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Watching Cairo

For nearly three weeks as I watched the exhilarating news coming from Cairo, I had in my head four great canvases by Delacroix that hang forbiddingly in the Grande Galerie at the Louvre: The Massacre at Scio, The Bark of Dante, The Death of Sardanapalus, Liberty Leading the People.Each of them is a passionate semblance of the threat of death or of death itself. I cannot imagine anyone who has seen these impressions ever having them completely out of his head. I know the images in the Dante very well because I happen to have in my house a Cezanne oil study of the Delacroix original. Dante’s journey, guided by Virgil, away from hell has always haunted me. Terror is on several faces in the painting, particularly one which was drawn from Gericault’s Raft of the Medusa.These are icons of the ages. 

So, yes, Cairo was haunted by death for days on end. But, in one sense, Liberty was the most salient vision. Well, at least I had Liberty on my brain. I had to remind myself that this Liberty is not a prop from the French Revolution which ended in massacre, but was an alternative symbol, of the Revolution of 1830, led by Louis-Philippe, the Orleanist “citizen king” whose reign was a triumph of the middle classes. Would the magically peaceful insurrection in Egypt, 2011 conclude with its people’s conquest of the brutal history they had lived under, well, forever? Or would it end with a modern version of Scio,where 20,000 Greek islanders were slaughtered by the Ottomans and which torments still all of Asia Minor and beyond? 

I must say that thus far it has been a gentle revolution, gentle at least from the bottom up. And not really ferocious at all from the very top. Of course, there was brutality here and there, there and here, which is not to be washed away by the giddiness of the good news that may turn bad. But, to the extent that there were more than enough cases of beatings and killings, it was the brutalism of the thug element in Egyptian society, an inchoate component of every dictatorship which finds its place between criminals and cops in any disordered order, suppressing chaos and imposing quietude on the embittered. We cannot know what the next stage in Egypt will be or bring. 

I’m afraid that it is still difficult to imagine social and economic justice on the near- or middle-term agenda. What we can anticipate in the far term is zero. This is a sorrowful truth. But the fact is that the country is bitterly poor and without natural resources save for a few rapidly emptying oil beds in the Sinai. The country’s work force is trained for nothing or at least nothing exact. Its farming lands are fast being encroached upon by the desert; and though the peace with Israel has brought the country some high technologies, especially in agriculture, its population is barely educated in the practical sciences and not at all in theoretical sciences. Barack Obama might have been thrilled by the universities which hosted him in Cairo. But, you, please do not be mislead by his illusions: These institutions of higher education are about as intellectually daring as is Bob Jones University—and probably quite a bit less.

There is no shortage of data on Egypt’s social and economic prospects. Much of it is trustworthy. Alas, the most believable data is, in fact, the most devastating. Despite my distrust of the United Nations as a source of truthful information about anything (yes, anything), I have found most materials put out annually since 2002 by the U.N. Arab Human Development Program credible and challenging. (This is not the case about Egypt’s own production of such matter under the aegis of the H.D.P. This appears to have all been done by flunky social scientists, full of excuses and apologias. In any case, there were no warning signs about troubles ahead in even the latest of these documents.)

The most recent poverty rate statistics go back a half dozen years. It is doubtful that they have declined since. The fact is, then, that in 2006 nearly 41 percent of the Egyptian population earned not more than $2.7 a day, the internationally-agreed-upon benchmark for the poor. Rural poverty was 52 percent. Youth unemployment was disastrously high. Illiteracy (which means real illiteracy) now stands at upwards of 25 percent, down a bit from 26 percent. Yet the raw numbers of those who cannot read or write are up. Why? Because the birth rate is so high that it will automatically be a losing game of catch-up.

Anyway, it wasn’t from among the poor or the illiterate that the demonstrators in Tahrir Square and other centers of the brave came. Probably the distinctive needs and expectations of the demonstrators or, better yet, resistants were reflected in the vagueness—and, thus, the eloquence—of their demands which were mostly political-bordering-on-the-philosophical. Even transcendent. It’s hard to imagine these protestors clamoring for quotidian needs: ample and clean water, more doctors and nurses, hospitals and clinics, garbage removal, food. Those who went into the streets, standing there calmly and bravely, wanted justice. Maybe they will ultimately get justice or some simulacrum of it. But maybe they won’t. Injustice, we should remind ourselves, comes in many hues and in different uniforms. Sometimes with different weapons.

I don’t mean to be a killjoy. Nonetheless, I suspect that many journalists are too ecstatic in their prognostications. Roger Cohen, who admits in The International Herald Tribune that “it will be a tough road after six decades of dictatorship,” writes in the same sentence this salving line: “Egyptians have shown the depth of their culture.” (This is the man who told us about the gentility of Persian culture as a bar to the tyranny in Tehran.) Forgive me: Your intellectual credit is used up. Even Tom Friedman, who does know the Middle East and has known it for a long time, was in ecstasy: “If Egyptians can show just half the creativity, solidarity and determination in the next year of nation-building that they showed in Tahrir Square these last 18 days, they might just pull it off.” Please, Tom, you know it’ll take more than that, much more. And, no, I don’t agree that the head men in Beijing are quaking in their boots.

