Spinning the Revolution
From Glenn Beck to the Taliban, everyone's got something to say about the Egyptian uprising.
One curious thing about events that catch most of the world by surprise: With a bit of clever reflection — call it 20-30 hindsight — it’s incredibly easy for ideologues of all stripes around the globe to see what they want (or what they say they’ve predicted). And after the Egyptian revolution, there has been no shortage of people claiming, “See? I was right all along!” Some of these views reflect cultural or political biases, but some are just downright ridiculous.
Take conservative American talk-show host Glenn Beck, whose success as a pundit of outrage depends upon identifying and hyping the next threat to Western civilization. He sees in Egypt’s revolution the invisible workings of an Islamic caliphate bent on ruling much of the Middle East. “When I say that there’s a caliphate — that it is a desire of the Islamic extremists in the Middle East — that is not a conspiracy theory,” he said on his talk show last Thursday. “They want a caliphate. Look it up … so don’t talk to me about crazy conspiracy theories.” In Beck’s version of the coming Armageddon, the world is divided between good and evil and really evil — that is, between his listeners, the “uber left,” and the “Islamicists.” The revolution in Egypt, or rather, the alleged rise of the caliphate, therefore only proves his long-held contention that American values are under siege — and the worst is yet to come.
Given the extended news cycle focused on the Middle East, Beck added an extra note of alarm on Monday. He connected activists in Egypt using online organizing tools with Google as an “instigator of a revolution” with an American “government partnering covertly with media organizations, search engines, social networking so they can bring change that the Washington elites have designed.” In other words, revolution in Egypt may serve the purposes of the Islamic caliphate, but it’s actually the product of a plot hatched inside the Beltway. Talk about strange bedfellows.
Meanwhile, others in Washington were more than happy to take credit for having launched a master plot to liberate Egypt. Former Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz — one of the architects of the American invasion of Iraq and President George W. Bush’s “Freedom Agenda” — sat down with the Wall Street Journal’s editorial page editor on Saturday to discuss why the fall of Mubarak ought to be filed under a neoconservative “Mission Accomplished” banner. “The people who have said for years that somehow Arabs didn’t care about freedom are just dead wrong,” he told Paul Gigot in an interview for Journal Editorial Report, broadcast on FOX News. The Bush freedom wave might have taken a while to catch on, but now he sees it knocking down dominoes everywhere. “Look, when the tide of freedom is sweeping, we should love it. And when it’s headed in the wrong direction, then we’ll have a lot more credibility to say, whoa, this isn’t freedom anymore.”
Wolfowitz’s former colleague and ideological soul mate, former Undersecretary of Defense Douglas Feith, meanwhile fired off a quick piece for the National Review Online that didn’t beat around the bush: “Bush’s insight is being vindicated now on the streets of Cairo,” he wrote. “Meanwhile, the American foreign-policy establishment’s wily foxes, who perceived the regimes of Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Syria, and the Gulf as embodiments of stability, are not looking too astute.” By contrast, Obama’s 2009 speech in Cairo and subsequent outreach to the Muslim world were summarily written off: “When addressing the world’s Muslims in his 2009 Cairo speech, President Obama dealt cursorily with democracy.”
The heated news cycle also provided an opportunity for the Afghan Taliban’s message machine, which on Monday released a statement online laying out how “developments in Egypt have a clear message for the invading Americans and their surrogates in Afghanistan.” The fact that Egypt receives significant aid from the U.S. government was conflated, metaphorically, with invasion. And the ousting of a leader who accepted “all-sided American and Israeli assistance in financial, political, and intelligence fields” was taken as evidence that, in the Arab world, any relationship with the United States is tantamount to the kiss of death.
