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Dispatches From My Couch

2011 January 30

On January 25, as the Egyptian revolution began, President Obama was ascending to the podium to deliver his second State of the Union address. Understandably, there was not much by way of foreign policy discussion in that piece, but Obama did, in response to the recent Tunisian uprising, echo President Bush’s second inaugural address, proclaiming “tonight, let us be clear: The United States of America… supports the democratic aspirations of all people.” At press time, as we enter yet another period of defied curfew in Cairo, the most radical defense the U.S. has mounted of the Egyptian people’s democratic aspirations was this morning’s call from Secretary of State Clinton that General Mubarak engage in a national “dialogue” about reform. Well, I’m sorry, madam, but the Egyptians have had their dialogue, and it has sounded variously thus:

“The Egyptians have risen up. They are not going home until their demands are realized.” – Mohamed ElBaradei, speaking on Al-Jazeera

“Egypt events unfolding too fast to handle. Faster than my heart beats. And its been beating pretty darn fast!” – Ehab Zahriyeh

“Muslim, Christian, we’re all Egyptian!” – crowd in Tahrir Square, drowning out Muslim Brotherhood chants of “Allah Akbar,” as reported by Sharif Kouddous

At least the American government has not condemned the protests, as the Saudi’s did – condemn away, boys; your time is coming soon – but we are entitled to demand more from a government who so often makes official pronouncements that its foreign policy, as a central tenet, supports democratic movements worldwide. According to the reporting of Sultan Sooud Al Qassemi, Libya’s own dictator Muhamar Gaddafi and Palistinian President Mahmoud Abbas called Mubarak to voice their support, which tells you all you need to know about those two.

A month ago, I was as depressed about politics as I have ever been. Today, I am as excited about politics as I have ever been. A brutal, corrupt, repressive, militaristic autocracy has been pummeled by the will of a united, leaderless people, demanding the ouster of the dictatorship and its replacement with a secular, multi-ethnic constitutional democracy, founded on principles of social justice, political equality and leadership derived from the consent of the governed. A brilliant characterization of General Mubarak’s government shone through when Brian Katulis reported that the Egyptian Interior Minister explained to the U.S. ambassador that the government must respond when people are “offended by blogs.”

Even if the Mubarak junta were somehow able to squelch the protests, the administration would be so badly blemished that it would find itself unable to perform the basic functions of government. The General’s only sensible option right now, even from a cold realpolitik perspective, is to step down, join his family in exile in London, and turn the state over to a provisional transition government. Every hour he does not do this is one more hour during which he cannot escape culpability for whatever destruction and violence cloaks the streets of Egypt. And every hour the American government refuses to call for him to step down is one more hour during which the American government is to be regarded as complicit.

But even that destruction has been mitigated by the popular will of the Egyptian dissidents, who have formed neighborhood watch committees and appointed groups of men to stand in front of apartment buildings to protect them. That is to leave alone the chains of civilians, their arms linked to create a barrier, who have been protecting Egypt’s museums which house, needless to say, invaluable treasures of ancient history. Whatever looting has happened has not gone unopposed by a people intent not on breaking down Egyptian life, but improving it, democratizing it, claiming it for their own and declaring that it is not the sole property of a crooked, violent dictator and his cadre of thugs.

Indeed, many reports have come through of looting and destruction at the hands of government agents provocateurs. Mona Eltahawy characterizes the looters and causers of mayhem as direct operatives of the Mubarak regime, and Alaa Abd El Fattah reports that a citizen arrest of three looters in Alexandria’s Ibrahimeya district found the culprits to be policemen, who were then handed over to the military. Ramy Karam similarly notes that a looter killed in Heliopolis was a policeman, according to his ID.

Not that the government has been undivided. Indeed, some of the most inspiring images have been those of the army and the protesters cooperating with one another. The Egyptian military is not especially trained in peace-keeping (as the American military must be, given the likelihood that it will encounter insurgencies in the countries it conquers and occupies), which requires different skills and vocabularies from combat missions, and so it has to learn on the job. That said, it haslargely been doing an exemplary job of facilitating relative peace, even at times protecting protestors from policemen, who were moving to confront them with violence. (One suspects that, were they not so diminished by wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, U.S. armed forces might be called in to defend Mubarak from the Egyptian people).

Owing to civilian-led efforts to maintain order and the reasonably admirable conduct of the army, the death toll has kept relatively small, if devastating nevertheless. Visiting morgues and conducting its own counts, Al-Jazeera reports the death toll at just over 100, with many more deaths being reported in Suez and Alexandria than in Cairo, where the news coverage has rightly focused. It is there that 150,000 protestors, including many judges and major Egyptian figures, have gathered in Tahrir Sqare, “tahrir” translating, appropriately, as “liberation.” And of those protestors, remarkably few appear to be making religious demands.

