in a free society. If not, it's a fear society."
We're all familiar with free societies, as we live in one, so I'll focus on fear societies. Natan points out his belief of three camps of people in fear societies: True believers, doublethinkers, and dissidents. The exact numbers in these three camps continuously fluctuates, based on current events. Let's look at our own history: After the attacks on Pearl Harbor, hysteria took hold of the nation and popular support arose for the internment of Japanese, Italian, and German Americans. Would this have gained public support during a time of peace? Absolutely not! It can be shown through human history that outside threats cause the internal elements of a society to unite for the common defense. The same can be shown in a fear society.
He argues that fear societies need external enemies in order to keep the ratio of true believers, doublethinkers, and dissidents in its favor. Russia had the United States, Germany had the Jews, North Korea has South Korea and Japan, Iran (and Egypt along with others) have Israel as their common enemy. The authoritarian rulers build up this enemy, and at times, instigate that enemy, in order to build solidarity and support inside the country.
Do we ever see this from free societies? Rarely, if ever. In fact, it can be shown that the external responses of free societies are more focused towards appeasement than enemy-building. Europe appeased Germany in the 1930's, leading to World War II. NATO and its allies appeased Russia in many respects for 3-4 decades. We left Saddam Hussein in power in Iraq after the first Gulf War. The United States backed down from strong, appropriate responses to Islamic terrorism until 9/11 forced our hand. These are just the most widely known examples.
People, on the whole, value their safety and security over other factors. That is why there is a doublethinker category in fear societies, and it's why free societies choose appeasement, and all other options, before going to war. The governments of free societies must appeal to the will of the people - and the will of a people free to express themselves abhors conflict, unless entering the conflict is so dire that it will cause more long-term stability to defeat that enemy. (See examples shown above)
Considering Natan Sharansky's point of view, what should the American and Western response to Egypt be? Support the revolution. We support democratic revolutions in countries that work against us, but support authoritarian regimes in countries that help us. We should support democratic revolutions in all nations, because if a truly free society emerges from those countries, they will become a partner in peace through the will of the people.