(N.B. Within hours of posting this article came news that President Mubarak might step down. This does not fundamentally change anything. -EP)
Cairo is in turmoil and the West is transfixed.
The West has a long fascination with Egypt, land of Pharaohs and Great Pyramids. From the discovery of the Rosetta Stone, which allowed for the translation of previously indecipherable hieroglyphics, the fascination has continued to even include popular culture. For example, in 1986 the Bangles, a British band, recorded a “one-hit-wonder” called “Walk Like An Egyptian”.
Politically, Egypt is a “one-hit-wonder” as well—authoritarianism all the way. Seven millennia of dynastic monarchies and an association with the Ottoman Empire were disturbed by only a brief period of British influence.
In 1952 a new wave of oppression began. Colonel Gamal Abdel Nasser established a military dictatorship which continues to this day. When a more moderate Anwar Sadat took over from Nasser and entered into a peace treaty with Israel, Islamist opposition repaid him with assassination.
Hosni Mubarak has since maintained both the tradition of military dictatorship and the agreement with Israel. He managed brutally for nearly 30 years to keep the status quo. That achievement was probably due in no small part to the foreign aid which helped keep the Egyptian military regime supplied with armaments.
So what to make of the protests in Cairo since January 25th? The situation has been portrayed by the media and political leaders as a contest between oppressed people yearning for democracy against a recalcitrant Mubarak and his pro-government supporters.
The western politicians and media dangerously misjudge the situation. The “protests” have continued at length, which indicates that no unifying ideological position exists in the country. It appears that numerous factions share only one desire; they are looking for a leader. In poverty or uncertainty—much of it caused by ignorance of a proper relationship between individual and state—many Arabs seek a leader who will provide them with food or the means to get it.
Journalists run to the scene exposing their own necks to the cutting edge of what they think is a democratic revolution. Politicians cast aside decades of support for the regime, suddenly standing by the people, albeit with vaguely (i.e. diplomatically) phrased support.
There is no prevailing idea of liberty in the Middle East. In modern times the Arab states switched from alliances with Nazis to flirtations with Soviets during the so-called Cold War. Nasser nationalized the Suez Canal in a world crisis involving the principal Cold Warriors.
And, what hypocrisy from the West! The aid that has propped up the regime has also held the Egyptians in tyranny. Now some western politicos are supporting them in revolt. Why, when the Iranians took to the streets in 2009, were world leaders not nearly as supportive? The mullahs and President Ahmadinejad were not urged to step down as Mubarak is being encouraged to do.
No one can predict how the current turmoil will end, but nothing will fundamentally change. Conflict will remain after the chaos fades into one more chapter of history. The Middle East will simply be a more dangerous if not more fascinating place.
©Copyright 2011 Edward Podritske