Back in 1922 all things Egyptian were the rage. That’s why there’s the Egyptian Theater here on Hollywood Boulevard. Sid Grauman had done well with his Million Dollar Theater downtown, and his first theater on Hollywood Boulevard was the Egyptian – his Chinese Theater and the El Capitan, both down the street, would come later. But the odd thing is that he used his usual architects – Meyer and Holler – and the thing was built by the Milwaukee Building Company as usual – but if you look at it now your realize it was designed as a sprawling hacienda sort of thing, with the red tile roofs and all. They just slapped on all the Egyptian stuff at the last moment. Sid Grauman had a feel for what was hot – there were all those exciting expeditions searching for the tomb of Tutankhamen in the news – Howard Carter being the real Indiana Jones. That was the buzz, so even if the roof pans and all the rest had been delivered to the site they turned the place all Egyptian as best they could. And of course Carter discovered the tomb of Tutankhamen on November 4, 1922 – two weeks after the Egyptian Theater opened. Cool.
That the place opened with the red-carpet premiere of Robin Hood – the silent version of course, starring Douglas Fairbanks – just confuses things even more. You sat in an Egyptian-style movie palace, one that sure felt like a hacienda, and were transported to Sherwood Forest. But you were in Los Angeles. But that’s Hollywood for you. You can read about the theater here – and this is what it looks like these days. And of course no one was ever really serious about Egypt itself. Think of Boris Karloff and all the Mummy movies over the years. Egypt was just a very odd place. Strange things happened there. And they had nothing to do with real life.
And then, on Friday, January 28, 2011, that all changed:
With police stations and the governing party’s headquarters in flames – and much of this crucial Middle Eastern nation in open revolt – President Hosni Mubarak of Egypt deployed the nation’s military and imposed a near-total blackout on communications to save his authoritarian government of nearly 30 years.
Protesters continued to defy a nationwide curfew in the early hours of Saturday, as Mr. Mubarak, 82, breaking days of silence, appeared on national television, promising to replace the ministers in his government, but calling popular protests “part of bigger plot to shake the stability” of Egypt. He refused calls, shouted by huge, angry crowds in the central squares of Cairo, the northern port of Alexandria and the canal city of Suez, for him to resign.
“I will not shy away from taking any decision that maintains the security of every Egyptian,” he vowed, as gunfire rang out around Cairo.
Whether his infamously efficient security apparatus and well-financed but politicized military could enforce that order – and whether it would stay loyal to him even if it came to shedding blood – was the main question for many Egyptians.
It was also a pressing concern for the White House, where President Obama called Mr. Mubarak and then, in his own Friday television appearance, urged him to take “concrete steps” toward the political and economic reform that the stalwart American ally had repeatedly failed to deliver.
Yes, this our key Arab ally in the Middle East – the only one to ever sign a peace treaty with Israel, always being the moderating influence, and where Obama gave his famous Cairo speech – yes, we can work with the Muslim world, and the Arab world (not exactly the same thing, as some Muslims are not Arabs, like the Kurds and the Iranians, who are actually Persians, not Arabs at all). And now the place is falling apart:
The Muslim Brotherhood, for decades Egypt’s only viable opposition movement, had taken a backseat to the youth protest on Tuesday. But, perhaps stunned at the scale of that uprising, it called its supporters to the streets in full force on Friday.
Many protesters shouted religious slogans that were absent on Tuesday, though not the Brotherhood’s trademark “Islam is the solution.” Instead, the crowds seemed so large and diverse that it was impossible to gauge what proportion might have subscribed to the Brotherhood’s Islamist ideology.
This could get dangerous. In 1953 we decided the Iranians had elected the wrong sort of government and had the CIA get rid of that government, installing that Shah. That didn’t work out. They eventually tossed out his sorry butt and went fundamentalist Muslim. One must be careful who one backs. So now we’re saying to Mubarak he ought to be nice to his people, as we don’t want another Iran.
See Blake Hounshell, the managing editor of Foreign Policy, with these comments to CNN:
This is the big one.
