Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Egypt, Democracy, and the American Media

The Atlantic has a new article about the possibility of Egyptian democracy, the first from the American media that seems to actually reflect the situation on the ground and not anxiety.  The reaction in the U.S. media has been unusually fearful and emotional (particularly from Fox News, but also outlets such as ABC).  As has become so common since 9/11, the media has been quick to seize on any opportunity to remind us that we may die a horrible death at any time.  The situation in Egypt is far more complex and nuanced than that, and we Americans aren't giving it anywhere near enough credit.

I for one am guardedly optimistic about Egypt's chances, but as we learned in Iraq, the transition can be very, very messy.  Nonetheless, Egypt has a few things going for it.  True, like Iraq, Egypt is severely lacking in civil institutions.  And true, Hosni Mubarak was a rather brutal dictator in power for a very long time.  But Iraq failed as a democracy and descended into violent chaos largely because of its volatile mix of geography (being situated between two competing spheres of influence: Iran and Turkey), religion (an irate, oppressed majority of Shi'ites), and ethnicity (a Kurdish population that has been militarized since the breakup of the Ottoman Empire).  Egypt is roughly 90% Sunni Muslim, and relatively monoethnic (source: CIA World Factbook).  While it's true that there have been some warning signs from the Muslim Brotherhood (standing by their platform of denying Christians and women to run for President, for one), the Muslim Brotherhood is at most only one cog in this uprising.  Sunni Islam was never historically political among Arabs in the way that Shia was, Saudi Wahhabism notwithstanding.  Moreover, in the presence of ubiquitous cell phones, the internet, and public infrastructure, fundamentalist Islam is essentially a failed ideology, as events in Indonesia this past decade have shown us.  But Indonesia isn't Arab, and Egypt is not a tropical archipelago.  So the analogy isn't perfect.

Nonetheless, parallels to Iran in 1979 are probably ill-placed, and not even because of the Sunni/Shi'a difference.  The public face of these protests, Mohammed ElBaradei, is neither a cleric, nor conservative.  True, his position is not the same as the Ayatollah Khomenei's in 1979 (ElBaradei finds himself with limited popularity due to his long absences from his homeland).  Despite what the Israeli media or Fox News may be showing, there is little cohesive ideology to the crowds in Tahir Square other than their shared belief in removing Hosni Mubarak from power.  Nor, like in Iraq, is the revolution fomented by a foreign invasion and occupation.

Make no mistake: Mubarak is going to go.  Whether it happens relatively peacefully or violently is up to him, really, but the end is near.  While the army remains somewhat loyal to him, it won't remain so forever.  I see a couple of different scenarios, and they largely hinge on the personalities involved.  One, Omar Suleiman could orchestrate a transition of power, in which key steps to reforms are taken and pave the way for orderly elections as interim leader.  The Army could step in, which is also possible.  Alternately, there could be chaos.  In any event, the Muslim Brotherhood, while organized, has stated repeatedly they don't wish to rule by themselves, and besides which they lack the violent militant backing to enforce order from a power vacuum.  True Al-Qaeda could come in, but who are they going to attack?  The Coptic Christians?  That wouldn't destabilize Egypt at all in the way the Shi'ite/Sunni/Kurdish rivalry destabilized Iraq.  So as you can see, the U.S. media's portrayal of this as some sort of Iran/Iraq parallel is unfounded and oversimplified.

While the challenges are no less daunting in Egypt than they are in many parts of the world, they aren't insurmountable.   And while the region is most definitely moving into a new, much less stable phase of its history, it's not without historical precedent.  After all, what's the story of the region but autocratic regimes rising and falling?  Nothing lasts forever, not the least of which is tyranny (true tyranny, not what the Tea Partiers call it).  The region will stabilize itself eventually, but what else can we do but hope for the best and work for a better future?  We live in interesting times.

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