J'étais hier avec quelques amis qui n'ont pas tous connu mai 1968 et qui me disaient : "Enfin le retour des années 60, ce goût de la liberté, de l'audace. On en a fini, grâce aux Tunisiens et aux Egyptiens avec ces années, que dis-je ces décennies des langues de bois!"Let me begin by saying that there is surely every bit as much wonder and astonishment at the spectacle of Cairo, after that of Tunisia, in the U.S. as in France. The media are fixed on the spectacle, which is an event as the media like events: immediately legible as "important," "historic," "unprecedented." Television is particularly ecstatic: the power of the streets is visually palpable but, for now, joyful, orderly, mostly devoid of carnage. News anchors do not have to warn parents to send the children out of the room lest they see something "disturbing" (as they did after the massacre in Tucson). To be sure, the good news is pimenté with hints of menace: vigilantes patrolling Cairo neighborhoods with sabers and machetes, occasional police beatings of demonstrators (these have now vanished), and images of men identified as "radical Islamic clerics" or "Muslim brothers" (though for the most part we are not told what they are saying). Last night, Katie Couric, our Claire Chazal, interviewed a leading Muslim brother on the evening news. A secular democracy was all he wanted, he said, and Katie seemed pleased to be able to offer this good news to her anxious compatriots.
Ils ont pris du ventre et pensent, pour certains à leur retraite et à leurs petits-enfants, mais ils en ont envie de la révolution, d'une révolution douce faite par d'autres qui prennent les risques, bien sûr… mais révolution tout de même.
Je me demande et j'aimerais qu'Arthur Goldhammer, ce si fin observateur des opinions des deux rives de l'Atlantique, nous le dise : est-ce vraiment fantaisie française ou rencontre ailleurs, chez lui aussi, cette espèce de parfum de liberté que nous apporte la jeunesse arabe?
That said, I do think there is a difference between the mood here and the mood among Bernard's friends in Paris. For better or for worse, Americans have acquired the habit of viewing the world through the lenses of the geopolitical hegemon. Our Middle East policy may have been a shambles, but for three decades it has had two seemingly stable anchors: Israel and Egypt. Israel's refusal to compromise on West Bank settlements should have shaken this certitude much earlier, but it didn't. Now, overnight, everything has changed in Egypt. Jimmy Carter's one great achievement--the truce between Israel and Egypt--can no longer be taken for granted as the one fixed point in policy toward the region. So there is apprehension more than joy, even though it is hard even for imperial cynics not to share a certain kinship with an entire people declaring itself free.
France, for better or for worse, has acquired the habit of nombrilisme. No matter how great the event, it always leads back to some French lieu de mémoire, which provides a ready-made grille de lecture. It is telling that Bernard's friends invoke the memories of May '68. La révolution en liesse has become a screen memory, which filters out the complex history of France's many more significant revolutions. And even '68 has been strangely plucked from its context. The myth of a united people screens out remembrance of June and July '68, which followed May as night follows day. Counter-demonstrations, divisions, the return of politics ... for politics cannot be banished forever, no matter how tempting the thought.
Politics will return to Egypt as surely as it did to France, but I have no more idea than Bernard what kind of politics. He says that his ignorance of Egyptian social movements is "abyssal." Mine is then monumental. So I won't even speculate. But I will say that if Cairo reminds certain aging Frenchmen of May '68, it seems to remind many aging Americans of two very different but equally major and televisual events: Iran '79 and Philippines '86. Liberals like Paul Krugman, who was in the Philippines at the time, prefer the latter analogy: a revolution en douce, an on the whole peaceful transition. Conservatives like John Bolton raise the specter of theocracy and the birth of a rogue state. The dilemma seems particularly difficult to negotiate for neoconservatives, who once believed with Jeane Kirkpatrick that authoritarian governments were a bulwark against chaos; who later followed Bill Kristol, Paul Wolfowitz, et cie. in the belief that democracy promotion would transform the world and end conflict on the (curious) theory that democracies do not go to war with one another; but who have more recently been chastened by the Hamas victory in Gaza, which forced them to recognize that "free people" will not always vote as they might wish. The Egyptian revolution may force neocons to choose between what is best for democracy and what is best for Israel, thereby exposing one of their core contradictions. Meanwhile, liberal internationalists/realists, the mainstays of both Clintonian and Obaman foreign policy, may be (and already have been) forced to choose between two of their cherished values, "stability" and "human rights."
More, perhaps, than Bernard wanted to hear.