Egypt, Liberty, and the Filling Pump

The gas station I patronize is operated by an Iranian expatriate named Behrouz. He is charming, personable and friendly, a secular Muslim who, as he informs me, has little knowledge of the Koran and regularly attends Sunday service at his neighborhood church, a gesture in interfaith dialogue. An engineer by profession, Behrouz made his living as a real estate agent before the housing market collapsed, and has since taken over the franchise of the self-service outlet where his good nature, no less than his competitive prices, attracts a loyal clientele. Having graduated from a top French university and being fluent in four language — Farsi, Arabic, English and French — his expertise would have qualified him for something far more lucrative and prestigious than real estate or running a filling station, but immigration has its costs. Nevertheless, he considers himself fortunate to be living in a country like Canada where he need not fear the midnight knock at the door.

Whenever I stop by, we invariably engage in wide-ranging conversations about the Middle East, the scourge of jihad, the Iranian mullocracy and, of course Israel. Behrouz professes to be a “great fan” of the Jewish state, which he visited as a boy when relations between the two countries were amiable and reciprocal. Compared to the Islamic nations, he says, Israel is indeed “a light unto the world.” He recalls with undisguised horror the atrocities of the mullahs, curses the murderous practices of the Ayatollah Khomeini and his successors, and reserves a special place in hell for Jimmy Carter, who betrayed the shah and facilitated Khomeini’s coup d’état.

He is no more kindly disposed to Barack Obama, whom he accuses of having abandoned the Iranian people and for having by his silence during the popular uprising last year tacitly supported the regime of Ayatollah Sayyed Ali Khamenei and President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. “Obama,” he says, “is the son of Jimmy Carter and he will make the same mess in the Middle East as his political father.”

Our recent countertop discussions have naturally turned to the events in Egypt. Behrouz is a profound believer in the rule of law and individual freedom and a passionate enemy of theological despots and military oligarchs wherever these “sewer rats” can be found. Thus he was delighted by the flight of Tunisian president Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali into much-deserved exile and further encouraged by the mayhem in the streets of Cairo, Alexandria, and Suez. “Liberty is coming to the Arab world,” he assured me. “George Bush was right to bring democracy to the Middle East. Soon the Arab countries will be like Israel. Tunisia and Egypt are the future.”

Here I could not but disagree with his quaint, if touching, predictions. I argued that as much as he hated Mubarak and sided with the demonstrators, the results of popular uprisings in the Middle East were not particularly consoling. After all, what was the ultimate outcome of the Cedar Revolution in Lebanon or the Green Revolution in Iran? As for the Jasmine Revolution in Tunisia, it was instructive to note that the leader of the outlawed Islamist Ennahda Party, Rachid Ghanmouchi, and his entourage had now returned to cheering multitudes in the streets of Tunis. Moreover, newly democratic Iraq with its Sunni/Shi’ite divide seemed to be sliding into a condition of violent anarchy, despite George Bush’s high-minded intentions.

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.