For years, Egyptian demonstrators raged against Hosni Mubarak’s military regime, calling on their fellow citizens to take to the streets and oust the agents of their oppression. For years, earnest U.S. officials urged Mubarak to open up Egypt’s political system, crack down on the grand and petty corruption that pervades Egyptian life and deliver economic progress to the masses. For years, analysts – myself included – dismissed the possibility of real change as long as Mubarak, now approaching his 83rd birthday and his third decade in power, still breathed.
It seems the Arab street had other plans.
Yes, the Egyptian interior minister dismissed the folks in the street as “a bunch of incognizant, ineffective young people.” Nope, not so:
Now, four days into an uprising in the Arab world’s most populous country, the beating heart of its media culture, and the historical strategic leader of the region, it’s no longer possible to argue that Egypt is a stable country.
The country is now cut off from the outside world, and simply shutting down the internet might have been a bad idea:
Egyptians from across the social and geographical spectrum – from poor, jobless young men along the Suez Canal to upper-class women in posh Cairo suburbs to workers in the teeming Nile Delta – are in an uproar. The ruling National Democratic Party’s headquarters has been set on fire. The army has sent troops and armored vehicles into the streets to enforce a curfew as defiant demonstrators torch police stations and vehicles.
So we have to be careful:
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, speaking slowly and carefully to avoid making a mistake at a sensitive moment urged the Egyptian government Friday to allow its people to protest peacefully. But, she added, “We want to partner with the Egyptian people and their government” and called on Mubarak to make reforms. All week, the U.S. message has been largely consistent: Egypt is a key ally, both sides should refrain from violence and the government should respect the legitimate grievances of the Egyptian people.
And Hounshell says it’s too late for that:
We are long past the point where such milquetoast appeals to the good will of the Mubarak regime – a system kept in power only by brute force and sheer inertia – bear any resemblance to reality. If the Egyptian government wanted to embrace political change, what has it been doing for the last thirty years?
It’s time for the United States to choose: Does it really support the democratic aspirations of the Arab world, or, when push comes to shove, will it tacitly side with the same autocrats it has been propping up for decades?
And that’s a big deal:
An entire generation of Arabs is watching this drama play out on the streets of Cairo. In his landmark speech there last year, President Obama warned the region’s entrenched rulers, “You must maintain your power through consent, not coercion.”
The Arab world has spoken: We do not consent.
It’s past time for America, for once, to be on their side.
But that’s easier said than done. And here are just a few things to consider.
At counterterrorism.org there is Aaron Mannes’ analysis:
There have been innumerable calls for the United States to support the protesters and align its policy with democracy in Egypt. This is probably the least bad course of action. But there should be no illusions on several points. For the vast majority of Egyptians, the United States is inextricably linked to the hated regime. Nothing the White House or Foggy Bottom does can change that in a few days, weeks or months. Also, the ability of the U.S. to influence events is limited. It does appear that Secretary of State Clinton’s call for the Egyptian government to not respond with violence did send a message to Egypt’s generals that the U.S. would not support a violent crackdown. (A not dissimilar message was sent to Iran’s generals as the Shah’s regime was falling.)
Yes, it’s hard to change sides and to say that we’re with you guys, really, and we were just kidding about Mubarak for the past thirty years.
And in the Economist, Matt Steinglass here argues that, in the long run, should democracy come to places like Tunisia and Egypt, “that will probably lead to greater stability and security for everyone.” But of coursem “this is one of those long runs in which many of us are dead.”
So he looked at the day like this:
Obviously, we should all be warily celebrating the possible fall of the Mubarak regime, not bemoaning it. Not because it will lead to any near-term benefits for us, but because it stands a chance of making Egyptians freer. …
That doesn’t mean that such freedom will be in the interests of the United States, in the near term or really in any term we can envision. We should be cheered when other nations start to “find their voice” – not because it is in our interests, but despite the fact that it may not be.
Well, calling for democracy – let a nation’s people decide what they want to do – can mean they might want to do something we don’t want them to do. What then?
And there’s Eli Lake with this:
If Mubarak was really going down, Obama has started what could be a long process of trying to build a relationship with the government that comes next. But this approach, which looks haphazard following Biden’s interview on Jim Lehrer, also has its consequences. General Kayani in Pakistan and King Abdullah in Jordan, not to mention America’s friends throughout the Gulf, will be studying that press conference, if freedom fever spreads to their streets. The GWOT [Global War on Terror] since 9-11 relies more and more on these clients. So how Obama handles a crisis in Cairo will also affect the counter-terrorism partnerships in the regimes that survive the current wave.
