Sphinx without a riddle

Paul Greenberg

11/28/2011 4:20:00 PM - Paul Greenberg
Reading the daily news stories out of Cairo is like following the fever chart of some disease whose course was traced long ago. And can now be found in any standard medical textbook. In this case, just look under Revolution, Stages of.

Next week's news out of Cairo -- indeed, next year's -- can be foreseen. Indeed, it has been by students of revolution, who inevitably come to sound less like poli-sci majors than diagnosticians.

Just as first-year medical students used to trudge around with "Gray's Anatomy" under their arm, every member of our diplomatic corps should be equipped with a copy of Crane Brinton's "Anatomy of a Revolution" -- if one can still be found in the rare history department that has not forsaken history for ersatz substitutes like Gender Studies or Numbers Crunching 101.

Professor Brinton, one of the good things to come out of Harvard, explained the course of all modern revolutions, that is, revolutions a la francaise, as neatly as an epidemiologist tracing the course of a familiar, parasitic disease:

The contagion called Revolution occurs as a series of successive shocks from right to left, from modest reform to the usual Reign of Terror, till a breaking point is reached (Thermidor) and chaos gives birth to its favorite child, tyranny. As surely as the French Revolution led to a Bonaparte with his imperial ways and ego.

It's all as familiar as the hubris that leads to downfall. The Greeks, like the Hebrews before them, knew all about hubris, or at least enough to ignore the familiar signs till it overcame them.

Now the Egyptians, still restive under the watchful eye of the usual generals and the batons of the usual police units, await their Bonaparte. He should appear any day or maybe year now. Perhaps in the guise of the next Nasser. Or maybe he'll be some ayatollah. Or even a general devoid of charisma, this being the age of the bureaucrat. Now even dictators must be dull.

None of the news out of Egypt should surprise. It's the normal course of a modern revolution, that is, a revolution in the French mode. Just as Paris had its Reign of Terror in the 18th century, Cairo now awaits its Holy Terror. Or for the fever to break and then recede into corruption as usual. Precisely when the tipping point will arrive, the political scientists and foreign policy "experts" can debate. But no one watching the violence erupt in one Egyptian city after another can doubt that the whole, revolutionary syndrome is proceeding right on schedule.

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Events in Egypt scarcely register with whoever is responsible for making American foreign policy these days, if anyone is. Our policymakers mainly just watch, and wait for the dust to settle. And the blood.

No one in the White House seems much interested in shaping the course of the Egyptian revolution. A politic statement is issued after every massacre, but that's about the extent of its involvement. The same goes for our hidebound State Department. Over at Foggy Bottom, every historic challenge is reduced to a policy paper with no clear conclusion. Even as the vaunted Arab Spring turns into the lead-gray Arab Winter.

Our current leaders seem to have no more historical consciousness than our current crop of protesters, whose idea of revolution is to occupy the nearest public space and demand nothing in particular.

It's not that Washington hasn't been heard from. Just the other day, after the latest bloody put-down of the protests in Egypt, the usual statement was issued -- a standard form must be kept on file -- decrying the authorities' use of "excessive" force. Rather than their using only the minimal force needed to keep the people down?

It sounds like a replay of the administration's reaction to Iran's Green Revolution a couple of years back: Stay neutral till it's too late to do anything about it. Why rush? There'll be plenty of time to side with the revolutionaries after they have been crushed.

Can you remember that distant time when the president of the United States also assumed the informal title Leader of the Free World? It feels like ages ago.

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Talk about out of touch: The State Department's official spokesperson has called on Egypt's latest field marshal in charge of democracy, or rather forestalling it, to keep his promise to turn power over to a civilian government sometime next summer.

Actually, Egypt's parliamentary elections or semblance thereof began this week. But its military rulers have nothing to fear from such elections, rigged as they are. A third of the 498 seats at stake in the election will be filled by majority vote in each district, which means the old, familiar names from the Mubarak era will have a distinct advantage. Theirs may be the only names recognizable on the ballot, and name recognition is what counts in these elections. (Sound familiar?)

The remaining seats are to be filled on the basis of what's called proportional representation. Those votes will be cast for parties rather than people, and each party will be given the same proportion of parliamentary seats as it draws in the elections. It's a system that gives the better organized Islamists -- in Egypt they're called the Muslim Brotherhood -- a decisive advantage over the secular parties that dominate only Western news coverage.

The more things change in Egypt, the more they're arranged to stay the same. The old Nasser-era quota system that reserves at least half the parliamentary seats for Workers and Farmers, a euphemism for the handpicked favorites of the regime du jour, has been kept in place. Shades of George McGovern's quota system for the Democratic Party's national conventions, which assured only that the delegates would be McGovernites rather than representative of the party, much less the country, as a whole. In Egypt, all is now in place for the next act of the usual charade that follows the pronouncement that all has changed.

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The minority Copts, the Christians of Egypt, will not be able to attract the minimum number of votes to require any real representation in the new parliament. Besides, they're already being burned out of their homes and churches. The new Jews, they've started to leave the country, those who can make it out, just as the Jews were forced out under Colonel Nasser's great "revolution" that changed only the name of the tyrant.

As always, the victims of the pogrom will be blamed rather than the perpetrators. The field marshal currently in power has started talking about all this unrest being the product of a secret foreign conspiracy. (Sound familiar?) It's the next stop in the classic schedule laid down by Professor Brinton in his anatomical study of revolution. The study of anatomy was always a bit, or even a lot, bloody.