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Egypt Envy

Like many others, I’ve been riveted by Egypt in recent days. The incredible, impossible, triumphant first step by the Egyptian people has been something that no American liberal could resist. What made the unfolding story so much more immediate to American liberals (or this one, at least) was the official American reaction to the stirrings of actual Egyptian democracy. After years of cheerleading a comfortably theoretical concept of democracy in the Middle East (and killing hundreds of thousands in the process), Americans witnessed an administration that displayed every appearance of confusion, internal conflict, incoherence. A series of high-level statements from Obama and Clinton announced only one thing with any clarity: “We’re all for democracy,” they said, “but whatever democratic changes are needed to get a lid back in place on this country, we want the dictator to make them.”

And so the US administration supported Egyptian democracy with the vaguest of rhetoric, while doing everything possible to uphold their man Mubarak over the Egyptian people. And they continued doing so until Mubarak’s rejection became so obvious that even the US media saw it. With Mubarak exposed and broken, Obama suggested Suleiman, a trusted US partner and infamous torturer. It only took a few hours for it to become obvious that that pathetic dog wouldn’t hunt, with the result that the US administration had only one place left to go–the Egyptian Army. Thus ended a truly embarrassing display of ineffective, reactive and incoherent moves by this administration in which it tried to simultaneously identify with the Egyptian people while also asserting that the dictatorship oppressing them was legitimate.

For me, the Egyptian story (and the US reaction to it) is compelling on a number of levels. One of these is how Obama’s behavior in the Egyptian crisis so consistently mirrors his actions in our own recent domestic disasters. In issues like the healthcare debacle or the financial meltdown, Obama’s unswerving approach has been to secretly uphold the status-quo and avoid meaningful change, while hiding behind a rhetorical façade that, like his presidential campaign did, celebrates just the opposite. And he has done this not because anyone seriously believes that our solutions lay in preservation of the status quo, but rather because those who actually rule the US need and demand it.

The fact that Obama has been effective in smothering meaningful change in the US but has at least partially failed to do so in Egypt may have produced some Egypt-envy in the American Left. I began wondering about this yesterday, when a curt comment to liberals was bounced around the twitterverse:

“Dear liberals: Stop trying to hijack the Egyptian revolution. You supported the dictator for 30 years. Time to shut up.”

While at first this comment seemed misdirected, counterproductive and mean-spirited to me, I began wondering whether many Arab activists might be getting a steady stream of ‘helpful ideas’ from admiring Americans (and others), and might be growing a bit tired of it. (But this is just one perceived opinion among Arab activists: see for example Aalam Wassef’s site asking for input on what Egypt’s new government should look like–open to all commenters). After all, they are the ones who had produced this initial victory, not us. And while American leftists are quite accomplished at employing biting sarcasm, withering irony, and hypocrisy-smashing logic in their twitter feeds, blogs and articles, these things have proved largely ineffective here at home, and certainly didn’t win the day at Tahrir Square.

Why might the American Left (and the world in general) be so envious? I’m reminded of something Robert Jensen recently wrote about the Left’s love affair with online activism, and the weaknesses inherent there:

… political information is not political action. Being able to [electronically] distribute more information more widely more quickly does not automatically lead to people acting on that information. The information must be presented in ways that lead people to believe they should act, and there must be vehicles for that action.

These days almost all left/radical organizers will communicate online, but the social justice and ecological sustainability at the heart of left/radical politics isn’t going to be achieved online.

Egyptians clearly have found a mode of political action that works for them. Clattering away at its computer keyboard, the American Left isn’t there yet.

Cross-posted at A Moving World

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