From an Eye-Witness to the Egyptian Rebellion: If not Now, then When?

I am no polemicist. I am rarely even political. I am writing this piece solely because I happened to find myself involved in the events it discusses. Last Thursday, I flew out of Cairo airport with my wife and fourteen year old son on tickets bought for me by my step-father, Richard Weltz, a regular contributor to American Thinker and an old-school conservative, who urged me to write this. I hadn't wanted to leave Cairo. I had never felt under threat during the week since the mass demonstrations had begun. I had also always wanted to witness the fall of a dictatorship first hand. However, I thought we'd better take up my step-father's offer to fly out as we were running out of money, our bank's branch offices were showing no signs of opening, and fewer and fewer cash machines had any cash left in them.

When we arrived in Madrid, where we lived for several years before moving to Cairo in September, 2007, and where we still have a house, I finally had time to look properly into American reactions to the upheaval in Egypt. This hadn't been possible while we were still in Cairo as the Mubarak regime had cut internet access across Egypt for nearly a week.

Of course, I knew from satellite television news coverage that the Obama administration had vacillated, first urging Mubarak to ignore the demonstrators' demands for his immediate resignation, then when he announced that he'd step down after six months at the end of his current term of office, insisting that he go now. In so far as vacillation has come to be the hallmark of the current administration in matters of foreign policy, and since the Egyptian rebellion had arisen suddenly in response to the revolution in Tunisia, this was to be expected. Less comprehensible were the warm words from Barack Obama about a dictator, just as oppressive as his cognates around the region, being a reasonable man who clearly loves his country, or from Hillary Clinton about the Mubaraks' being close personal friends.

What came as a far greater surprise though, was the extent of the division among conservatives as to the appropriate response to recent developments in Egypt. To the English-speaking Egyptians, younger and older, religious or secular, who were eager to discuss the future of their country with me when I went down to Tahrir Square each day, the right reaction from us was abundantly clear.  Hadn't the Bush administration's long term aim in invading Iraq been to create a base from which the rule of law and democracy could be seeded around the Arab world, and hadn't all efforts to achieve that aim in Iraq foundered? Similarly, didn't the insistence of the Egyptian people in the streets upon free and fair parliamentary and presidential elections, upon the repeal of the Emergency Law, upon freedom of speech and of the press, upon the curtailment of corruption and the reform of the judicial system amount to the same thing, only called for, and to be achieved, from within the Arab world's most influential and populous nation, instead of being imposed from without?

This line of thought on the part of educated, middle-class Egyptians is so much at odds with the views of some conservative thinkers in the United States that it is as if the two are speaking of different sets of events. To take a typical, prominent case in point, John Bolton has advised that America, and presumably Americans, would best serve our interests by continuing to support the current dictatorship in Egypt. As far as I can see, this is a classic "better the devil you know" position.

The problem with this is that 'the better the devil you know' argument is a fallacy. Consider the simplest sort of example: "Better not to stop being an alcoholic because, who knows, if you do, you might become a barbiturate, or maybe even a heroin, addict!" On the other hand, one might stop being an addict at all. We might try this again with something rather more complex such as, "Better not give up the gold standard, even if it is strangling our economy, because if we do, there might be runaway inflation." On the other hand, doing so might, or rather did, allow huge economic growth. Whatever change is proposed, a "better the devil you know" argument nay-says it by proposing negative consequences that are by no means bound to occur, while ignoring all possible positive results of change.

In the case of the nascent Egyptian revolution, the particular "better the devil you know" argument that I have come across again and again is the following piece of analogical ‘reasoning' -- if one can call it that....  In 1979, Jimmy Carter, a naively optimistic (Democrat) president failed adequately to support a pro-American (and pro-Israel) secular dictatorship in a large and populous Muslim country only to find this replaced by an anti-American (and anti-Israel) Islamist state. Therefore, if another naively optimistic (Democrat) president fails to support another loyally pro-American (and pro-Israel) secular dictatorship in another large and populous Muslim country in 2011, the same thing will happen all over again.

We are onto another fallacy here, that of false analogy.  Sure, Egypt and Iran are both Muslim countries. Both even have ancient heritage. So what? Britain and Russia are both Christian nations in Europe roughly as far away from one another as Iran and Egypt. Were their histories been bound to unfold similarly? In the last quarter of the 18th century, the American Colonies and France both went through anti-monarchical revolutions spawned by social-contractarian Enlightenment though and ideals and of liberty and equality. Were these events ineluctably fated to pan out in the same way?

