As someone who has witnessed many stages of upheaval, whether in Eastern Europe, Asia, or South Africa, the author puts forth a wary prognosis for the brave Egyptians who thronged Tahrir Square: they likely haven’t got the resources to break the chains of tyranny.
By Christopher Hitchens
Read Full Article Here
When anatomizing revolutions, it always pays to consult the whiskered old veterans. Those trying to master a new language, wrote Karl Marx about the turmoil in France in the 19th century, invariably begin haltingly, by translating it back into the familiar tongue they already know. And with his colleague Friedrich Engels he defined a revolution as the midwife by whom the new society is born from the body of the old.
Surveying the seismic-looking events in Tunis and Cairo in January and February of this year, various observers immediately began by comparing them to discrepant precedents. Was this the fall of the Arab world’s Berlin Wall? Or was it, perhaps, more like the “people power” movements in Asia in the mid-1980s? The example of Latin America, with its overdue but rapid escape from military rule in the past decades, was also mentioned. Those with longer memories had fond recollections of the bloodless “red carnation” revolution in Portugal, in 1974: a beautiful fiesta of democracy which also helped to inaugurate Spain’s emancipation from four decades in the shadow of General Franco.
I was a small-time eyewitness to those “bliss was it in that dawn” episodes, having been in Lisbon in 1974, South Korea in 1985, Czechoslovakia in 1988, Hungary and Romania in 1989, and Chile and Poland and Spain at various points along the transition. I also watched some of the early stages of the historic eruption in South Africa. And in Egypt, alas—except for the common factor of human spontaneity and irrepressible dignity, what Saul Bellow called the “universal eligibility to be noble”—I can’t find any parallels, models, or precedents at all. (Mubarak asked to be thought of as a “father,” and found that “his” people wanted to be orphans.) This really is a new language: the language of civil society, in which the Arab world is almost completely unlettered and unversed. Moreover, while the old body may be racked with pangs, and even attended by quite a few would-be midwives, it’s very difficult to find the pulse of the embryo.
In Eastern Europe by the end of the 1980s, one knew not only what the people wanted but also how they would get it. Not to diminish the grandeur of those revolutions, the citizens essentially desired to live in Western European conditions, of greater prosperity and greater liberty. It took one concerted shove to “the Wall” and they were living in Western Europe, or anyway Central Europe. The arms of the European Community and NATO were already more or less open, and everybody from East Berlin to Warsaw was already relatively literate and qualified, and I don’t remember even a fingernail being lost by way of casualties (except in Romania, where a real Caligula had to be dealt with). Men such as Václav Havel and Lech Walesa, furthermore, had already proved that they were ready to assume the responsibility of government. Voilà tout!
In Portugal in April 1974, before the liberals in the army turned on the oldest Fascist dictatorship in Europe and broke open all the literal and metaphorical prison gates, there had been only one legal party. On May Day of that year, the Socialist and Communist Parties were able to fill the streets of the capital city. Within days, a conservative and a liberal party had been announced, and within a very short time Portugal was, so to say, a “normal” European country. Those parties, with their very seasoned leaders, had been there all along. All that was required was for the brittle carapace of the ancien régime to be shattered. The same happened in Athens a few months later: before my delighted eyes the torturers and despots of the military junta went to jail and the veteran civilian politicians came home from exile, or emerged from prison, and by the end of the year had held an election, in which the supporters of the former system of dark glasses and steel helmets were allowed to run and got about 1 percent.
Perhaps the most stirring single event of South African history was the aesthetically perfect moment in February 1985 when his jailers came to Nelson Mandela and told him he was free to leave. And he loftily declined! He would quit the prison when he was ready, and when the whole country had been released, and not a moment before. At that instant, the morons who had confined him became slowly aware that he was already the president of the republic and had in fact been in moral command of the office for some considerable time. Nor was it just a matter of his charisma. A well-rooted and experienced non-racial party, the African National Congress, had for years been saying to the apartheid authorities, with complete confidence: When you are finished running this country into the ground, we are absolutely prepared to replace you. In utero, and well into its third trimester, the new South Africa already existed.
