These opportunities come once in a generation, social movements whose cause is so manifestly just, and whose potential is so transformative, that they rise above the clutter of ordinary politics. The civil rights movement led by Martin Luther King, Cesar Chavez and others inspired a generation as it overcame Klansmen, brutal sheriffs and growers' thugs. Two decades later, we watched in awe as the brave people of Eastern Europe brought down one repressive communist dictatorship after another. Over the past three weeks, millions of Egyptians matched the bravery of these visionaries.
These movements have a palpable continuity. The civil rights movement refuted Soviet propaganda that free societies are incapable of social justice. Likewise, the people of Tunisia, Egypt and other Middle Eastern countries find inspiration in the popular revolutions that brought down communism. But they are also heirs of King and Chavez: As ubiquitous as the slogans against the regime have been calls of "Peaceful!" and calls for giving voice to the poor and unemployed.
The contrast between Egyptians' jubilation over President Hosni Mubarak's departure and the trepidations expressed in the U.S. and elsewhere is disappointing. Some seem eager to see the military preserve the oppressive regime that former generals Mubarak and Vice President Omar Suleiman led. This would be tragic. Parallels from the civil rights movement and Eastern Europe's liberation suggest these fears are unfounded.
Opponents of each movement similarly dismissed them with prejudice posing as sophistication. Supposed sober heads painted African-Americans and farmworkers as cheerful simpletons content in their exploitation, rising up only because of nefarious "outside agitators." These same kinds of assumptions led some to see farmworkers as puppets of "activist priests" and others to question whether Eastern Europeans were capable of maintaining stable democracies.
Today, we hear eerily similar warnings about Arabs' supposed need for an iron fist to stave off chaos. And today's experts insist that the overwhelmingly secular democracy movement is a mere tool of Egypt's 20 percent Islamist minority. No one would stand to lose more in an Islamist tyranny than Egypt's Coptic Christians, yet they have joined in the uprising. Seeing Christians form a protective human chain around Muslims at Friday prayers in Tahrir Square had to inspire anyone who remembers the Freedom Riders and the Protestants and Jews who stood with largely Catholic farmworkers against growers' thugs.
Just as the Polish resistance sought safety in the shadow of Catholic churches, Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood has maintained networks through mosques while the regime's dreaded Mukhabarat arrested, tortured and killed secular activists operating elsewhere. Poland is probably as devoutly Catholic as Egypt is Muslim, yet after the dictatorship fell, the church became influential but by no means dominant in Polish politics. The best way to put Egypt on a course to Islamic domination would be to leave the regime in place long enough to round up and eliminate the secular opposition.
Some crassly opposed the farmworkers because higher wages might increase food prices. So, too, some would sacrifice Egyptians to a brutal dictatorship to protect Israel. This view is as foolish as it is craven. To distract Egyptians from corruption, economic mismanagement and repression, the regime has vilified Jews (and Americans). The Egyptian state sharply restricts freedom of the press but happily publishes "The Protocols of the Elders of Zion," the notorious fraud that has spawned generations of anti-Jewish violence. We cannot promote Israel's long-term security by supporting a regime that incites violence against foreign journalists by suggesting they are Jewish spies.
Growers hired thugs to assault peaceful farmworkers and then sought injunctions against picketing to "restore order." Similarly, the Egyptian regime that claims it is indispensable to maintaining order withdrew the police from neighborhoods and sent them to brutalize peaceful protesters, freed masses of common criminals while arresting journalists, and sponsored mobs throwing firebombs near the Egyptian Museum's priceless antiquities. It converted that museum into a Mukhabarat torture center.
The Egyptian regime showed itself to be composed of bullies, and bullies do not respond to gentle persuasion, especially when they believe the words mask weakness. Gov. Orval Faubus of Arkansas had more plausible moderate credentials than General Suleiman, but when he blocked integration of Little Rock's Central High School, Dwight Eisenhower sent in federal troops. Eastern European demonstrators wisely stayed in the streets until civilian transitional governments with clean hands dismantled the secret police. Asking Egyptian demonstrators to settle for less is to demand that they accept their own annihilation.
President George H.W. Bush urged Iraqi Shiites to rise up for freedom and then stood by as Saddam Hussein slaughtered them. President Bill Clinton ignored pleas from pro-Western Bosnian democrats until massive ethnic cleansing had discredited them. President George W. Bush launched a Middle Eastern "freedom agenda," then abandoned the activists who came forward in response. President Barack Obama's bold 2009 address at Cairo University inspired many of Tahrir Square's demonstrators.
Redeeming that speech's promise, and restoring our credibility with the most important freedom movement of our time, requires unusually public and direct action. The administration must speak with a new clarity in insisting on a broad-based transitional government and dismantlement of the emergency laws that gave the secret police free reign. Doing any less would squander our moral capital, vindicate our most cynical detractors and discredit our civil rights movement's worthy successors. It would waste a rare, remarkable opportunity to advance our interests and our values at once.
David A. Super is professor of law at the University of Maryland and a former United Farm Workers organizer. His e-mail is firstname.lastname@example.org.