The massive protests planned for today in Egypt are under way, producing chaos in the streets. Demonstrations have swelled to astonishing size. Tear gas, rubber bullets, and flashing police batons fill the air. The government has shut down the Internet and cell phone service. News has just broken that opposition leader Mohammed ElBaradei is under house arrest.
The violence has resulted in many injuries. Fox News reports hearing a man scream that police had killed his brother. Video of a young protester apparently being gunned down by the police escaped onto YouTube before the media blackout began. CNN filmed protestors packing a bridge and flinging stones at police vehicles below. State-controlled television stations have gone into full “Baghdad Bob” mode, reporting that the police “have full control of the streets” while clouds of tear gas roll over burning cars in the background. A CNN camera was seized and smashed by the police, while the BBC correspondent is walking around with a bandage on his head after running afoul of the authorities.
There is a certain “point of no return” quality to the protests. It’s become clear the masses will settle for nothing less than the end of the Mubarak government, and the rubber bullet massages have not changed their minds.
This is a tough battle to watch for Americans, because unlike the doomed Iranian democracy movement, it’s tough to decide who we should be rooting for. We’ve invested billions in the Mubarak government, and he’s generally played ball with American interests. On the other hand, continuing to support his lifetime presidency requires us to slide into Joe Biden levels of delusional fantasy, as the Vice President babbled that he “would not consider Mubarak a dictator.” Here are some helpful signs of dictatorship for Biden to consider: “emergency powers” that last for more than one decade, elections with only one person on the ballot, two-man elections where the other guy gets arrested, and remaining in office for more than one generation.
The obvious alternative to Mubarak is the Muslim Brotherhood, a profoundly unpleasant association with tentacles that spread through almost every country in the Middle East. They’re ready to step into the power vacuums created by the violent demise of authoritarian governments, and not just in Egypt. Some analysts worry that Egyptian collapse could destabilize Saudi Arabia or Jordan next.
We have long insisted on believing that all of the Middle East’s problems are caused by nasty, oppressive leaders, because we’re uncomfortable with the notion of holding the people themselves responsible. The “Religion of Peace” narrative about Islam is an outgrowth of the same mindset. The people are fine – it’s the crazy terrorists who hijacked their beautiful religion we need to worry about. In Egypt, the nasty, oppressive leader has been holding Islamism in check. The people may very well choose to put the Muslim Brotherhood into power when Mubarak is gone, or be bullied into doing so.
The best hope for resisting the Brotherhood might lie with Egyptian’s sizable Christian community, which has a lot of bones to pick with Mubarak’s government over the lax protection against Muslim extremists it has afforded them. Egyptian Christians held their own, much smaller and less chaotic, demonstrations toward the end of last year.
Writing of the suicide bombing at a church in Alexandria on New Year’s Day, Rania Al Malky of the Daily News Egypt said, “Today, the massacre is on a scale we have never witnessed before. Twenty-three innocent souls were murdered in cold blood, their deaths fuelling a violent reaction by Egypt’s Christians – not against their Muslim neighbors, friends, or colleagues, but against a government that has failed us all.”
America won’t have much influence with the Egyptian people, after they overthrow the dictator we’ve been supporting for decades. Perhaps our best bet, as Victor Davis Hanson suggests at National Review Online, is to “channel some sort of support for the dissidents in a way we did not in 2009 in Iran, by pointing to American support for the consensual and constitutional government in Iraq.” Egypt will hopefully want better than Muslim Brotherhood tyranny as a replacement for Mubarak tyranny. We can at least show them what “better” looks like, and impart our hard-earned wisdom about how difficult the better path can be.