Monday, January 31, 2011

Further Thoughts on the Egyptian Uprising

On Mohamed El Baradei

Mohamed El Baradei's name was frequently mentioned on the talking heads shows this past Sunday. Some questions: Would El Baradei-- a Viennese resident and a Nobel Peace Prize winner -- be considered an organic fit in Egypt? Would the student intellectuals who spearheaded the uprising accept him? Would the less affluent, less well educated accept him? Would the Muslim Brotherhood -- financed by Iran -- work to dislodge El Bradei and discredit him were he to replace Mubarak as an interim President? And if that happened, what would its overall effect be on the War on Terror and the foreign policy objective of containing Iranian influence in the region?

Mubarak is a stalwart US ally in the "War on Terror" -- and even before then -- as a symbol of stability in the intellectual center of the Arab world. But is he an "ally" in the long run? Right-wing Ross Douhat writes in the NYTimes:

In “The Looming Tower,” his history of Al Qaeda, Lawrence Wright raises the possibility that “America’s tragedy on September 11 was born in the prisons of Egypt.” By visiting imprisonment, torture and exile upon Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood, Mubarak foreclosed any possibility of an Islamic revolution in his own country. But he also helped radicalize and internationalize his country’s Islamists, pushing men like Ayman Al-Zawahiri — Osama bin Laden’s chief lieutenant, and arguably the real brains behind Al Qaeda — out of Egyptian politics and into the global jihad.

At the same time, Mubarak’s relationship with Washington has offered constant vindication for the jihadi worldview. Under his rule, Egypt received more American dollars than any country besides Israel. For many young Egyptians, restless amid political and economic stagnation, it’s been a short leap from hating their dictator to hating his patrons in the United States. One of the men who made this leap was an architecture student named Mohamed Atta, who was at the cockpit when American Airlines Flight 11 hit the World Trade Center.

These sound like good reasons to welcome Mubarak’s potential overthrow, and the end to America’s decades-long entanglement with his drab, repressive regime.

Realism versus Neoconservatism

The two most powerful ideas in American foreign policy have been battling it out for ideological supremacy on the Beltway since the turn of the millennium as disciples of the Jacksonian and Liberal Internationslist schools of thought watch idly by on the sidelines of power. The execrable Monica Crowley, on the McLaughlin Show, posited that the Egyptian uprising is the triumph of the Bush administration's neoconservatism. Does she have a point? Or is Crowley just being ridiculous, as per usual. And she is not alone.

The problems with Neoconservatism and unilateralism were evident most obviously in the second administration of President Bush the Younger. That extreme idealism grew out of an extreme reaction to the September 11th attacks and the attention deficit disorder of Bush the Younger, who always idealized a war leader like Churchill. The Churchill Bust as metaphor.

Realism, by contrast, is an even harder philosophy to stomach. There is something amoral and unacceptable about it to mature political thinkers -- particular American political thinkers -- in that it almost wholly lacks any ideological motivations and is rather all about power relations.

Niccolo Machiavelli and Thomas Hobbes, the two earliest and best modernist philosophical communicators of this idea, both came from hugely unstable societies. The glory of Machiavelli's Florence was behind it when he served as a minor ambassador, forcing him to embrace -- and master -- the mechanics of "Machiavellianism." He had no choice; Machiavelli's philosophy emerged as the product of his social and political situation. Hobbes "Leviathan," written during the English Civil War, posited that the sate of nature is Bellum omnium contra omnes ("the war of all against all"). The teleological end of Realism is stability.

Further, Realism, vis-a-vis American foreign policy, is antithetical to the wants of the protesters in the Arab world. They of course also want "stability" -- who doesn't? who wants chaos? -- but they also make a convincing case about the hypocricy of American principles, which are inherently idealistic, and our cold, icy embrace of such an Old European philosophy. What gives?

Ah, George Washington -- how wise you were on the subject of "foreign entanglements."

Class and Egypt

The gap between rich and poor has been growing in recent years (over 5% GDP growth in the past few years). To what degree is class a factor -- which it surely is -- in the uprising? Class is always a major element in any revolution. Right now we are seeing students and the well-educated -- who happen to be unemployed -- at the vanguard of this uprising. Technology like social networks, not widely disseminated among average Egyptians, are communicating to the larger world inside perspectives of what is going on. But we have also heard reports of looting of antiquities and the homes of the wealthy class occurring.

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