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Eugene Weekly : Viewpoint : 2.10.11

Time to Re-engage

Turmoil in Egypt offers an opportunity

By Shaul Cohen

Nobel Prize winning author Naguib Mahfouz lamented the political and moral corruption of Cairo in his 1947 novel Midaq Alley. Fifty-five years later another Egyptian novelist, Alaa al Aswany, echoed similar concerns in his bestselling book The Yacoubian Building. In the intervening years Egypts population exploded, its economy stagnated, and its politics remained little different than they were under King Farouk, whose government banned the publication of Mahfouzs novel more than half a century ago. In many respects, the recent upheavals come as no surprise; the question wasnt whether the people of Egypt would register their disgust and desire for change, but only when and how. Prompted by the spark in nearby Tunisia and the opportunities afforded by the internet, their time is now. Unfortunately, the assertion that Egyptians deserve and are entitled to better representation and fair leadership catches many in that country and around the world unprepared to facilitate a constructive transition that will give ordinary citizens a greater stake in the rule of their country.

Though it has the trappings of an electoral system, Egypt is only at the beginning of the learning curve in relation to participatory democracy. The countrys monarchy fell to a revolution in 1952, but its rulers since then have consisted of a repressive (though widely popular) strongman in Gamal Abdel Nasser, who was succeeded at death in 1970 by his deputy, Anwar Sadat, whose assassination in 1981 led to the presidency of Hosni Mubark, who still clings to power today.

For more than 50 years Egypt has held elections for government, but thats not the same thing as having a choice. Cairo as described in recent years by al-Aswany was far more crowded, corrupt, and violent than in earlier generations, and his barely veiled depiction of Mubarak (labeled the "Big Man” in the book) and his government convey a sense of frustration and bitterness that reflect the growing isolation of the ruling class and the indignation that the proud and alienated Egyptian people feel. In his novel, political offices were bought and sold, and the only suspense was how many votes would be accorded to the opposition to demonstrate that the country was a democracy.

Meanwhile, the U.S. has been a good friend to Mubarak, and to Sadat before him. Once Nasser, with his provocative mix of socialism and refusal to accept a bi-polar cold war, was out of the way, Egypt became a useful ally in a volatile region, and the Suez Canal that he nationalized in 1956 ã finally ending the British imperial role there ã still counts in geopolitics and global economics. For that strategic value, one American administration after another has been willing, even eager, to overlook the true nature of Egyptian rule. Save for a "tut-tut” here or there, no influence was brought to bear on behalf of the rights of ordinary people and their need for economic and political reform.

Americans often genuinely root for the good guys struggling against their evil oppressors, but in a way that is usually devoid of any sense of context or strategy. The glancing engagement with international affairs that romanticizes the resistance but cant be bothered with "nation building” is part of an old and alarming pattern. As a result, many oppressed communities (including some right here at home) long for Americas help and attention, but their hopes are tempered by cynicism and their expectations are often quite low.

Its too soon to know what Egypts post-Mubarak fortunes will be, but even before the headlines fade, there are lessons to learn. One of these is that for all our cheerleading on behalf of nascent democracies, the peoples of oppressed countries feel entitled to more than a brief presence on Twitter, Facebook, and CNN. In that sense, it will be a challenge to try to engage them in a way that doesnt evoke echoes of the exploitative relationships of the past, where American foreign aid was a down payment on compliance and a dowry that could be used to help keep the masses in their place. Noting the lack of attention being paid to Tunisia just now, Egyptians will be wary that, as the spotlight moves elsewhere, they will be left to do the hard work unaided and unnoticed.

Of course it doesnt have to be this way. A healthier engagement between nations includes mutual respect and the creation and maintenance of bonds among citizens. So long as relations are left to diplomats, well be stuck learning about one another from dusty textbooks and Wikileaks. It would be better to proactively lower the barriers between people, and to build respect and appreciation across the divides. That approach would serve us well in other places that may soon be where Egypt is now. Saudi Arabia and some of the smaller Gulf states will have their day, a reckoning long postponed by the same sort of American support that propped up Mubarak for 30 years. So too will countries with whom we have less cordial relationships, like Iran, and Libya. A key lesson from Tunis and Cairo is that change comes in its own time, and its best to anticipate the demise of dictatorships, whether they are the province of friend or foe.

One of the characters in The Yacoubian Building notes that the rule of Abdel Nasser, the father of modern Egypt, "brought us defeat and poverty. The damage he did to the Egyptian character will take years to repair.” That damage was compounded by another 40 years of oppressive rule enabled by the support of the U.S. No matter what happens with the Egyptian government now, it is critical to re-engage with its citizens, and indeed, with the people of many of the other countries in the region and beyond. Democracy deserves no less.

Shaul Cohen is an associate professor of geography and co-director of the Peace Studies Program at UO.