Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Egypt: Celebrate Now, Worry Later, Then Suffer A Lot

By Barry Rubin

Those who don't know history are doomed to repeat it. And those who don't know history also smugly say things that have more holes than substance.

Recently, someone responding to an article of mine said it's a pity I couldn't share the world's joy at the uprising in Egypt. That's precisely the way I feel. But someone has to point out certain problems.

It was a pity that there were a few people, like Edmund Burke and Tom Paine couldn't share the joy of the people at the revolution in France in 1789 and the downfall of the evil king. Silly people. Everyone was dancing in the streets. And then came the guillotine and a quarter-century of war.

It was a pity that there were a few people who couldn't share the joy of the people at the revolution in Russia in 1917, the second one especially. At last the evil czar was overthrown! Hooray. Oops. Stalin, concentration camps, the alliance with Nazi Germany that permitted the extermination of most of my family, and 45 years of Cold War.

It was a pity that there were a few people who couldn't share the joy of the people at the revolution in Iran. I was one of them. I watched while the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini was called a saint and someone who would soon retire from politics. I watched as the "real" Iran experts met President Jimmy Carter and assured him that the moderates would take over. Darn! The rise of the revolutionary Islamist movement, the Iran-Iraq war, the invasion of Kuwait, September 11, and so on.

Does this sound familiar?

“The regime of misrule…was rapidly drawing to an end...[The people] went delirious with joy....The Revolution was an unmistakably popular movement....[Muslims marched]to the residence of the Armenian Patriarch to express their fraternal feelings with his community….”

“Everywhere it was proclaimed that the Revolution meant liberty, equality, and fraternity, above all no distinction of men on account of their creed….Speeches were delivered by leading Armenians and Greeks declaring that henceforward it would be possible for the Christians...to cooperate cordially with their Muslim brethren for the benefit of the [country].”

Such was the Young Turk revolution of 1908 in the Ottoman Empire, as described by the British ambassador. The Young Turks then adopted a policy of Turkish nationalism, suppressing other groups. Six years later they went to war. Twenty percent of the population of Anatolia died; hundreds of thousands of Armenians were murdered in cold blood; almost the entire Greek population was expelled.

History doesn’t have to repeat itself—but that won’t happen only if wise people make sure it doesn’t happen.

More millions of people have died as the result of happy revolutions then from any other political cause in the last 100 years.

But I guess I should just shut up and enjoy the celebration. I'm also looking forward to the overthrow of the "dictators" in the West Bank, Jordan, Morocco, and Saudi Arabia!  Let's party! Let the good times roll! Eat, drink, and be merry for tomorrow we...find out that the Muslim Brotherhood is neither moderate nor weak, and ElBaradei is neither moderate nor strong.

Oh, and definitely do NOT read this article about how the Muslim Brotherhood demanded that Egypt develop nuclear weapons back in 2006. The important thing is (sarcasm alert) if you want to understand the Brotherhood you should never read anything it said before last week, and also it will probably never happen.

And don't listen to the fears of Egypt's Christians either about their future. What's the chance they'll be fleeing for their lives by the thousands? The United States actually managed the change of regime in Iraq and (sarcasm alert) Christians are doing just fine there! Why would anyone possibly want to harm them in a democratic Egypt?

Forget that the American-designated next leader of Egypt says he will end all sanctions on the Gaza Strip so advanced weapons and longer-range missiles can pour into there. Forget that this same person--the moderate, not the Muslim Brotherhood--says the Egypt-Israel peace treaty is void because it was only a deal with Mubarak.

I'm not saying all is lost. All is lost only if people lose their heads. Will the regime survive in some form without Mubarak (it is still there, after all)? Will the army step in  and make sure things don't go too far even after a transition (though it might like a radical regime, especially one that doesn't purge anyone; pays for its salaries and privileges, and lets it make money from business)? Will strong, popular, more moderate leaders emerge (no sign of them yet)?

The job of a political analyst is not to be a cheerleader or even--sad to say--to have a good time. The task is to ring a very big warning bell so that in the end maybe, as Bob Marley put it so eloquently, "Every little thing gonna be all right."

The job of journalists is to tell the truth, even if it is unpalatable, not to make the Muslim Brotherhood look pretty and Muhammad ElBaradei seem to be a moderate leader.

The job of policymakers and national leaders is to figure out a strategy that will hopefully help make things turn out as best as possible, first and foremost for their country's national interests, though humanitarian and moral considerations should also be on the list.

These people can only perform their jobs if they understand the reality from which they are starting. Otherwise, wishful thinking turns into nightmare.

And if I'm wrong I will gladly meet you in Cairo's Tahrir Square in a couple of years and, my treat, toast the glorious Egyptian democratic revolution with champagne. Assuming it's still legal there.

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