Monday, February 07, 2011
Some brief reactions to the turmoil in Egypt
3 Quarks Daily asked a number of scholars, academics, journalists, writers and others to give us brief reactions to the recent events in Egypt. Their responses are given below in the order in which they were received:
- Akeel Bilgrami
- Mohsin Hamid
- Mark Blyth
- Frans de Waal
- Pablo Policzer
- Ejaz Haider
- Mona El-Ghobashy
- Gerald Dworkin
- Ram Manikkalingam
- Jonathan Kramnick
- Amitava Kumar
- Alexander Cooley
- Suketu Mehta
- Justin E. H. Smith
It is far too early to write with any prognostic depth about the spontaneous and ongoing democratic movement in Egypt. But two immediate observations: First, it is interesting to see American pundits on television, despite their pious support for 'democracy', uniformly expressing a subdued anxiety about what worse and chaotic things might befall Egypt now. These very same pundits expressed no such anxiety about worse and more chaotic periods to follow the regime change that came with the American bombing and slaughter in Baghdad, Fallujah.... And second, it seems at the moment that the best thing for Egypt is for this popular movement to prolong itself on the streets for a measurably long time since real political deliberation and genuinely public education occurs (whether in democracies or in dictatorships) only on the site of popular movements, not hugger-mugger in round table negotiations and conferences among leaders and advisers, not in universities, not in the widely read or viewed media, not in editorials.... Even in a democracy like the United States, people got educated into civil rights on the site of popular movements through the sixties, not by the classroom and editorial commonplaces about 'racial equality'.
Akeel Bilgrami is the Johnsonian Professor of Philosophy and the Director of the Heyman Center for the Humanities at Columbia University.
It's still possible that the old regime will find a way to cling on in Egypt, that the army will find a new front man. But what is clear is that beneath the ossified surface of the US-backed dictatorships and monarchies that span the Middle East, from Morocco to Saudi Arabia and from Jordan to Yemen, something profoundly different is waiting to be born. Turkey and Indonesia may already offer us a glimpse of that possible future: a future of modern, moderate, independent-minded democracies, pursuing their own interests, and no longer obsessively shaped by security concerns. If Egypt can do it, then maybe one day Saudi Arabia can follow, and if that happens, so much that is wrong in Muslim-majority countries today, so much that is inegalitarian, sectarian, and stifling, has the potential to be put right. Here, in Pakistan, such a possibility gives me much-needed hope.
Mohsin Hamid is a Pakistani novelist and the author of The Reluctant Fundamentalist.
The situation in Egypt, what a bland phrase for such intense events, makes me thing about three things. The first is the essential unpredictability of events. Tunisia may have been the ‘iskra’ – Lenin’s spark of revolution – but many sparks fly without causing a fire. As a social scientist I have been trained to look for preconditions, structural forces, critical coalitions, resources, and the like, but what we can never find is that most quixotic of elements, bravery. The desire to take that unquantifiable leap into a world of uncertainty armed only with the knowledge that you have no guarantee others will follow. Bravery is what we see in Tahrir square, an emergent property of an unbalanced system that is not reducible to the elements that constitute it. The second thing is the tactics employed by the regime. There is a kind of ‘tin pot dictators’ handbook evolving from Uzbekistan to Iran to Egypt. Cut the internet, use mobiles against the kids using them, send in the thugs. And if that doesn’t work, keep it going long enough so that the military have ‘reason’ to step in. Against this stand ordinary people taking incredible risks. Revolutions should not occur, the deck is stacked. The third thing is what happens if against the odds Mubarak does go. Simplistic narratives of ‘modernizers,’ ‘secularists’ and ‘islamicists’ obscure more than they illuminate, but it would be a tragedy if the fate that befell Iran fell upon Egypt, where one regime of despotic stagnation is replaced by another with different legitimatory touchstones. Egypt has real problems: a large and young population, massive unemployment, arable land that is silting-up, and increadible cronyism and corruption. Add to this the wildcard that is Egypt’s relations with Israel and we can see how the Western powers have been content to let Mubarak and his ilk, truly the last remnants of the cold war alliances, remain in place. But the cost of doing so was to cheat millions of the possibility of improvement in their lives. Probabilisitically, when such eruptions occur may remain unknowable, but they are, to use Nassim Taleb’s term, “White Swans.” You know that they are coming, you know their impact will be massive, but you just don’t want to think about it too much. There is a cost to such a stance of supporting the detestable in preference to the unknowable, and not just for the people of Egypt.
