Wednesday, February 2, 2011


Bernard Girard calls on me to comment on this:

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!"

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?
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.

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.


Mr Punch said...

What most reminded me of '68 was Mubarak's announcement that he would not run again - like LBJ. Who's the Egyptian Nixon, I wonder?

Arthur Goldhammer said...

Today's violence suggests something more Machiavellian than Nixon. Mubarak promises to step aside but meanwhile has his police (possibly--I have no evidence of this) provoke a few violent incidents, heightening fear and creating a pretext for the army--thus far ostensibly neutral--to step in and restore order. But who knows who is loyal to whom inside the Egyptian army. Certainly not I. But this revolution has been too easy, and easy revolutions make me suspicious. Will the army really sacrifice its privileges, like French nobles on the Night of August 4, 1789? Not so certain. The army is the key Egyptian institution, and as far as I can see, it remains intact. Think of how Nasser came to power. The proper analogy is perhaps not Iran '79 but Egypt '52 ... or Saddam Hussein. Young colonels always have a lean and hungry look.

Cincinna said...

From my observation here in NY, most Americans view the events in Egypt through the eyes of 1979 & compare Obama's handling of the situation with Jimmy Carter's throwing the Shah of Iran to the wolves, ushering in an Islamist revolution under theocratic Mullahs, which was brutal, autocratic & dangerous for Iran & the entire world.

Egypt has been a loyal and reliable ally of the US, and has been the lynchpin for stability in the Middle East.

There is great concern about the post-Mubarak Egypt , which many fear will be an Islamist State run or co-opted by the Moslem Brotherhood.

1968 does not have the same meaning for Americans as for left wing French. For us 1968 is remembered for the assassinations of Dr Martin Luther King, Jr & Bobby Kennedy.

Does Egypt ~ to Iran 1979? Is Obama Jimmy Carter redux, or worse? Only time will tell, but the parallels are ominous.

The one good thing Carter accomplished, The Camp David Accords assuring peace between Israel & Egypt are certainly in grave jeopardy.

Arthur Goldhammer said...

You are nothing if not consistent, Cincinna.

Cincinna said...

 I am not confused. We are just operating from different points of view; certainly listening to different American voices. 

 The parallels between Carter and Iran and Obama/Clinton lack of coherent foreign policy on Egypt are striking and quite terrifying. 

  I may not be the most articulate voice on the subject. I am an Arr Historian, trained in France FWIW, and a recovering lawyer, not a professional political expert. 

 I am not confused. Your implication to disagreement is insulting& cled minded. We are just operating from different points of view; certainly listening to different American voices. 

 The parallels between Carter and Iran and Obama/Clinton lack of coherent foreign policy on Egypt are striking and quite terrifying. 


 For a more "professional" view, I might suggest reading John Bolton, former Ambassaador to the UN, Frank Gaffney, David Horowitz, Walid Phares & Aaron Klein, among others. 
 You might also go back and read UN Ambassador Jeane Kirkpatrick's speech to the UN and Ronald Reagan's writings on Carter and the results of his catastrophic policies on Iran and the Shah. Both have stood the test of time, proven right by History. 

Anonymous said...

I'd like to postulate that it is a constant that any and every country ( a vast conglomerate of individual points of view) will look upon such events from their own wee perspective and look for themselves in it. Nombrilisme inévitable. Be it China, the US, France...wherever. I find the commentary to be shallow and paltry. On the other hand, commentary and coverage seem to be an hour or half a day behind what is being churned out from American news sources.


Arthur Goldhammer said...

I said "consistent," not "confused," my dear Cincinna. But may I ask, since you think that the US "threw the Shah to the wolves," despite his valuable services, how you view the decision to depose our other erstwhile servant in the region, Saddam Hussein? I mean, really.

Mark said...

I don't find in Cincinna's comment a moment's consideration of the democratic aspirations of Egyptians. It appears that these may be simply brushed aside, even blithely so, since it seems certain for him that there is only one possible outcome: an Islamist state. I'd like to know what it is that warrants that certainty? And I also ask, is it always the best policy for the US to prop up "its" dictators? It wasn't the best policy in Iran and neither was it in Iraq. Surely we might hope that the US may have become a little less dogmatic and a little more flexible in its foreign policy antics at this late hour?

Cincinna said...

Sorry, Art, for misreading your comment. I am having severe vision problems & dont see text clearly. 

  Re: Jimmy Carter, the Shah,  and the rise of an Islamist state in Iran. 

    I think  there is a distinction to be made between autocrats, who may be allies of the US and tyrants who run totalitarian regimes that call for the destruction of the US. An autocratic government like that of The Shah of Iran and Mubarak in Egypt, and the murderous, intolerant 
tyrannical government in an Islamist State like Iran are 
quite different. In terms of human rights, freedoms, 
the subjugation of women, the tolerance ofChristianity, 
Judaism, & other religions, there is no  comparison
between the Mullahs and the Shah. The autocrats can do better for their own people, but do not present a threat to regional stability or US national security. 

    We have many Persian and Egyptian friends in Paris & NY. Persian Jews & Coptic Christians (in Egypt) whose families were forced to flee  under threat of death, who left all their property and personal belongings behind, and arrived in the West with nothing when the Shah was overthrown. One of my husband's law partners is a Persian Jew, another an Egyptian Christian with family still in Egypt. The hatred for Jews, and Christians, the vicious anti-semitism of the ruling Ayatollahs forced almost all Jews to flee, even though the Jewish community in Iran is  ancient. The same thing is now happening to Coptic Christians in Egypt and other Moslem countries where Islamist radicals from the Moslem Brotherhood are destroying ancient Christian churches and menacing Coptic Christians who have lived there for two millennia. 

President Sarkozy has quite correctly called this 
"religious cleansing". 

   The Shah had a more modern pro-Western outlook, and was a practical politician who was instituting reforms, far  more than any of his neighbors, except Turkey. 

 Although he was ruthless in suppressing Communists he modernized Iran, he was not a theocratic ideologue. He gave women the right to get an education  and freed them from wearing the veil. 

  This is not meant to be an  apology for the misuse of power and sometime brutality of the Shah, but realpolitik involves making difficult, practical choices. Often the choice of the lesser evil, which is a legitimate choice. 

 Does anyone doubt that the world would be a very different place had the rise of Radical Islam been stopped in 1979?

  Re: your question about Iraq. We all know the Pros & Cons of the issues. My own opinion is that the perspective of History will give the final verdict on the Iraq War and the Presidency of George W. Bush. More on that later. 

Cincinna said...

Art, I reread your original response to Bernard and I am
struck by your apparent hesitance to refer directly by name to the organization, The Moslem Brotherhood.

Founded in 1928 in Egypt, the MB was formed as a violent, a virulently anti-Semitic, anti-Zionist organization that funded and supported the rise to power of Hitler and the Nazis,

Very much present and growing in the Arab world, and the US, MB is spreading the same vile message through its
direct offshoots such as Al Qaida,Hamas, Hezbollah and Osama Bin Laden.

Who in their right mind would want this terrorist group to be part of any coalition government in Egypt?

Why is any reasonable person calling for the MB to be part of any new coalition government in Egypt?