Thursday, February 3, 2011

Signs and Wonders in Egypt

So my latest obsession (they should all be this harmless) is visiting the Al-Masry Al-Youm (“Egypt Today”) website at several times a day to see the latest news from Egypt not as NPR or the New York Times interprets it but as the actual Egyptians on the ground in Cairo perceive what is going on all around them. I recommend the trip. The view, it turns out, is actually far better from the ground than from the cloud! And Al-Masry Al-Youm really does seem to be a quality newspaper filled with intelligent, thoughtful essays and reasonable analyses of what is going on.

What to make of it all, however, is another question entirely. At first I supposed that we were probably looking at some sort of highly localized reaction to the events in Tunisia, one that brought Egyptians into the streets possessed of the vague conviction that this could somehow be their moment as well. But it clearly turned into something else very quickly as the numbers of demonstrators grew dramatically and as it slowly seemed to become clear that the army was, if not de jure than surely de facto, on the side of the people. Whether that turns out really to be the case or not remains to be seen, especially in light of the events of Wednesday in Cairo, but there were more than sheer numbers to consider in watching the clips of Tuesday’s immense demonstration in Tahrir Square on the Al-Masry Al-Youm website. Watching that footage, I was struck not only by the number of people defying the government but even more so by the specific kinds of people that appeared to be filling the ranks—young people, families with children, middle-class types holding what appeared to be Blackberries and cell phones in their hands, workers in overalls and work uniforms, elderly people walking with canes and some even with walkers. Apparently also present were a serious sampling of the nation’s intellectual elite, including novelists, film producers, and even movie stars themselves. These did not look to me like a mob of crazed radicals or fanatic Islamicists but far more like a cross-section of a nation yearning to overthrow what by all accounts is a brutal regime with no respect for the human rights of its own citizenry. But there is also something you can’t see when you look at images like this. And that part can be just as important as the part that is fully visible.

By most counts, there are just shy of eighty million Egyptian citizens. About ninety percent are Muslims. About seventy percent can read and write. Most live on about 15,000 square miles of land near the Nile River. (All of Egypt covers about 390,000 square miles, most of it inarable desert.)When considered against these numbers, the people in Tahrir Square turn not into a surging majority of Egyptians but a small minority of the citizenry. So the question becomes not whether the people on the video clips we can all watch on the Al-Masry website are sincere, but whether they truly represent the people who will be called upon to choose a new path for their country in the event that the demonstrators have their way and Mubarak goes, and then free elections are both scheduled and actually carried out. It could happen! But there is also the possibility that the openly proclaimed goals of the demonstrators—an end to the Emergency Law that has been in effect since 1967 except for one single eighteen-month break in the 1980s and which severely curtails human rights and freedoms in Egypt, an end to Mubarak’s political career, and an end to the detainment of political prisoners of whom some estimate there may be as many as 30,000—are not the first things on the agenda of the huge majority of Egyptians who have yet to check in at all. Will those people—constituting tens of millions of voters in their own right—understand the implementation of free elections as means to create a truly free Egypt or as an opportunity to vote for candidates who espouse political philosophies that are not even remotely democratic? Although the Muslim Brotherhood, Egypt’s largest organized opposition group, was prohibited by law from running candidates in the 2005 parliamentary elections, candidates who openly identified themselves as members of the organization still managed to win twenty percent of the seats in the People’s Assembly, the lower house of the Egyptian Parliament, even though they were obliged to run as independents. Surely, they would do even better if elections truly were free and if the National Democratic Party, Mubarak’s party, is forced to campaign on its own record. And although it is also true that Egyptians have not traditionally put much faith in elections—in 2005, fewer than a quarter of the country’s thirty-two million registered voters turned out actually to cast a ballot—it is surely also the case that the chance to vote for real change would draw out many millions who have chosen to sit out previous elections either as an act of silent protest or simply out of the conviction that nothing would or could change based on that election’s results.

