- By David RothkopfDavid Rothkopf is visiting professor at Columbia University's School of International and Public Affairs and visiting scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. His latest book is The Great Questions of Tomorrow. He has been a longtime contributor to Foreign Policy and was CEO and editor of the FP Group from 2012 to May 2017.
Eleven days into the upheaval in Egypt one thing is crystal clear: Almost nothing is crystal clear.
The situation in Egypt and throughout the region is so volatile, so fluid, so complex, so uncertain in its outcomes that almost nothing is worth less than the color commentary of analysts offering perspective in real time. That’s not always the case. And periodically I am one of those talking heads so I am as guilty as anyone of seeking to sound knowledgeable about the unknowable. (If journalism is the first rough draft of history the live commentary of TV and blogs … like this one … are merely the notes for that draft … musings at best.)
Still, there are a few things we can glean from all this:
Time to Take a Deep Breath
Watching the uprisings spread from Tunisia to Egypt to Yemen to Jordan to Syria and on across the greater Middle East we need to remind ourselves that popular uprisings are fueled by mass psychology … and none of us are immune from it. Throughout history these moments occur … whether with the People Power revolutions of twenty years ago, the Indian revolts that brought the downfall of the British East India Company in the 1850s or the call to the barricades so many heeded across Europe in 1848. Mass psychology can be inspiring, but it can also be deluding; adrenaline and emotion overtake reason.
That’s not to say uprisings like these are not called for … indeed, in all the aforementioned cases they were long overdue and totally justified as are those taking place across the Middle East today. But we need to be careful to confuse righteous indignation or the surge brought on by public displays of courage with clear insights into what ought to be happening. Many such revolutions produce thin results (1848 was a watershed but it would be decades before its lessons were learned, it took almost a century for the Indian Rebellion of 1857 to lead to independence and I was in Tiananmen Square weeks before that uprising was crushed, so I understand how great highs lead to shattering lows.) Many produce bad near term outcomes. (Great revolutionary leaders are seldom great nation builders.)
We need to separate our desire to cheer on the average citizens of the region seeking rights they deserve from an impulse to demand action "right now" that may ultimately put those average citizens or our own interests at risk. In the era of Twitter revolutions and instant commentary on 24-hour news stations, I sometimes think we’d be better off with the built in time for reflection that came with slower means of communications. To pick just one example, we may shrug off the idea of an Islamic state in Egypt as being contrary to the spirit we see in the streets today, but should it come and with it intolerance and other kinds of instability and new risks, we will feel very uncomfortable to have been ourselves caught up in the mass mentality of this moment. We need to be careful not confuse the experience of watching these uprisings with the Super Bowl … in fact, we would do well to recognize the dangerous similarities between the two experiences for all of us who are primarily crowd members way up in the cheap seats. (And I include some very senior government officials in that mix.)
Voting By Other Means
Watching the violence taking place in Egypt, troops deployed, video of police vans running over protestors, men brandishing machetes and clubs, Molotov cocktails exploding; it is no wonder that commentators use the language of war or revolution to describe what’s happening. But the violence is one-sided and the language does the demonstrators a disservice.
Von Clausewitz famously described war as a continuation of politics by other means. In the same vein, to be fair to the courageous Egyptians and others throughout the Middle East who are risking their lives to call for change, we ought to consider their uprisings to be voting by other means.
The oppressive regimes that dominate across the region have systematically deprived their people of their rights of self-expression and to representative government. Egypt has been a police state in which dissenters were arrested and the government controlled the most important means of public discourse.
As a consequence, the Egyptian authorities have left their people with little choice. Their only means of reclaiming the rights and dignity to which all people are entitled is revolution.
Never Has the Future of Israel (Or the Entire Middle East) So Depended on the Judgment of Egyptian Generals
While the cameras are directed at the crowds in Tahrir Square and the few political spokespeople for the opposition that have emerged, by far the most important players in this drama are the Egyptian military. And consequently the most important diplomatic interactions between Egypt and the world are military-to-military.
It is Egypt’s generals who will determine when the transition to a new regime takes place. It is their restraint thus far that has given protestors hope and reform a chance. It is their calculus about the best timing for Mubarak’s departure and the nature of the real threats a transition may bring that will be most important to shaping the next period in Egypt’s long history.
While this may not be ideal, having an anchor of stability … especially one that has shown the forbearance the Egyptian military has demonstrated so far … is critical. Surely, no one appreciates this more than the people of the country that many in Egypt’s military once trained to fight, Israel. To them, it is the Egyptian military that stands between current events and chaos — the Gaza-ization of Egypt. It is the Egyptian military that may ultimately be the guarantor of reform that keeps the Muslim Brotherhood in check or at least assures a more tolerant, law-based system.
Of course, militaries are complex and contain many personalities and we have yet to fully understand the divisions with Egypt’s and whose views will ultimately take precedence. But, keep an eye on them and on the mil-to-mil exchanges if you are looking for the best insights into the next stages of this crisis. (And look to militaries in other shaken countries for similar clues. With weak political cultures, alternatives to them will have a difficult time gaining enough traction to play a central role in the near term. The only group with sufficient institutional structures in most countries to do so is the religious leadership … and that, of course, is both a cause of some concern and why the not ideal solution of depending on the military may be the best we can hope for until real political institutions can be built.)
There are Journalistic Rays of Hope
In all such crises some journalists and commentators distinguish themselves from the pack. In this instance, of course, there are many who have shown great courage in the face of brutality from Egyptian thugs. But as for the best possible content of commentaries, I encourage you to go watch Charlie Rose’s show with Tom Friedman and Henry Kissinger. There is a reason certain individuals remain relevant analysts for decades. In this instance, both Friedman and Kissinger were extraordinarily good, thoughtful and brought a kind of historical perspective that is sorely lacking in most analyses. You may like them or not, agree with them regularly or not, or note that Tom is my friend and Henry was once my boss, but if you watch what they had to say you’ll understand what is going on better than you did before.