Wow, where to begin with the protests in Egypt? I began writing posts two or three times over the last couple of weeks, only to see the momentum shift on the ground in Cairo and the story change, making my day-old posts hopelessly outdated. I most recently started a post titled "Mubarak's Crackdown Finally Comes," on the day when plainclothes police and government-sponsored goon squads, some of them riding horses and camels (?!), attacked the peaceful protesters in Tahrir Square. It looked like the state's terror apparatus was about to stamp out the mass movement, but by the end of the day the pro-democracy protesters had defeated the regime's thugs in pitched street battles and even advanced their "front lines" further out from their stronghold in Tahrir Square.
So rather than bringing you the latest play-by play, let's step back and look at some of the broad outlines of what's going on in Egypt.
First of all, I think these protests are the best and most hopeful political news to come out of the Middle East in years. Here we have the largest country in the Middle East, the leader of the Arab world, in the middle of a homegrown democratic revolution. This is something people everywhere should be excited about. All across the Middle East, people are asking themselves, "If it can happen in Egypt, why not here?" There are the beginnings of new protests, new movements, and a number of dictators are offering up preemptive concessions in an attempt to stop movements before they start. And a new spotlight is cast upon Western governments' support for the very authoritarian regimes that help fuel radical Islamic terrorism.
So why have more than half of US citizens (52%) heard "little or nothing" about the events in Egypt?
One reason may be that the story does not fit easily into the mold of our normal back and forth arguments about right vs. left, Republicans vs. Democrats. I saw Glenn Beck and Bill O'Reilly discussing Egypt the other day on Fox News, and it was clear they had no idea what to think, but they were pretty sure we should be scared. First, O'Reilly gave a dissertation in False History with a completely backward analogy between the Egyptian protests and the 1979 fall of the Shah of Iran. Then Beck offered a tour of Crazyville as he blamed America's support of dictators like Egypt's Hosni Mubarak (kudos to him for even acknowledging it) on "the progressive movement in America." Finally, both of these conservative torchbearers closed by agreeing that most of the protesters in Egypt were probably terrorists and communists. So the message Fox viewers got was that something vaguely frightening is happening in the Middle East and we should blame terrorists/communists/progressives. In other words, nothing new.
Another reason I think a lot of Americans don't know anything about Egypt's revolution is that the facts run counter to at least a couple of very important tenets of the American government's foreign policy and worldview. I don't mean Democratic or Republican foreign policy; I mean the foundational assumptions of foreign policy that are accepted by leaders of both parties and rarely if ever questioned.
The first tenet is the notion that Arabs or Muslims are crazy and distinctly dangerous. Of course it’s never put so plainly. But this is part of the unspoken justification for America’s heavy hand in the Middle East. It’s why it seems perfectly natural to many Americans that our government props up oppressive authoritarian regimes in the Muslim world for the sake of “stability.” And with this notion in the back of the mind, Americans see pictures of Arabs in the streets and think it must be something bad going on.
The second tenet is that it’s America’s unique position to export democracy to the Middle East and the developing world. This was of course one of the many offered justifications for invading and occupying Afghanistan and Iraq. “We just want to share our freedom.” So with this notion built into the American worldview, if there’s a democratic uprising somewhere and it didn’t come from us, it must not be democratic--and it's probably “terrorists and communists.”
It’s no coincidence that both of these tenets are used to prop up an aggressively interventionist foreign policy. Every global power in history has tried to justify its dominance of other nations. “We must bring civilization to the barbarians.” “We must bring Christianity to the pagans.” “We must bring socialism to the prisoners of capitalism.” “We must spread our pure race across the Earth.” And so on.
And then Egypt happens. Millions of people in the streets, who are supposed to be crazy and dangerous, are building democracy in the very heart of a region where that’s supposed to require America’s gentle guiding hand. It will be an historic victory if the Egyptian people shed off the Mubarak regime and build a more democratic government. It will be another historic victory if the American people shed off a foreign policy in which democracy overseas counts less than “stability” and American power.
Still to discuss in upcoming Egypt posts:
- The Obama Administration’s handling of events.
- Who’s afraid of the Muslim Brotherhood?
- Al Qaeda’s conspicuous silence on Egypt.
- Strengths/weaknesses of the movement and where it goes from here.