Mark Blyth is Professor of International Political Economy at Brown University.
Frans de Waal:
The situation in Egypt may seem uniquely complex, but there is something about raw power that everyone recognizes whether in distant lands, in small-scale human societies, or in social animals. After all, the term "pecking-order" refers to the behavior of fowl. From fish to birds and from dogs to primates, dominance hierarchies are ubiquitous. The larger a species' brains the more complex they get. They are not always determined by size and strength, for example. In chimpanzees, a small male may reach the top, because power rests on coalitions, in which several individuals act together. The small male may simply be more diplomatic (grooming his allies, sharing food, tolerating other males mating with females), thus buying the support of other males. Conversely, the way power is lost often reflects the way a male ruled. If he rules like a bully, terrifying everyone, keeping females for himself, he is likely to end badly. When he is challenged, others are eager to join in and make sure he is defeated. In wild chimpanzees, such males may be so badly injured that they die of infections. In zoos, we may need to remove them after the "coup," so as to keep them form getting killed. Popular alphas, on the other hand, who defend the weak and share resources, are defended en masse against challengers. Their rule lasts longer as a result. And when the inevitable moment of defeat arrives, they just drop a few rungs on the ladder and remain important power-brokers behind the scenes. The level of violence during power transitions is proportional, therefore, to the brutality of the ruler, as was probably already known to the pharaohs.
Frans de Waal is the C. H. Candler Professor of Psychology and the Director of the Living Links Center at Emory University.
The protests are redefining the West’s relationship to the Arab world. 9/11, the War on Terror, and debates over “Why do they hate us?” defined that relationship in atavistic terms: us vs. them. From this perspective, the revolutionaries in Tunisia, Egypt and elsewhere in the Arab world have already achieved something very significant. Their demands are the same as ours: democracy, freedom, and rights. They don’t hate us; they are us. I hope that the spirit of Tahrir Square comes to define the emerging 21st century, as a time when we began to realize that there is no “them”—there is just “us”, albeit a new, emergent, and globally connected us.
Yet a sober look at history also suggests that not all revolutions succeed. In 1989 Eastern Europe freed itself from Communist dictatorship, but China crushed a similar emergent democratic movement. More telling is an even older case. In 1848, the spirit (or “spectre”) of revolution gripped Europe in a way comparable to what some argue may be happening in the Arab world today. At the time, Marx and Engels argued that the structures of history were marching inexorably forward toward revolution. They were wrong, at least in the short term, and most revolutions either fizzled or were crushed. Today people make a similar sort of mistake, I think, in believing that structural forces—like the technology of global connectedness—make political change toward open societies inevitable, whether in the Arab world or anywhere else. History doesn’t work like that. Some regimes are willing to pay even a very high price to stay in power and crush dissent. And revolutions can exhaust themselves and be overturned, or end in terror, civil war, or being taken over by hardliners who impose a new closed regime. We don’t know whether Egypt’s emergent democratic revolution will succeed, even if Mubarak is deposed.
The heart is hopeful, in other words, while the head is fearful.
Pablo Policzer is Associate Professor of Political Science and Canada Research Chair in Latin American Politics at the University of Calgary.
No one could have predicted the extent and scale of popular uprising in Egypt, not President Hosni Mubarak, not the analysts, not even the protestors. In fact, even as Tunisia erupted, analysts were confident of Mubarak’s ability to control the Egyptian street. All analyses now are therefore ex post facto and must be treated as such. There was simmering tension of course; Kefaya, a loose alliance of disparate political and civil society groups, had been protesting Mubarak’s policies since the 2003 anti-war movement. It did manage to influence, to a small measure, some constitutional reforms but had largely fizzled out by 2005.
