Between Twitter, Facebook, and the 24/7 news cycle (which seems to have a built-in 18/7 opinion cycle), we in the U.S. can learn in real time what is happening on the ground thousands of miles away in Cairo’s Tahrir Square. Alas, instant awareness does not translate into instant understanding.
Worse, the limited attention spans weaned on the news/opinion cycle demand that complex events be reduced to bumper stickers, reinforced by endlessly recycled video loops. So we’re told that “the people” in Egypt are revolting because they crave “democracy.” That, we are to understand, accounts for their determination to oust Pres. Hosni Mubarak, the despot who has ruled the country under tyrannical emergency powers for 30 years.
Egypt, however, is a complex country of 80 million. There is no “the people.” Though predominantly Islamic, the country is home to about 8 million non-Muslims, mostly Coptic Christians. Of the 70 million–plus Muslims, a very sizable segment is devout and fundamentalist. Indeed, in 2007, pollsters found that about half “strongly” supported implementation of “strict” sharia (Islamic law) — and even more were “somewhat” supportive. Nevertheless, millions of Egyptian Muslims are secularists who regard sharia as, at most, a matter of private ethics, not a roadmap for public policy. Of these, many are strongly pro-Western, but a goodly number are anti-Western Leftists of a Nasserite bent.
Most of the commentary, very much including conservative commentary, ignores this diversity. It assumes a monolithic Egypt — whatever monolith best serves the particular commentator’s policy preferences. When neoconservative enthusiasts of the Bush democracy project look at Egypt, they seem to see only the pro-Western secularists. Discounting profound cultural differences between Islam and the West, presuming instead that all people are essentially the same and have a common yearning for freedom, they marginalize Egyptians who do not fit the mold — as if these tens of millions were some unrepresentative fringe or the product of someone’s fevered imagination. On the other hand, many other conservatives, justifiably alarmed over the potential Muslim Brotherhood ascendancy, portray the Brothers as if they were ten feet tall — poised to roll effortlessly over secular Egyptians, hijack the armed forces, and begin bombing Tel Aviv by noon tomorrow.
Egypt is far more complicated than these competing visions, and others on offer, suggest. To begin with, not all of Egypt is rebelling, and not all of those protesting in the streets are protesting for the same reasons. Some actually support Mubarak. That should come as no surprise: One doesn’t hang on as an authoritarian ruler for 30 years without cultivating the right elements of society. Life, however, could get considerably less comfortable for the pro-regime elements if their patron is gone, so they want him to stick around — even at 82 and in failing health.
The anti-Mubarak opposition encompasses a majority of the country, but it is a mixed bag. If there is one uniting factor, it is not Mubarak’s brutality but his cupidity. He and his family seem to have socked away a fortune larger than Egypt’s public debt, making them billionaires 40 times over. A number of Mubarak cronies are now billionaires, too, having skimmed off the regime’s hammer-lock on industry — and this, in a country with rampant poverty, real unemployment at over 20 percent, and many working Egyptians surviving on only a few hundred dollars a year.
Concern over Mubarak’s iron fist is what most animates the Western press, which takes its cues from progressive intellectuals and self-styled human-rights crusaders. Among Egyptians, though, dissent over Mubarak’s brutality against Islamists and suppression of political opposition pales beside revulsion over his financial corruption.