By David Faris
In Naguib Mahfouz’s magnificent Adrift on the Nile, written just before the June War, a group of politically and socially alienated Egyptians gather on a houseboat every night to smoke hash and forget about the troubles of their country. Enveloped in a haze of smoke, they drift through the days and nights, forgetting about corruption in the government, avoiding talk about the war in Yemen, and leaving politics to others.
For decades many Egyptians have been like Mahfouz’s stoned anti-hero Anis and the other narcotized bourgeoisie of the houseboat — dispirited by yawning inequality, intimidated into silence or acquiescence by their unaccountable and violent rulers in Cairo, and only rarely venturing out into the streets. The questionable joys of neo-liberalism — Vodafone and satellite TV and Cilantro café — have played the opiate role of the water pipe in Mahfouz’s masterpiece.
The dramatic end of the Ben Ali regime in Tunisia earlier this month appears to have reminded Egyptians of the power of their presence in the streets. The unrest that seems to be spreading across Egypt — and which may only intensify when the workweek ends on Thursday — should serve as a stark warning to authoritarians across the Middle East.
People are stumbling out of their houseboats and out of the haze, and they may not like what they see: a tiny group of unaccountable autocrats, whose rule benefits only themselves and their friends, propped up by the United States and teetering on the edge of the abyss. They see their friends and neighbors demonstrating and calling for dignity and voice, for an end to corruption and police brutality, and economic policies that seem to benefit only a tiny handful of Egyptians.
The irony of course is that Tunisia is everything that the fabulists in the Bush Administration hoped Iraq would be — an undeniable example of an Arab tyranny being vaporized, with the repugnant kleptocrat Ben Ali decamping from Tunis like a hit-and-run driver from a crime scene. When was the last time an Arab dictator was forced to flee from his own people? Yet instead of toppling the last confrontationists in Damascus, democracy is threatening the pillar of American regional geo-strategy.
The Tunisian revolution carries great legitimacy across the region, since instead of change coming from the hated Americans and their trillion-dollar war machine, it came from below, from the streets, from the frustrated, the unemployed, and the have-nots. Change came because people took to the streets and refused to leave until their demands were met. And there is no particular reason why that can’t happen in Egypt too.
A dirty little secret is emerging from Egypt’s unrest as well — the elites are not just scared in Cairo. They are scared in Washington, too.
After the events in Tunisia, the Realist Brigade predictably came out in force against the idea of people-driven change in the Middle East. They said the middle class in Egypt is too small, or they said that maybe we (read: the American foreign policy elite) don’t want democracy in places like Egypt or Jordan. The Islamist boogeyman was trotted out as it always is to scare policymakers away from supporting the deeply held aspirations of the region’s citizens.
Hence the New York Times runs a piece by Robert D. Kaplan, asking readers of the most prime journalistic real estate in the world, “do we really want a relatively enlightened leader like King Abdullah in Jordan undermined by widespread street demonstrations?” You can always tell when someone is about to mount a defense of a tyrant when they use the word “enlightened.”
Of course this is perfectly understandable. No one is more complicit in Egyptian tyranny than the American foreign policy elite. And no one has more to lose if Egypt’s dictatorship, along with the billions America has thrown at it, exits stage left. After all, exactly what does the United States have to show for that investment? Better yet, what do the Egyptians have to show for it?
The entire corrupt status quo in the Middle East rests in large part on the continued existence of corpulent dictatorships like Egypt’s, fattened on American bribery and hoping for one last feast of their own oppositions. Only elderly dictators, and sometimes their children, stand between the Middle East and what Donald Rumsfeld once called, offhandedly, the untidiness of freedom. And make no mistake, the disappearance of authoritarians will indeed be untidy.
This is precisely why, if authoritarian rulers across the region really had their peoples’ best interests at heart, they would have been negotiating smooth and peaceful transitions to more inclusive forms of rule. The model for this form of transition has been available for everyone to see — from Chile to South Korea — for decades. Countries emerging from these so-called “pacted” transitions have tended to be stable and prosperous, and leaders who step aside in this fashion can lay genuine claim to some small form of enlightenment, if only for saving their countries from more violent revolutions.
Perhaps it is of revolutions that Mahfouz’s antihero Anis is dreaming, when during one session of escapism he asks himself, “Am I alone among these drugged minds to laugh in the face of this unstoppable turn in history’s tide? Am I alone when it whispers in my ear that forty knocks on the door will make the impossible come true?”
If the elites in Cairo refuse to listen to that knocking at the door, signified by the massive and growing protests across the country, they might be carried out by history’s tide, instead of laughing at it. For the long-suffering people of Egypt, the impossible is, if not in sight, at least imaginable for the first time in decades.
David Faris is an American political commentator and holds a Ph.D from the University of Pennsylvania for which he did extensive research in Cairo. He teaches at Roosevelt University in Chicago.