This false analogy becomes more bogus when it is linked to spurious history. I have now come across several articles pointing out how the Ayatollah Khomeini and the Islamists remained in the Iranian Revolution working the strings on moderate marionettes until the final act...and how this is what may be happening in Egypt now. Not only is there no evidence to suggest that such a phenomenon is occurring in Egypt now, but this is also not even what happened in the Iranian Revolution. A look back at front page news articles from the time puts Khomeini and Co. onstage from the very start of the show.

By contrast, I didn't notice the Egyptian pro-democracy, anti-corruption protesters burning American flags or chanting slogans about death to the Great red, white and blue Satan or the little white and blue Beelzebub. I haven't seen westerners kidnapped, or attacked, or vilified during the recent demonstrations in Cairo, other than by the thugs from the Mukhabarat, or as Egyptians will sometimes jest, the Mubarakhat. I couldn't spot bearded imams taking the ideological lead for the past fortnight in Cairo. Indeed, those taking the ideological lead in Cairo at present seem to be the same breed of frustrated, middle-class, educated, secular, young people who aspired to overthrow the Iranian theocracy following the rigged election last year.

When Americans believe that the removal of Mr. Mubarak and the end of his regime will necessarily result in an Islamist state in Egypt, we are continuing to fall foul of a final, foul fallacy, that of the false dilemma. It's a false dilemma that all three of modern Egypt's leaders, along with those of every other modern Arab state, have worked assiduously to make real by relentlessly squashing both a moderate, democratic opposition and the core institutions of liberal (in the old-fashioned British sense of the word!) civil society. In Egypt at present, the West has a once-in-a-generation opportunity to influence and abet the end of autocracy in the Mid-East and North Africa. We lost this last generation not by abandoning the Shah of Iran a little too soon, but rather by propping him up for far too long. If we throw away this opportunity, it may be another generation before it comes again.

The high road for Americans -- whether Republican or Democrat -- to take in the matter of Egypt -- or of any people in rebellion against dictatorship -- can be found in the original on the high ground of the National Archive. Here it is, word for word, just past the part many of us memorized in high school:

"Prudence, indeed, will dictate that governments long established should not be changed for light and transient causes; and accordingly all Experience has shown that Mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable, than to right themselves by abolishing the Forms to which they are accustomed. But when a long Train of Abuses and Usurpations, pursuing invariably the same Object, evinces a Design to reduce them under absolute Despotism, it is their Right, it is their Duty, to throw off such Government, and to provide new Guards for their security."
I am no polemicist. I am rarely even political. I am writing this piece solely because I happened to find myself involved in the events it discusses. Last Thursday, I flew out of Cairo airport with my wife and fourteen year old son on tickets bought for me by my step-father, Richard Weltz, a regular contributor to American Thinker and an old-school conservative, who urged me to write this. I hadn't wanted to leave Cairo. I had never felt under threat during the week since the mass demonstrations had begun. I had also always wanted to witness the fall of a dictatorship first hand. However, I thought we'd better take up my step-father's offer to fly out as we were running out of money, our bank's branch offices were showing no signs of opening, and fewer and fewer cash machines had any cash left in them.

When we arrived in Madrid, where we lived for several years before moving to Cairo in September, 2007, and where we still have a house, I finally had time to look properly into American reactions to the upheaval in Egypt. This hadn't been possible while we were still in Cairo as the Mubarak regime had cut internet access across Egypt for nearly a week.

Of course, I knew from satellite television news coverage that the Obama administration had vacillated, first urging Mubarak to ignore the demonstrators' demands for his immediate resignation, then when he announced that he'd step down after six months at the end of his current term of office, insisting that he go now. In so far as vacillation has come to be the hallmark of the current administration in matters of foreign policy, and since the Egyptian rebellion had arisen suddenly in response to the revolution in Tunisia, this was to be expected. Less comprehensible were the warm words from Barack Obama about a dictator, just as oppressive as his cognates around the region, being a reasonable man who clearly loves his country, or from Hillary Clinton about the Mubaraks' being close personal friends.

What came as a far greater surprise though, was the extent of the division among conservatives as to the appropriate response to recent developments in Egypt. To the English-speaking Egyptians, younger and older, religious or secular, who were eager to discuss the future of their country with me when I went down to Tahrir Square each day, the right reaction from us was abundantly clear.  Hadn't the Bush administration's long term aim in invading Iraq been to create a base from which the rule of law and democracy could be seeded around the Arab world, and hadn't all efforts to achieve that aim in Iraq foundered? Similarly, didn't the insistence of the Egyptian people in the streets upon free and fair parliamentary and presidential elections, upon the repeal of the Emergency Law, upon freedom of speech and of the press, upon the curtailment of corruption and the reform of the judicial system amount to the same thing, only called for, and to be achieved, from within the Arab world's most influential and populous nation, instead of being imposed from without?

