Monday, January 31, 2011

News on the Nile

It's not quite "All Egypt All the Time" on the news channels, but it comes close. Starting with TV and now exponentially so with the Internet, we have become addicted to the fantasy of being on the scene whenever and wherever events of world-historical significance are (or appear to be) occurring. The fact is, however, that how much I know about what's happening in Egypt makes absolutely no difference to anyone or anything. Policymakers, of course, are another story. Naturally, if I worked in the White House or the State Department, I would want to be getting up-to-the minute reports on the Egyptian situation - although even then whether a reactive, crisis-driven response is really in the best interest of the US is still another question.

The tragic fact is that - even for policymakers - having up-to-the-minute information ("in real time," to employ the more trendy post-modern idiom) may not make much of a difference either. It might actually do more harm than good, if it results in an obsession with "being on the right side of history" - without, of course, the critical distance necessary to know what history's direction will be.

I don't know what is going to happen in Egypt. Does anyone? Of course not! The reality is that the only thing we ever really know about history's direction is the past. The past may indeed (and often does) give us some sense of the likely direction of the future, but then it might not. Nor is the past necessarily univocal. The last Egyptian "revolution" (really a military coup, actually) was the overthrow of the monarchy some 60 years ago, which led to Nasser's pan-Arab "socialism" - a movement which inspired all sorts of havoc in the Middle East. "Pan-Arabism" probably and "Socialism" certainly are outdated ideas unlikely to be able to provide the ideological superstructure for Egyptian policy in the long run. The other obvious - and even worse - precedent from the past is, of course, the 1979 Iranian revolution, which replaced another reliable American ally and force for stability in the Middle East with a radically anti-American, anti-Israel, Islamist tyranny.

The world may dodge that particular bullet this time - if we're lucky. But, even if Egypt escapes Iran's radical fate, it is hard to imagine any particularly positive outcome from change in Egypt. Ever since Sadat made peace with Israel, Egypt has been a significant stabilizing force in that region. Egypt's ceasing to play that role would be an outcome hardly to be overly welcomed.

So the bottom line is no one really can know what is going to happen, but past experience suggests whatever happens will likely make things worse.

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