What is happening now offers both dangers and opportunities. Change is inevitable but it is difficult to predict its shape. The outcome will be largely determined by the military which has emerged as the arbiter. The protestors could either settle for an ‘all or nothing’ approach or accept incremental change. At this moment the irreducible minimum seems to be Mubarak’s departure. The military should appreciate that a viable negotiating position would demand that Mubarak be asked to step down. Equally, if it does that, the military would harden its position and likely to insist that further reforms must be debated in and through formal political structures and not decided on the street. Whether the protestors accept that would determine the resolution of this phase.
Ejaz Haider is a prominent Pakistani journalist. He was a Ford Scholar at the Programme in Arms Control, Disarmament and International Security at UIUC (1997) and a visiting fellow at the Brookings Institution's Foreign Policy Studies Programme.
For the past ten years, Egyptian citizens have been developing a coherent critique of the Mubarak regime that links its exclusionary politics to its unfair economics. The assessment isn’t made in elite salons or university seminars, but in a series of cascading street protests that took off in 2000 and continued unabated right up to the January 25 popular uprising. The protesters are diverse and so are their claims: workers launch wildcat strikes demanding fairer wages and safer working conditions; shantytown dwellers and rural people demand basic services and public goods; and a wide cross-section of the population decries lack of democracy and unpopular foreign policies. But embedded in each and every protest action irrespective of its content is a claim that the aggrieved must be consulted on decisions that affect their lives. The 2011 uprising isn't just about a bundle of economic grievances or a political cry that Mubarak must leave. It draws a causal connection between economic suffering and lack of representation.
From their lived experience under aggressive market transformation since the 1990s, Egyptians know only too well the disastrous effects of unaccountable leaders making momentous decisions; decisions about privatization of national assets, provision of public goods, urban planning and infrastructure, and sale of natural resources. These large concepts translate into the texture of daily life. Prices are rising and services are dwindling; Egyptians are paying more and more for less and less. They wake up in the morning to top-down decrees that their neighborhoods are being razed to make way for “development projects,” i.e. pricey high-rises and malls built by crony businessmen. They learn that their natural gas is being sold to Israel, with no public discussion or deliberation. They get beaten and killed by police in broad daylight, and they can't do a thing about it. Their government buttresses Israel's blockade of Gaza, but they can't change those policies despite their deep unpopularity.
Egyptians have few spaces to aggregate interests or interface with public officials to get even basic information. Municipal councils that administer crucial public services are graft-ridden and unresponsive; professional associations, which used to be mini-parliaments complete with competitive internal elections, are severely hemmed in and some shut down altogether; labor unions are nothing more than state appendages staffed by a pliant labor aristocracy; and even student unions are strictly controlled by university rectors, to prevent any independent or oppositional students from being represented. The brazenly rigged parliamentary elections in December 2010 were the final act of political liquidation, shuttering one of the very few remaining spaces of limited representation.
The outcome is an exclusive ruling cartel that has a chokehold over the economy and a monopoly over all state institutions and public property. Over the years, citizens have knitted these discrete ‘factors’ of economics and politics into links in a chain, a chain leading from political exclusion to economic privation. “We’ve been deprived for a long time in our own country,” an elderly woman protestor in Tahrir Square told al-Jazeera. Without a presence in decision-making structures at any level, citizens know that they’re subject to the arbitrary actions of the state, from decrepit public services to lethal police brutality. So they are demanding inclusion. In late November 2010, I accompanied Bushra al-Samny, a schoolteacher and Islamist candidate for parliament on one of her campaign walkabouts in Alexandria. I heard her repeatedly say to the struggling working class people in her constituency, “We have to get into this parliament, we can't leave it up to them to take over like they've done with everything else.”
