Bothersome and bewildering as our existence often is, there is always a steady anchor of shallow wisdom to which we can cling for comfort and reassurance. During the confounding Egyptian commotion, it was soothing to behold the light and truth emblazoned so superficially across cyberspace by the astute likes of Lindsay Lohan.
And so twittered the starlet, inter alia embroiled in a whole slew of new legal entanglements: “Congratulations to the people of Egypt. Your voices were heard and you proved that peaceful demonstrations are possible and effective… I pray Egypt maintains it’s [sic] treaty with Israel and sets the trend for its neighbors to create peace with Israel and the entire region.”
Totally! Doesn’t that just prove that there’s more to airhead icons than meets the eye? Duh! No way all those Muslim Brothers who proliferate in the land of long-bygone pharaohs can fail to follow the irresistible teachings from la-la land.
But why pick on ditsy Lindsay? It’s not like her incisive slogans were any less incisive than those regurgitated ad nauseam by statesmen/women, self-professed experts and frivolous talking heads who couldn’t keep their mouths shut during the evolving Tahrir Square mayhem. Like Lindsay, not all of them quite knew where on the planet Egypt is, a negligible fact which prevented hardly anyone-who’s-anyone from expressing an opinion.
Even those who know Egypt’s geographical location perfectly well – like our own in-house Mideast crackerjacks – didn’t get it too right. Few now care to focus on their own fiascos, but as Cairo lost its composure right after the Tunisian turmoil, we were persuaded by clairvoyant pundits aplenty that “Egypt isn’t Tunisia” and that “Mubarak won’t fall like Ben Ali.”
BUT ARE they downhearted? Not in the least, despite having failed miserably to read the situation even as it unfolded before their very eyes. With their indomitable ardor not dampened, they admirably overlook their copious imperfections and spring right back to dispense more knowing predictions.
Having excoriated Hosni Mubarak with a surfeit of hindsight judgmentalisms, they now concentrate their prescient aptitudes on the Egyptian military, on its innate civic commitment, peaceful proclivities, technocrat impartiality, business-like efficiency, etc.
Their conclusions may be every bit as unfounded as Lindsay’s, but unlike her, they at least did hear of the Turkish army – not that the comparison between the Ankara generals and their Cairo counterparts holds any water and not that the long Turkish experiment ended as a sterling success story when weighed by the scales of Western pluralist values.
So what grounds are there for hoping for much better from the land of the Nile? Frankly none.
To begin with, nobody knows much about the sort of honchos who comprise Egypt’s military top brass and what their political inclinations are. Moreover, if they harbor any inclinations today, these may mutate unrecognizably next week. Some of them may chant the refrain we long to hear about peace with Israel being an intrinsic Egyptian interest to be safeguarded at all cost. But “intrinsic interests” are ever malleable in the Egyptian context.
The only constant in the Egyptian mix is its super-snarled red tape which effectively obstructs all governmental executive decisions. Even topmost policy edicts are unrecognizably ground down as they’re subjected to arbitrary whims imposed along the way by inflated cadres of sluggish administrators. The military caretakers may order reforms aplenty, but Egypt being Egypt, their commands are unlikely to be dependably implemented.
The bottom of the bureaucratic pyramid is the most troubling of all. Who are Egypt’s functionaries, apparatchiks, officers and soldiers? Putting them behind desks or in uniform is an expedient way of keeping them nominally employed and drawing salaries, but on the whole they’re too numerous and woefully underpaid.
Hence they’re eminently bribable. For a handful of dollars, Egyptian officials will turn a blind eye to whatever suits them.
It was so under Mubarak and will continue to be so long after him. The ills of Egyptian society weren’t Mubarak’s doing and won’t be undone by his successors.
Regardless of what Lindsay twitters and what more presumptuous analysts babble, the Egyptian masses – like their brethren throughout the Islamic realm – haven’t even a vague clue about democracy.
Whatever passes for elections in their midst are populist charades of thinly masked promotions for nepotism under the guise of opposing someone else’s corruption, all alluringly packaged as “the people’s choice.” Yet in effect this isn’t democracy as we know it.
In essence it’s rallying around substitute autocrats. The outdoor theater and the outward trappings may deceptively mimic democracy, but social justice or economic equality won’t be served thereby.
The idealistic notion in political science departments throughout American and European halls of academe presupposes the inborn attractiveness of democracy and the natural evolution toward it in all human societies. If the disadvantaged populations of the earth were only guided by relatively beneficent custodians, they’d ultimately see the light.
That was the expected guardian role of Mubarak, the late King Hussein (and his heir King Abdullah), Yasser Arafat (and his heir Mahmoud Abbas), the assorted potentates of the Arabian Peninsula, the Iraqi, Afghani and Pakistani American protégés and more.
But they never could deliver the goods. They were just more sophisticated than the Assads of Syria or the Gaddafis of Libya or the Saudi royals (before whom the leader of the free world bowed obsequiously soon after assuming office).
This is where forces like the Muslim Brotherhood garner their clout. These outfits, among them Hamas and Hezbollah on our doorstep, fill the vacuum and entice the needy. They offer bread and brainwashing to masses who don’t quarrel with the notion of being dominated by bosses, so long as these bosses are generous with their handouts. And thus the bellicose clerics are popularly perceived as honest and munificent, whereas their adversaries are despised as tyrants.
Democracy is intrinsically optimistic. At its base is an abiding humanist hope, a trust in the forces of the common good. We are naturally moved by scenes of mass defiance, by freedom mantras piercing the airwaves, by promises of new dawns arising. Dispiriting distinctions between the real and the ersatz may be over the heads of assorted Lindsays and unprofitable for rating-grabbers, who a priori set trends for the Lindsays.
But for those of us not fooled by facades, it was always clear, even before the latest regional upheaval. More than two years ago I cautioned in Another Tack against putting “our trust in Egypt (the ‘staff of hollow reed,’ as per Isaiah 36:6), which had already let us down more than once. Besides such factors as Hosni Mubarak’s ill-health and advancing age, the formidable strength of the Muslim Brotherhood and rampant Der Stürmer-style Jew-slandering, Egypt in the best of circumstances is never as good as its word, its sincerity or lack thereof notwithstanding. Even if Cairo’s powers-that-be were unreservedly determined to do their best – which is questionable – odds are that nothing would change.”