Only History Will Judge the Egyptian Revolution

egypt3Even though they never taught us this in school, one of the problems with history is it’s messy.  Timelines tend to overlap, the good guys and the bad guys change sides with surprising regularity, and pivotal events are far more complicated than the “name five causes of” exam questions we grew up with.  As I recall, Mr. Barnaby (not his real name) from Social Studies 12, droned on about The Industrial Revolution as if it started one Tuesday morning after James Watt invented the steam engine.  It abruptly disappeared when an unruly mob of starving peasants got fed up with Marie Antoinette’s “let them eat cake” attitude, tore down the Bastille and started the French Revolution.  That somehow morphed into a Reign of Terror, which ended only when Napoleon showed up and started a bunch of wars.  Oddly enough, all these events took place before Christmas and Barnaby’s musings on the American Revolution — which had nothing to do with the Industrial Revolution (because we studied that last term.)  I said all that to say that, when we’re looking at recent events in Egypt, we must use as our template real history, not the made-up variety we were taught in high school.

Real history shows us that long before Imhotep the Builder decided his Pharaoh needed a stairway to heaven, Egypt was ruled by dictators.  Stick a pin anywhere in the timeline and you’ll find (in various degrees of ruthlessness) Pharaohs, some foreign pharaoh wannabes, an assortment of kings and khedives, the British, and a string of military strongmen.  That’s five or six thousand years without a lick of liberal democracy.  That all changed, however, a little over two years ago, when, during the still misunderstood Arab Spring, the people of Egypt told their latest tyrant, Hosni Mubarak, to clean out his desk.  In was a great victory for democracy, and Mubarak wasn’t even in handcuffs before the interim government set up free elections.  Unfortunately, after a thousand generations of getting stepped on by jackboots, few, if any, Egyptians, outside a cadre of academics, had the faintest idea what that meant.  More importantly, since the first thing they teach you in ruthless dictator school is how to silence the opposition, once Mubarak was gone, the political vacuum he left behind looked like a Black Hole.  In fact, the only organization on the ground between Alexandria and Aswan was The Moslem Brotherhood.  These are the boys (girls aren’t allowed) who think the Iranians are doing a bang up job in the Islamic Republic business.  In the ensuing election, The Moslem Brotherhood slid easily into power and took the vote count as a mandate for their point of view.  And that’s the problem.

In real life — unlike in Mr. Barnaby’s Socials 12 class — not all revolutions are created equal, nor do they occupy an easilyegypt4 definable spot in time.

Egypt’s revolution was never about republican ideals, Islamic or otherwise.  It was about economic stability.  Those people who came to Tahrir Square in 2011 may have chanted democratic slogans, but their priorities were closer to home — jobs and affordable prices.  Two years later, that hasn’t changed.  In fact, if anything, the need has gotten worse.  Since the revolution, the tourist industry has collapsed – and, with it, most of the rest of the economy.  Food and fuel prices are in the stratosphere.  (Remember, Egypt does not have vast oil reserves like its neighbours.)  Unemployment is officially listed at around 14%; unofficially, it’s much, much higher.  Young people are hearing long-winded discussions about democratic ideals as their economic future dissolves into the Nile.  Ballot boxes are no damn good without bread on the table.  So they went back into the streets – in their millions — to try and get it right this time.

Unfortunately, the results were predictable: two accelerating political bodies, playing chicken, with Egypt in the middle.  The only national institution with any credibility left, the military, stepped up and told the politicos to fix it or face the consequences.  Defiant in the face of overwhelming opposition, Mohamed Morsi and the Moslem Brotherhood refused — and the rest is history.  Not that neatly-packaged history you learned in high school but real blood-under-the-fingernails history that is happening all around us.

They may occupy only a single chapter in Mr. Barnaby’s textbook, but the French Revolution took 80 years — and two Napoleons — to resolve itself.  The same was true in the United States where the great-grandchildren of Washington, Jefferson and Adams had to fight a Civil War to finally settle their political differences over the cornerstone of the American Revolution, the Constitution.  And the Russians never did get their revolution right, stumbling along for 75 years until the whole thing just collapsed under its own weight in 1991.

Tearing a society apart is easy; putting it back together again is hard work.  Two years is no big deal to the infinite march of history.  So, despite what the pundits might tell you, the Egypt revolution isn’t over.  It’s only just begun.

So You Say You Want a Revolution?

