Something new is being heard along the Nile: the sound of freedom. It always comes as a surprise to Egypt's rulers. For they have grown up seeing the great river flood, then recede. That rhythm has been the very life of Egypt over the ages, and not even when the river turns to blood can old Pharaoh believe anything will really change. He may resolve to change, at least publicly, but it is always too late. The years of indolence and apathy have taken their toll. Now the warning voices he regularly dismissed are turning out to have been prophetic.
Who would have guessed it? Certainly not the distinguished diplomats who send back dispatches remarkable only for their obtuseness. Washington's old Middle East hands, its wizened corps of Arabists, its fabled experts, have again proven expert only in ignoring that tide in the affairs of men which, taken at the flood, leads on to fortune but, ignored, consigns leaders to the shallows and misery of the rueful province known as what might-have-been.
Now, caught as flat-footed as their bosses at Foggy Bottom or in the White House, our experts scurry to provide explanations for their lack of explanations before, and which will probably be just as dim-eyed and tone-deaf.
It is an old, old story. Its plot line should be as familiar by now as a Sunday school lesson. Only the actors playing the familiar roles in this ancient pageant have changed. Little else of substance has since the author of Exodus first set it down. Now, after all these eons, the drama is played out again and the whole world, like an audience that's never seen this show before (we live in a biblically illiterate age), rubs its eyes in bewilderment and waits to see how it will come out. As if the ending will somehow be different this time.
The course of modern revolutions is scarcely something new and unpredictable. We've seen this movie before, and it's a B-grade biblical epic out of Cecil B. DeMille starring Charlton Heston -- or maybe Ronald Reagan, who had a talent for making the oldest of lessons, however corny, sound startlingly new, indeed a REVELATION! Though this lesson has been taught since the first tyrant assumed he was immune to the fate of his kind.
Somebody really should give every member of our diplomatic corps 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 great history for substitutes like gender studies, number-crunching and miniaturized monographs. 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 disease 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. And as certain as hubris leads to downfall. The Greeks, like the Hebrews, knew all about that, or maybe just enough to ignore the familiar signs till it was too late. And only then realize why the mighty had fallen. And that pride goeth before the fall.
To put the old lesson in Professor Brinton's more academic style, the process moves from "financial breakdown (to) organization of the discontented to remedy this breakdown (to) revolutionary demands on the part of these organized discontented (to) demands which if granted would mean the virtual abdication of those governing (to) attempted use of force by the government, its failure, and the attainment of power by the revolutionists. These revolutionists have hitherto been acting as an organized and nearly unanimous group, but with the attainment of power it is clear that they are not united. The group which dominates these first stages we call the moderates (as) power passes by violent ... methods from Right to Left."
Still, at this early stage of the disease in Egypt, there is yet hope the whole sad process can be arrested, and the freedom the crowds shout for might actually be attained -- if only in some nebulous, not fully satisfying fashion. But that is the very definition of democracy, a work always in progress.
For the moment there is something new under the Egyptian sun. What's new is that the fabled Arab Street, so long manipulated by ambitious demagogues, the way gangsters might run a bazaar or barrio, is still in flux, amorphous, leaderless. Instead of being directed by the politicians, The Street is directing them. It's a refreshing sight, but how long will it be till the anatomy of revolution begins to show its familiar lineaments?
Even now ambitious pols are rushing to the forefront of a revolution they neither started nor may be able to stop. The ever-mobile Mohammed ElBaradei, for slick example. Meanwhile, the fanatics lurk in the shadows, like Bolsheviks in 1917 or the Muslim Brotherhood now, waiting for their opportunity to strike.
As for the president of the United States -- can you remember a now distant time when that title was interchangeable with Leader of the Free World? -- he mainly hems and haws. He appears weak, hesitant and indecisive even about first principles -- as if he were afraid of freedom itself, America's very reason for being. As if he were waiting to see how things will turn out rather than trying to shape them.
He sounds less like a president than another essentially meaningless secretary of state, a Warren Christopher or Hillary Clinton. Where is the American spirit of old? Gone with Ronald Reagan? With old Scoop Jackson, that fearless Cold Warrior? Where the heck is Joe Lieberman, asleep?
Whatever policy American leaders settle on, it should always contain at least a grain of boldness, of candor, of the frontier spirit. And there should never, never be any question but that America is still the land of the free and the home of the brave -- not of the fearful and obsequious waiting to see which horse has the inside track before putting down our bet. We seem to live in a time of great events, as always, but of small leaders.
What then should the president have said instead of his timorous, ever-so-balanced, perfectly vapid remarks? What should he still say? For it is not too late yet. He need make only a few observations -- concise, direct, heartening and to the point:
--America is and always will be on the side of liberty in the world; it is our calling, and we will be true to it.
--Liberty, as represented by first our Declaration of Independence and then our Constitution, must be an ordered liberty if it is to prove durable. Disorder is the death of liberty, not its birth. If the crowds in Tahrir Square turn into a mob, Egypt will soon enough be sunk in another ruinous tyranny rather than launched on a hopeful new beginning, to use a Reaganesque phrase.
--In the end only Egyptians can free Egypt, and only if they don't fall for the old slogans of The Street and begin to blame all their troubles on some distant Satan or hidden conspiracy. The most hopeful thing about the anatomy of this developing revolution in Egypt is that its demands seem not ideological but reasonable, simple and modest rather than messianic or utopian. The only things Egyptians seem to be asking for is free elections, a free government, a free market, just a chance at a better life. Who says Egyptians are so different from us? May their better instincts yet win out -- and ours, too.
Ronald Reagan said it, as usual. Early in 1983. Addressing a convention of Evangelicals in Orlando, Florida, of all places, the very capital of all things B-movie-like, he struck the right note, not only for his time but ours: "I urge you to beware the temptation of pride -- the temptation of blithely declaring yourselves above it all, and label both sides equally at fault ... and thereby remove yourselves from the struggle between right and wrong and good and evil." The struggle goes on, and we dare not declare ourselves neutral. Not if we are to stay ourselves.