There are moments in history when things could turn out in more ways than one, and the decisions of a very few people, perhaps just a king or a president or a revolutionary, settle the fate of millions for years to come. Karl Marx came up with the phrase “a plastic hour” for this uncomfortable moment when history hangs in the balance. We have a plastic hour right now in the Middle East.
Crowds all over the Arab world are protesting against the authority under which they live. Like the French before 1789 or Russians before 1917, they want to be rid of their rulers, knowing them to be brutal and corrupt, as indeed they are. Pretty well every Middle East expert and pundit, and certainly the man with the microphone in Tahrir Square in Cairo, supports the protesters without the least reservation. These Westerners all take it for granted that the protesters share their understanding of freedom and democracy, and once they are rid of the brutal and corrupt rulers all will be fine, and Arab societies will be just like ours.
This is evidently President Obama’s assumption. Famous as an anti-colonialist and openly contemptuous of the British for the way they used to order people about, he nonetheless sends an envoy to instruct President Mubarak peremptorily to leave office and start a process of “orderly transition.” He is taking it upon himself to arrange the government of another country. Never mind the hypocrisy, this is as imperious as anything the British ever did.
Mubarak has been a faithful ally of the United States these 30 years, and for all his faults has kept the peace. His abrupt and unceremonious dumping signifies that no head of state anywhere can in future trust the United States. Here is a great power that has no qualms about punishing its friends when it is expedient to do so. “Orderly transition” is mere verbiage in the circumstances, displaying ignorance as well as imperialism. No mechanism exists to pass power from Mubarak to anyone else. The plastic hour fills with ambitious contenders: Omar Suleiman, Muhammad El-Baradei, the Muslim Brotherhood, and some likely generals who can command the army. It will be just good luck if the winner of this free-for-all is not brutal and corrupt, and now untrustworthy into the bargain. And in the event that this winner turns out bad, Obama has made sure that the United States gets the blame.
But are concepts of freedom and democracy understood in the same way in different cultures? Pew surveys last year showed Egyptians to be overwhelmingly Islamist. The journalists with the microphones are time and again recording young men saying they want freedom, because freedom means making war on Israel. “Orderly transition” is an invitation to the Muslim Brothers or the army, or most probably some combination, to arrange the next order of things, for instance the balance of power and issues of war and peace. It is quite possible that when the plastic hour comes to an end and new men are installed in Arab presidential palaces everywhere, the United States will have neither friends nor influence in the region, maybe not even in a disappointed and embattled Israel.