Thoughts on Egypt

February 1, 2011

2 caveats: I have no expert or inside knowledge of the situation; and I am aware that events are in progress and anything I write may be easily overtaken by them before anyone reads it. But as I said the other day: Hey, it’s a blog.

Now then.

Like just about everyone I’ve heard from, my sympathies are with the people of Egypt; I applaud their struggle for freedom and democracy; I profoundly hope that they emerge from all this with a better government than they’ve got now, and with few if any casualties along the way. Do I think it will happen?

Well, the historical events that naturally come to people’s minds are the revolution against the Shah, the fall of Communism in Russia and Eastern Europe, and the demonstrations in Tiananmen Square. (I also think back to the previous round of democratic transitions in Europe, the fall of the last fascioid regimes in the 70’s…) Which if any does Egypt particularly resemble? I don’t see it as very much like China in ’89, or ever. The protestors there were mainly from a small young urban educated elite, in a country with a vast peasantry which the government could count on for at least tacit support, an official ideology which a lot of people still took seriously, and a massive propaganda machine at the disposal of the ruling party; Egypt under Nasser probably had that kind of infrastructure, but I see no evidence of that today. The Mubarak regime seems to be far more of a one-man show, depending on thuggery and thievery far more than on any penetration into the hearts and minds of anyone; strong up to now, but brittle. There seems at least at present a real possibility that the military will ditch the President and make its peace with the people. It may still end badly. The leaders may try to get by with a few cosmetic changes and wait for things to die down; or things may get so out of control that people will find a crack-down justifiable. Or else the masses may come to power in a way that leads to the demonization of almost everyone with the skills to make things work. But right now my sense is that there’s enough good-will on all sides, except where Mubarak and his inner circle are involved, that a new government based on a broad consensus should be possible.

The Iranian model also doesn’t seem very applicable. Of course Egypt is an overwhelmingly Muslim country. Any government based on a broad consensus, formally democratic or not, will have to reflect that somehow. Any government based on a broad consensus will have to recognize the Ikhwan  (Muslim Brotherhood), or something like it, as a legitimate voice in public affairs. There is nothing wrong with this; we Americans have got to learn not to panic at the word “Islam.” What I don’t see is any sign of protestors demanding anything like full implentation of shari’ah; they have different agendas entirely. What I don’t see is anything like the underground infrastructure of Iranian mullahs and ayatollahs and theological schools that survived all those decades of Pahlevi rule; Sunni Islam is less conducive to that. Will the majority, if it comes to power, learn to accept their Coptic brethren as full equal citizens? Only time will tell. Will it demand a stronger stance against Israel, even repudiating Sadat’s peace treaty? Quite possibly, but I think most Egyptians would realize they have a lot of work to do on the domestic front before they can even think of posing a credible threat to such a well armed neighbor.

In the long run the threat to Israel may be ideological and not military; if a substantial part of the Arab world does succeed in democratizing and in resolving peacefully its various ethnic and religious minority conflicts, Israel’s gentile sympathisers (myself included) may gradually become less easy to persuade that the Jews’ survival there absolutely requires a guarantee that their state must be so firmly Jewish as to keep its Arab citizens (and occupied persons for that matter) from ever getting the share of political power that their numbers would seem to justify… But that’s a very big “if,” not a bridge to be crossed anytime soon.

So – is Egypt more like Eastern Europe in ’89? Again, less infrastructure on the side of the government, but also less familiarity with democratic ideas and methods on the part of the people. Face it, no analogy is really that good. The Egyptians will have to model their own future. There are, I repeat, a lot of ways it can turn out badly, but I think one can begin to be very cautiously optimistic…

UPDATE 9 a.m. EST Wednesday 2/2: looks like the government has been able to collect enough goons to stage a “spontaneous patriotic rally” and attack the protestors. The usual suspects, tough guys with an enthusiasm for cracking heads. We’ll see.

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