Monday, June 17, 2013

Tom Friedman Returns to Egypt

Two years and a few months ago Tom Friedman was camped out in Cairo’s Tahrir Square breathing the fetid air of the new Egyptian democracy.

Now, Friedman returns to Egypt to assess the outcome of the revolution he so fervently supported. The reality on the ground has dashed his hopes, so he calls for more revolution.

Don’t expect Tom Friedman to admit that he was wrong. He has not yet been cured of his pathological altruism, pundit version.

Yesterday, Friedman offered a sobering picture of the everyday life of the average Egyptian, living through the revolution that he, Friedman thought was such a good thing:

ON Tuesday, I visited a bakery in Cairo’s dirt-poor Imbaba neighborhood, where I watched a scrum of men, women and children jostling to get bread. You have to get there early, because the baker makes only so many subsidized pita loaves; he sells the rest of his government-subsidized flour on the black market to private bakers who charge five times the official price. He has no choice, he says, because his fuel costs are spiking. You can watch the subsidized-flour bags being carried on shoulders out the side door. “This is the hardest job in Egypt,” the bakery owner told me. Everyone is always mad at him, especially those who line up early and still leave with no bread.

These are difficult days in Egypt. It is running out of hard currency and can’t buy enough gasoline and diesel for power stations. Long lines are forming at gas stations, worsening Cairo’s titanic traffic jams, and electricity cuts are commonplace. Around the corner from the bakery, on an unpaved street, a small knot of men have two manhole covers lifted, exposing a sickening black sludge that has backed up almost to street level; they’re fishing down the hole for the blockage with a long, thin rod. There is much arguing about how best to solve this problem. In the background, through an open window, you hear children in a Koranic school cheerfully repeating verses for their teacher.

Apparently, all of those Egyptians who put the Muslim Brotherhood in power did not know what they were voting for. One must add that the Obama administration, in its wholehearted support for the Morsi government, is another part of the problem.

In any case, Friedman’s friends in Cairo do not much like the Muslim Brotherhood:

When you talk to these lemon squeezers today — the liberals, conservatives and nationalists who make up the opposition — you can feel a palpable hatred for the Muslim Brotherhood and a powerful sense of theft: a widespread feeling that the Brotherhood tricked the lemon squeezers and the poor into voting for its members and now they have failed to either fix the country or share power, but are busy trying to impose religious norms. This opposition has mounted a nationwide petition drive that has garnered 10 million signatures so far calling on Morsi to resign and to call new elections. On June 30, their campaign is set to culminate in a nationwide anti-Morsi protest. Morsi still enjoys support in the more traditional countryside, so this could get very ugly.

After a promising start, Friedman’s column veers off into self-parody. It isn’t surprising; he has become a master of the genre.

When he asks how Egypt is going to solve its myriad problems, Friedman recommends “environmentalism.”

Yes, indeed, Egypt will be saved by an army of lawyers litigating on behalf of four-inch smelts.

To be fair, Friedman does not quite put it that way. He believes that Egyptians cannot function as a society until they find common ground. In itself, the idea makes some sense. Unfortunately, he takes it a bit too literally and declares that common ground means Mother Nature and government infrastructure projects:

That is the real cultural revolution that has to happen for Egypt to revive. And that’s where the environmentalists here have such an advantage over the politicians, because all they think about is the commons — resources that have to be shared. Egypt’s commons — its bridges, roads, parks, coral reefs — are crumbling.

Actually, Egypt needs a good dose of private enterprise. Capitalism is propelled by people negotiating business deals. In making these deals people find common ground. That is the only productive way to find common ground.

America was not built by environmentalist scolds. It’s recent economic growth has been seriously inhibited by “green” attorneys.

China wasn’t built by environmentalist scolds either. You might note, correctly, that today’s China is drowning in pollution. Apparently, the managers who are running that country decided to put economic growth in the forefront, even at the detriment of the environment. Come to think of it America and Europe industrialized first and cleaned up the environment later.

Friedman summarizes his big idea:

The only way Egypt and the other Awakening states will have sustainable democracies with sustainable economies is to elevate an environmental ethic to the center of political thinking. Without that, it’s all just musical chairs.

Of course, China is anything but democratic, but Friedman’s notion, that sustainable economies require an “environmental ethic” seems idiotic, even for Tom Friedman.


Lastango said...

With a patrician liberal's unerring eye for politically and culturally safe posturing, here Friedman absolves himself for his prior endorsement of Administration talking points.

Yes, perhaps he cared too much, wanted the best for the Common People too soon. So, naturally, being such a sensitive, spiritual soul, he seeks the solution in yet another irreproachable, Bohemian Bourgeoisie experiencing of the plight of the the lowest of the unwashed. Behold, he discovers all is not lost! Because his heart is in the right place, he is able to discern that the solution lies in moving toward the purity of our most common ground... Mother Earth. If only the Egyptians could become as enlightened and visionary as he and the Western progressive establishment!

If the locals can move ahead ideologically, they will come to view the tumult of the Arab Spring as broken eggs that turned into the omelet of a truly progressivist future. In the process, everyone else will learn that Friedman and the rest of the liberal matrix were directionally correct all along. They simply saw farther than the rest of us, because their capacity for strategic vision allowed them to look past the trees and imagine the harmonious, one-world forest to come. Provided the Egyptians are up to getting on with it, of course. If they aren't yet, well, that's not Friedman's fault is it?

Anonymous said...

The funny thing is
If the efforts actually works,
There's not much material for 'discourse'.

Which is a problem few seem interested in solving.

Thanks for the chuckle,LT.


Anonymous said...

I could be wrong. But I think since the 80s, our leadership in most areas has been losing historical/cultural knowledge and perspective.
An old American trope. "That's history". "History is bunk". And similar.
We started with a tabula rasa. That's been a plus for new ideas. And fostered American optimism. With 2 oceans and friendly neighbors, we could afford blithe confidence.
It even saw us thru the 20th C on our own terms. Now it's the 21st. "Globalized". For the first time, we must take account of others' terms.
I was horrified after 9/11 by the utter ignorant rot our leaders propounded. It's led us to bloody & expensive follies.
It seems that, even now, our leaders in politics and opinion are blind to the stark differences in civilizations. The West & Islam & China for three.
I wonder if, even now, our leaders in politics and opinion give those differences the study and respect they deserve.
I'm flummoxed by Tom. He's smart, hard working, energetic. Wrote a few good books. And now this. -- Rich Lara

Lastango said...

YW, Shoe. And nobody ever calls me "LT" anymore... *sigh*

Sam L. said...

Rich, Tom may be smart and hard-working, but his hard-thinking has false premises. He can't get to there from where he is, because he uses a faulty compass. And bad maps. Poorly printed.