The Corner

Reflections on the Revolution in Egypt

For nearly three weeks, the Biden/Clinton/Obama policy concerning the tottering Mubarak regime was contradictory, incoherent, and predicated entirely on the perceived pulse of the demonstrations. Finally, the confused administration seemed to have realized that U.S. foreign policy must center on long-term support for the non-violent transition to secular consensual government, rather than hour-by-hour, very public assessments of Egyptian individuals. To the degree that individuals thwart constitutionality (quite a different thing from plebiscites), we should be opposed; to the degree they aid it, we should be supportive. That way, we at last dispense with the embarrassments of “Mubarak, a dictator/not a dictator, should/should not/sort of should not go.”


Many other questions are not being asked in the general euphoria over Mubarak’s demise. Why are the more oppressive governments of Syria, Iran, and Libya not subject to the same degree of popular unrest that is said to be surely spreading to Jordan or the Gulf? Is it because for all the authoritarianism of a Mubarak or a Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, there was never the threat of a genocidal Hama, or thousands perishing on the proscription lists under a Khomeini, or international assassinations of dissidents in the Libyan manner? (Would Egyptian-like protests ever have deposed Saddam and his Baathists [cf. the failure in 1991 after the Shiite/Kurdish uprising]?) Does the greater anti-Westernism of a Syria or Iran counterbalance its oppression in the minds of the populace? Much of this reminds me of a Gandhi being fortunate, to paraphrase Orwell, that he was rebelling against the British, and not Germans of the Third Reich.


And does the West invariably keep silent about Iran (cf. spring/summer 2009) because in some strange way, in Western eyes, its virulent anti-Americanism lends a veneer of authenticity, of genuineness, even as we confess that the theocracy has lost popular support — while we assume that Mubarak’s alliance de facto made him more suspect in our eyes? (Would CNN be euphoric at news that the streets of Havana are in uproar?) Is the old Jeane Kirkpatrick Cold War calculus relevant — totalitarian, statist regimes exercise a degree of control that allows them to outlive strongmen and authoritarians?


There are wages to our belated idealism. We all admire America’s current professions of support for human rights — and the apparent end to the reset/realist Obama policies of the last two years — but soon some will ask for consistency. Why do we welcome the demise of a Mubarak, but keep quiet about a Castro or Chávez? Are Cubans freer than Egyptians? Did a Mubarak have more blood on his hands than a Castro? Why celebrate the freedom in the Cairo streets, but help facilitate its growing suppression in Moscow? If we are, admirably, to privilege democracy in the case of Egypt, then surely such ideological tilting must apply to democratic Israel over its autocratic neighbors, or democratic India over autocratic Pakistan, or democratic Colombia over autocratic Venezuela, and so on.


Much has been made of Western social-networking technology, whose entrance in the Arab world has ignited popular outrage over the absence of the elements of civilized life — decent housing, plentiful and safe food and water, effective sewerage, available employment. But how odd that brilliant Western technology — text messaging, Skypeing, iPhones, Google, Facebook — can facilitate the furor over endemic poverty and political oppression, but has so far been unable to materially alleviate the conditions of Middle Eastern poverty — as in novel, inexpensive methods of creating housing, cheaper energy, more plentiful food — that might trump the cultural and political impediments to wealth creation. We can spread Facebook page making to create anger over poverty, but not comparable Western innovations to more directly alleviate poverty.


Few will shed tears for the demise of Hosni Mubarak. But his departure was not the result of an overt reform agenda, a new constitution, or even a group of new visionaries. It was ad hoc furor. So the present coup in Egypt is not the beginning of the end of the revolution, but merely the end of the beginning. Shortly we are going to witness a long period of revolutionary fervor, as small numbers of well-organized zealots, including clerical interests, vie for power. The latter’s ascendance will be marked by disavowals of political ambition, constant organizing for that very purpose, embrace of violence while professing renunciation of violence, and courting of Western interests publicly while privately mobilizing against them.


So let us reflect for a moment on the revolutionary era in Iran to remind us that the end of freedom there was not instantaneous, but insidious. Massive demonstrations broke out against the Shah of Iran in January 1978 — similarly characterized by the prominent role of the middle and upper urbanized and Westernized classes. He was forced to flee Iran almost a year later, on January 16, 1979. The Ayatollah Khomeini arrived in Tehran shortly afterward, on February 1, 1979, disavowing any political ambitions other than “spiritual guidance” — as he was showered with positive appraisals from academics and other “Middle East” experts.


About another year later, on January 25, 1980, Abulhassan Bani-Sadr was elected president of Iran by an overwhelming margin — to expressions of joy that a sort of European-like socialist republic had replaced the Shah’s crass cowboy westernization. He ruled for a little more than a year and a half, then fled for his life from Iran on July 28, 1981 — his reign characterized by pitiful demonstrations of anti-Americanism designed to curry favor with the murderous Islamists. The entire revolutionary period between January 1978 and July 1981 was characterized by two general developments: repeated assurances from the Ayatollah Khomeini that there would not be a theocratic government, and insidious, constant erosion of secular government by Khomeini’s clerical followers.


In other words, when the crowds go home and return to their jobs, the most zealous, organized, and ruthless will go to work to consolidate power. Let us hope for the best — a secular, pro-Western constitutional republic backed by a professional military — and prepare for the worst — two to three years of revolutionary fervor as Islamists, month by month, gain control of the Arab world’s largest state after coming to power by one man, one vote, one time.

— Victor Davis Hanson is a classicist and historian at the Hoover Institution, Stanford University, and the author, most recently, of The Father of Us All: War and History, Ancient and Modern.


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