This line of thought on the part of educated, middle-class Egyptians is so much at odds with the views of some conservative thinkers in the United States that it is as if the two are speaking of different sets of events. To take a typical, prominent case in point, John Bolton has advised that America, and presumably Americans, would best serve our interests by continuing to support the current dictatorship in Egypt. As far as I can see, this is a classic "better the devil you know" position.

The problem with this is that 'the better the devil you know' argument is a fallacy. Consider the simplest sort of example: "Better not to stop being an alcoholic because, who knows, if you do, you might become a barbiturate, or maybe even a heroin, addict!" On the other hand, one might stop being an addict at all. We might try this again with something rather more complex such as, "Better not give up the gold standard, even if it is strangling our economy, because if we do, there might be runaway inflation." On the other hand, doing so might, or rather did, allow huge economic growth. Whatever change is proposed, a "better the devil you know" argument nay-says it by proposing negative consequences that are by no means bound to occur, while ignoring all possible positive results of change.

In the case of the nascent Egyptian revolution, the particular "better the devil you know" argument that I have come across again and again is the following piece of analogical ‘reasoning' -- if one can call it that....  In 1979, Jimmy Carter, a naively optimistic (Democrat) president failed adequately to support a pro-American (and pro-Israel) secular dictatorship in a large and populous Muslim country only to find this replaced by an anti-American (and anti-Israel) Islamist state. Therefore, if another naively optimistic (Democrat) president fails to support another loyally pro-American (and pro-Israel) secular dictatorship in another large and populous Muslim country in 2011, the same thing will happen all over again.

We are onto another fallacy here, that of false analogy.  Sure, Egypt and Iran are both Muslim countries. Both even have ancient heritage. So what? Britain and Russia are both Christian nations in Europe roughly as far away from one another as Iran and Egypt. Were their histories been bound to unfold similarly? In the last quarter of the 18th century, the American Colonies and France both went through anti-monarchical revolutions spawned by social-contractarian Enlightenment though and ideals and of liberty and equality. Were these events ineluctably fated to pan out in the same way?

This false analogy becomes more bogus when it is linked to spurious history. I have now come across several articles pointing out how the Ayatollah Khomeini and the Islamists remained in the Iranian Revolution working the strings on moderate marionettes until the final act...and how this is what may be happening in Egypt now. Not only is there no evidence to suggest that such a phenomenon is occurring in Egypt now, but this is also not even what happened in the Iranian Revolution. A look back at front page news articles from the time puts Khomeini and Co. onstage from the very start of the show.

By contrast, I didn't notice the Egyptian pro-democracy, anti-corruption protesters burning American flags or chanting slogans about death to the Great red, white and blue Satan or the little white and blue Beelzebub. I haven't seen westerners kidnapped, or attacked, or vilified during the recent demonstrations in Cairo, other than by the thugs from the Mukhabarat, or as Egyptians will sometimes jest, the Mubarakhat. I couldn't spot bearded imams taking the ideological lead for the past fortnight in Cairo. Indeed, those taking the ideological lead in Cairo at present seem to be the same breed of frustrated, middle-class, educated, secular, young people who aspired to overthrow the Iranian theocracy following the rigged election last year.

When Americans believe that the removal of Mr. Mubarak and the end of his regime will necessarily result in an Islamist state in Egypt, we are continuing to fall foul of a final, foul fallacy, that of the false dilemma. It's a false dilemma that all three of modern Egypt's leaders, along with those of every other modern Arab state, have worked assiduously to make real by relentlessly squashing both a moderate, democratic opposition and the core institutions of liberal (in the old-fashioned British sense of the word!) civil society. In Egypt at present, the West has a once-in-a-generation opportunity to influence and abet the end of autocracy in the Mid-East and North Africa. We lost this last generation not by abandoning the Shah of Iran a little too soon, but rather by propping him up for far too long. If we throw away this opportunity, it may be another generation before it comes again.

The high road for Americans -- whether Republican or Democrat -- to take in the matter of Egypt -- or of any people in rebellion against dictatorship -- can be found in the original on the high ground of the National Archive. Here it is, word for word, just past the part many of us memorized in high school:

"Prudence, indeed, will dictate that governments long established should not be changed for light and transient causes; and accordingly all Experience has shown that Mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable, than to right themselves by abolishing the Forms to which they are accustomed. But when a long Train of Abuses and Usurpations, pursuing invariably the same Object, evinces a Design to reduce them under absolute Despotism, it is their Right, it is their Duty, to throw off such Government, and to provide new Guards for their security."