Mark Twain once observed that history does not repeat itself but it often rhymes. One of those rhymes is how revolutions happens. Since the French Revolution these events have very often been the kicking in of a rotten door. That is to say the power structure that rules the land had become so corrupt, feckless, incompetent and clueless that all that was required for its overthrow it was for a small dedicated group to perform the act. The best example of this was the Bolshevik seizure of power in October of 1917.
Looking at Tunisia, it fills the bill quite well. The regime was epically corrupt, it was hated, brutal, detached, and incompetent. There was a huge, yawning chasm between the rulers and ruled. The nation was a tinder-box just waiting for a spark.
Another of those odd rhymes is the obscure event or person that sets off the conflagration. Granted the political alignments of Fin de siècle Europe guaranteed that “some damn fool thing in the Balkans” could cause disaster for all. Still, no one would have picked out Gavrilo Princip to be spark that caused the fire-storm that was WWI. What an odd thing it would be if this very obscure fruit vender is the pebble that causes a political avalanche in the Maghreb and beyond. History aligned with serendipity can produce a very perverse iambic pentameter.
The question, especially in Egypt, is exactly how rotten is the door that is being kicked? How bad is the damage being done by the termites of nepotism, fecklessness, corruption, venality, sloth, incompetence, cronyism, and so forth?
The rot is rather pervasive. The grand ideas first posited by Gamal Abdel Nasser of Arab socialism have fallen away. Even at the beginning, they failed to match the harsh realities on the ground. But as time rolled on, the progression of the Egyptian state has been ever more corrupt and authoritarian. By the end game of the Hosni Mubarak era, Egypt was on the road to following its former partner in the UAE, Syria; a monarchy by another name. The dirty not-so-secret that Hosni Mubarak’s son is slated to pick up the leadership reigns from dear-old-dad has got to be an affront to the proud Egyptians.
A wrecking ball is headed right for the house that Hosni built; can it survive the blow?
It all depends on the Army. In Iran, the forces of counter-revolution, of repression, were up to the task; they were more than willing to beat, bludgeon, and kill their fellow citizens. But in Egypt it may be a totally different matter. There is nothing special about this; nothing unique about the ancient land of the Pharaohs. There is nothing more than time. The acid of corruption has had much more time to do its damage to the Egyptian kleptocracy. The question again is, “exactly how rotten is that door.” If the Army abandons Hosni Mubarak, it is all over, stick a fork in him because he is done.
If Mubarak is sent to exile, if he is tossed under the bus, a big if to be sure, it will be “bar the door Katie” for our efforts in the Maghreb. There are any number of client states that may show us the exit portal. The number of “pro-Western” states that do not reflect the wishes of a vast majority of their citizens is legion. Blow-back has been building up since the beginning of the Cold War with nary a relief valve in sight. We as a nation have been talking a good game about wanting democracy in the Arab lands, that we want rule by the people,but do we really have the stomach for what that may really entail? It could get very, very ugly. Remember dear reader, the most likely successors to these pro-Western states is a Hamas-like Islamic Republic. Exactly what is our response if the Maghreb breaks out in a rash of Political Islam? Do we do the diplomatic equivalent of prescribing a soothing ointment, and hope it goes away?
I don’t want to be all gloom and doom, but one of the rhymes of history is that Revolutions are always messy. There is lots of Sturm und Drang, lots of to-ing and fro-ing, lots of losers and ,quite often, lots of dead bodies. Revolutions are almost always a violent affair that release the darker passions of the nation. What will happen in Egypt if those passions that have been bottled up for the last fifty plus years are released? It is not a happy thought.
Not to get too Marxist here, but there is a central contradiction between the ruling elites of the Arab world, the supposed reason for their regimes existence, and the reality on the ground. Pan-Arabism as an ideology has been dead for a long time and its rotting corpse is befouling the political progress and process of the Arab lands. Ditto for the Socialism that underpinned Pan-Arabism. This has left the masses totally unprotected from the ravages of Corporate Capitalism and its program of Neocolonialism. The question of push back has become more of when rather than of if.
So, to stretch a metaphor to the breaking point and beyond, where is this rhyme going? Are we going to something akin to the year 1989 in Europe? Is this going to be a parallel to the fall of the iron curtain? One thing for sure, we are, once again, going to be informed of the exact limits to our power and our attempts at hegemony. There will not much our most sacred lady of the tastefully appointed pant-suit will be able to do for good or ill in Egypt. There will not be much President Hope and Change will be able to do either. All the important actors will reside in the land of the Nile. Welcome, at last ,dear reader to the true post Cold War era. Welcome to the Great Thaw. Welcome to the Revenge of History.
I don’t know if the US ruling class has gotten message though. They have seemed to have latched on to the notion that the Global War on Terror is an equivalent struggle to the Cold War. Exactly how one manages to make an equivalence between OBL and his un-merry bunch of Pashtun campers to the military behemoth and existential threat that was the USSR is one of the greater mysteries of U.S. political thinking. Be that as it may, the rest of the world is not buying it. It is almost a decade since the twin towers fell and the rest of the world has moved on. Look for more events like the ones in Tunisia and Egypt. Look for more of these forceful challenges to the status quo.Look for Washington to be surprised and dumbfounded when this happens. Look for people all over the world to be kicking in the rotten doors of their regimes.