Tuesday, February 1, 2011

The Revolution Comes to Egypt, Or Does It?

Given all of the uncertainty, it has seemed best to follow the events in Egypt closely and not to jump to conclusions.

Surely, we should avoid the intellectual refuge of the lazy and should not try to fit the events into a fixed narrative, most especially into the myth of “Revolution.”

When facts are beyond our control and when we do not know what we can do to change them, we feel uprooted and adrift. Often, we respond by trying to impose a narrative on events.

In truth, we do the same thing in our private lives. When we are perplexed by moral dilemmas, we like to try to fit it all into a grand overarching narrative, (or pattern) and console ourselves with the thought that there is really nothing that we can do about it. The story will simply play itself out.

This non-strategy is easier to defend when we are watching events in Cairo than when we are dealing with a difficult problem in everyday life.

Anyway, those who are young and inexperienced are most apt to rely on narratives. When political turmoil descends on the world, they often run to the shelter of the ultimate narrative, the supreme fiction, which is: the “Revolution.”

Perhaps you have to have lived through the 60s to know how powerful this narrative was. The story of the oppressed masses rising up to overthrow a tyrant, thus to open the way to a brave new future, is irresistible to young people who are on the cusp of adulthood but who still depend on arbitrary, and occasionally tyrannical, paternal authorities.

Of course, the more these children rebel against authority the more they show that they are unprepared to assume authority themselves. Insolence and impudence do not qualify anyone to assume adult responsibility.

Historically and philosophically, the Revolution narrative has multiple sources. Hegel created a master/slave story in which the slave would inevitably rebel against his master, the better to become a master himself.

Marx kept the narrative but modernized the participants. The oppressed proletariat would revolt against its capitalist masters, thus leading to a brave democratic future.

And Freud suggested that human history began when a band of brothers joined together to murder their common father, the better to take possession of his harem.

Freud was kind enough to offer an individualized version of this narrative, called the Oedipus complex, where a son had to rebel against his father in order to gain his own manhood.

And then, in the feminist version of the Revolution narrative, the oppressed women of the world rise up and overthrow their patriarchal oppressors.

In all of these stories, the characters change but the narrative remains the same.

At the very least, we should be wary of all efforts to understand the events in Egypt in terms of the Revolution narrative.

Admittedly, it is hard not to get carried away on a wave of irrational exuberance as we watch a popular uprising against a tyrant.

While this tendency seems to be the province of the political left, in the current situation, no less of a conservative than William Kristol has declared: “It’s time for the US government to take an active role… to bring about a South Korea/Philippines/Chile-like transition in Egypt, from an American-supported dictatorship to an American-supported and popularly legitimate liberal democracy.”

It sounds like a good idea. Yet, Caroline Glick explains that the history of free elections in the Middle East has not exactly been encouraging. It was so discouraging, in fact, that the Bush administration abandoned the policy. Link here.

Other conservatives have suggested that if America does not side with the people, then the new rulers of Egypt, whomever they might be, will seek revenge against a nation that was aligned with the tyrant.

But as Glick reports, opinion polls in Egypt have shown far more support for Islamist policies, the kind espoused by the Muslim Brotherhood, than for liberal democratic principles or practices.

By these reports it seems doubtful that a government containing the Muslim Brotherhood will be friendly toward America, no matter what we tell Mubarak. And it seems likely that a free election will elect people who look more like Hamas than like liberal democrats.

This would confirm the lesson offered by history. Many nations have tried to turn the Revolution narrative into political reality, to markedly ill effect.

And then, historian Andrew Roberts reminds us in The Daily Beast that revolutions tend to eat their own children. Link here.

He means that almost all revolutions have been hijacked by people whose goal is to exploit popular enthusiasm in order to break down the old order and to become new despots themselves.

