What's the Matter with Egypt?
In the Stars or in Them?
So what's the matter with Egypt? The same thing that is the matter with most of the modern Middle East: in the post-industrial world, its hundreds of millions now are vicariously exposed to the affluence and freedom of the West via satellite television, cell phones, the Internet, DVDs, and social networks.
And they become angry that, in contrast to what they see and hear from abroad, their own lives are unusually miserable in the most elemental sense. Of course, there is no introspective Socrates on hand and walking about to remind the Cairo or Amman Street that their corrupt government is in some part a reification of themselves, who in their daily lives see the world in terms of gender apartheid, tribalism, religious intolerance, conspiracies, fundamentalism, and statism that are incompatible with a modern, successful, capitalist democracy.
That is, a century after the onset of modern waste treatment science, many of the cities in the Middle East smell of raw sewage. A century after we learned about microbes and disease, the water in places like Cairo is undrinkable from the tap. Six decades after the knowledge of treating infectious disease, millions in the Middle East suffer chronic pain and suffer from maladies that are easily addressed in the West. And they have about as much freedom as the Chinese, but without either the affluence or the confidence. That the Gulf and parts of North Africa are awash in oil and gas, at a time of both near record prices and indigenous control of national oil treasures, makes the ensuing poverty all the more insulting.
The Old Two-Step
All this has been true for forty years, but, again, instant global communications have brought the reality home to the miserable of the Middle East in a way state-run newspapers and state-censored television never could even had they wished.
In reaction, amid this volatile new communications revolution, the Saddams, the Mubaraks, the Saudi royals, the North African strongmen, and all the other “kings” and “fathers” and “leaders” found an effective enough antidote: The Jews were behind all sorts of plots to emasculate Arab Muslims. And the United States and, to a lesser extent, Great Britain were stealing precious resources that robbed proud Middle Easterners of their heritage and future. Better yet, there was always a Noam Chomsky, Michael Moore, Oliver Stone, or, for the more high-brow, a Jimmy Carter to offer a useful exegesis of American conspiracy, oil-mongery, or Zionist infiltration into the West Wing that “proved” Middle East misery was most certainly not self-induced.
We know the old Middle East two-step that then followed the party line. A Gaddafi or Saddam or a Saudi prince on the sly turned a blind eye to jihadists, or funded them, or in some ways subsidized them — on the condition that they embodied popular outrage but diverted it from Middle Eastern authoritarians to Americans and Israelis. The more “friendly” and “pro-Western” (and the Saudis and the Pakistanis were the past masters at this) would then come to us, deplore terrorism, promise to crack down on it, but also insist that their own thugocracies and kleptocracies were the only fingers in the dike that held back the flood of the Muslim Brotherhood, Hamas, Iranian-like theocracy, etc.. Ergo, we were to give money or support or both to those that two-timed us, on the premise that the alternative was surely worse.
And the Response is?
I think the American response was usually over the decades twofold: One, we were to sigh, “Well, Mubarak’s an SOB but he at least is ours and not sending out terrorists to blow up Americans in Lebanon or Saudi Arabia, and he keeps the peace with Israel.” Two, we were to talk grandly of a meaningless West Bank “peace process.” Since our friendly dictators were terrified of their own, they simultaneously winked at terrorists who went after us rather than them, and blamed Israel for the “tension” in the Middle East (yes, the Jews should be behind the corrupt officials who tried to shake down a poor Tunisian one too many times, driving him to self-conflagration — and the ensuing wildfire into the Middle East). The more we promised to pressure Israel, the more we could ignore the misery of Cairo, and the more a thieving Mubarak could perpetuate it.
Pre-Bush Republican realists usually allowed all this in service to “national security,” as in no repeat of the fall of the shah, or the 1970s oil embargoes, or the near disastrous Yom Kippur War and tardy American logistical effort. Democrats did the above as often, but more cleverly added a multicultural, relativist twist of "who are we to judge other systems and cultures when our own is at fault as well (fill in the race, class, gender blanks)?" No one seemed to wish an Eisenhower 1956 Suez solution of rebuking our allies, standing up for principle — and thereby aiding the likes of Nasser and the USSR, while alienating and humiliating our European friends (unforgotten to this day) and Israel.
The New Realities
So what is the matter with Egypt? Why cannot the above mess just keep on keeping on? A number of newer twists.
1) We are not so sure that Mubarak’s “it is us or the jihadists” is quite operative any more, given the defeat of jihadists in Iraq and the downward spiral in approval of bin Laden. In any case, there seems no Khomeini-like figure on the horizon in the radical Islamist Arab world. And to be one, there would have to be, as in Khomeini’s case in France, lots of Western appeasement and subsidies. After 9/11, not even a France wishes to embrace an Islamist and create another Khomeini. The result is that when Mubarak and Co. threaten us with the Muslim Brotherhood, we are not quite convinced, as in the past, that it will hijack the street as Khomeini once did. Thus in the last week we have gone from Biden’s Mubarak “not a dictator” to an “evolving,” finger-in-the-wind stance — in hopes that the Shah-Banisadr-Khomeini formula is not inevitable (yet in this regard, remember that 160,000 U.S. troops played quite a role in stopping the Iraq possible cycle of Saddam-Allawi-Zarqawi).
2) Iraq changed things, and in subtle and as of yet not easily fathomable fashion. When Reagan shouted at the Berlin Wall, the Soviet Union most surely did not come down for four years. But when it did, in hindsight we can see that such symbolic confrontations, along with the military challenges, insidiously exposed and weakened the corrupt system. When Saddam was routed (had a Middle Eastern thug ever been put on trial?), and the insurrection mostly crushed, and a consensual government in power in Baghdad survived for seven years amid the most unlikely chances for survival, then the Middle East (as the Saudis rightly knew and double-dealed as a result) was not quite the same.
Iran is desperate to strangle a free Iraq, since its nearby free media has a tendency to encourage things like the 2009 uprising across the border. Yet to suggest that Bush unleashed in 2003 a revolutionary chain of events is heretical. In our twisted political calculus, Bush is demonic for speaking out for human rights and removing Saddam, Obama is progressive for ignoring human rights protestors in the streets of Khomeinist Iran.
3) I don’t particularly like Mubarak and will be glad to see him leave, but please spare us the condemnation that we “made” him. We did not. He is a reflection of the pathologies that were outlined above, and would have to be invented had he not existed. He could not have come to power without an underlining culture of tribalism, gender apartheid, religious intolerance, and statism. And he has less blood on his hands than did the once beloved "authentic" Nasser (whose use of poison gas in Yemen provided the revolutionary model for Saddam in Kurdistan and at the time bothered no one in Nasserite Egypt).
4) What’s next? “Finger-in-the-wind” diplomacy may work for a while, but it requires deftness that follows conditions on the street in a nanosecond to avoid appearing purely cynical (a skill beyond Hillary, Biden, and Obama). I think in this bad/worse choice scenario we might as well support supposedly democratic reformers, with the expectation that they could either fail in removing Mubarak or be nudged out by those far worse than Mubarak. Contrary to popular opinion, I think Bush was right to support elections in Gaza "one time" (only of course). The Gazans got what they wanted, we are done with them, and they have to live with the results, happy in their thuggish misery, with a prosperous Israel and better-off West Bank to remind them of their stupidity. All bad, but an honest bad and preferable to the lie that there were thousands of Jeffersonians in Gaza thwarted by the U.S.
So step back and watch it play out with encouragement for those who oppose both Mubarak and the Muslim Brotherhood— hoping for the best, expecting the worst.