Thoughts on Egypt
One can’t help but feel energized by recent events in Egypt. Though I’ve studied the Middle East a bit in my day, I’m by no means an expert and am wary of making any forecasts or even attempts at sophisticated analysis. While I’m optimistic, the cynic in me says that we must be cautious, aid and encourage the forces of democracy as best we can, but not declare victory just yet.
As a historian, I try to think of causes. Many are trying to credit Obama’s 2009 speech in Cairo, or G.W. Bush’s rhetoric of freedom and funding for election monitors, or the activism of labour unions, or the technologies like Facebook and Twitter, for fomenting, or causing, or aiding this revolution and speeding Hosni Mubarak’s ouster. In truth, I think it’s probably fruitless to look for a monocausal explanation. I think all these factors were and are important, to a greater or lesser degree. But if I had to identify the most important element, using Occam’s razor and opting for the simplest explanation, I wouldn’t choose Bush or Obama or any of the others. I would go with Thomas Friedman’s take: “they did it.” Inspired by the example of Tunisia, having been clamoring for freedom for over a century if not more, the people of Egypt brought the autocratic regime down. These were people from all walks of life, young and old, religious and secular, Muslim and Christian, poor people and workers and elites and intellectuals and members of the middle class, soldiers and civilians, but Egyptians all (I apologize for being all hokey here).
The other significant thought I have is about non-violent resistance, especially in light of the recent shootings in Tucson. Many Americans worship the Constitution’s Second Amendment not just out of a principle of freedom, but out of genuine distrust of the government, of the notion that an armed citizenry provides some sort of “check” on government authority. I always thought this view rather fanciful. The millions of American gun-owners, however rowdy they may or may not be, do not really threaten government authority in the United States. The US military has tanks and planes and bombs that could easily overwhelm them. Instead, we need only look to the recent history of the Civil Rights movement to show that non-violent resistance can actually force the government’s hand and bend it to the people’s will far more effectively than the “barrel of a gun” that Mao claimed as the locus of power. A tweet from Keith Olbermann crystallized this thought in mind: “the right to bear arms (or lack thereof) doesn’t matter in overthrowing tyranny.”
I always suspected as much was true in a democratic context like that of modern America, but I never imagined it could also be true in authoritarian regimes like Mubarak’s Egypt. True, real power may reside with the Egyptian military, but what we often forget in these contexts is that institutions like the military are made up of real people. People who were once civilians, and may again be civilians in the future. People who have friends and relatives across the spectrum of society. People who are moved and inspired by the throngs of their compatriots crying out for freedom.
I am no pacifist. Armed struggle has its place in the arc of justice. But the lesson of Egypt is one all Americans should take to heart, even those who “cling to guns and religion.”
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