In his words: “For if history bears witness to anything about mob-led uprisings it is this: Revolutions eat their children. It is too universal an historical phenomenon to ignore. As you consider the future of Mohamed ElBaradei in Egypt, remember that Oliver Cromwell took over the English Revolution, not John Pym who started it. Napoleon was heir to the French Revolution, not AbbĂ© Sieyes, a serial writer of constitutions that were never adopted for long.

“Lenin usurped the Russian revolution only eight months after Alexander Kerensky toppled the Czar. ElBaradei might well be fated to play the role in Egypt that was played by Shapour Bakhtiar in Iran or Bishop Abel Muzorewa in Zimbabwe, of the stopgap figure who is acceptable to the West but soon swept away by the far more extreme Khomeini and Mugabe, respectively. Timeless Cairo itself provides the example of Mohammed Naguib, who lasted only 17 months as president of Egypt after the revolution that toppled King Farouk, before being ousted and placed under house arrest for 18 years by Nasser. Those who unleash the tiger very rarely ride it for long.”

He concludes: “History shows how small, extremist, determined, and, above all, well-organized revolutionary cadres tend to succeed out of all proportion to their numbers against amorphous, well-meaning, middle-class liberals.”

It’s bad enough for an observer, as most of us are, to watch events through the lens of a Revolution narrative. It is much worse when policymakers base their decisions on the same narrative.

When Jimmy Carter pushed for the Shah of Iran to step down and hand over power to the Islamic Revolution led by Ayatollah, he was allowing a narrative to dictate his policy. We are all still paying the price.

Carter's goal was to be on the right side of history. Today, we he recommends that we abandon Mubarak, he is simply following the same narrative. Which is not at all the same thing as making policy in an effort to direct the course of history.

When you believe in narrative, you believe that the results have been predetermined. Your task is simply to catch the right wave.

If you are looking for an alternative analysis, try the one that Bret Stephens offers in the Wall Street Journal today. Link here.

In his forecast, Mubarak might well ride out the storm and leave office at a time and in a manner of his choosing. The fervor that we are seeing on the streets of Cairo today will eventually die down, and the world will see that the choice is between the Egyptian army and the Muslim Brotherhood. It will be obliged to choose the former.

Stephens may be wrong; we all suffer the same risk. But his analysis is refreshing for being radically different from those commentaries that see the events through the  Revolution narrative, and that declare that we really have nothing to fear from the Muslim Brotherhood.


The Ghost said...
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The Ghost said...
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The Ghost said...

these started out as food riots/protests ... funny thing, they are happening all over the Middle East right now ...

I wonder what could have caused the price of food to spike up ?
I'm sure it couldn't have anything to do with the Feds QE2 actions and the US ethanol industry ...

Stuart Schneiderman said...

Surely, the price of food is playing a major part in all of this. I linked an article from the Daily Telegraph yesterday on this point.

I also agree with you that the Fed's QE and the ethanol subsidies are helping to produce food price inflation.

We often think to ourselves that this
QE is a good thing because it's going to devalue our currency and allow us to pay off our debts with cheaper money. And we also think that burning ethanol-- thus, food-- makes us more virtuous.

It is very rare that we think of the way that these policies impact people, and not just in America.

Anonymous said...

Caroline Glick has a good article


Anonymous said...

Whoops I meant to say Spengler has an article re:Food Egypt.


Stuart Schneiderman said...

Thank you for directing us to Spengler's article. When I first read it I found it hard to believe that female genital mutilation is still practiced in Egypt, even though it has been outlawed. I found it still harder to believe that more than 80% of women have undergone the procedure.

So I did some quick research, and discovered that Spengler was indeed correct and that Suzanne Mubarak has been leading the fight to put an end to the practice.

Here's an article from the BBC from a few years ago: http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/middle_east/6251426.stm

As far as I can tell, none of the discussions about the events in Egypt has mentioned this fact. Those who believe that the uprising is a populist revolt against a tyrant should really answer for the fact that the populace has been doing everything in its power to continue to practice female genital mutilation while Mubarak has tried to stop it.

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