There are fantasies that both animate revolutions and lay them low. Egypt is an ancient civilization; this can give pride which, sorry to say, is not cashable at the World Bank. Like the Roman Empire, which seems to have left only lecherous and corrupt Caesars to its descendants. The foundations of a good society must be humanly and materially useful, commercially marketable, fiscally sound. Columnists have a way of looking aside from these imperatives as if the making of history is a mobilization of slogans. The former head of the International Atomic Energy Agency, Mohamed ElBaradei, who is running for president from the op-ed pages of American newspapers (this particular piece of rhetoric was also in the Times), is adept at the skill: “we are at the dawn of a new Egypt. We have nothing to fear but the shadow of a repressive past.” It is a nice applause line. But it has about as much to do with real democracy as invoking Nefertiti, though she was serenely beautiful and also a monotheist fully 15 centuries before Mohammed. By the way, “Yes, we can” wrote the Nobelist in the Times, evoking how little we couldn’t under Obama.

The truth is that Egypt does not need sloganeering. It needs material help and technological help, humanitarian help and, lastly, judicial help since it is the Egyptian legal system that is the country’s most crippled construction. It is sad that there isn’t a single Arab society—or, for that matter, Muslim society—to which Cairo can look for an ideal type that could help it establish its own authentic measures of justice.

There is now a lurch in the streets for elections. It has been tamped down by the army’s imposition of martial law with various pledges of democratization and liberalization. For example: that future elections will really matter. But, as the astute Middle East scholar Barry Rubin points out in Sunday’s Jerusalem Post, the present constitution requires voting for parliament within 60 days. It’s hard to imagine that this will occur. And will this be seen as a violation of the army’s pledges to the populace or a suspension of them?

Watching these events unfold from Tel Aviv inevitably makes one fit Israel into the lens with Egypt. But there it becomes blurry. It is true that the peace treaty between the two countries was not a point of contention in the streets, as some Israelis and American Jews feared it would become. Friedman even mustered a protest poster—“Mubarak, if you are Pharaoh we are all Moses”—with proto-Zionist resonances. Still, while the odds are very much against this heroic moment turning into a triumph for the Muslim Brotherhood, the fact is that this fraternity of angry pietists is the best organized body in the population. The army will certainly overturn Mubarak’s ban on it. And how could it not? The usual apologists for Islamism have all been saying that the Brotherhood is not what it used to be. These folk are animated by their indifference to the concerns of Egypt’s more and more surrounded Jewish neighbor. There is more at stake than this, however. For the immediate victims of the brothers would be other Egyptians who want a life promised by the liberal truisms on the posters and leaflets in the square.

But, as you recognize, I am not unconcerned by Israel’s stake in the succession. In fact, this stake dovetails with the stakes of the people on the street. The peace treaty has more or less insulated Egyptian society from the shedding of blood over borders upon which there are no improvements. After all, Gaza was not in dispute: Egypt did not want it. Surely, Israel deplores having asked for Gaza at all. My guess, moreover, is that in the inner hearts of the Egyptians there is regret for Anwar Sadat’s insistence that Israel return the entire Sinai to Cairene possession and control. There is now a war for the Sinai between the Bedouin and the police which the police are losing. The Army is not at all eager to fight the Bedouin in the great desert.

What the Brotherhood would say about the Bedouin I have no idea. Of course, these itinerants are Muslims of some sort but not the sort that lives by Islamic law. On the other hand, there is no question what Al-Iqwan (which was founded by Hassan al-Banna, the grandfather of Tariq Ramadan, about both of whom Paul Berman has written in these pages) wants: It is a restoration of authentic Koranic traditions in society at large and in politics in the specific. 

Maybe no one has been watching. But ElBaradei, who covered for Iran during the crucial stages of its nuclear adventure, has allied himself with the Brotherhood. He is not a friend of Israel, not even a neutral about it. When the Israelis took out the nuclear installation in Syria, a joint enterprise of Iran and North Korea, he was apoplectic. I can’t recall reading an alert in the American or British press about his apologetics for Damascus, and I’m afraid there weren’t any. And certainly not many.

The fact is that the peace treaty with Israel is the one great achievement of the regime of the colonels. It brought them much aid from the U.S., not all of it military aid. It also meant that neither Israel nor Egypt were ever tempted into confrontation of arms. I thought that the American foreign policy left valued peace above all. It is reckless for this element to gamble on ElBaradei and his brotherly comrades. One way to derail the great revolution that may have been ignited in Tahrir Square is to put Egypt and Israel on edge. Civil democracy never accompanies talk of war, and it is civil democracy which is at stake. According to Ehud Yaari, Israel’s most trusted intelligence correspondent, another roller of the presidential dice, Ayman Nour, chairman of the Ghad Party—Ghad means “tomorrow”—has also questioned the value of the bi-national treaty. This is reckless politics. 

Martin Peretz is editor-in-chief emeritus of The New Republic.