I realize I can bark my brains out; the caravan has probably already moved on, but could we just stop for 3 seconds and check the safety net before we go off the deep end?  No doubt there are powerful forces crawling across the Middle East and North Africa; all the conditions are right.  Every country in the region has the same set of circumstances: a young population, a growing middle class, a reasonable level of education, a contracting economy, unemployment, rising prices and an old and decrepit leadership.  This is the perfect storm.  It might even be the long-awaited Arab Revolution.  However, before we all hitch up the bandwagon let’s remember this isn’t 1989, no wall has come down, Benghazi isn’t Berlin and democracy is not on the march.  It isn’t even on the crawl.  Let’s quit with the self-congratulations for a minute (like western governments even did anything?) and put down the pom-poms.  Nothing has been accomplished but everything has been set in motion.  Get real.  This is the way it is.

Okay, Hosni Mubarak is gone.  So what?  At this point the army is still in charge.  This is the same bunch of guys who’ve been running the show since Nasser kicked King Farouk out of the country in 1952.  In essence, what happened in Egypt was a really, really weird kind of show-of-hands election and the incumbent (Mubarak) was defeated.  However, he didn’t actually have a challenger.  There is no political organization available to govern after him.  The problem the army faces now is how to hold a semi-free election without giving the country away?  They know that for every young professional in Cairo, dreaming of democracy there are seven guys upriver who think this is a golden opportunity to get the girls back in their bags where they belong.  The military needs to make it look good without letting the Moslem Brotherhood take control of the country.  Egypt depends on foreign aid and foreign tourists to survive; an Islamic revolution — freely elected or not — would ruin everything.

In Bahrain, when the people gathered in Pearl Square in Manama demanding reform, Shaikh Hamad listened for a while.  But absolute rulers don’t have to take that kind of abuse — or so he thought.  He sent in troops with tanks and automatic weapons.  Unfortunately, the western media noticed that they were all stamped “Made in America.”  Within minutes the State Department was in full damage control mode, burning up the Internet, telling the royal family to withdraw the tanks or they weren’t going to get any more.  Suddenly, the troops were gone.  Now, it’s all goodwill and dialogue, but the only tangible change (so far) is the Grand Prix was cancelled.  Personally, I think the king is just waiting ‘til CNN’s not looking.

In Iran, where nobody gives a damn what CNN thinks, anti-government demonstrations are old news.  They’ve been going on, back and forth, ever since the Ahmadinejad government fixed the national elections two years ago.  Invariably, any time people in Iran gather for anything more than a birthday party, the government response is brutal and ruthless – not necessarily in that order.  There will be no democratic reform in Iran in the near future — even though the demonstrations will continue.  The Iranian people are on their own, and they know it.

In Yemen and Algeria the battle for the streets is still going on.   Both governments are trying a combination of economic reforms and ungodly violence to keep control.  In both countries, the people are disorganized, and several factions are scrambling to put together a cohesive movement.  At this point, their only demand is the current regime step aside and hold free elections.  This isn’t going to happen unless – as in Egypt — the military takes control and rewrites the constitution.

Which brings us to Libya and the impending civil war.  The problem with democratic reform in Libya is Muammar Gaddafi himself.  He has been in power since 1969 (longer than anybody except Castro and the Queen.)  The only Libyans who remember a time without Gaddafi are retired now.   For 40 years, there has been no political dialogue in Libya, so it’s doubtful that the people currently shooting at each other are willing to give a try.  They want Gaddafi out;  that’s it.  They may be calling for democracy, but unless they’ve been taking secret courses from The Learning Annex, how do they even know what it looks like?  Besides, Muammar is not one to go quietly.  Nor does he have a room full of generals advising him to leave for the good of the country.  This fight is not over, and believe me, even when it is, it won’t be.

And finally, Tunisia, where the whirlwind all started.  Actually Tunisia has the best chance of surviving the turmoil and bringing true democratic reform to their nation.  Their size, history and population give them some big advantages in the search for reform.  Maybe, if they can solve their problems, the long, hard, old-fashioned way, then other nations in the region can follow their example.

If this is the Arab Revolution, it’s about to hit a snag.  It’s called history.  It teaches us that most revolutions don’t end the way things did in 1989.  Daisies don’t normally grow where the tanks were, and any eventual democratic reform is going to be long and hard — and maybe even bloody.  No amount of wishful thinking is going to change that.  It would be far better if we stopped cheerleading for a while and started dealing with the facts — before the caravan actually does go by and we’re left behind, wondering what happened — again.

The Egyptian Evolution

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!