If Western leaders, who have backed the dictator Mubarak for 30 years, cannot stand before the Egyptian people today and say unequivocally, "we support your right of national self-determination," when can they do it?
That's the question that Egyptian democracy leader and Nobel laureate Mohamed ElBaradei has put before Western leaders today.
Speaking to the Guardian in Cairo, before the planned protests today, ElBaradei stepped up his calls for Western leaders to explicitly condemn Mubarak, who, as the Guardian noted, has been a close ally of the US:
"The international community must understand we are being denied every human right day by day," he said. "Egypt today is one big prison. If the international community does not speak out it will have a lot of implications. We are fighting for universal values here. If the west is not going to speak out now, then when?"
Giving forceful illustration to ElBaradei's words that "Egypt today is one big prison," Egyptian police later doused ElBaradei with a water cannon and beat supporters who tried to shield him, AP reported, then trapped ElBaradei in a mosque by surrounding it with tear gas:
Police fired water cannons at one of the country's leading pro-democracy advocates, Mohamed ElBaradei, and his supporters as they joined the latest wave of protests after noon prayers. They used batons to beat some of ElBaradei's supporters, who surrounded him to protect him.
A soaking wet ElBaradei was trapped inside a mosque while hundreds of riot police laid siege to it, firing tear gas in the streets around so no one could leave.
As I can attest from personal experience, having been under "hotel arrest" in Egypt during the Gaza Freedom March a year ago, this is a standard tactic of Egyptian police -- prevent you from participating in a demonstration by detaining you where you are.
What does it say that ElBaradei, a Nobel Prize winner, the former head of the International Atomic Energy Agency, a former assistant to the Egyptian Foreign Minister, not to mention a 68-year-old man -- is not allowed to peacefully raise his voice in protest against the Egyptian government?
Some folks in Washington still seem to be laboring under the illusion that the U.S. can wash its hands of this matter, like Pontius Pilate.
If the Egyptian government were not one of the largest recipients of U.S. "foreign aid," largely military "aid," it might be a different story. If the protesters in Egypt weren't painfully aware that the U.S. has long backed Mubarak to the hilt, it might be a different story.
But that's not the world in which we live. The world in which we live is the one in which people in Egypt know that the U.S. has backed Mubarak to the hilt. FDR famously said of the Nicaraguan dictator Somoza, "He may be a son of a bitch, but he's our son of a bitch." But FDR didn't say that in 2011. The world has changed. Expectations have been raised. U.S. leaders today have to meet a higher standard today. "Our son of a bitch" isn't going to wash on the streets of Cairo.
ElBaradei told CNN on Tuesday:
I was stunned to hear Secretary Clinton saying that the Egyptian government is "stable," and I asked myself at what price stability. Is it on the basis of 29 years of martial law? ... Is it on the basis of rigged elections? That's not stability. That's living on borrowed time. Stability is when you have a government that is elected on a free and fair basis. And we have seen how elections have been rigged in Egypt, we have seen how people have been tortured. And when you see today over 100,000 young people, getting desperate, going to the street, asking for their basic freedoms, I expected to hear from Secretary Clinton... democracy, human rights, freedom."
In cities across Egypt today, thousands of people, young and old, secularists and Islamists, Muslims and Christians, workers, lawyers, students and professors, have placed their bodies on the line. Their willingness to sacrifice forces us to consider ElBaradei's question: if not now, when? As Rabbi Hillel said,
If I am not for myself, who will be for me?
If I am only for myself, what am I?
If not now, when?