'Fire in the Minds of Men'
The popular revolt in Egypt is a profoundly confusing event. It is clearly a true expression of the powerful yearning for change on the part of a people denied any promise of a better future by the heavy hand of a kleptocratic, bureaucratic, autocratic regime. In almost any other circumstance, this is something Westerners across the political spectrum would have no difficulty welcoming, supporting, and encouraging.
But this is the Middle East, and so, instead, there is foreboding.
Indeed, some of those one might have thought would greet the Egypt protests with a sense of vindication—owing to the fact that they have spent decades talking about the lack of freedom in Arab countries, the trampling of elementary civil rights, and the cynical demonization of Israel by rulers like Hosni Mubarak for purposes of turning popular attention away from their own failings—are, instead, anything but jubilant.
They are terrified. They fear nothing good can come of letting loose the pent-up popular emotions of the Egyptian people. The end result, they warn, will be a radical Islamist regime with the largest military in the Middle East, a long border with Israel, and the ideological hunger to help Hamas in Gaza with its relentless terror war against the Jewish state.
Nor is the fear limited to these Cassandras. One reason the Obama administration has been so unsure and unsteady in handling the crisis is that even this liberationist presidency can’t make sense of whether change will bring the Egyptians into the future or cast them back into a Nasserite past—one that will combine the worst of Nasser’s hatred of the West and Israel with the worst theocratic-terrorist tendencies of the Muslim Brotherhood.
Anyone who dismisses these concerns with easy triumphalism is a fool, as in anyone who doesn’t believe that Israel may now face a complex and dangerous military threat that could ignite regional war on a scale not seen in nearly 40 years. But the Cassandras here aren’t just prophesying; they are warning about the risks of the future in order to direct policy in the present. They believe even a slight risk of the installation of such a regime suggests that the danger posed by change is too great and that change must therefore somehow be stilled.
The problem is that the policy they seem to want the United States, in particular, to pursue—a policy that somehow will help stuff the genie back into the bottle—is delusional.
This was a revolt that caught fire when a solitary man literally set himself on fire in Tunisia—the personification of what Dostoyevsky called a “fire in the minds of men and not in the roofs of houses.” Dostoyevsky, like the Egypt skeptics, believed such fire would lead to a nihilistic assault on mankind the likes of which no one had ever known, and he was right. But the Soviet “fire in the minds of men” took nearly 50 years to break out in Russia from the time Dostoyevsky wrote those words in his novel The Devils.
By contrast, the Tunisian spark took little more than a month to reach Cairo. It was beyond the powers of anyone’s prophecy to predict the emotional conflagration in Tahrir Square. And unlike Hama in 1982, when Syria’s Hafez al-Assad slaughtered 25,000 civilians over the course of a weekend with no one watching, or Tiananmen Square in 1989, when the Chinese government threw out the journalists and then began slaughtering protesters by the thousands, there is no way for Hosni Mubarak to hurl his nation into media darkness so he can do the dirty work in private necessary to scare the revolt into quiescence.
We are limited in our options here. We cannot bolster Mubarak, though we might be able to hasten the ending of his reign. It makes sense for the United States to do what it can to encourage the kinds of reforms—civil-society reforms like ensuring freedom of speech and the full political participation of women—that would hinder the path of an Islamist takeover. That would at least be a consistent way to proceed. Trying to fall back on simply voting “present,” as Obama is wont to do, isn’t. And the issuance of dire warnings about a dark future, however valid, isn’t a policy either.