Setting aside conspiracy theorists and professional ideologues, the state-run presses of authoritarian countries have also scrambled for creative — and counterintuitively reaffirming — ways to interpret Egypt’s revolution. A commentary in the state-run China Daily, for instance, focused attention on Beijing’s first-order obsession: the maintenance of social stability. “The nationwide protests have taken a heavy toll on the country’s social stability and economic activity. … An immediate priority for the military is to crack down on violent crime and terrorism, and rapidly restore social stability. Extremists and terrorists will waste no time in exploiting Egypt’s current upheaval to pursue their own agendas.” Another state-run paper, Global Times, ran articles exploring how the conniving West was busy deciding Egypt’s fate.
That’s not to say that other independent voices within China haven’t also — quite daringly — voiced alternative interpretations. A Feb. 14 editorial in Century Weekly, the news and finance magazine led by iconic editor-in-chief Hu Shuli, suggested instead that: “Autocracy creates instability; democratic deliberations lead to peace. Support for the replacement of an authoritarian regime would only serve short-term interests. Only the establishment of democratic institutions in the Middle East will form a fundamental basis for long-term stability.”
For its part, Russia Today, the state-run English-language TV network, turned to longtime Washington-based political activist and conspiracy theorist Lyndon LaRouche to help interpret events in the Middle East. Speaking on Jan. 31, before President Hosni Mubarak had stepped down, LaRouche empathized, in a way, with the Egyptian leader as yet another victim of global economic mismanagement. “The Egyptian government is playing a very crafty role, in trying to live out the storm, in hopes of coming back to some kind of stability,” he said. “The problem the Egyptian government has is that economic crisis does not give it, or any other nation right now, much of an option for stabilizing their situation.” LaRouche has long fingered flaws in the global financial system as the cause of sundry social ills.
Meanwhile, former Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev seized the moment to fire shots at his Kremlin successors. In an interview published on Wednesday Fen. 16 in the opposition newspaper Novaya Gazeta, he described Russia’s current ruling class as “rich and dissolute,” adding, “I’m ashamed for us and for the country.” As he told a Russian radio station on Tuesday: “If things continue the way they are [in Russia], I think the probability of the Egyptian scenario will grow.”
In Iran, the hard-line newspaper Kayhan envisioned America in the director’s chair as the sinister force manipulating the hapless Mubarak regime: “What has been implemented by the army is a precise scenario, whose playwright is America,” one article read. “Egypt’s army was instructed to keep a theatrical distance from Mubarak, Omar Suleiman, the police and the security forces, in order to show that it is distinct from the regime. In actual fact, it has been instructed to hijack the popular revolution.” As ever in Iran’s eyes, America is once again controlling events behind the scenes — and subverting the popular will of Arab countries.
THE OBAMA ADMINISTRATION
Perhaps the most opportunistic — and vexing — messaging, if only because it’s the most influential, has been that of Barack Obama’s administration. As the situation in Egypt unfolded, the White House and State Department issued somewhat different public interpretations of events. And, like most every other world leader — except the prime minister* of Denmark, who presumably felt he had little diplomatic influence with Mubarak to lose — Obama resisted pressure to call publicly for Mubarak to step down. But once the Egyptian president was out the door, Obama was quick to hail his exit. “The people of Egypt have spoken. Their voices have been heard and Egypt will never be the same,” he said in a live television address on Feb. 11. Granted, Obama was right to acknowledge that it must be Egyptians who decide their future. “By stepping down, President Mubarak responded to the Egyptian people’s hunger for change.”
*Correction, 8:30 p.m., Feb. 17, 2011: “Prime minister” replaces “president.”
More from Foreign Policy
No, the World Is Not Multipolar
The idea of emerging power centers is popular but wrong—and could lead to serious policy mistakes.
America Prepares for a Pacific War With China It Doesn’t Want
Embedded with U.S. forces in the Pacific, I saw the dilemmas of deterrence firsthand.
America Can’t Stop China’s Rise
And it should stop trying.
The Morality of Ukraine’s War Is Very Murky
The ethical calculations are less clear than you might think.