Monday, December 19, 2005

School of Hard Knocks

When two great bloggers sit down over beers and talk about the state of the world, it's not news. But it is a bit unusual when it happens in Cairo. The one in Egypt, not the one in Illinois. One is Michael J. Totten, the all-American boy who moved to the Middle East to be part of the most important events of our times. The other is Big Pharaoh, the insightful, irreverent Egyptian blogger whose observations reach well beyond his homeland.

Michael recounts their recent conversation. BP says something that feels right to me, too, based on my distant observation of recent Middle East history:

I asked Big Pharaoh what he thought would happen if Egypt held a legitimate free and fair election instead of this bullshit staged by Mubarak.

“The Muslim Brotherhood would win,” he said. “They would beat Mubarak and the liberals.”

I was afraid he was going to say that.

“I’ve had this theory for a while now,” I said. “It looks like some, if not most, Middle East countries are going to have to live under an Islamic state for a while and get it out of their system.”

Big Pharaoh laughed grimly.

“Sorry,” I said. “That’s just how it looks.”

He buried his head on his arms.

“Take Iranians,” I said. “They used to think Islamism was a fantastic idea. Now they hate it. Same goes in Afghanistan. Algerians don’t think too much of Islamism either after 150,000 people were killed in the civil war. I hate to say this, but it looks like Egypt will have to learn this the hard way.”

“You are right,” he said. “You are right. I went to an Egyptian chat room on the Internet and asked 15 people if they fasted during Ramadan. All of them said they fasted during at least most of it. I went to an Iranian chat room and asked the same question. 14 out of 15 said they did not fast for even one single day.”

“Egypt didn’t used to be like this,” I said.

“Nasser’s biggest crime was not establishing democracy when he took over," he said. "Back then, Egyptian people were liberal. It would have worked then. But not now.”

Progress is a funny thing. We Westerners like to think it moves in a straight line. In America that’s pretty much how it is. No serious person would argue that American culture was more liberal and tolerant in the 1950s than it is now. But Egypt, amazingly, moved in exactly the other direction.

[Emphasis added.] Which is a good point by Michael, too. American exceptionalism again. Recent history rules our perceptions of what democracy is and does. Yet if you go back into the record, you'll see America, too, had a history of periodic swings toward tighter controls on speech, and governments putting the squeeze on freedoms. And in each case, the push-back over time gave the American people more freedom, more democracy, more participation than they had before.

Whether it's John Adams, Lincoln, or Wilson, the administrations that trespass on civil liberties tend to open the door to their affirmation and extension. De Tocqueville understood how a turn toward official repression was a key moment in the long march toward greater freedom.

You also could read the entire civil rights movement as such a progression. There were times when America, too, had to "get it out of its system" and sicken itself on its own chosen path before it could move on.