Yesterday, a friend with whom I don’t often agree on matters political linked a good piece on the background of the unrest in Egypt and the imponderables for the future, Ross Douthat’s, “The Devil We Know.” He shows how a good deal of al-Qaeda’s ideology was forged in Egypt’s prisons. A great irony indeed that this hateful and oppressive ideology developed in reaction to Mubarak’s own authoritarian excesses.
Instead of responding to the heavy hand of that tyrant’s rule with a longing for freedom, they replaced it by doubling down on the narrow ideologies they already espoused. “Middle Eastern politics,” he writes, “is never quite that easy.”
But history makes fools of us all. We make deals with dictators, and reap the whirlwind of terrorism. We promote democracy, and watch Islamists gain power from Iraq to Palestine. We leap into humanitarian interventions, and get bloodied in Somalia. We stay out, and watch genocide engulf Rwanda. We intervene in Afghanistan and then depart, and watch the Taliban take over. We intervene in Afghanistan and stay, and end up trapped there, with no end in sight.
Sooner or later, the theories always fail. The world is too complicated for them, and too tragic. History has its upward arcs, but most crises require weighing unknowns against unknowns, and choosing between competing evils.
Douthat is less sanguine than others, but he does get at the challenges of foreign policy.
We don’t know what is going to happen in Egypt. While we sympathize those taking to the streets to protest an oppressive government, we fear that some more authoritarian forces may take advantage of the unrest to impose their narrow ideologies on the Egyptian people. Should they succeed, the oppression the protestors now seek to overthrow will seem benign by comparison.
One can only hope that Mubarak has his own “exit strategy,” turning power over to a transitional government not beholden to the Muslim Brotherhood or any other Islamicist ideology and able to maintain order in Egypt and set the stage for real democratic reforms, in short that it avoid the fate of Iran where Khomeini et al. used a similar unrest for their own ends. Only to see the Iranian people again return to the streets protesting another form of repression.