Sunday, February 27, 2011

The Egyptian Revolution

     I love being wrong.  Well, maybe I should qualify that.  I love being wrong when my original beliefs that were pessimistic about humanity turn out to be wrong.  I also like finding out I'm wrong about factual beliefs because then I have the opportunity to correct them...but that's tangential to what I want to focus on--the first type of instance in which I like to be wrong. (Editor's note: that was a very confusing and overly wordy introduction paragraph--let me try again).
     I wanted to say that everybody, unless they've been living in a cave, knows about the on going Arab democratic uprisings, but I'm going to guess that despite living in a cave, even Osama bin Laden knows what's going on.  When I first started to hear about what was happening in Egypt and began following it I honestly didn't think much would come of it.  Happily I was wrong.  Then when it looked like Mubarak was getting the boot for good I was skeptical that this was necessarily a good thing.  Not that democracy is a bad thing (although I'm not convinced it's always a good thing either), but I was concerned about the practical mechanics of how power would be transferred and the possibility of Egypt reverting back to a theocracy.
     Once Mubarak put 2 and 2 together and saw that the likelyhood of his reign continuing indefinitely was about as likely as homeopathy curing--insert your favourite chronic disease here--he offered to hold power over a transitional period.  This was not enough for the Egyptian people: they wanted him and his officials to leave immediately.  I understand the sentiment of the people but I'm still not sure if this is the best approach, before you tell me to go hang out with Glen Beck let me explain why.  

Who's Going To Run the New Government?
     Mubarak and his peeps have been in power for 30 years.  It is quite possible that many of his government officials are corrupt but they also know something about running the various ministries or government branches with which they are charged.  I could very well be wrong about this but if you are kicking out the only people who have any experience running the various government offices, how will the new officials learn how to do their job?  I find it difficult to believe that somebody could just step in as Minister of Finance or Transportation etc. without any prior experience.  Imagine that the masses kicked you and all your coworkers out of your company and then without any guidance or previous experience took over your jobs and company.  How successful would that company be?  Seriously, if you've every been in any sort of management position think about how long it takes to train someone to do something even as simple as work at McDonald's.  And that's with guidance and also occurring within an existing system.
     Although the circumstances are different I think something could be learned from the S.Africa model where Mandela's government retained some of the prior government officials to help with training and so on.  Revolutions are not the typical way that government power transfers occur and there is no "typical" revolution so there is no clear right way to transfer power.  
     In democracies when a government is voted out and a new one voted in there is a transition period so the incoming officials can learn the ropes and also typically some of the members of the new party were already in government as members of the opposition.  None of this applies to what's happening in Egypt.  It is quite clear that the Egyptian people want nothing to do with anyone who held any position of note over the last 30 years and I guess I have some concerns about how people are going to learn to run a country when nobody has any prior experience.   It just seems a bit worrisome from a practical point of view.  Hopefully, I will be proven wrong again!

The (Holy) Spectre of an Islamist Theocracy
     Ok, my first reaction to the early reports of the Egyptian revolution was to be worried about the potential rise of an Islamist state via the Muslim Brotherhood.   It's no secret that I'm a secularist and regard religion as one of the greatest impediments to human progress.  So if you want to accuse me of bias here, I graciously accept it.  Not that anecdotes should carry much weight but let me share one with you to give you an idea of why I am worried about the co-opting of the Egyptian government by fundi Islam:

Back when I was a bright-eyed and bushy-tailed backpacker, I spent about a month backpacking in Egypt.  It was a great experience and I met many wonderful people.  There was however one negative encounter that has always stuck with me.  I was staying in a Cairo youth hostel (actually quite close to Tahir Square) and had made good friends with a group of young Egyptian boxers who were in Cairo for the national boxing championship.  Everyday I'd hang out with them, go watch their matches, watched them pray 5 times a day, and drink tea.  As an aside, Egyptian culture is (obviously) very different from ours and it is common for men to hold hands when walking, so everyday when we'd hang out they'd all compete over who got to hold my hand when we walked down the street.  Thinking about this now makes me laugh when I imagine doing the same with some of my North American and European grappling partners.  It's fine to roll around half naked in each others sweat but holding hands?!  
     But I digress...anyway if I can pull myself away from revelling in the memories of my youth, my point is this:  One evening I was talking to my Egyptian friends about Israel.  One of the guys said if he ever saw a Jew walking down the street he would kill him.  Just like that.  He didn't even try to temper this sentiment and it was said as though this is the natural thing to do.  There was no caveat.  It wasn't even like when people tell a racist joke and quickly look around to see if the anyone in the target group is in earshot.  I asked him, "even if you'd never met him before and he'd done nothing to you?"  Same answer.  Well, at that moment all I could think was, "thank goodness I opted to have that horn-removal surgery".  I think I had told them that I was Christian.  Early in my trip in Egypt I'd learned not to say I didn't have a religion because they don't understand that concept.  The idea of not having a religion is so foreign to them that it fries their internal circuitry and it become much easier (even for an avowed atheist) to say you belong to a particular religion (unless you say you are a Jew, of course).  A little bit of trivia for y'all: in the Middle East your religion is on you ID card.  How 'bout them apples, anti-profilers!

