History does not enable us to predict the future, but it does help us to prepare for it. It therefore makes sense that commentators are searching for historical precedents to the dramatic events in Egypt. History might help shed light on where the potentially revolutionary developments are heading. It is important to get the history right, however. Some commentators have suggested that the world might be witnessing a repetition of the events of 1979, when an Islamic revolution overthrew the Shah of Iran.
When the protests in Egypt began last week, it did not take long for conservative pundits to sound the alarmist warning bell. Fox digital politics editor Chris Stirewalt cautioned on Special Report with Bret Baier, “If this is directed toward retrenchment of the Islamic forces, it could be difficult period for [the] Middle East.” Glenn Beck declared himself “no fan of Mubarak,” but warned, “God help [the police] if Egypt falls. God help them.” This reaction wasn’t completely predictable.
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Cairo, Egypt—It is getting harder and harder to report from Egypt. I’ve lived here for more than two years, and although Egypt has a reputation for oppressing the country’s domestic media, it doesn’t usually crack down on foreigners. Now, that has changed.
Washington—The democratic uprising in Egypt has brought into relief a gradual and little-noticed transformation in American politics. Over the last decade, ideological divisions over the role of democracy and human rights in American foreign policy have been scrambled. In the meantime, President Obama has restored foreign policy realism to the White House, giving a liberal gloss to what had traditionally been a conservative disposition.
As mass protests sweep through Cairo and Hosni Mubarak teeters, some U.S. observers have turned almost reflexively to the analogy of Iran and the Shah in 1979. “Just look at Iran,” Leslie Gelb wrote earlier this week: If the Muslim Brotherhood takes control in Egypt, which Gelb believes may be at hand, “it’s going to be almost impossible for the people to take it back.” At times of unexpected but momentous political change in distant countries, we grasp onto political analogies to help get our bearings. Even if we know they are imperfect, we can’t resist their tempting suggestiveness.
As an American in Egypt, I’ve always been asked about my government’s support for President Mubarak. My usual response is to say, “We don’t control everything our government does, just like in Egypt. I am here to write about your country so people in my country and in my government can read it.” Prior to this week, most people thanked me and the buck stopped there. But as this country’s social order upends itself, I’ve noticed a marked shift in the way people here react to authority.
President Mubarak’s government may soon collapse. Popular support for him has evaporated, and while the Obama administration has declined to officially take sides in the Egyptian protests, it is clearly looking toward some sort of endgame. But what form would such a transition take?
Item: “In recounting Saturday’s deliberations, [administration officials] said Mr. Obama was acutely conscious of avoiding any perception that the United States was once again quietly engineering the ouster of a major Middle East leader. … ‘He said several times that the outcome has to be decided by the Egyptian people, and the U.S. cannot be in a position of dictating events.’”—David E.
Only fools would predict the unpredictable, and thus with the course of the Egyptian revolution. Imagine yourself as a pundit in Paris at the start of the French Revolution, the mother of them all. In August of 1789, you would have celebrated the “General Declaration of Human Rights,” an ur-document of democracy, as the dawn of “liberty, equality and fraternity.” Yet, four years later, the Terreur erupted, claiming anywhere between 16,000 and 40,000 lives. In 1804, one-man despotism was back.