Brief Reflections on the Revolution in Egypt

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I have been asked to comment on the revolution in Egypt. Every newspaper is already filled with commentary. Every time I switch on the television, no one seems to be discussing anything else. All this may be very good for sales of Mr Blake’s novel, Blood of Alexandria. But I am already bored with Egypt. For this reason, I will try to be brief.

I will begin with the Egyptian people. According to the narrative pushed by the BBC among others, the current wave of revolutions sweeping through the Arab Islamic world shows a longing for democratic modernity. Particularly in Egypt, a dictator has fallen who, for thirty years, kept his people in subjection with threats of arbitrary arrest and punishment. Now, we are told, democracy can flourish at last. Earlier today, I saw films of departing crowds in Cairo or Alexandria, while some stupid woman explained with tearful optimism that the people had now spoken.

Well, I have no doubt that most Egyptians, called on at random, would say they wanted representative democracy, and independent courts, and a bill of rights and an end to government corruption, and so forth. But I doubt this is what they will vote for. If they do get any of it by chance, I fail to believe they will lift a finger to keep it from being swept away.

Egypt is not a nation in the sense than England or France or Germany are nations. It has no history of the kind that unites and inspires a people. It has always been ruled by absolute despots. For most of the past few thousand years, the despots have been foreign. It has no observable racial homogeneity: the higher classes seem invariably to be white; the lower classes range between brown and sub-Saharan black. It has no cultural unity. Most people there are young. Most are very poor. Most are without education. We therefore have a country without any secular identity, where the people are desperate enough, and ignorant enough, and energetic enough, to demand the impossible. Given this, Egypt is as likely to become a stable democracy as I am to become a Quaker.

What will happen, I think, is that someone rather old and westernised will be the next President. He will make fine assurances to everyone who will listen. Of course, he will take his orders from Washington. Nothing much will change. He will last a few months – he might manage a few years, if he is bright or lucky or both. But the one unifying force in Egypt is religion. Sooner or later, enough people will accept – or enough will stop denying – that Islam is the answer. And that will be an end to American efforts to manage the popular will.

Egypt will get a government of radical Moslems. This may not be completely horrid to the Christian minority. It may choose not to copy the full radicalism of the Iranians. I hope it will not damage the monuments or empty out the museums. But the westernised veneer of Egyptian life will be swept away, and there will be no more jolly parties on the Nile cruisers. There will probably be a war – these do accompany revolutions, and they break out as much for the same demographic reasons as for any internal dynamic of revolution. Perhaps the enemy will be Israel. Almost as likely, it will be Libya or some other neighbour.

Unless the Americans continue interfering in the country’s internal politics, this Islamic government will, in time, become another cynical kleptocracy. Even with religious supports, revolutionary fervour is unlikely to survive longer than one generation. And, since Islam, considered either in its traditional forms or in the modern reformulations, has no answers to the questions that really face Egypt, there will be a new ruling class, with a new legitimising ideology, and new barriers to entry to keep up average incomes for its members. Except they will continue to benefit at second hand from scientific and technical progress elsewhere, most ordinary Egyptians will be no better off nor worse off than under the government they have just pulled down. All that can be said is that they will have a government more acceptable to their cultural values.

What this revolution means for the nations of the West is less obvious. What has just happened in Egypt will probably be repeated in Jordan and in Saudi Arabia and in various other countries. It is reasonable to suppose that the Arab Islamic world will become a regional alliance of states hostile to Western values and generally hostile to the West.

Now, I am not about to drift off into some neoconservative rant about “Islamofascism” and the need for a new Cold War, or another set of Crusades. I suppose the Israelis will find life rather harder, without all those corrupt Arab rulers they have been dealing with in private since about 1973. But that is an Israeli problem – and the Israelis are clever enough and ruthless enough to make whatever threats and accommodations will ensure their survival. For every other Western people, the loss of the Middle East will mean somewhere between nothing very much and modest good fortune.

In the first place, there will be no disruption to the oil trade. Every oil exporting country in the Middle East is as desperate for our money as we need the oil. Whether the people in charge are secular dictators or divine-right monarchies, or excitable young men with beards, the basis for trade will remain. Oil will continue flowing out of the region until scientific and technical progress provide us with more convenient alternatives. Once more, this assumes that the Americans will behave more sensibly than they did in Iraq or have with Iran. I suspect they will be forced to behave sensibly, however. In Iraq, they lost militarily, and its costs at home have contributed to an approaching state bankruptcy.

In the second place, a much more Islamic Arab world will be less inclined to sign up to all the global police state treaties. It will stop co-operating in the war on financial privacy, or in whatever lunacy about the environment may be in fashion. It will probably allow the sale of proper light bulbs or of full-strength vitamin pills. Already, the Islamic world is a place of refuge from the despotism of Western governments. Northern Cyprus and Morocco both have growing colonies of Europeans who are on the run with their children from the social workers. An Arab Islamic world impermeable to Western influence is to be welcomed as a place of refuge. And the removal of one more part of the world from its zone of control will slow the growth of the global police state.

This is not to say that the loss of the Middle East will destroy the New World Order – any more than it has been prevented from emerging by the non-adherence of Russia and China. But it is a question of balance. Confine the global police state to the white nations alone, and it may become less dangerous.

There – I have been brief and have said all that I can about Egypt. Let us now see how many of my predictions come true.

Sean Gabb [send him mail] is the author of Smoking, Class and the Legitimation of Power. His book, Cultural Revolution, Culture War: How Conservatives Lost England, and How to Get It Back, can be downloaded for free. See his website.

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