Americans are thus in a strange quandary as we attempt to make sense of the new Egyptian reality. On the one hand is our natural inclination as Americans to support the democratic right of any nation to choose the officials to whom it wishes to entrust the reins of government. In our national conception of how democracy should work, candidates put forward their views and the electorate chooses between them fairly and openly. But how should we respond, both as a nation and as individuals, when we see that the democratic process is likely to lead—or at possibly could lead—not to a nation of free citizens governing itself wisely and in accordance with the will of the majority but to a state in which an anti-democratic organization becomes positioned legally to seize power by winning that free election? The Nazis, as we never seem to grow tired of observing, came to real power in Germany in 1933 as the result of winning 43.9% of the popular vote, not by seizing it violently or illegally. The same could be said of Iran, which became an Islamic Republic in 1979 after the “yes” side won a landslide victory in a national referendum. (How many of those people who voted “yes” would have changed their vote if they fully understood the level of repression that was soon to come is, of course, an entirely different question.) Is Egypt now to join the ranks of countries that have democratically voted in governments fanatically opposed to real democracy? That too, of course, remains to be seen.

Jewish observers will find it even harder to formulate a cogent opinion regarding this and last week’s events in Egypt. The peace treaty with Egypt has brought enormous benefits to Israel. The portion of Israel’s GNP spent on defense, for example, was about 30% before the treaty was signed, but is now about 9%. If Egypt repudiates that treaty and Israel has seriously to worry about Egypt reverting to its former status as vitriolic enemy rather than (at least begrudging) friend and if the increase in military spending that follows that repudiation approaches the 30% level again, the results for the Israeli economy will be dire. And open Egyptian support for terrorist Islamicist groups like Hamas will make the possibility of a real peace treaty between the Israelis and the Palestinians, even more unlikely than it already is and could possibly scuttle all by itself any real possibility of such a treaty being signed any time soon. In short, Mubarak has been a horror for the people of Egypt, but he has kept faith with the Egypt-Israel Peace Treaty signed by his predecessor, Anwar El Sadat, for his almost three decades in power and he has proven to be a reliable, staunch friend of the United States. And that is the crux of the problem for us as Americans and as Jews: the man who has to go is also a man who was good for us as Americans and good for us as Jews whose hearts beat with Israel. Does that oblige us to support him as he tries his best to hold on to some semblance of power until the end of his fifth term of office this September? Not exactly! Does it make it perverse, or at least counterproductive, for us to support the effort to depose him without any clear sense of who or what will fill the vacuum of power he will leave behind? A little bit it does! And in that paradox lies the issue the events in Egypt over these last days oblige us to think through carefully and intelligently.

It hardly seems possible that our interests, or even Israel’s interests, can be served by the Egyptian population being held captive in their own country and forced to live lives absent the basic human rights and privileges we Americans take for granted. And, for better or for worse, Hosni Mubarak has come to symbolize that unsavory aspect of Egyptian life as scores of millions have known it not for years but for decades. (It is also worth noting that something like three-quarters of the Egyptian population were eight born after the Emergency Law first came into effect or were young children when it did.) Clearly, his time to go has come. Our best interests will not be served, therefore, by attempting to prop up his government or impose him on a nation that has clearly had enough. Perhaps the best we can do is to attempt to buttress, including financially, candidates for office who understand clearly that no people can be free if they are denied the most basic human rights and that embracing Islamic fundamentalism, with all that entails regarding most basic of human freedoms to live as one personally sees fit without hindrance or persecution, cannot possibly be the right direction for a country that wishes to live free and not merely to trade in one dictator for another as they did in Iran. Democracy is always a crapshoot. Entrusting governance to the people unfortunately entails governance between entrusted to the people. Dictatorship, when not totally self-serving, is generally justified as a drastic way of saving a benighted populace from its own bad decisions, but we as a nation have rejected the kind of paternalistic thinking that makes that sound almost reasonable. We therefore have no choice but to stick to our guns, to affirm our national ideals, to encourage the Egyptians to choose wisely (and thus to make the Muslim Brotherhood run on its record just as Mubarak’s party will have to run on its), and otherwise to comport ourselves as friends of the Egyptian people and not as people out solely to further our own interests.

We actually have a president in place, I believe, uniquely able to reach out to the Egyptians and who already has a kind of a track record in Egypt. (I am thinking of the very well received speech the president gave in Cairo in June of 2009 and which, by all accounts, truly captivated the Egyptian people with its hopefulness about the future and its firm commitment to human rights and non-violence.) We should all encourage our president to speak out now forcefully and eloquently about the future, painting it as bright and filled with promise if Egypt can take the process its people have now set in motion and use it to fashion a country truly committed to democracy and human rights, and to peace.

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