Long suffering under economic uncertainty and a stifling state of political predictability, Egyptians are rising up to demand more economic security, but they’re not just calling for higher wages and more jobs. They're demanding procedures to guarantee political representation, so that the same cartel doesn't return itself to power over and over again in sham elections, and then exploit its political dominance to spread its tentacles into the economy. Egyptians want bread and democracy. They may or may not get them this time around, but they have indelibly made the connection.
Mona El-Ghobashy is Assistant Professor of Political Science at Barnard College, Columbia University.
Arab joke on the Internet: Obama suggests to Mubarak that he write a farewell message to the Egyptian people. Mubarak replies, "Why, where are they going?"
This seems to be the right question to ask but I think we cannot know at this point what the answer will be. The wise (old) men--Brezezinski,et.al.--suggest we should try and slow things down because in the immediate mess radical Islam will take control. These are the men (and they are men) who always referred to Mubarak as a "strongman" rather than a dictator. Obama says the right things in public (violence against the protestors must cease; Mubarak must (eventually) go) while sending Frank Wisner to negotiate with Suleiman (a torturer for the CIA and a Mubarak clone). It is also ironic that the main party lobbying for the retention of the dictator--Israel--descends from a people oppressed by Egyptian autocrats.
I don't deny the possibility that allowing the current coalition of protestors to gain significant power could turn out badly but in the absence of any way of predicting outcomes we should simply stick to principle. As they used to say in my Berkeley days--Power to the People.
Gerald Dworkin is Distinguished Professor of Philosophy at the University of California, Davis. He has taught at Harvard, MIT, and the University of Illinois at Chicago and been a Visiting Fellow of All Souls, Oxford as well as a Research Fellow at the Australian National University.
I am really thrilled that everybody is wrong about the great global divide between Islam and the West.
Arabs (the most Muslim of Muslims, as the narrative goes) are supposed to be against democracy and Westerners for it. Arabs are supposed to want authoritarian octogenarians to rule them and Westerners youthful entrepreneurs who are into Facebook and Twitter to do so. And Arabs are supposed to be only concerned about stability, Islam and veiled women, while Westerners are supposed to be secular, desire individual freedoms and Western women carry Louis Vuitton bags.
Well guess what – Tunisia and now Egypt - have turned these assumptions on their head. Arabs are talking about democracy (home-grown, not imposed by the barrel of the gun) and the West is talking about an “orderly transition”. Egypt is looking to internet entrepreneurs and a Nobel peace laureate to lead them out of this morass, while the West is looking to an aging intelligence chief to lead them out of their morass in Egypt.
I am also pleased because I was always skeptical about this so-called divide between Islam and the West. Indeed in a column I wrote for 3QD five years ago – I suggested that I wasn’t sure the whole of the so called divide between Islam and the West was greater than the sum of its parts. And to me the parts were – among other things – “representative elections in Syria and Egypt”. I did not go far enough. Indeed we might not only say that while the “whole” of the divide between Islam and the West is no greater than the “sum of the parts”, we can now say with Egypt – that there was no real whole to talk of.
While it is too early to say how this will all play out – plural democracy, popular democracy, Islamist democracy (a la Turkey), Islamist regime, reconstituted regime sans Mubarak, or reconstituted regime with Mubarak – I am hopeful. I am absolutely thrilled by our Egyptian brothers and sisters. As Omar Shariff says “these young people are very nice and I do not think there will be bloodshed”.
Ram Manikkalingam is Visiting Professor of Political Science at Amsterdam University and Director of the Dialogue Advisory Group.