Everyone trustworthy alleges that the Muslim Brotherhood’s involvement in the opposition has been greatly overstated by Western media outfits, intent on fomenting suspicion of the movement to oust a valued American ally, and is in reality at best peripheral and perhaps even negligible. And that’s to the extent that the events in Egypt have even been covered by American news networks. The cable stations have taken an uncharacteristically hands-off approach, probably with encouragement (or, dare I posit, instructions) from the State Department.

To his credit, Rep. Anthony Weiner went on Fox News to castigate the network for exaggerating the Muslim Brotherhood’s involvement. As Ahmed Zewail said, “The Egyptians are not protesting under any religious or ideological banners.” Maajid Nawaz, who knows these things better than almost anyone, having come from the ranks of Egypt’s community of Muslim fundamentalists and spent time in prison as the cellmate of many opposition leaders, commended the Muslim Brotherhood for remaining on the periphery and advised them to remain there and, if they seek political power, to field candidates for office in a new Egyptian democracy. There is some speculation that the Muslim Brotherhood is biding its time, waiting in the wings until the moment of their greatest advantage, rather like the Bolsheviks in 1917. This would be an attractive theory except that “Bolshevik” means “majority,” and the Muslim Brotherhood can claim nothing like one.

So this represents something of a breaking point for neo-conservatives. Which sort is each of them? Who among their ranks is actually a supporter of self-determination, democracy, secularism and human rights, and for whom are these merely inspirational catchphrases to advance American security and corporate interests? Whither Hitchens? Whither Kristol? Whither, I must ask, dear reader, you? Mohamed ElBaradei’s Al-Jazeera English interview about the West’s credibility on these matters (hands-down the greatest characterization of geopolitics over the last decade that I have heard) issues a challenge to all commentators and journalists, not to say government officials. Which side, as the old song demands, are you on?

At press time, Air Force jets were flying low over Tahrir Square in an attempt to intimidate and terrorize the protestors there, as they neared another useless curfew. But the resolution of the Egyptian people has so far proved unshakable. In the words of one protestor, “Everyone is chanting, and no one is leaving,” notwithstanding one Al-Jazeera correspondent’s description of the sound of the jets as so loud that “it shakes the inside of your body.” (The correspondent remained anonymous for security purposes, and reported almost inaudibly by cell phone, since Al-Jazeera had been kicked out of the country). Even as fighter jets subsided, the mood in the crowd was described as eerily unanimous in bracing for something worse as night fell over the Nile.

Oh, how I wish I were in Cairo. Down, down with Mubarak! Down, down with Mubarak!

The whole thing puts me in mind of the final page of my father’s first book, 1970’s “These Are The Good Old Days,” which I reproduce in full, here:

To remake society so that power resides in the people, after thousands of years of elites and epic inhumanity, is a task not lightly undertaken and not easily accomplished. Not in ten years. Nor in 50. The mishegoss of violence and the ingrained racism in our own country will be legacies any new society constructed here will have to deal with for a long time to come. But that is just what we are about the business of doing; building a United States of America where people come first.

I think the most important conversation I’ve ever had was with Premier Pham Van Dong in Hanoi. We got to talking about the antiwar movement in this country and at one point the Premier turned to us Americans and said, “You know, we thank you for what you are doing for us. But of course we expect it of you; that is your responsibility as human beings.” He said, “That is our relationship with all our friends around the world — the Soviets, the Chinese, the Latins, the French. We thank you for what you are doing for us. But at the same time you must thank us for what we are doing for you.” He was saying that the Vietnamese fight and the democratic movements in our own country are part of a common struggle against a common enemy, that each Vietnamese victory is a victory for all of us, that their final victory will be for all of us. Two days before the interview, we were handed an invitation to the DRV Afro-Asian Solidarity Committee rally “in defense of the American Negroes’ struggle against discrimination and police brutality in Watts, Los Angeles.” This, while bombs were dropping on their own land.

Premier Pham repeated his words, “We thank you for your help but you must thank us.” In fact, he was saying, we are helping defeat your enemy for you. The people who kill us will kill you too; those who own the mines of South Africa also own the fields of California. And when Maxwell Taylor or William Rodgers speaks of losing Vietnam, to whom is he losing? To the Vietnamese. They lost China to the Chinese and Cuba to the Cubans. They are losing Laos to the Laotians, Mozambique to the Mozambicans and Syria to the Syrians. What we must say is that some day they will lose the United States to the people who live and work here. Power to the people.

4 Responses
  1. Andrea Greco permalink
    January 30, 2011

    Thank you for this perspective, Jesse. I’ve been following this in the New York Times (the less formal NY dailies don’t even pretend to care), and, based on their reporting, I had thought the Muslim Brotherhood was playing a much bigger role in the unrest than they apparently are.

    Ramy Nagy (you may know him from Bard) posted this to facebook yesterday:

    Left me speechless.

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