Stephen Colbert joked last week: “Egypt continues to be rocked by violent unrest in a major test not only of the power of Democracy, but of the American attention span.”
It’s a painfully astute observation. While Egyptian protesters are still camped underneath tank treads in Tahrir Square — having decided that it’s ride or die, in so many words — America still seems to be working out its narrative. Now, as the national attention span fades, its becoming dangerously likely we’ll reach for and rely on the closest available trope to explain what’s going on, and to form opinions. Our most popular news outlets simply cannot cope with sustained complexity.
So which hackneyed narrative to adopt? Let’s take a look at our options.
- “Mubarak is a friend of the U.S., let’s make sure there’s continuity and respect in the transition.”
Not even the staunchest Mubarak apologists think he’s got much gas left in him, but that doesn’t mean they support revolution — or democracy — in Egypt. This telling — adopted with patent hypocrisy by the likes of Dick Cheney, who sent us to war in Iraq on at least partly ideological grounds — purports to be a realist’s assessment of our national interests. (In fact, it’s a shortsighted perspective that is grounded in our myths about the region and the fear of the powerful of having things shaken up.)
It goes: Sure, Mubarak is no democratic leader, but he limited the spread of extremism with his strong rejection of Islamists. (In fact, Mubarak’s political repression probably promoted extremism by making it the only viable alternative, or by making it so that the only people willing to voice opposition were people with an extreme disposition.)
He is a reliable friend to Israel in the region, supporting the blockade against Gaza and showing that an Arab state can be at peace with Tel Aviv. (In fact, the veneer of stability that the Mubarak regime managed to slather over political fault lines with a San Andreas’s worth of potential energy probably only increased the likelihood of cataclysm — and made things more dangerous for everyone.)
He joined our invasion of Iraq in Gulf War I, and later, in the War on Terror, he helped us rendition suspects for interrogation. (In fact, it’s simply embarrassing that we’d be citing his hired-goon and proxy-torturer statuses as a reason for support.)
Further, we should be consistent in our support for our allies. (In fact, there is no basis for such an attitude toward foreign despots in American history — they’ve always been relationships of convenience.)
- “Hey, I’m no Mubarak supporter, but allowing him to be chucked out now means throwing the Middle East into chaos.”
This is a corollary of the argument above. Implicitly, it’s grounded in the view that Arabs are unfit to govern themselves, though it’s masquerading as a vague concern about peace. The most obvious evidence to the contrary is that we currently have chaos in Egypt because of Mubarak, not to mention chaos throughout the Middle East, often as a result of other supposedly stability-enhancing American policies.
- “This is a fight for universal ideals of human rights, enfranchisement, and liberal values. Today we are all Egyptians! Stick it to The Man!”
On the other extreme, this is, admittedly, the most attractive trope for people like me. For those of us raised on Rage Against the Machine, Tupac (“we might fight against each other, but I’ll promise you this/We’ll burn this [thing] down, you get us pissed”), Sublime, John Lennon, Bob Marley, sound bites from MLK and Malcolm X — I could go on — throwing Molotov cocktails in the streets against an evil authority figure is an enduring fantasy (which we love to listen to songs about). And it’s not that there is no truth to this perspective — there is much universal to relate to in the yearnings of the millions who took to Egyptian streets in the last two weeks.
But let’s not distort the uprising to support our own fantasies.
To wit, the dangers are the following: (1) While “we are all Egyptians” is a fine statement of solidarity, taken to its logical extreme it is practically not true. If the street protests go awry, we in the United States do not pay the price — we do not lose loved ones to violence or to prison if there’s a crackdown; we don’t stand to suffer materially if a group we don’t support emerges powerful. (These were points that the Code Pink members who unfurled a banner with their organization’s name on it in Tahrir Square last week apparently did not grasp very well.)
(2) Recognizing the universal aspects of the struggle should not come at the expense of whitewashing local politics — or become an excuse for not seeking to understand them. There is no place in the world where there is a simple choice between good and evil, and Egypt is of course no exception. There are factions amongst the protesters. Mubarak is not the only person in the government. The military has other-than-altruistic reasons for remaining neutral. To ignore these things is to misunderstand the situation. (3) The revolution is not what we want it to be about; it’s what the protesters want it to be about. (This was a mistake many Twitter observers of the Iranian demonstrations in 2009 made: some believed they were anti-Islamism, pro-America and -Israel protests, which had little if anything to do with why people took to the streets.) With factors (1) and (2) above in full force, it becomes easier to ignore the intricacies of protesters’ demands and imagine that they represent what we would like them to.
So let’s be moved by pictures of Christian and Muslim Egyptians rallying together against Mubarak, and by the sacrifices and determination of the protesters. But Americans also ought not to forget that this is a story about Egyptians, for once, taking charge of their own destiny. Let’s direct our petitioning to the government that represents us, rather than projecting facile narratives of triumph or fear onto events that are far enough away that we can ignore their nuance.