When Abbas asked me to write a few words about the recent events in Egypt I was perplexed. As I've gotten older, I've tried to speak less about things I don't know much about, and the wars, revolutions, and atrocities of our age rank uppermost among them. So I'll begin just by saying that, like most of my friends, I've been watching the news with hopeful fascination and with that kind of virtual solidarity that seems a little embarrassing for its absolute safety. I'm not a political scientist. No one is going to throw a brick at my head. What I cannot offer by way of analysis, I'll try to make up for in storytelling. I was born the year of the Six Day War, in a hospital nested in the bosom of academia along the Charles River. I grew up in the period between the occupation and the Camp David accords and was in college during the first Intifada. The Egypt of my childhood mind was ominous and ever present. Israel, we knew, was at war with Egypt and that war threatened my people, the Jews. I didn't get this story from my atheist and progressive parents, or not exactly. They did send me to a secular Hebrew school and that school was fervently Zionist, but I'm not sure they knew that. Only later did I realize what propaganda I was being fed. Even so, it wasn't just Hebrew school. The whole culture of secular Judaism at the time was pervaded by a kind of Israel-o-philia. On the one side was Black September and Entebbe, on the other, Milk and Honey. Egypt and Israel, night and day. To a seven or eight year old, it all seemed very simple, if a little frightening.
With college and the Intifada, I put away such childish things. Part of growing up was learning what the history was and what the occupation entailed. Little more need be said. Egypt by that time was at peace with Israel and had thus receded from view. A more complicated and morally demanding landscape had taken its place: no longer night and day, but varying hues of dusk. Again, I have little to say about the politics of occupation that wouldn't be obvious to anyone who pays attention. I have wondered from time to time, however, what goes into not paying attention. The memories of Egypt I can draw up from childhood now seem painfully, obscenely wrong headed, a kind of unknowing deceit pulled over young minds. And still, the sense that we were lied to shares space with sweet recollections, glimpsed through time's soda-pop-bottle haze: my grandparents' house, my sisters singing "hene ma tov," hamsas on the wall, latkes.
Sentiment shouldn't cloud ordinary judgment, but of course it always does. I can only imagine what in those days kept my parents from teaching us to view Palestinians through the same lens as we saw the Vietnamese or striking coal miners. Even now, talk about Egypt conjures among some relatives and a few other Jews I know low-voiced worries about the Muslim Brotherhood and the fate of Israel. While such talk is deplorable on the face of it, it is also depressing in a special way for anyone who shares my, albeit quite ordinary and unglamorous, background. I'd like to think that fantasies of evil Egypt, along with the associated disregard for Palestinians, were anomalies of another age. After all, the 1970s were as close to the Holocaust as we are to the 1970s. And yet clearly they are not. For what other reason could anyone respond to a mass social movement of this kind with anything other than joy tempered by awe?
The unremarkable and special sense that one gets with memory—belonging to a family and a family to a community and a community to a history—is of course the stuff of life. The point is not to abandon such things, as if one ever could, but to understand their role in shaping one's experience. The view from nowhere is arid and empty. But that doesn't mean we are captive to the worst feelings that surrounded us. If the events in Egypt have once again brought out the regrettable limits in some, these are limits not just of reason or judgment, but also of the imagination and, finally, of sentiment.
Jonathan Kramnick is Associate Professor of English at Rutgers University. He has recently published a book: Actions and Objects from Hobbes to Richardson.
Why is “Facebook” or “Twitter” or “Al Jazeera” spray-painted on the shutters of a building in Tahrir Square? And what is the writer Ahdaf Soueif doing with a computer in her lap, in the middle of a protest? I think I know, although I don’t know exactly, and you know it too; I guess we’ll have to wait till Malcolm Gladwell explains it to us. Did you see this? “REVOLUTION IS NOT A MICROCHIP, A BREAKFAST CEREAL, OR A NEW LAUNDRY SOAP—REVOLUTION IS AN INSURRECTION, IN WHICH ONE SOCIAL CLASS OVERTHROWS ANOTHER.” It struck me, not without some irony, that I had come across it on Facebook when an artist friend of mine posted it. And I couldn’t resist asking her, “Can I tweet this?” It is not because of Twitter that people are protesting in Egypt. It is not because of Facebook that there is a revolution unfolding there. But it is true that the way in which people are mobilizing, or how they are protesting, has a good deal to do with social media. All of this should be obvious. A wonderful aspect of the way in which events have taken shape in Egypt has been the excitement of being able to share it via social media; one can see already a global community being born; and while the extent to which this global participation will be able to translate into political change at the top might still be an open question, there are some good results already evident. Consider the tweet posted above. It tells us of the change not only in the popular thinking in Arab countries; rather, thanks to what we in the West have seen on our television and computer screens, we have been liberated, to a great extent, from our prejudices. The crowd in Tahrir Square might or might not get rid of Mubarak; but let’s hope they topple those huge, ugly statues of Samuel Huntington and Bernard Lewis.
