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Tashkent On The Nile

A view of Amir Temur square, Tashkent
A view of Amir Temur square, Tashkent
As I sit glued to my television watching the unprecedented developments in Egypt, I can’t help but think about my far-off home of Uzbekistan.

Although Uzbekistan is far from the banks of the Nile, I couldn’t help but notice the similarities between the two countries when I first traveled to Egypt a couple of years ago. The colorful bazaars of Cairo reminded me of Tashkent -- crowded, noisy, the air full of tough bargaining. Lunch in a small seafood restaurant in Alexandria reminded me of eateries in ancient Samarkand, where the excellent food prompts one to turn a blind eye to the questionable sanitary conditions.

I discovered that like my fellow Uzbeks, Egyptians are friendly and hospitable. Despite the tremendous hardships of their lives, they are patient and optimistic. Both nations have long and rich histories, yet the majority of their current populations is under the age of 25.

But strolling the streets of Cairo and Alexandria reminded me of Uzbekistan in other ways. As in major Uzbek cities, the heavy presence of police was inescapable. But the order and stability they provided was palpably superficial. Large portraits of President Hosni Mubarak were found everywhere -- on the streets, in shops, offices, and public squares -- just as the image of the “father of the Uzbek nation,” President Islam Karimov, greets you at every turn in Uzbekistan.

Both Mubarak and Karimov have been ruling their countries for decades with an iron fist, justifying harsh domestic policies by citing the threat of terrorism and religious extremism. Like Mubarak, Karimov crushes any form of dissent and has jailed dozens, even hundreds of political opponents, including both secular and religious oppositionists. Many more have fled the country in terror.

Egypt is the largest nation in the Arab world and plays a key role in regional affairs. Similarly, Uzbekistan holds an important position in Central and Southwest Asia, in part because of its considerable energy resources. Both Egypt and Uzbekistan have special strategic relations with the United States. Uzbekistan’s proximity to Afghanistan makes it an important partner, and the Northern Distribution Network that brings supplies to coalition forces in Afghanistan runs through the country.

Rights And Realism

And in both cases, this strategic relationship has lead Washington to downplay the complaints of civil society activists about human rights abuses and the lack of political and economic freedom. My conversations with young, educated Egyptians showed that they face issues similar to those facing their peers in Uzbekistan: high unemployment, corruption at every level of society, and a lack of avenues for political and economic participation.

In Egypt, anger and hunger have been seen as the key factors behind the current uprising. The billions of dollars that the United States invested in that country’s stability seem to have bought very little.

Moreover, the dramatic events of recent days have shown that decades of oppression have resulted in a distinct lack of viable opposition groups and leaders who could ensure a smooth political transition. After 30 years of dictatorship, it now remains a question whether Egyptian society is ready for a pluralist system.

Sadly, this situation also has its parallels in Uzbekistan. My homeland went directly from feudalism to Soviet domination to authoritarian independence just two decades ago. By some standards, it is now an “illiberal democracy,” with sham elections, a puppet government, and a rubber-stamp legislature.

In 2001, Washington and Tashkent signed an agreement on strategic partnership that envisioned political and economic reforms in Uzbekistan. That agreement brought some minor improvements: local NGOs working on cultural, social, and educational issues were allowed to operate, for example. The government even pledged to reform its police and prison systems, and the United States played an important role in supporting these beginnings.

However, this small progress was undone by Karimov’s brutal crackdown on demonstrators in Andijon in May 2005. In response to U.S. criticism of the violence, Karimov demanded that the United States abandon its military base at Hanabad.

But relations have improved slowly in recent years, and the United States again has an opportunity to help Uzbekistan develop a civil society. As Karimov gets older, the time when Uzbekistan faces a change is drawing near. The important question is will the country be ready when this time comes and can this change take place peacefully.

“Hunger hurts more than bullets,” read one protester’s sign in Cairo’s Tahrir Square. Helping Uzbek citizens achieve economic empowerment is an important element of facilitating peaceful change. I remember that in the early 1990s, the United States launched several programs to assist Uzbek farmers and small-business owners. Such programs can inspire and invigorate the Uzbek people and boost the country’s stagnating economy.

In short, U.S. relations with Uzbekistan cannot be exclusively or even primarily based on military and security issues. Supporting gradual political and economic reform and development would directly benefit the population and gain for the West a crucial ally -- the Uzbek people. Unlike Egypt, anti-American sentiment is weak in Uzbekistan. But the focus on security issues threatens to change this status quo. Uzbeks still remember that security forces used U.S.-supplied military equipment to carry out the Andijon violence.

Naseeba Mansour is a U.S.-based journalist and analyst. The views expressed in this commentary are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect those of RFE/RL.