Riddling the Sphinx: Egypt 2011

The invocation of “freedom from oppression” by sullen powers trying to secure the oppression of freedom-fighters is nothing new in the history of civilization. It’s a particularly tantalizing mantra when the cameras are rolling and reporters sniff blood on the streets. It helps if the protesters are young, confused and loud, as they are in Cairo, and as they were in Tehran in 1978.

It’s true, of course, that loud and bloody rebellions have sometimes resulted in the oppressed masses getting what they wanted, even if they were never particularly clear about what they wanted. Americans (some anyway) wanted fewer taxes and fewer ostensible reminders that they were third-rate toadies of “An old, mad, blind, despised, and dying King”, in Shelley’s verdict on royalty. The French wanted less of it too, royal attitude and opulence that is, the repeal of the salt tax (gabelle), and (like Zimbabwean peasants later) more bread. There are other examples of popular uprisings that led to reform, social improvement, and greater freedom for the activists. But not many. The French revolution, glorious as it was, got France a funny kind of Republic and a deliverer who crowned himself emperor. Zanu-PF, a “freedom struggle” even the British got behind, got Zimbabwe Robert Mugabe, a racist dictator who knew how to punish his enemies and finesse the guilt-ridden colonial masters.

Russia was an industrial and economic mess in 1912. By 1917 things had become ripe for agitation. The October Revolution (Великая октябрьская социалистическая революция), was an armed, popular insurrection following on the February Revolution of the same year. By 1922, following a full scale civil war, Russians awoke to find their earlier unhappiness contained by the Soviet state. Somewhere between closing the banks, repudiating its national debt, firing prelates, and seizing the factories, the idea of freedom got lost–especially among vulnerable populations like Jews, intellectuals, poets and critics.

That wasn’t the first example of populism gone crazy: Martin Luther’s rock star status, his mulish defiance of papal power, gave hope to religious dissidents and sympathizers that the Italian “whore” would finally be off the streets of Germany. That in turn, due to the preaching of Luther’s favorite lieutenant Thomas Muentzer, gave hope to the peasants that their day had finally come. There had been similar upsrisings across Europe–stretching back to Wat Tyler’s rebellion in England in 1381. The English cause was all about the poll tax, greedy land lords, labour shortages (the plague, remember?).

The German situation, inspired by Luther’s ambiguous, and as it turned out totally hypocritical concern for the common man, was a nastier affair, one that left as many as 100,000 dead, with his blessing, out of a peasant militia that reached over 300,000. The causes of the revolt sometimes intersect with modern popular complaints: the Emperor was petitioned to abolish the “cattle tithes,” and the death tax; and to preserve all “common fields, forests and waters” for use by the peasants, rather than “allowing these lands to fall into private hands,” and “allow the peasants to hunt on the common lands and fish in the common waters.” As the intensity of the movement grew, Luther became squeamish and finally not only withdrew support for their (expanding) list of grievances against the princes, the nobility and the wealthy, but defended the right of a lawful king to mow them down where they stood in opposition to God-given authority. He got the idea, of all places, from St Paul (Romans 13.1-7).

That brings us to Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, the US-cradled Shah of Iran–a well-known autocrat who nonetheless developed virtues in dealing with his neighbors, in a chessman kind of way that left him few friends when the going got tough. Pahlavi wasn’t Louis XVI. He was a reformer who developed an enviable record of improving the quality of life for millions of Iranians.

The Shah, on the Peacock Throne

The Shah, despite a pretty listless playboy life to which he felt entitled by the rules of the game, alienated the traditional elites by redistributing the largest estates for the benefit of more than four million small farmers. As a modernizer (the “White Revolution”) he extended the vote to women, which he declared was in accordance with Islamic law. In industry, he enabled the participation of workers in factories through share-holding, based on sweat equity, and other measures. He created an American style elementary school system, ran literacy courses in remote villages using members of the Imperial Iranian Armed Forces as teachers. He promoted health care and health education in rural areas and cities (“Sepāh e Behdāsht”), and offered free lunches to poor children. And perhaps topmost, he introduced a series of rigorous exams for Islamic theologians which were required for them to qualify as clerics. In many ways, he was Mubarak’s mirror image opposite: Much do and little talk.