Amitava Kumar is Professor of English at Vassar College and the author, most recently, of A Foreigner Carrying in the Crook of His Arm A Tiny Bomb.
Washington's reaction to events in Egypt has reaffirmed the analytical and practical shortcomings of supporting an authoritarian strongman in the interests of preserving "political stability." The stability theme, of course, has prominently featured in US policy over several decades, through both the Cold War and post-Cold War periods. Indonesia's Suharto, the Philippines' Marcos and South Korea's Park, more recently have been replaced by Uzbekistan's Karimov, Ethiopia's Wolde-Giorgis and, of course, the ruling families of Saudi Arabia and the Persian Gulf states, all gatekeepers to either strategically located resources, geopolitical real estate or assets. President Mubarak was the quintessential US client and strongman, skillfully positioning himself as an indispensable broker of US policy in the heart of the Middle East through the Cold War confrontation, Arab-Israeli Wars wars and the more recent "Global War on Terror."
Of all the justifications for supporting authoritarian clients, none has made the case as influentially as Jean Kirkpatrick's essay "Dictatorship and Double-Standards" published in Commentary in 1979. The seminal article, which reportedly so struck then Presidential candidate Ronald Reagan that he would soon after appoint Kirkpatrick US Ambassador to the United Nations, argued that the Carter Administration's insistence on pressing US poitical clients to democratically reform had unnecessarily opened the door to even more extreme governments to take their place, ones that were openly hostile to the Untied States. Thus, in both the case of the Shah's Iran and Samoza's Nicaragua, their overthrow by "totalitarian" opponents–Islamic militants and the Sandinistas– damaged US interests and credibility and underscored the dangerous naivete of Carter's engagement on human rights. The Kirkpatrick doctrine crystalized that supporting US authoritarian strongmen has conistsently been justified by appealing to the fear of an unknown, chaotic and unmanageable alternative. Democratic transitions that lead to populist backlashes, new strongmen and social movements all bring uncertainty, never mind the actual dysfunctionality that usually characterized these ongoing patron-client relationships.
So in this latest chapter, Mubarak played his final card that performed this ghastly raison d'être as the "great stabilizer." By sending out his plain clothes thugs to disrupt rallies, injure journalists and promote chaos, he betrayed the last move of a desperate regime, one conditioned over three decades to believe in his own "role". Indeed, Frank Wisner, President Obama's special envoy of great experience but little imagination, could not bring himself to publicly think of not engaging with Mubarak in a way that did not validate this traditional brokering role.
The silver lining in this whole episode, beyond the fact that the Egyptian people appear to be taking a serious step towards greater self-representation, is that the power of emulation, disseminated by Al Jazeera and social networking media, may now be emerging as a powerful mobilizing alternative to the "stability" canard. Not because the internet, Twitter or other media possess some magical power, but because they offer concrete examples of successful political change in similar polities, thereby inspiring both activists and external leaders to peer beyond the strongman abyss.
Alexander Cooley is Associate Professor of Political Science at Barnard College, Columbia University.
The mass demonstrations in Tahrir Square were seen by many people in the USA as an affirmation of American values, their admiration for our democracy. The Egyptians revolted against a system of governance which was unequal, undemocratic, and unjust. “We want what you have,” one Egyptian protester told Christiane Amanpour.
Let’s take a look at what we have, shall we?
The United States is a substantially more unequal country than Egypt. The standard measure of inequality, the Gini coefficient, for the USA is 41; for Egypt, it’s 29. The richest fifth of Egyptians make 39% of its income and the bottom fifth, 9.8%; figures for the comparable groups in the USA are 46% and 5.2%.
