The Egyptian revolution is sure to have a great victory within days: the ouster of Mubarak. But a greater victory even than that will be the liberation of American thinking from the crude paradigms about the Middle East that have held our political imagination in such thrall for 50 years. I speak as someone who for all my liberalism was also captured by those paradigms, who so doubted the Arab world I would never have dared to imagine what is happening in Cairo.
But today the darers and dreamers of Tahrir Square hold up signs in English because they know they are leading me too.
The liberation of American thinking is evident all around us but nowhere so much as in the sudden and utterly-deserved stardom of blogger Mona Eltahaway and academic Tarek Masoud. These people have become our guides. Brian Lehrer of WNYC features Eltahawy on the ad for his show, and NPR this morning questioned Masoud about Islamism. No doubt, uninformed people like Eugene Robinson of the Washington Post will continue to get a platform in the MSM to spout cliches about Islam. But you now hear Fawaz Gerges on the radio, and Lawrence Wilkerson too. The best example of this shift in culture was on Fareed Zakaria’s panel Sunday. He gathered three Establishment types, former ambassador Martin Indyk and the Council on Foreign Relations’ Richard Haas and Steven Cook, but Masoud was there, and he led the conversation. He said that the U.S. has been on the wrong side of history for years, that it has prized stability not democracy, or by implication justice, for 50 years. The pleasure and amazement was watching Cook and Indyk agree with him, even defer to Masoud’s understanding, because he is so smart and reasonable. Though, yes, Haas had a long face.
Years ago Adam Horowitz told me that Arabs and Palestinians must lead our understanding of these issues. I resisted this understanding because no one likes to cede cultural/political influence, even a blogger, but these days are showing Horowitz to be right. The Egyptian revolution was predicted by none of our seers. We– and here I include myself among the privileged– did not think Those people capable of that. My own reasoning had to do with patriarchal culture and education levels in Egypt. And to be shown that we are wrong, well, this is a shattering moment in intellectual culture.
Masoud and Eltahawy and Gerges and Wilkerson all bring progressive ideas about Palestinian freedom; and so I believe that everyone in U.S. political culture will begin to walk the road that I have here at this site, at first doubtfully, then heartfelt– that the Palestinian solidarity for which this site now stands will be more and more widely reflected in American intellectual and then political culture. You simply cannot honor the Egyptian revolution (and even neocons are having to say they favor democracy) without acknowledging three inevitable consequences of it:
–the Muslim Brotherhood represents real elements of Egyptian society just as the rightwing evangelical movement in American politics represented real elements. It must be included.
–the people of Gaza are not so different from the people we celebrate in Tahrir Square, and they also deserve … DIGNITY and RESPECT.
–the absence of Islamism in the Egyptian revolution is a reflection of American non-interference. When you attack people, humiliate them, diminish them, they naturally retreat into a religious corner.
These truths will cause political convulsions in the U.S. They mean that before long Andrea Mitchell will not be able to interview Martin Indyk, as she did yesterday, and speak about Mubarak’s good value in shutting down the flow of weapons into Gaza, without some other perspective being voiced. When Egypt is liberated, the Egyptian government will insist that what is happening in Gaza is one of the most unspeakable episodes of recent history: 1.5 million people live in a prison, all aspiration is snuffed out by an occupying power, children are shot as they scrounge for scrap metal. This horror will stain American and Jewish history books; and we will look back on Brian Baird and Keith Ellison’s calls for a Berlin airlift to help those people as heroic.
The democratic movement in Egypt exposes the 3 vicious truths of the pax Americana in the Middle East. As Steve Walt states so clearly, it has been based on 1, dictatorship, 2, indifference to Palestinian suffering, and 3, unconditional support for a rightwing, racist occupying Israel.
A pax Americana based on such principles is not good for the U.S. or anyone else, but here too the people of Egypt are leading us. I think it was Wolf Blitzer yesterday who expressed fears about the anti-American feeling in the crowd then showed a poster done in glitter saying “US We Hate Your Hypocrisy.” Well I don’t think that’s anti-American. It’s constructive criticism. The goddanged sign was in English and in sequins. And our hypocrisy? We have stood by a dictator for years, as even Ed Henry of CNN acknowledged a day back. And two years ago, nearly 400 children were wantonly slaughtered in Gaza, and Mr. Change President said nothing.
