Tuesday, April 26, 2011

The Coming Egyptian Winter

Remember Egypt? It wasn’t too long ago that the chattering classes were rejoicing at the gale of freedom that was moving across Egypt.

The idealists in our midst thrilled to the vision of the idea of liberty on the move in the Middle East.

For my part I was more cautious, even circumspect. While I am well aware that some of the world’s great philosophers see the march of history as a movement of ideas, an idea on the march is nothing more than a metaphor. If you are not a poet, you should not go out and traffic in metaphors. History is not an epic poem.

However much metaphors move you; they do not move world history.

Now the world is in the midst of the Arab Spring. Sage commentators have been noticing that the Arab Spring might easily become prelude to an Iranian Winter, but for now the world’s attention is riveted on Libya, Syria, and Yemen.

Libya, Syria, and Yemen are where the action is, and the action plays well on the nightly news. We are transfixed by the violence, the horror of it all. It commands our attention.

Meantime, back in Egypt, while no one has been paying too much attention, events have taken a more ominous turn. Gideon Rachman reports today from Cairo for the Financial Times, and his view, while still retaining a whiff of hope, is gloomy indeed. Link here.

I also recommend Roger Kimball’s report here.

As some of us predicted, the Egyptian Revolution has brought Islamic fundamentalist groups, like the Muslim Brotherhood and the Salafists onto the public square and far closer to power. Remember that Hosni Mubarak had banned these groups and forced them underground.

The Salafists seem to want to drive Egypt straight back to the seventh century. They make the Muslim Brotherhood look liberal in comparison.

If an alliance of Islamic groups gains power in the next election  they will write the new Egyptian constitution.

As Rachman says, this will be very bad news for Egyptian liberals.

How are Egyptian liberals dealing with the situation. Rachman reports that they are hard at work purging the remnants of the old regime, the better to achieve what we recognize as social justice. Why does this sound eerily familiar?

In Rachman’s words: “Unfortunately, much of the energy of liberal Egypt seems to be focused on pursuing the old regime rather than preparing for the future.”

And also: “ Some liberals argue that the pursuit of justice and the exposure of the crimes of the old regime are crucial to the establishment of a new Egypt. They also fear that the ‘deep state‘ of the Mubarak era will re-emerge and thwart change, unless it is exposed and pursued through the courts. These are legitimate arguments. But an overconcentration on the past risks losing the future. The political dangers are heightened by a serious deterioration in the economy. Tourism is a crucial industry, but many tourists seem too frightened to go to Egypt at the moment. Visiting the Pyramids in Giza last week I virtually had the place to myself.”

Of course, Rachman is not speaking of liberals in the American sense of the term. He is speaking of classical liberalism, the kind that favors democracy, free enterprise, free markets, and free speech.

And yet, Egyptian liberals who are dissipating their political energy by pursuing corruption are acting very much like the American liberals who are currently in the White House. By focusing too intently on the past, they are about to lose the future. By trying to actualize an ideal, the ideal of justice, they are losing touch with reality.

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