The young protesters in blue jeans who took to the streets in 1977, 1978, and finally 1979 (he left the country in January of that year) began to chant the phrase “Unislamic” in the direction of the palace, partly reflecting the simple European-style anti-Americanism that was rife in the Middle East, in its import-form, at the time. It was an old story replayed, in which the encounter with “western values,” especially among the children of the elites, engendered identity-crisis soul-searching and remorse among young Muslims; that in turn evoked a Freudian regression to their most cherished adolescent illusions. The reaction is sometimes fearsome: My Islam is not Islamic enough. I must try to walk the narrow path. Our leaders are corrupt. There is only atonement in purification–which of course means, often enough, insurrection and violence–cutting away the cancer. But it is not simply “curious” that the encounter with liberal ideas and values by educated young Muslims is almost always beneath the surface of Islamic rage. The west (and I do not especially equate the west with American values) is inherently provocative. Islam is inherently vulnerable to its allure.

In December, 1979, between six and ten million Iranians marched in the streets of Tehran and elsewhere. By February, the monarchy had been dissolved, Iran was proclaimed an Islamic state, Qom had been declared a Vatican-like religious city-state, the epicenter of both religion and political power, and the Ayatollah Khomeini came home. The Revoution against Reform was complete.

Tehran march, 1979

Hosni Mubarak, the Egyptian president, was born in 1928. He is a well-preserved 82, but a man of another time. He succeeded the very popular and affable Anwar Sadat. He has ruled for thirty years, walking a razor wire between Al-Ikhwān (the Muslim Brotherhood), the Copts, the Muslim factions, the reformers, the West, and the military. In general, despite heavy-handed tactics and inertia, he has not proved to be a totally bad deal.

Americans are a funny lot. It is in their constitutional, gun-loving change-worshiping blood to think that anyone who rules a country for so long can’t be any good. The country probably isn’t worth a damn either. That is the depth of American political wisdom, a nation where citizens become quickly bored two years after a “transformative election” and throw the majority party out and chew gum until they can change drivers yet again.

Thus, when American and (some) European media see thousands of violent protestors in the streets, in Cairo or anywhere in the world, they do not stop to think how few such demonstrations in the history of the planet have resulted in good, or change, or benefit for the “oppressed.”

They think this because (they think) change is good, and a little anarchy, backed up by weapons, never hurt anybody. Isn’t that what our Revolution was all about?

The other visual coordinate is Tienanmen Square, where as many as 800 Chinese protesters, or perhaps many fewer depending on whose frames you believe, were killed in April, 1976, following a show of mourning for the respected Premier Zhou Enlai. The gathering was, ironically, labeled “counter-revolutionary” by China’s surviving, ancient leaders. Both in its inception and in its results, the Chinese affair was completely anomalous. China’s patient evolutionary processes triumphed over the moment. The analogy, despite its visual power, is irrelevant.

Yet the American infatuation with violent protest and massive unrest abides, along with the idea that public demonstrations always convey promise, a fetish they equate with “the will of the people.” This largely mythological view about how change happens persists as all block-headed notions do. At its most banal, it represents a cult of emotion, of mob rule, or the belief (which history can’t corroborate) that chaos always sorts itself out in justice and peace. A few recent NPR interviews with “serious” political scientists” (I mention no names) who claim to know something about the politics of Egypt have been even more heart- and mind-breaking, fraught with ideas that the only live topic is the post-Mubarak era, which of course will be better than the Mubarak era because new things are better than old things.

Hassan al Banna, founder of the Brotherhood

The movers and shakers of this outburst and the final beneficiaries of the game are the Muslim Brotherhood, Al-Ikhwān. They are the ones who are fanning the flames, puppeteering the young, skewering the discourse with predictable references to human rights and (naturally) freedom.

