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Sphinx Without a Riddle

The opinions expressed by columnists are their own and do not necessarily represent the views of

Like all modern revolutions since the fashion was introduced in Paris, events in Egypt proceed a la francaise: in a series of successive shocks from right to left till the pendulum swings as far as it can, trembles for an uncertain moment (the Reign of Terror), and then swings back toward autocracy.


It's not a pattern confined to Egypt; there are aspiring pharaohs everywhere, patiently waiting to be recalled to life once the revolutionary process has been exhausted and the people are so desperate for order, they'll sacrifice anything for it, including their freedom. Only the exceptional nation may be able to escape such a fate. (God bless America and the generation of 1776!)

Where is Egypt now in this deadly cycle? Each stage of the process may be loosely identified with the name of the leader it throws up at the moment: Mirabeau, Danton, Marat, Robespierre ("Terror is only justice: prompt, severe and inflexible; it is then an emanation of virtue..."), and finally the inevitable Bonaparte who puts an end to all this nonsense with a whiff of grapeshot. And proceeds to replace the order he restored with his own egomaniacal ambition.

In what revolutionary stage is Egypt now? Somewhere between the Oath of the Tennis Court, when the bourgeois were riding the tiger for the moment, and the next, ever more violent act already in sight. Call it the Mirabeau moment.

Sure enough, a superannuated little trouper, a veteran of the diplomatic boards bearing a meaningless Nobel Prize, the equivalent of a political Oscar, has donned a costume much too big for him and volunteered for the role of Mirabeau. His name is Mohammed ElBaradei, and he's suddenly walked onstage to ask where the mob is headed so he may lead it. The real terror is yet to come.


The hope is that the process can be stopped at any time, that somebody with sense will throw a shoe in the revolutionary works to slow it down. Or even turn all its energy to a better purpose than a bloody fight for a public square.

The only thing certain is that somewhere, in a dusty barracks outside Cairo or Alexandria, or posted comfortably in the West as a military attache, an obscure (for the moment) colonel bides his time, waiting for his own moment. Maybe another Gamal Abdel Nasser licking his wounds after the Six Day War, or a Juan Peron watching Mussolini's rise in Italy and taking notes for future reference, still waiting to meet destiny and Eva Duarte.

Meanwhile, the world watches as familiar scenarios are rolled out, like models proceeding down a Parisian runway. Which will the Egyptians choose, or be forced to choose? Their revolution is still in its earliest stages, like a prepared mix. Just add blood and gore and put on to boil until the desired, or undesired, effect is achieved.

Some of us must not only watch but pretend to act, for they are leaders, or at least nominal ones, and must speak out, tell the Egyptian people what they "must" do, and generally strut and fret their hour on the stage, or maybe just their 15 minutes. Much like play doctors called in after opening night has been a flop, they're trying to rewrite the first act, as if the actors would listen to far-away critics.


Our president, secretary of state, and their teams of ghostwriters must look like they know what they're doing. So they prate and preen and pirouette, shifting from day to day as the revolution itself shifts -- even while the lines they're looking for are right in front of them, in bold script, set down in Philadelphia, Pa., of all places, in the midst of a revolution that really was different, and whose fruits really would prove exceptional:

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness. That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed....

If the president of the United States is searching for a message to send, a truth to stand for, a declaration of principles sacred and inviolable to proclaim once again, there it is, ready-made, needing only to be repeated far and wide. He needn't wait for the Fourth of July. These principles apply every day of the year. Every year. Everywhere.

If our ever-wavering leader, endlessly caught between principle and politics, has to add a postscript of his own, he need only tell the Egyptian people to beware letting their cause be co-opted by the usual demagogues. And to keep their hand on the plow, and hold fast to their goal: a government of just powers derived from the consent of the governed.


But instead of being forthright, our president hems and haws and maneuvers as the fatal pageant in Egypt proceeds unexceptionally:

One always picks the easy fight

One praises fools, one smothers light

One shifts from left to right --

Politics, the art of the possible....


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