Egypt, Liberty, and the Filling Pump

With respect to Egypt, one had to tread carefully. For as many commentators have pointed out, should the Egyptian army weaken in its support of Mubarak, declare itself neutral or even turn against him, the most likely beneficiary of the turmoil would not be the protesters fighting for civil rights and jobs but the Ikhwan, or Muslim Brotherhood. It would be no great stretch to envision the former head of the International Atomic Energy Agency, Mohammad ElBaradei, who suppressed vital intelligence regarding Iran’s nuclear program, as Egypt’s future president, and the Muslim Brotherhood as the major political party determining the country’s political agenda. Egypt would have gone from the frying pan into the fire, the peace treaty with Israel would be abrogated — we recall that the Muslim Brotherhood was instrumental in the assassination of Anwar Sadat for signing the peace — and the Middle East would be primed to explode in the shorter rather than the longer run.

Behrouz, on the other hand, is confident that the spirit of liberty will conquer everything in its path and that the destiny of the Middle East is eventually to become Israel. This seemed, to say the least, a rather implausible prospect to me, especially as the cry to annihilate Israel was now ringing through the souks and squares of Cairo. I reminded him that in the early days of the Iranian revolution, many people both within and outside the country were convinced that freedom would triumph, but that it took less than a year for a radical and oppressive theocracy to shut the country down and liquidate its opponents as well as its outriders. One of my own students, a member of the Iranian left and a fervent advocate of the revolution, spent six months in the notorious Evin prison before managing through influential friends to arrange for her release and her escape to Canada. Were Mubarak to fall, would it be any better in Egypt?

Just as looters destroyed several Pharaonic mummies in the Egyptian Museum, so could the political looters known as the Muslim Brotherhood mutilate Egyptian culture and replace it with an Islamic state intent on robbing the people of even the remnants of freedom. One can see how thugs have mixed with the crowd of legitimate protesters, a harbinger of a looming Ikhwan takeover profiting from the popular revolt to impose its own brand of autocratic rule.

Euphoria is a poor indicator of the future and a misleading emotional bellwether. The noble quest for freedom and justice and the headlong rush to install democratic roots in parched and unprepared soil will inevitably lead to its polar opposite, to “one man, one vote, one time,” as in Gaza, or, as in Iran, to a brutal and archaic tyranny hijacking a popular movement for constructive change. Justice, its naïve proponents discover to their harm, becomes just ice.

But there’s no help for it. My friend Behrouz maintains his belief in the guaranteed victory of the human desire for social, political and economic emancipation. Like so many in the West, Behrouz is an incurable romantic, a man of luminous pieties and quixotic reveries, whose grasp of realpolitik is, ironically enough, as infirm as Carter’s or as tremulous as Obama’s. His prices will rise if the Suez Canal comes under the control of the Brotherhood and oil is once again used as a weapon against the West. He may find that his clientele shrinks alarmingly as people cut back on driving. He may even go out of business.