Their English language website (Ikhwanweb) called for January 25th to be a “Day of Rage” because, among other things the dictator Mubarak has “insulted” al Qaeda.. Like all incendiary movements, the MB are using statistics like monopoly money, big numbers with no factual value. “At least 100 protesters killed since yesterday.” –And the number continues to climb. It is another case of a dangerous Islamist wing-command using “human rights violations” as a framing device for arrests and detention, and where the attempt to restore civil order becomes “aggression” on the part of the security forces. The MB pours gasoline on grievances, calls it water, then stands back in feigned surprise, like a batch of medieval Dominicans, when the flames leap higher. The strength of the protest, its sheer volume and bloodiness, will be seen as proof of the rectitude of the cause by millions. While American viewers with their limited understanding of such outbreaks begin to conclude, Time for Mubarak to go, millions of Muslims will be thinking something else: Time to join.

And what is our response? What does the United States have to say? The United States government talks about “restoring internet access” in the name of free speech. The President insists that the right to protest peacefully is a “human right.” Fair enough. Mr. President: this is not about Facebook. For the engineers of these protests, it is about God. It is about confusion, and how unconfused men with wicked principles that they hold to be right–purpose-driven men–can turn images that the American media can’t exegete into a government America can not do business with.

That’s what it was about in 1979, too, when the marching stopped, the Shah safely evacuated (to Egypt, by the way) and the shouting died down, and Americans watched their embassy ravaged. Five hundred ardent, shouting student supporters of the Ayatollah, the “Muslim Student Followers of the Imam’s Line,” seized fifty two American citizens and held them captive for 444 days as the United States and a fumbling American president stood by helplessly. There is nothing like reform.

It is undoubtedly true that history doesn’t alter the present. But this present and these scenes are so much like the recent past that whatever the United States gets–a new fundamentalist terrorist state in one of the most important countries in the Muslim world?–it deserves.

9 thoughts on “Riddling the Sphinx: Egypt 2011

  1. Superb post and very astute comparisons. It would be helpful if more people understood a little history and ideology instead of blindly defending the right to protest. You’re absolutely right: the protestors are confused. I can well imagine the menacing Muslim Brotherhood rubbing their hands with glee as they fan the flames with bellows, and filling the ink wells ready to sign up new recruits. Oppressive regimes are often replaced by … oppressive regimes.


  2. Prior to this excellent historical analysis I had been comparing the increasing confusion and out of control nature of the Egypt protestors to deplorable situations in Western countries. Prejudice against Muslim communities is so pronounced in some countries, that young Muslims become disenfranchised and angry. As they seek validation for their identity, they become potential recruits for ‘organisations’.

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  4. The example of 1979 Iran, and the mere presence of the Muslim Brotherhood, are reasons enough for doubt and worry.

    Can Hoffmann demonstrate how much current events are actually controlled/directed by the Ikhwa? Khomeini co-opted and exploited an uprising that wasn’t–at first–dominated by islamists. Everyone should be worried about how the MB exploits the current situation. We don’t have to whitewash the Shah or Mubarak to be realistically concerend about the near-future of Egypt.

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  6. Agree with John’s comments.

    The article seems intent on ignoring the violently oppressive aspects of the Shah’s regime to make the valid point that sometimes revolutions don’t always turn out for the best. Is the author suggesting the public had other means with which to dampen the frequent brutality of the regimes they were under? Maybe they could have all had a bake off? Written angry letters?

    Also attempting the paint the frequent change of government within the American democratic system as a symptom of public malaise seems a little contrived. I had always assumed the driving idea behind having limited terms of government within democracies was to limit the chance of dictatorships emerging and the subsequent destruction of a dissenting public voice? The same public voice which has been silenced throughout much of the middle east

    I think the more relevant question is what can be done from outside to help make sure the representative views of the masses are not drowned out by those seeking to take advantage for their own benefit. A tricky role to walk for any external power, if there is any role to play at all… I certainly don’t know the answer, but it can’t be “put up or shut up” like it seems is being suggested.

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  8. The analysis is very interesting and thanks for the history lesson.

    However, the point, as I see it, is not “what the United States gets” in Egypt or whether the U.S. “deserves” it, but what the Egyptian people get, want and deserve.

    What the Egyptians get, want and deserve is almost completely out of my and, I suspect, your control, and maybe it’s better that way: that the Egyptians
    (and the Iranians) mess up or better their own lives.

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