A Sideways Glare at Contemporary Society
American diplomatic ignorance never ceases to amaze me. I swear, they’ve been taking stupid pills in Washington ever since Teddy Roosevelt was tiptoeing through the White House, twirling a Louisville Slugger. This current crop of dunderheads has decided that the world is one big pizza delivery: if they don’t get results in 30 minutes or less, they want their money back. Egypt has been around for 5,000 years, Barack, for God’s sake! Have a little patience. And while you’re at it, you might want to quit watching CNN and find somebody who knows what they’re doing — like — say — maybe – an Egyptian!
The situation in Egypt is so fluid right now nobody knows what’s going on, least of all the U.S. State Department. But let me tell you what it’s not.
First of all, it’s not a domino. The regime in Egypt is not going to collapse just because the people of Tunisia chased President Ben Ali out of office. Egypt and Tunisia are two different countries. I’m not going to bore you with the figures, but here are a few facts. Compared to Tunisia, Egypt is huge. To put it into perspective, there are just about twice as many people in Metro Cairo as there are in all of Tunisia. Furthermore, the Tunisians are relatively wealthy and better educated then their Egyptian neighbours (20% of Egyptians live below the poverty line, versus just 3.8% of Tunisians.) And, finally, just in case nobody noticed, Tunisia is full of Arabs, whereas Egypt — take a wild guess — is full of Egyptians. They’re different. Clinton can yip all she wants about the “perfect storm” in North Africa, but somebody in Virginia better tell her Moslems don’t all speak with a single voice. They don’t even have the same accent. There are 2,000 kilometres between Tunis and Cairo. That’s about the same distance as Baltimore to Dallas with a guy by the name of Gaddafi in between. C’mon, Hillary, use your head!
Secondly, Egypt isn’t some comic opera Moon over Parador principate and Hosni Mubarak is not a 1950s chrome and gold dictator with a funny hat. This guy has been running the show at the Pyramids for 30 years; that’s longer than Anwar Sadat and Gamal Nasser combined. He’s quietly done more to change Egyptian society than Muhammad Ali Pasha, the guy who started the whole thing. Mubarak has taken Egypt from being a pariah in the Moslem world (because of the Israeli peace treaty) to being the leading spokesperson for Arab affairs. And that’s without any significant reserves of oil; Egypt isn’t even a member of OPEC! The Egyptian economy is ranked 27th in the world. That’s larger than those of half the nations in the European Union. This is a large complex society, with an emerging infrastructure and a burgeoning middle class. It isn’t Junta-of-the-Week material.
Thirdly, there is no legitimate liberal opposition in Egypt. Nobody stays in power for 30 years without somebody getting the thumbscrews along the way. Over the years, Mubarak has put the dick back in dictator more than once and the jackboots to pretty much anybody who opposed him. This has created a political void. His NDP party clearly runs every segment of society, and there’s no other group significantly trained to handle things. Nor is there a single populist movement – except one – The Moslem Brotherhood. These boys are the moderate end of the fundamentalist Islamic revolution. During his rule, Mubarak has both banned and tolerated the Brotherhood for the simple reason that he can’t get rid of them. They also do good work in the poor areas of the country, like running schools, hospitals and charities. The problem is that they want to turn away from secular Egypt, take a page out of Iran’s history book and build an Islamic Republic on the Nile. And they’re not shy about using force either; rumour has it that they were the ones who helped pull the trigger on Anwar Sadat in 1981.
Unfortunately, any shift in power will have to include The Moslem Brotherhood.
Finally, despite the ramblings of CNN, the Egyptian people are more concerned about bread than ballots. They see reform as jobs and food prices first — and votes second. For the average Egyptian stability is the avenue to democracy, not the other way around. They are mad at Mubarak, and rightly so. They want him out yesterday because they blame him and his son for shifting the Egyptian economy toward heavy hitter capitalism and away from the national subsidy programs they’ve always had. The recent worldwide recession has hurt Egypt badly. The blunt edge of it fell on those people gathered in Tahrir Square. They might be talking about constitutional change and democratic reform but their major concern is not political liberty: it’s economic stability. These are two different things that should not be confused. They want Mubarak out so they can go back to work and feed their families. A prolonged summer of political upheaval is only going to make them angrier.
Mubarak has got to hit the road — the sooner the better. After all, he’s coming up 83, and in our family, we don’t even let the grandpas work the TV remote control anymore. The problem is at this point there is nothing there to take his place. And an electoral free-for-all would throw Egypt into chaos. Nobody wants that. Meanwhile, if the United States continues to exert random on-again-off-again pressure on an already fragile situation, they could destroy a perfect opportunity to further the cause of democracy. Americans have always made a science of misreading foreign content. Blinded by their love of liberty, they can’t always see past it. They are notorious for beating people over the head with a ballot box and then packing their bags and going home. What Egypt needs from the United States right now, is a simple, straightforward message of support for an orderly transfer of power. And America? You’re a Superpower – act like it!