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Dispatches From My Couch, Pt. II – Democracy, Egypt and the Neo-conservatives

2011 February 6

When I was a baby, Reagan was president. In my toddler years, Bush led the country. My childhood saw Clinton in the Oval Office, my teen years another Bush. Now that I’m in my early-mid 20s, it’s Obama. It is striking to realize that my Egyptian contemporaries have spent their whole lives under the reign of Hosni Mubarak. That would be bad enough, but in fact Mubarak has governed Egypt under a “State of Emergency” since the day Anwar Sadat was killed in 1981. I can imagine what that must be like, but not without anguish. Anguish besets those Egyptian contemporaries of mine as well, and they’ve taken it upon themselves to transform it into democracy, though not in the way Americans have gotten used to thinking about it over the last decade.

Shortly after September 11th, the neo-conservative movement set out a dichotomy: the state of global affairs was to be seen as a conflict between totalitarian autocracy and “democracy.” In this, I think they were right. Problematically, though, there is much discrepancy in the west about, as the chant goes, what democracy looks like, and this discrepancy testifies to the messiness of the dichotomy. For some, “democracy” is a catchphrase implying globalized capitalism; for others, “democracy” merely indicates a liberal form of government with free and fair elections. With regards to Egypt, Slavoj Zizek spoke alongside the always tiresome Tariq Ramadan on Al-Jazeera English and raised important points about democracy and the left. The dichotomy is clearer than is character of the side we’re encouraged to root for.

For some neo-conservatives, like Christopher Hitchens and William Kristol, democracy really appears to mean what I imagine it to: civilian governance, popular sovereignty, national self-determination, guaranteed individual rights and checks on the government to ensure their proper recognition in the forms of a free press, open and fair elections and an independent judiciary and legislature. On the other hand, former Vice President Dick Cheney recently called Mr. Mubarak a “good friend,” something short of former UK Prime Minister Tony Blair’s description of the brutal dictator as “immensely courageous and a force for good.” The New York Times’ Ross Douthat confessed to preferring totalitarian theocracy to secular leftism in cautioning the possibility that the Egyptian revolution would bring forth leadership like Iran’s Ayatollah Khomeni or—even worse!—Egypt’s Abdel Nasser, forgetting that, to squelch leftist Arab nationalism, the US and Israel helped raise Hamas, Hizbollah, the Taliban and more—all this fretting despite the neoconservatives’ former breathless pronunciations on democracy’s inherent advantage in the prosecution of the Global War on Terror.

The Egyptian affair has lain bare the true aspirations of the neo-conservatives, and this stripping away of euphemisms will continue, during the course of what Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has described as a “perfect storm” of anti-autocratic revolutions in that part of the world (inshallah). That storm is just beginning and its winds can be felt to blow all the way down to Zimbabwe, where Morgan Tsvangirai is set for an “Egypt-style uprising.”

I am seduced by the neo-conservative dichotomy, however messy. Their prescription, on the other hand, as many of us argued during the run-up to the Iraq war—I will say for myself that even at the age of 16, I had a reasonably good understanding of this point—was bound not to make a maximal contribution to the democracy side of the binary. That prescription of unilateral military invasion to replace an autocracy not currently embroiled in a revolution, has resulted in an Iraq that, though unarguably greatly better off than it was under Saddam Hussein’s rule, is not a solid tick-mark on the side of democracy.

Because the new government in Iraq was not the work of people’s power (or: “democracy”), the resultant government is better characterized as a colonial protectorate, a client state of the invading force’s imperial network. The state was ushered in to such a tiny extent by the efforts of the populace that it remains a frail house of cards, which requires a foreign occupying force to uphold it. If it fell, the state would descend into an anarchic, theocratic mess, a civil war and potentially a genocide, demanding a major international peacekeeping mission. The balance is tenuous, and the boon to meaningful democracy is therefore so mitigated that those of us who argued against the war have good reason to feel proud we did so.

Egypt, on the other hand, shows how meaningful democracy is really created: the people rise to the level of power and wrest power down to the level of the people. Tahrir Square is the perfect breeding ground for a meaningful democracy for two reasons.

Firstly, the protest itself, because of how massive and long it has been, has given rise to a communitarian ethos that, once it captures power, will naturally transition into an open civil society. Trade unionists in Suez reported that, the police having vanished, popular committees were running security there. Similarly, in Tahrir Square, “people’s checkpoints” were set up—citizen efforts to check IDs and bags going into the square, measures that kept relative peace until Mubarak thugs instigated violence on Feb. 2nd. As Mona Eltahawy admirably put it, “Mubarak pulled security force off the streets, and Egyptians stepped up to take care of Egypt.” Once the violence began, Egyptians turned out in huge numbers to donate blood and protesters cleaned up Cairo’s streets. Local vendors charged “liberation discounts” or gave food and blankets away for free to overnight protestors. These are the building blocks of civic institutions and democratic communitarian functions, arising organically, as they do in every instance of mass democratic demonstrations. Enough people have participated in this uprising that it can meaningfully be claimed that the model of Tahrir Square is an important indicator of the national political ethic—eight million nationwide on February 2nd, or one tenth of the Egyptian population, whose US equivalent would be 30 million or roughly the entire population of California; there were 200,000 protestors in Mahalla alone, well into the curfew.

