Egypt: As Vague as We Wanna Be – UPDATED


In 2003, when the United States liberated Iraq, an older Iraqi man related his vision of what life would be like without Saddam Hussein.“Democracy!” he shouted. “And whiskey! And sexy!” Yes, but perhaps with a Middle-Eastern, faith-based spin that intellect-based Washington could never quite grasp, not in Iraq, not in Afghanistan, and now, not in Egypt.

My column at First Things takes a look at Egypt, and the nearly impenetrable vagueness that has surrounded the story of the January 25th uprising, practically from the moment people took it to the streets.

Is the story so indistinct and difficult to define because the players are so difficult to get behind? Because we seem not to know from day-to-day who to support? Because our government and our press have no coherent narrative to promote about Egypt?

Yes, to all that, but then some:

While Vice President Biden defended Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak as “not a dictator,” President Obama was spinning his 2009 Cairo speech as some sort of prescient warning, and said that he had “told Mubarak to get ahead of this.”

“This” remained undefined. Meanwhile, Secretary of State Clinton repeated flat, empty platitudes about “unacceptable violence” and a “peaceful transitioning,” of the Egyptian government into . . . something. No one quite knew what. [. . .] Even now, nearly two weeks into Egypt’s churning, it is difficult to get a sense of who or what is rising to the top. That Mubarak is finished seems the conventional wisdom, but some analysts still dispute that, and even among members of the mainstream press there is an unusual lack of a cohesive, settled narrative. One gets the impression that the media would happily get behind whatever notion the Obama Administration hands to them, if only the White House knew what it wanted.
In fairness, the uncertainty over Egypt does not begin or end with President Obama, or with the press; it is of a piece with a cultural clash that exists between the West and the Arab world, and within the Arab world itself.

Believe it or not, I move away from blaming the Administration or the media for the determined beige-ness of story that should be awash in color. The problem goes beyond incompetency or muddled messages – this is about an inability of the Western mind to comprehend the Middle Eastern mind, and the Middle East’s own struggles within itself. It is about how two cultures can have a very different take on the same word, and thus cannot quite grasp each other.

But I actually do offer a solution of sorts. A little one. In order to go there, however, it will require people saying, “I have a mustard seed, and I’m not afraid to use it.” Sort of like this

Yes, I get that I’m quoting Christ and linking to a Jews-and-Muslims piece. That’s sort of the point.

It is staggering to think that this violent and dramatic call for genuine change will be permitted to fade away into a nothingness because no one knows what to do next.

Please read the whole thing and share your thoughts.

Meanwhile, writing in USA Today, Joseph Bottum wonders, who will defend Mid-East Christians?

So why should they expect improvement from a new government? Particularly one in which the radical Muslim Brotherhood is certain to play a major role? The Copts are under the screw, and somehow, every time modern Egyptian history makes a turn, it ends up biting down harder on the nation’s religious minorities. . . .On and on the list goes. The single most dangerous thing in the world to be, right now, is a Christian in a Muslim country.

Actually, that’s the mustard seed thing, again.

UPDATE: Tony Blair is also championing the mustard seed

UPDATE II: NY Times has some outstanding photographs of the past two weeks.

Doulas J. Feith: Dictators and Hedgehogs:

The Obama administration then came along and so scorned Bush that, in repudiating his freedom agenda, it threw the baby out with the bathwater.

Jay Nordlinger: Cynicism won’t change anything.
How to understand how it all began
US has tools to force internet on dictators
Daily Beast: Al Qaeda’s strange silence on Egypt
Egyptian Christians: worried about radical Islam takeover
The Language of Faith

About Elizabeth Scalia
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  • Ferdigrofe

    Who will defend them against the Zionists.

  • Manny

    I think you make a good point about we in the west not completely understanding those in the east. But you let the administration off the hook too easily. They have to have people on board who do understand and so translate and make policy. The administration seems to have bungled this

  • Guest

    Ideally, our foreign policy should be that we would not give foreign aid or trade with countries that do not respect the dignity of their citizens or of other countries. However, …

  • Terryec51

    You make a good point. I feel sorry for the people of Egypt. Mubarak vs the Muslim Brotherhood. Not good choices. To be honest, I think a lot of those people reject them both. But we in the west can not get past our own prejudices. That does not mean the Muslim Brotherhood is nothing to worry about, but then again the rest of the country should not be punished because of them.

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  • Greta

    It would be a lot more comforting if we had a lot more expertise in the Obama administration. This situation should have been carried out in private discussions, not public statements. I think the press should have been told that Eygpt has been a solid force in the region for peace for decades and any changes in the government there need to take that into consideration as to how the US would react to changes. Because this country has been a force for peace, they have been long term allies and friends and we have tried to do everything possible to both help the country as well as to encourage there as we do around the world to bring democracy and human rights to all its people. Beyond that we do not have anything more to say as we believe that it is best to work with the country privately at times of great turmoil. Public statements would potentially create greater tension.

    I think this would have been far better than the misguided statements of the administration which could be interpreted far different here than in Eygpt prompting dangerous confusion.