Five Ways of Looking at the Egyptian Revolution, and All of Them Wrong

Honestly, I don’t know what’s going on with American elites in politics and the media as they struggle to talk about the Egyptian uprising. If I hear “Muslim Brotherhood” or “threat of terrorism” one more time, I’m stepping out into the yard to scream with the blackbirds.

Here are a few of the widespread misperceptions here.

“That means if free elections were held today, Egyptians would have to choose between two extremes [the army and “the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood”], neither of which is attractive to the United States.”

This is David Sanger and Helene Cooper writing for the New York Times. If this is the Times, you can imagine what the second and third-rank news sites are publishing.

I suppose every great power needs a Bogeyman to shift contemplation from one’s own actions to “the other.” Islamic terrorism is the Bogeyman du jour in the United States.

Got a question for you, Times. Among your dozens of political reporters and interns, hasn’t somebody been standing in the fire hose of tweets coming out of Egypt 24/7 for the past week? If you had, you would be skeptical of a new Egypt run by the Muslim Brotherhood.

The Egyptian Revolution is not about Islam.

On his CNN Sunday talk show, Fareed Zakaria said, in talking about Obama and Mubarak, “The United States can’t dump an ally who has worked with us, with Israel and against Hamas.”

Why not? Isn’t the essence of realpolitik knowing exactly when to turn on an old friend?

The issue here is that the Egyptian revolution has triggered a crisis for American foreign policy by shining a spotlight on the gap between what we preach (democracy, human rights) and what we practice (support for oppressors). But more importantly, our position in face of the Egyptian uprising illustrates a cautionary, Faustian tale about the danger of realpolitik: it is very hard to relinquish the dark arts.

Obama’s feeble response is that of a man caught in the mesh by which purely pragmatic decision-making traps leaders. If he weren’t caught, he would have seen immediately that, for once, a situation presented an alignment of the stars between expediency and values. Dump the oppressor Mubarak. Support a people putting their lives on the line for justice.

The Egyptian revolution is very much about justice, which, by the way, is the heart of Islam. This is why American foreign policy is so offensive in the Middle East: we are blind to this yearning for justice. A materialist culture, we can’t get past the specifics. As a Jordanian friend says, “Sharia! Sharia! Sharia! That’s all you Americans see!”

The Egyptian revolution is not about substituting secular oppression with religious.

Writing for Forbes, Christopher Helman asks, “Will Egypt’s Revolution Mean Oil Armageddon?” Oil, like terrorism, has been a frequent E-rev buzzword zipping back and forth among cable news pundits, as well.

America-oil-Arab are the trifecta of a certain strain of our foreign policy analysis. Every decision one of our leaders makes is based on oil. The real reason we invaded Iraq, according to this train of thought, is that we want Iraq’s oil. No amount of fact-based analysis of the Iraqi oil industry can dislodge this misapprehension from a corner of the public mind.

And so we are beginning to hear oil as the prime mover of American-Egyptian policy. Yesterday on cable news, a former U.S. ambassador to Egypt talked about “the opportunities” a threat to Suez Canal traffic gives to “Gaza and Islamists.” On CNN’s “Your Money,” host Christine Romans explored the oil issue at length. Ditto MSNBC.

But is a cut-off of oil headed to America through the Suez Canal likely? After all, traffic through the canal is Egypt’s second largest source of income. Any new government by-the-people is going to want to preserve that income.

The Egyptian revolution is not about oil.

“By showing itself to be a fickle friend in times of need, America further erodes the confidence of all the other authoritarian allies in the Arab world,” writes David Hazony for Commentary.

What is this concern about fickleness? We gave Egypt 3 billion dollars total in aid last year. We’ve averaged 1.5 billion in aid every year for decades. Financially, we support Egypt and Israel, and then Pakistan, more than any other countries in the world.

We just presented our new ambassador to Bashar Assad. Even more than former president Carter, Obama wants to be his friend. We’re selling Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah the F-15 fighter jets he craves. We would never desert Jordan’s Abdullah. Isn’t any graduate of Deerfield an honorary American? Abdullah has planted an outpost of Massachusetts’ Deerfield Academy in Jordan, and so that makes him one of us, right?—much more so than that CIA-built security services HQ up in the hills of Amman, right?

This is not the time to be worried about fickleness. What remains of American moral authority in the Middle East is rapidly evaporating. Forty-five years ago, in the Suez Crisis, as the influence of the English and the French crumbled, we assumed the role of Preeminent Non-Arab Power. The Egyptian revolution has brought our day to an end. Who will replace us? Turkey, in the short term? India or China in the long?

This is the biggest change for American foreign policy since the fall of the Berlin Wall—and our politicians and opinion shapers are worried about fickleness?

The Egyptian revolution is not about America’s image.  It is about our ability to be listened to.  And, in the end, the Egyptian revolution is not about America at all.

On January 28, four days after the uprising in Egypt began, President Obama finally made a brief statement on what had been happening. He said, in part, “What’s needed now are concrete steps that advance the rights of the Egyptian people: a meaningful dialogue between the government and its citizens. . . .”

This has been the Obama Administration’s stance on what is going on in Egypt: a positing of a balance between the government and the people in that call for “dialogue” between the two. Since then, Secretary of State Clinton has described this dialogue as “an orderly transition.”

However, even the briefest attention to what is happening in Egypt’s big cities (we have little sense of what’s happening in the countryside or Upper Egypt) shows that the time for “dialogue” and for “orderly transition” is long past.

The Egyptian people do not want to talk to Mubarak or members of his regime. They do not want the Mubarak regime finally to listen to their concerns. They do not want gradual reform. Nor are they merely making demands. They are intent upon overthrowing the government. That is what revolution is about.

Why is it so difficult for leaders of western democracies to see that? Yesterday Fareed Zakaria also spoke with U.K. prime minister David Cameron, who said, “What we support is evolution, reform—not revolution, but evolution and reform so that people who have grievances get those grievances met.”

The Egyptian revolution is not about a government finally addressing the grievances of its people.

It is not about two sides meeting somewhere in the middle.

The Egyptian revolution is not about Islam, or secular versus religious, or oil, or America, or reform. The Egyptian revolution is a people taking their destiny into their hands and completely upending the old order.

Depending on the role of the army, in charge right now in Egypt, the days and weeks of January 25 could be but a long beginning. After all, the American Revolution dragged on for half a decade. For France, the road from the fall of the Bastille to the Congress of Vienna was even longer.

But however long the narrative, Egyptians are now writing their own history. They do not need our help to do it.

Speaking with Fareed Zakaria yesterday, former U.S. ambassador to Israel Martin Indyk observed that our government has been talking about the Egyptian crisis in “yesterday’s language.”

This is the challenge for the United States now: a new voice for a changed relationship with Egypt in the new post-American Middle East.

January 31, 2011

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