The Land of Pharaohs: The More Egypt Changes

Posted: Nov 28, 2012 12:01 AM
The Land of Pharaohs: The More Egypt Changes

No doubt many an Egyptian misses Hosni Mubarak and the familiar tyranny they had grown accustomed to, the way some Russians still pine for Stalin's oppressive rule. At least there was no question of who was in charge back then -- even if the next knock on the door might mean a government-paid vacation in Siberia, or worse.

Slavery does have its enchantments, its stability however deadly, its fleshpots if you're a house servant rather than a field hand. Witness the faux nostalgia for old times down on the plantation with Old Massa presiding over a happy scene from "Gone With the Wind," however false the image.

Evil can be romanticized in the imagination, and certainly in official histories. See the Great Soviet Encyclopedia, where faces of old leaders had a way of being air-brushed out in every new edition as today's Hero of The Revolution became tomorrow's unperson.

Even now the revolution that overthrew Egypt's last pharaoh is being reversed by its new one. Across the Middle East, the bright Arab spring turns to the usual winter of stunted hopes.

This familiar process isn't confined to our own time, or just the Middle East. It may be the natural course of modern revolutions, which still follow the pattern set by the French one, and make the American Revolution the great exception to a dismal rule -- a revolution that somehow brought liberty and order, thanks to a founding generation unmatched by revolutionaries elsewhere.

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Washington, Adams, Hamilton, Jefferson, Madison ... where else do you find their counterparts? And our ever with-it intellectuals say America isn't exceptional. Tell it to the huddled masses yearning to breathe free, the tempest-tossed to whom the word for hope is still America.

Recommended reading: "The Anatomy of Revolution" by Crane Brinton, the classic that charts the progress, or rather regress, of modern revolutions as a series of shock waves from left to right till the pendulum reaches its Reign of Terror, then pauses as it reaches the end of its arc (Thermidor) and begins to swing back -- till a new tyrant succeeds the old, and it isn't always easy to tell the difference. Except that the new commissars and reichsministers may be crueler than the old czars and nobles.

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See the latest news from Cairo, where this year's pharaoh has declared his regime above the rule of law, that relic of Western colonialism. Mohammed Morsi has announced that there will be no appealing his decrees to Egypt's increasingly ignored courts. It happens again and again: The same revolutionaries who overthrew the old regime now reinstate it under new management.

The new Egyptian president courtesy of the Muslim Brotherhood now has decreed that the old one be retried, the mob not yet having exacted the fullest measure of revenge on his predecessor. Yet he's been careful not to order any retrial of lower-level types in the state's security apparatus so he can count on their thuggery when needed.

The protesters and anti-protesters will be coming out in strength in Cairo and Alexandria and other Egyptian cities. The moment for protest, rallies and shows of public support or lack of it is usually Friday, the Muslim sabbath, after prayers at the mosque. It's almost a sabbath custom by now in the new but never really new Egypt.

One of the shouters in Tahrir Square, the customary flash point for the revolution of the moment, came up with about the worst name he could call the country's current president and future strongman ... European! Or as he put it, "People have lost faith in him. Anyone who takes such immature decisions can do anything to us, like establish a religious state similar to the dark ages of Europe."

Indeed, the current withdrawal of one Middle Eastern "republic" into the veil of Islam, complete with hijab and averted gaze, does begin to resemble the Europe of the Inquisition and auto-da-fe. See the slow slide of Turkey from Ataturk's dream of a modern state back into Ottomanism. But it's doubtful that the young, urban and restless in Tahrir Square will have any effect on the dead weight of Egypt's unchanging fellaheen.

On the other side of whatever revolution or counter-revolution is going on at the moment, there is this comment from an anti-protester who ventured into Tahrir Square to say a few words in defense of Egypt's president-becoming-dictator: "How can President Morsi achieve what all the masses have been yearning for and then be punished, that's the big question."

As usual, speech may reveals more than what the speaker intended. Whenever someone uses that most un-American of phrases, The Masses, you can be certain that he'll soon be defending a dictatorship in their name.

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Here in America we have no masses, only people. As in the We the People, the first words of the Preamble to the Constitution of the United States, a document that set out to wed order to liberty, and did. Especially after the addition of the first 10 amendments, a bill of rights that would become known as The Bill of Rights.

Contrast the connotation of The Masses with the highly individualized, personalized, delineated portraits of the people in Carl Sandburg's "The People, Yes": neighbors and friends, shopkeepers and laborers, farmers and friends, businessmen and union organizers, suckers and saints, jokers and prigs, hucksters and leaders, mechanics and tinkerers of every sort, the preacher in the pulpit and the village atheist on his soapbox, and every type in between. All are vivid, individual persons -- not some amorphous mass.

Think of a Henry Ford in his workshop, a Bill Gates out in the garage, a George Mitchell working the Barnett Shale in obscurity till a process now known as fracking revolutionized the American oil industry and is now, despite what all those Expert Studies have said about Peak Oil for years, is making this country a net exporter of oil and gas.

These are the people who built America, each in his or her own way, and who know better when they're told, "You didn't build that." Who else did but they, each his own master, unafraid to look anybody in the eye and, if need be, tell poobah or president where to get off? Which may be why any American, told that he must do this or must not do that, can only feel his spine stiffen and a knowing smile form on his face. We are Americans; nobody tells us what to do or think or believe. Or dares confuse us with that European concept, The Masses. Not for long, anyway. The People, Yes!

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As for this supposedly new Egypt, the names of the rulers may be different but the old Egypt of Hosni Mubarak, Anwar Sadat and Gamal Abdel Nasser persists, as reliable as the annual flood of the Nile. The pattern goes back to a time when the names chiseled in stone might be Amenhotep IV or cruel Khufu of the fourth dynasty. Egypt's history may no longer be written in hieroglyphics, and its rulers are now called Presidents instead of Pharaohs, but it remains remarkably unchanged.

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