    I rambled a bit but hopefully the reason why I have some misgivings about Islam entering the institutions in Egypt are apparent.  Let me say as a prolepsis that what I am suggesting about the Islamic craziness is not particular to Islam.  Intolerance of infidels is inherent in almost every religion, save perhaps Buddhism (which is arguably not a religion).  I've heard similar statements of blind irrational hate and intolerance from Christians and Jews alike and, sadly, one does not have to look hard to find them in the public sphere...all the more reason to keep religion out of government.
     Lets see if I can get back to some semblance of a coherent discourse...what was I talking about?  Ah! yes! the Muslim Brotherhood.  I found it quite interesting how different branches of the media presented this organization.  Predictably the right wing media resorted to fear mongering.  What was more interesting was how the less ideological media portrayed them.  My primary source of news is NPR and the interviews they had with Brotherhood leaders were very softball.  No hard questions were asked about giving evidence that the Brotherhood had make an ideological break with its violent past or commitment to theocratic rule.  Whenever the interviewer asked such questions the interviewee dismissed these concerns as unjustified, yet the interviewer never challenged any of the replies.  If the interviewer had done a little bit of research there would have been ample grounds to challenge the responses.  I felt like NPR was trying to avoid any accusations of being anti-Islamist in the name of preserving its public image as fair and balanced but this was in fact poor journalism.  If the interviewer had been interviewing a politician who favours cutting education you can bet there would have been some tough questions and responses wouldn't be accepted at face value (i.e. good journalism).  
     If you don't have the time to read the entire article or just don't care here are a couple of facts about the Muslim Brotherhood which I have stolen from an insightful article from the American Humanist website.

The Muslim Brotherhood was founded in 1928, with a credo of “Jihad is our way; and death for the sake of Allah is the highest of our aspirations.” There isn’t the slightest doubt about the Muslim Brotherhood’s agenda today, because it was published for all the world to see in 2007. The model is shamelessly copied from Iran: a council of “senior religious scholars” must be established, with power to overrule any government decision not in accord with Muslim Sharia law. Since Sharia purports to govern every aspect of human existence, the God experts reign supreme; Qutb, the chief architect of the Brotherhood's theology, taught that Sharia is so complete as a legal and moral system that no further legislation is possible. Just last September, the current head of the Brotherhood preached that “the improvement and change that the [Muslim] nation seeks can only be attained through jihad and sacrifice and by raising a jihadi generation that pursues death, just as the enemies pursue life.”

Ok, maybe they're not as moderate as NPR allowed them to make themselves out to be. But it could also very well be that there moderate members and these are the members with which NPR spoke. Very few large organizations have internal ideological purity. So what? Well, at first I thought, "OMG this a terrible threat, Egypt will turn into Iran, the peace treaty with Israel will be over and the Middle East will be even worse off." But then I thought, "like, um...who am I to judge what system people voluntarily submit to?" I suppose if it's what people vote for through legitimate democratic means, then so be it. Americans voted for two terms of Bush, how much worse could the Egyptians do? There are other reasons why I don't think the possibility of a backward Islamist state is much cause for concern:

1. After listening to quite a few interviews with the average Egyptian it seems that degree to which the Muslim Brotherhood holds political power in Egypt is much less than we in the West think.

2. After fighting so hard for democracy it is unlikely that Egyptians will give it all up to an Iranian style "democracy".

3. The style of democracy that emerges in Egypt (and other parts of the Middle East) will not likely look exactly like what we have in the West, nor should it. It needs to be specific to that culture and history. So it's going to have some Islamist elements but from my point of view the US government is just a hop skip and a crusade away from being a theocracy itself. So why be so demanding of absolute secularism from the Egyptians? 

     The important point is that the government will be democratic and to some degree responsive to the demands of the people. In such an environment more enlightened secularist values at least have a chance of emerging while more rigid medieval religious rules (can I add "draconian?" or would that reveal my bias?) can be diminished. Also if the people discover that a reversion the dark ages isn't all it's cracked up to be they can vote the offending government out, and bring in a new one. Democracy doesn't guarantee the best government but at least it gives you a chance to experiment and discard those that don't act in your best interest.

     Well, I need to get ready for work but there so much more I wanted to write about. Lets call this Part 1. I'll conclude by saying again that over the last few weeks I have been happily disabused of some ill founded beliefs. I think especially now, with the support of the international community, a new enlightened era in Egyptian history is dawning. Obviously it's not going to happen over night or perfectly smoothly but in the long run the people of Egypt will be much better off. I would like to apologize to Allah for my initial skepticism toward the revolution. I attribute this attitude to the fact that the only other historical examples of revolutions in the region that I know of are Afghanistan, Iran, and pre-Kadaffi Libya...and they didn't turn out so well for most people. It is unfortunate that in most post-colonial countries the post-revolutionary governments ended up being worse in many respects than colonial rule.

Thank for reading. And a final reminder to Jews: if you plan on visiting Egypt it's worth having your horns removed before going.