Secondly, there is the fact of the struggle. Rights and democracy are things to be fought for and won, and it was ever thus. I have too often quoted Frederick Douglass on this point, so I was grateful when Tariq Ali, writing for Bloomberg, brought to my attention a line from the great Egyptian poet Ahmed Shawqi: “Freedom lies behind a door closed shut; it can only be knocked down with a bleeding fist.” Violent agents provocateurs, sorry to say, are a true test of the strength of a revolution and one that every revolution must face. Egypt can clearly pass this test and struggle on. This is the other key component of a popular democratic movement: the willingness of the people to fight for it. Of course Egyptians deserve democracy, as Sen. John Kerry (D-MA) said from his seat as Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, but the more important fact is that they’re currently earning it, out in the streets.

Egypt is itself something of a client state right at present, as evidenced by Mubarak’s echo of US recommendations throughout this conflict, first that he “seek dialogue,” which he dutifully offered to do and then that he not run again, which he obediently announced he would not. The latest, that he make a load of “consessions,” will likely go the way of the others—refused by a popular movement intent on wholesale regime change. One suspects that the Egyptian people know that, as Eli Lake said, “If Omar Suleiman goes on to rule Egypt, then the regime did not fall and the revolution failed,” and any concessions for which that is a baseline will be insufficient. Or, as Nicholas Kristof said in the moments leading up to Hosni Mubarak’s sick-making speech, “If the White House told Mubarak not to run again, my guess is that’s too little too late. Clueless on both sides, I fear.” What if the US were to demand his resignation? Or even his exile? Part of acting in solidarity with the Egyptian people requires that we Americans urge, as a group of academics did in their open letter to Obama, that the US take a much more full-throated stance in defense of Egyptian democracy.

The fact that the ongoing protests continue to force concessions is doubtless a case to the Egyptian people that they must continue to protest and, therefore, continue to force concessions. Every tyrant’s response to the revelation that his days are numbered is to try to maximize that number, when he’d do well to take the opposite tack. Egyptians are about the business 0f reducing that number to zero, and the recent arrest of American journalist Ayman Mohyeldin creates another point of crisis around which to rally support for American demands that Mubarak depose himself.

Noam Chomsky asserts the U.S. is truly scared of independence, more than religiosity, citing the example of Saudi Arabia, the radical Muslim fundamentalist terrorist-factory that enjoys full American support. Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) did little to disprove Chomsky when he referred on Bloomberg TV to opposition figure Mohammed ElBaradei as “an enemy of the United States in many ways.” (ElBaradei to America on Al Jazeera English: “You are losing credibility by the day. On one hand you’re talking about democracy, rule of law and human rights, and on the other hand you’re lending still your support to a dictator that continues to oppress his people.” This type of enemy, we could use more of.) Indeed, even the inappropriate mix of religion and government is something the US has always been comfortable with, as evidenced by the National Prayer Breakfast that happened on the day after Sen. McCain expressed his apprehension about the minority Muslim Brotherhood. (The Breakfast failed to exorcise Minnesota Republican Rep. Michelle Bachmann, Justice Antonin Scalia and other “constitutional purists,” a fact that redounds to their discredit). The Obama Administration deserves praise for apparently ignoring Sen. McCain’s vain histrionics and talking to ElBaradei about his arranging a transition. Naturally, this was over the objections of the neo-conservatives, whom ElBaradei drives mad, as Ari Berman sets out well.

(Amusing side note: Glenn Beck, for his part, doesn’t see the popular Egyptian movement as independent at all, issuing his expert analysis that the uprisings are engineered by Marxists and the Muslim Brotherhood. Of course, for all the intellectual heft Beck brings to the conversation, the thing might be engineered by Scientologists and furries.)

Predictably, Benjamin Netanyahu announced that he fears extremists in power in Egypt, Haaretz reporting that he tried to convince Israel’s allies that it is in the West’s interest to maintain the stability of Mubarak’s regime (though precisely what about an autocrat arresting foreign journalists smacks of stability he would not say). Also deficient in the irony division was Mr. Cheney, who said, “That’s a decision only the Egyptians can make.” I think I can faintly hear him adding, under his breath, “but I’ll be damned if the Iraqis are to be trusted making decisions.”

Sign in Tahrir Square: “Yes, We Can, Too.” This is what democracy looks like.

The first part of Dispatches From My Couch can be found here.