Egypt tottershold on tight!
A quick show of hands, please: How many of you had “Egypt” on your list?
No, really—we’re only barely into February, just one month into the new year. So how many of you, when you gazed into the future at the very start of 2011—merely a month ago, remember—had “Egypt” on your list of places that would matter?
Or should I say “How many of us…”?
I plead clueless.
Which hasn’t stopped any of us, of course, from issuing the kinds of confident pronouncements and stern rebukes and bold predictions that always flow like water from the pundit classes, ignoring the marginally inconvenient fact that most of what we’re spouting now was crammed into our brains in the past, oh, 96 hours.
Instant experts! Sudden sages!
Still, the urge to say something is almost overwhelming. How can you watch tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands of people pouring into the streets of Cairo demanding something different, something better, and not want to say something? How can you watch a population spring to life and say “Enough!” after decades of oppression and not want to muse out loud about what it all means?
We don’t know what it all means. Get that out there right at the top: We don’t know what it all means.
We know that Egypt is the big falafel—that whatever happens in Egypt ripples across the Middle East, and across the Arab world.
We know that what’s happening in Egypt is a revolution. However it plays out, it’s a revolution.
We know—or we think we do—that the revolution extends beyond Cairo, to Alexandria, to Suez. We know—or we think we do—that’s it’s a revolution driven by Facebook and Twitter, but that blocking Facebook and Twitter—let alone cell phones and al Jazeera—can no longer stop it.
We know—or we think we do—that the army is siding with the protesters, with the people, and against President Mubarak. (We will know this until the precise moment the army opens fire—if it opens fire—at which point we’ll know the exact opposite.)
We also know—or we ought to know—that these kinds of uprisings are highly unpredictable. That the people who topple the old regime aren’t always the people who wind up running the show. (See Revolutions: French, Russian, Iranian…) That the dream of democracy often gets hijacked and turned into an even deeper, darker nightmare than the one that preceded it.
And we also know—or we ought to know—that America’s ability to shape, let alone control, the course of events in foreign lands is only a fraction of what its strongest friends and bitterest foes believe it to be. That while our own democratic example might serve as inspiration, it’s hardly an owner’s manual.
We can help—or at least we can try. We can contrive to retain what dignity we can as we scramble, decades late, to the people’s side of the barricades. We can work the back channels as well as the public ones, hoping to find a soft landing for a long-time ally whose time—we’re astonished, as always, to learn—has passed.
We can watch. We can cheer. We can fret. We can say all sorts of things.
But admit this first: We don’t know what it all means.
Rick Horowitz is a syndicated columnist. You can write to him at firstname.lastname@example.org.