In New York, the top one percent of the population makes almost half – 45% - of the city’s income. The average person in this group earns more in one day than a person in the bottom ten percent earns in one year.
And democracy? Yes, Americans live in a democracy, in which only a minority participates. In the 2010 Congressional elections, 60% of those eligible to vote chose not to. Egypt has not yet had a democratic election, but voter turnout rates in India, for example, are over 60%. The majority - 57% - of Indian voters are from the bottom fifth of the income pyramid, as opposed to 36% in the USA. The difference between the world’s two biggest democracies is this: in India, the poor vote.
As for repressive government: in Egypt, 89 out of a hundred thousand people are behind bars. In America, one out of a hundred adults – 2.3 million people, 70% of them nonwhite – is imprisoned, the highest number and percentage of any country on the planet.
So I wait for the Twitter and Facebook messages urging a million Americans to gather in Times Square, inspired by the sight of Egyptians hungry for real democracy, for change we can believe in.
Suketu Mehta is the author of Pulitzer Prize finalist Maximum City: Bombay Lost and Found, winner of the O. Henry Prize, and frequent contributor to various newspapers and magazines.
Justin E. H. Smith:
By the middle of the 17th century it was sometimes heard that, while China is the France of the Orient, Egypt is its Holland: the former pair represented two massive and stagnant imperia, while the latter were dynamic pivot points of global trade. Since the Low Countries were too strong to be taken over directly by France, it was often proposed to Louis XIV that he, in effect, acquire his own Amsterdam by acquiring Cairo. The scheme would however have to wait for Napoleon to be attempted, but it was one and the same simmering ambition that was carried on from the old regime to the new one.
The plan for bolstering trade through an Egyptian presence was helped along by a parallel mythology, of Egypt as the ultimate homeland --going back to deepest antiquity-- of Occidental learning (see, for example Athanasius Kircher's Oedipus Aegyptiacus of 1652). Seen in this light, the current inhabitants of Egypt, the 'Saracens', were not so much stewards of the place as mere interlopers. They had not built the pyramids, nor devised the hieroglyphs, nor anything we hold dear. But that's all just mythology; geopolitically it really does make sense to subsume Egypt into a broader, continuous Mediterranean cultural sphere that includes (whoever we are) us. I recall seeing off in some dusty corner of Egypt a statue to none other than Il Duce, proudly proclaiming in its inscription that he was finally bringing the Imperium Romanum back together. Meddling in Egypt, I mean to say, is not quite like meddling in Hispaniola or Borneo. We go way back; in fact, if the Hermetic corpus has a grain of truth in it, we go all the way back with respect to tradition. Even if Greece is the true birthplace of Western values, this does not permit us to discern at their onset an arrow pointing to the northwest and not one to the south. In fact, if we think of universalism and democracy as the greatest gifts of our Greek heritage, then it must be noted that they first started giving themselves in northeast Africa long before 'Europe' meant much of anything except by way of rough geographical contrast to Asia Minor. Neoplatonists were writing in Alexandria about religious toleration, for example, at a time when Anglo-Saxons could not even write their own names.
I don't know how helpful it really is to probe so deeply into history. But I am convinced that the myth --whose perpetuation really only got going in the 19th century, thanks in large part to the misguided analyses of Marx-- of the ahistoricity of Asiatic regimes is today nothing more than a convenient pretext for the Western support of mediocre kleptocrats and their shopaholic wives and mistresses. Egypt is as dynamic as anywhere else-- at times Cairo has favorably been compared to Amsterdam; and Alexandria to Athens. It has appeared stagnant over the past several decades because parties who are afraid of the forms its dynamism might take have conspired to make nothing happen at all. But where nothing is happening, something is usually simmering; and the glorious revolutionary outburst of the past week has reminded us of what we should have known all along: that Egypt is now as ever a powerful locus of change, and a pivot point of world history.
Justin E. H. Smith is Associate Professor of Philosophy at Concordia University.
Many thanks to all who contributed here.
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