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SANDERS: Revolution and common sense

- The Washington Times - Sunday, February 6, 2011

OPINION/ANALYSIS:

"A revolution is not a tea party." - Mao Zedong

"Every revolutionary ends up by becoming either an oppressor or a heretic." - Albert Camus

"All revolutions devour their own children." - Ernst Rohm

"Revolutions have never lightened the burden of tyranny: they have only shifted it to another shoulder." - George Bernard Shaw

"In a revolution, as in a novel, the most difficult part to invent is the end." - Alexis de Tocqueville

Historians will have to evaluate how much the Obama administration's denigration of American power and prestige contributed to Egypt's current crisis. But led by an often untutored media seeking sensation at any cost, and with the Al Jazeera network beating the jihadist drums, U.S. Mideast policy waffles and meddles beyond its competence.

The American mindset is not only ahistorical, but anti-historical. After all, our forebears came to escape their European, Latin American, Asian - and even African - histories. Nothing could be further from the American experience than Egypt's multi-millennial suffocating cultural legacy/burden. To further muddle the context for confused Americans, the world has moved to instantaneous electronic transmissions. YouTube images and Twitter tweets replace studies and serious journalism - and contemplation.

That's why it might be well to step back and view unpredictable events with more dispassion and, yes, common sense, crisply defined by the Oxford English Dictionary as the "plain wisdom which is everyone's inheritance."

Egypt's burgeoning population of 80 million has been for centuries the center of Sunni Islam, with Cairo the heart of the larger Arab world. With feeble economic, cultural and physical infrastructure, the Arab and Persian "petrosheikhs" now levy what former Treasury Secretary William Simon once called a "tax" on the world economy. Egypt's stability inherently rates as one of Washington's highest priorities.

As the biggest kid on the block, the U.S. is both envied and courted, not least by Egypt. Washington struck a bargain with its annual $2 billion aid package - a bribe to keep Egypt's military on the straight and narrow. Cairo was to modernize, bolster regional moderates, help secure the world oil supply and prevent attacks on Israel. Not least, the Egyptian regime guarded the Suez Canal, through which 80 percent of the world's commercial traffic passes.

Those dollars and weapons have undoubtedly helped. President Hosni Mubarak, whatever else he had done, has cooperated to stem worldwide Islamic terrorism. But no person, no nation, likes being on the dole, certainly not a proud, history-rich nation such as Egypt. So "anti-Americanism" is endemic.

On top of that, most Egyptians have no safety net beyond extended family, living with greater insecurity than Americans have known since the Civil War. With population doubling during Mr. Mubarak's 30-year rule and a third of the population now under 14, unemployment is staggering, one reason the early crowds of protesters were so young. Egypt would have to generate 450,000 new jobs annually just to keep its current unemployment level from rising.

Agriculture - less than 3 percent of land along the Nile is arable - desperately needs modernization. Even though Egypt boasts the world's best cotton, progress has been slow. Farming employs one-third of the work force, many just scraping by on some 3 million holdings under 5 acres. Egypt, Rome's granary in the time of the Caesars, by 1980 was importing about three-fourths of its wheat.

President Mubarak has unwound nationalized industry slowly - often rewarding his fellow military officers. Much of the economy was "collectivized" in the 1950s by army dictator Abdul Gamal Nasser, seduced by Moscow planners. Perhaps even more damaging, Nasser expelled ethnic communities - Greeks, Armenians, Jews, Italians - who for centuries had bolstered Egypt's economy. To this day, the Copts, Egypt's indigenous Christian minority making up perhaps 15 percent of the population, are disproportionately "wealthier," an ever-present potential time bomb.

United Nations and government-to-government aid have proved irrelevant. Faced with staggering problems, the remnants of Egypt's traditional elite and its new military strongmen have ruled despotically. Still, Egypt's purchasing power ranks around 25th in the world. And the Mubarak regime has managed growth of about 5 percent annually. The recent violence has already torpedoed that, frightening off some 13 million annual tourists who spend $12 billion and support 10 million workers.

Paired with the shaky economy is a political culture susceptible to the totalitarian temptation.

Egypt has been the fount of modern Islamic fundamentalist violence. Its Muslim Brotherhood advocates returning to medieval church-state organization based on a primitive Islam. Plotters from a Brotherhood offspring assassinated President Anwar Sadat in 1981, an officer of peasant origin who broke off Nasser's Soviet alliance, allied himself with Washington and made peace with Israel. Mr. Mubarak has walked in Sadat's footsteps, however hesitantly.

Because of an off-again, on-again repression, no one is certain of the Brotherhood's real strength. But it is clear the Brotherhood boasts the only significant political organization beyond Mr. Mubarak's government of hangers-on and the military. Although splintered and lacking the charismatic leadership that was present in revolutionary Iran in the late 1970s, the Muslim Brotherhood's "magic formula" - "submission" to the Koran to solve all social and economic problems - is as attractive to some today as communism and fascism were to so many in the 1930s.

Sol Sanders, veteran foreign correspondent and analyst, writes weekly on the convergence of international politics, business and economics. He can be reached at solsanders@cox.net.

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