I know the disappearance of the old order is terrifying to people. On the cable stations they are obsessed with the consequences to the Israeli-Egyptian peace treaty. Martin Indyk just reassured Andrea Mitchell that the Egyptian military won’t let the treaty go, and Dan Fleshler writes that it has “prevented a major military conflagration that would have slaughtered Arabs and Jews alike.” I’m not for any war, but I must point out that the peace treaty included the stipulation of reaching a just peace with the Palestinians, and all that the Palestinians have seen for more than 30 years is humiliation and dispossession– and every other day a Palestinian is killed by Israelis in the occupation without consequences. As Daniel Levy writes at FP, the U.S. “should not demand that Egypt continue to be the loyal servant of a thoroughly discredited peace process.”
That thoroughly-discredited process, and indeed the general problem of Palestinian statelessness, is the achievement of the Israel lobby. The inability of the Palestinians to gain sovereignty, apart from some bogus “economic peace” that Indyk tried to promote on MSNBC and that American revolutionaries once held tea parties to reject, while the Kosovars and Pakistanis and Uzbekistanis have all gotten states is the simple outcome of the power of the Israel lobby in Washington. When Walt and Mearsheimer explained this 5 years ago, Richard Cohen in the Washington Post said their book left him singing the Hatikvah. Well today Cohen says that Egyptian democracy is a nightmare. Who is expressing your values?
But the Washington Post cannot escape the American revolution that Egypt is producing. Yesterday the Post featured Hossam el-Hamalawy, writing that ElBaradei will diffuse the revolution, not take it forward! From the paper that gives us Krauthammer and Cohen and Rubin– utterly transformative. Ahmed Moor makes a similar point at our site.
The young protesters in Egypt often sound like a human potential movement, and they are unleashing American potential: long-suppressed diversity in our political culture. Day by day the cable networks have more Arab and Arab-American pundits speaking. The other day in the LA Times Saree Makdisi called the P.A. collaborators with colonialists.
By listening at last to the deep understanding that Arabs have developed of these issues over 50 years, Americans cannot help but come to respect Arabs, as we did black leaders and Jewish leaders, and we will even be led by them. It can’t be long before Al Jazeera is at last broadcast in the U.S.
Americans must be as willing to dream as the people in Tahrir Square. We must dare to step outside our old understandings and our old fears.
P.S. I know this is fearful to many of my Jewish friends because of what we think we might lose in this process. And I insist on bringing in Jewishness because it is so important in American public life. Most of the pundits I’ve cited above, from Indyk to Mitchell to Cook to Haas to Blitzer, are Jewish (the Council on Foreign Relations has basically a Jewish roster on these issues). We’re there because in the 70s and 80s we gained status as the liberal leaders of east coast American political culture. And today we have failed in that job because of an attachment to Zionism. Richard Cohen’s description of the Egyptian demonstrators as a “mob in the streets” borders on bigotry. And so does Alan Dershowitz’s support for Mubarak’s tyranny. These men’s political values have been corrupted by their attachment to an old ideal, a democratic Jewish state in Israel.
But that too is the power of the Egyptian revolution: Liberalism will be called upon again in the Jewish spirit, and Jews will answer. Politicians will note the change in the weather. Congressmen Gary Ackerman and Howard Berman made halfway decent statements yesterday, Schumer was OK on Sunday. Before long, we will have a battle at last inside the Jewish institutions; and more and more Jews who believe in democracy will speak up for democracy in Israel and take on the strains of We-are-smarter and Is-it-good-for-the-Jews? that have dominated organized Jewish life.
Unquestionably a certain sort of social and political power will be lost in this revolution– fewer Indyks and Dennis Ross’s and Jennifer Rubins and Richard Cohens in the DC turrets–but a great Jewish tradition that has never gone away will be reclaimed. Arendt, Magnes, Chomsky, Finkelstein all have led the way. The NY Review of Books can be proud that it published Tony Judt’s vision of a 21st century binational Israel/Palestine eight years ago. And today Jerry Haber, Medea Benjamin, Naomi Klein, and Jewish Voice for Peace are leaders in a conversation that transcends the Jewish community. I’m saying that Jews also have heroes in this struggle, and when Fawaz Gerges says the Egyptian revolution is about human rights and international law, there is no better example of those values than Richard Goldstone, who committed himself to those principles in the face of excommunication, and whose report making claims for the dignity of Gazans is still alive.