Our assessment is that the Egyptian government is stable and is looking for ways to respond to the legitimate needs and interests of the Egyptian people.
— sign carried by demonstrator in CNN’s Cairo footage from 1/29/11
I am no expert on Egypt. I was first — and last — there for a couple of weeks in the summer of 1979, and beyond the unbelievable heat, what struck me was the chaos of the traffic and the lack of civility in the public street. But watching the protests on TV, and hearing Egyptians quoted as saying that for the first time in their lives, they were proud to be Egyptians, I was proud of them too.
On Saturday, men and women, young and old, middle class and poor, were stating firmly that they would not leave Tahrir Square when the 4 p.m. curfew came. They seemed willing to die for their principles in a way that the Iranians in the stirring protests of summer 2009 were not. And the sight of protestors riding on armored personnel carriers hinted that they might not have to; the Army might come over to the side of the demonstrators. The police had already melted away.
Meanwhile, the lack of support for the protestors by many in the American political and media establishment has been stunning. Even the so-called liberal media bent over backwards to avoid calling for something so naïve as democracy. Wolf Blitzer, interviewing the Egyptian ambassador to the US, suggested that the 74-year-old enforcer and envoy Omar Suleiman, appointed vice president on Saturday, could be a potential fill-in for the 82-year-old Hosni Mubarak, should he leave the country. (Let’s take a moment to imagine just what kinds of wetwork a man who’s been Egypt’s spy chief since 1993 might have engaged in against his own people.)
The polished Ambassador Sameh Shoukry showed more dignity in pointing out that according to the Egyptian Constitution, the speaker of Parliament would take over if Mubarak leaves and would have to call new elections in sixty days. The 1971 Constitution is an interesting document. Avowedly socialist, it provides for freedom of thought, the press, and association. It also provides that the president shall be nominated by the People’s Assembly (Parliament) and chosen by plebiscite (Article 76). Ambassador Shoukry was referring to Article 84, which says that the president of the People’s Assembly will handle a transition.
As far as I can tell, Dr. Ahmed Fathi Sorour, the 78-year-old President of Parliament (or Speaker; the terms seem to be used interchangeably) hasn’t been giving any interviews. He’s a career bureaucrat who has held just about every conceivable civil office in Egypt, and has been Speaker since 1990.
Meanwhile, the watchword among pundits — many with as little experience of Egypt as I have — is “stability.” It’s an interesting word, that seems to have gained currency in political affairs only in recent decades. It is notably ill-defined; is Italy unstable, for instance, with its rapid changes of government, or France? Is a country with one government for decades but a roiling insurgency “stable”?
The official American fetish for “stability” in other countries translates as often as not into support for dictators or men who we help make into dictators, like Hosni Mubarak, and in a milder way, Hamid Karzai. The kind of “stability” we favor always seems to emerge from the barrel of a gun, not from a people working out its destiny in the rough and tumble of politics, as our country did. Our revolution began with shouting mobs, too.
To our credit, it seems we supported one Egyptian dissident, enabling him to travel to an opposition meeting in New York in late 2008, in the last days of the Bush presidency.
On Sunday, Nobel laureate Mohamed ElBaradei joined the crowd at Tahrir Square; he was charged by the opposition’s central organizing group, the National Coalition for Change, with negotiating with Mubarak. The National Coalition includes the Muslim Brotherhood, but these protestors don’t evoke the past, the 7th century that Islamic jihadists want to restore.
Watching TV, I was struck by the presence of what seemed to be Egyptian hipsters — in rapper-style clothes — and by so many Adidas track suits and current street fashions on young Egyptian men. I didn’t see one male protestor in traditional Egyptian garb. There were women in black abayas and some with face veils, however; these have grown more popular in Egypt in recent years. Then there’s the sign that’s become a trademark of the protests, “Game Over,” which gained currency from video games.
The protestors stand more for modernity than for a return to the Caliphate of yore. And modernity is — dare I say it? — unstable. Our fetish for authoritarian “stability” is self-defeating. We want to see open societies in the developing world — and these grow from cultures steeped in modernity, with long traditions of freedom of speech and the press. They are not nurtured by repressive, kleptocratic police states.
We’ve forgotten that extremist ideology mainly emerges from forced “stability,” not from free societies. As Elliott Abrams wrote in a Washington Post op-ed Sunday, “regimes that make moderate politics impossible make extremism far more likely. Rule by emergency decree long enough, and you end up creating a genuine emergency.”
A “march of a million” was called for today in both Cairo and Alexandria — perhaps the move that will break the back of the regime. Mubarak’s hated wife, the half-English Suzanne Mubarak, known as the country’s Marie Antoinette, is reported to have left the country and already has been spotted in London. There are rumors that Mubarak’s son, Gamal, fled for London earlier with his wife. My bet, and hope, is that Mubarak joins them soon. And most importantly for our country, I hope the uprising in Egypt and in Tunisia makes us reconsider our self-defeating, amoral fetish for “stability.”