In the Philippines in 1986, the lizard-faced goon Ferdinand Marcos was deposed by massive civil disobedience following a fixed “snap election” and replaced by Corazon Aquino, the widow of a man—Benigno Aquino—who had been murdered for threatening to win the previous one. A short while before that, I went on a plane to South Korea with the forcibly exiled Kim Dae Jung, who had narrowly escaped assassination after coming in second in a rigged poll some time earlier. We were all arrested and roughed up at the airport, and one of the largest welcoming crowds I have ever seen was broken up by rubber bullets and tear gas (some things never change), but Kim Dae Jung was leader of the opposition within a few years, and was elected president not long after that.
Not a single one of these pregnant conditions, or preconditions, exists in Egypt. Neither in exile nor in the country itself is there anybody who even faintly resembles a genuine opposition leader. With the partial exception of the obsessively cited Muslim Brotherhood, the vestigial political parties are emaciated hulks. The strongest single force in the state and the society—the army—is a bloated institution heavily invested in the status quo. As was once said of Prussia, Egypt is not a country that has an army, but an army that has a country. More depressing still, even if there existed a competent alternative government, it is near impossible to imagine what its program might be. The population of Egypt contains millions of poorly educated graduates who cannot find useful employment, and tens of millions of laborers and peasants whose life is a subsistence one. I shall never forget, on my first visit to Cairo, seeing “the City of the Dead”: that large population of the homeless and indigent which lives among the graves in one of the city’s sprawling cemeteries. For centuries, Egypt’s rulers have been able to depend on the sheer crushing weight of torpor and inertia to maintain “stability.” I am writing this in the first week of February, and I won’t be surprised if the machine—with or without Mubarak—is able to rely again on this dead hand while the exemplary courage and initiative of the citizens of Tahrir Square slowly ebb away.
Still, and for many of the same reasons, it is unlikely in the highest degree that the tremors will produce a ghastly negation: a Khomeini or a Mugabe who turns the initial revolution into a vicious counterrevolution. Egypt’s tenuous economy is hugely dependent on hospitality to Western tourists. Perhaps one in 10 Egyptians is a Christian. To the nation’s immediate south, in Sudan, millions of Africans have just voted to secede from a state that imposes Shari’a, and have taken most of the country’s oil fields along with them.
Even if the peace agreement with Israel is abrogated, Egypt will never be able to fight another war with the Jewish state, or not without guaranteeing catastrophe. No wonder the voice of the Muslim Brotherhood turned out to sound so tinny. Does it seriously expect to take on any of the problems I have just mentioned, with its feeble, simplistic slogan, “Islam Is the Solution”? The mullahs in Iran were able to hijack the 1979 revolution because in the Ayatollah Khomeini they had a figure of almost Lenin-like authority, and because (with the covert consent of the smirking Baptist Jimmy Carter) Saddam Hussein did them the immense favor of invading one of their western provinces and cementing a hysterical national unity. The mullahs also were, and remain, partly insulated from the consequences of their economic folly by the possession of huge reserves of oil, barely a drop of which is to be found in the vicinity of the Nile Delta.
As we sadly remember, the Ahmadinejad crew in Iran was also able to retain power in the face of popular (mainly urban) democratic insurrection. It, too, was ruthless in the use of force and able to rely on the passivity of a large and fairly pious rural population, itself dependent in turn on state subsidy. Heroism breaks its heart, and idealism its back, on the intransigence of the credulous and the mediocre, manipulated by the cynical and the corrupt.
The same day on which I write was to have been a “Day of Rage” in Damascus, but that was an abject fizzle which left the hereditary Assad government where it was, while having regained much of what it had lost in Lebanon after the wretchedly brief “Cedar Revolution” of 2005. In Yemen there are perhaps five separate and distinct causes of grievance, from a north-south split to a Shiite tribal rebellion to the increasingly sophisticated tactics of al-Qaeda’s local surrogate. This doesn’t mean that the Arab world is doomed indefinitely to remain immune from the sort of democratic wave that has washed other regions clean of despotism. Germinal seeds have surely been sown. But the shudder of conception is some considerable way off from the drama of birth, and this wouldn’t be the first revolution in history to be partially aborted.