I don’t think a new Egyptian government would withdraw from the peace treaty with Israel. It’s hard to govern Egypt, provoking a war with Israel would be suicidal. The Muslim Brotherhood leadership would always talk about the peace treaty in terms of a referendum for the Palestinian people. But I don’t think it would want the Egyptian security services enmeshed with Hamas’ enemies in the West Bank. What’s more I doubt the next Egyptian government would enforce a blockade of Gaza.
Well, that’s a little bit of comfort.
But our options just became quite limited, as Heather Hurlburt explains here:
America can’t stop this revolt. Commentators across the political spectrum can’t seem to keep themselves from implying that Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton, by their choice of adjectives, can “save” President Mubarak. We must disabuse ourselves of the idea that we can determine how this turns out. As Michael Hanna has written on Democracy Arsenal, this is less about the state of our union than “the tattered state of their unions.” We can, however, exert some control over whether we are perceived by the citizenry in Egypt and elsewhere as part of the solution.
Our diplomats and spokespeople are now at pains to prove, in real time, that when we talk about stability, we mean it in a way that favors the governed, and not just the governors. As Shadi Hamid of the Brookings Institution told the Washington Post, our policy options are currently very limited – “The most the U.S. can do in the short run is reorient their rhetoric. … People want moral support; they want to hear words of encouragement. Right now, they don’t have that. They feel the world doesn’t care and the world is working against them.”
But, with talk of a negotiated departure for Mubarak shooting around Twitter, there may come a time when the United States has to become even more involved.
We do have a mess on our hands. Everyone on Fox News may have the answer to all this – cut taxes and eliminate the capital gains Tax entirely, and repeal the healthcare act – but that might not be the answer this time.
But we should do something, or not. See Jonathan Bernstein:
I have no position on the best choices for President Obama and Secretary Clinton, but media-watchers should remember that there’s usually a media bias here in favor of action. Action may or may not be appropriate; it’s worth remembering that during the most successful mass outbreak of democracy ever, in 1989, President George H. W. Bush was criticized for being overly cautious in his public statements. Again, I don’t have any suggestion of what’s best to do, but remember that sometimes doing as little as possible (especially publicly) can be an effective strategy.
Yeah, what did we DO during the events at Tiananmen Square?
But Jeffery Goldberg here urges Obama to do the necessary pushing:
A government that uses rubber bullets and tear gas against its own people – who want nothing more than a change of leadership after 30 years of one-man rule – has no future. President Obama would be standing for American values if he encouraged Hosni Mubarak to leave office now. Mubarak (and his son, it is almost needless to say) have no credibility, and the U.S. will have no credibility if it doesn’t support the aspirations of these frustrated protesters.
Will the Muslim Brotherhood follow in the wake of Mubarak’s downfall? Not necessarily. But the U.S. will make that possibility less remote if it doesn’t stand with the people now.
Yeah, yeah – but it’s still a crapshoot. And early on no one was really interested in Egypt. In the Guardian, early on, there was Richard Adams:
The main US cable news networks had given Egypt minimal coverage so far this week, partly because of the time difference but also because of the president’s state of the union address on Tuesday night absorbing so much energy. That has all changed today, with the extraordinary scenes from Egypt filling America’s TV screens – even if the early morning bulletins were more interested in Charlie Sheen’s hernia.
The exception has been Fox News, where coverage has been more muted. “You probably don’t give a lot of time thinking about Egypt,” a Fox News presenter suggested about an hour ago, before explaining that “groups linked to al-Qaida” were in danger of taking over the government in Cairo.
The Fox News folks like to keep it simple. And Charlie Sheen’s hernia must have been the work of al-Qaida too.
But there are other conservatives. In American Conservative, Daniel Larison really doesn’t expect the Mubarak government to fall, but if it does, things do get really complicated:
If the government is overthrown, it will probably have a good effect on reducing the suffering of the people in Gaza by ending the Egyptian part of the blockade, but it would make it easier for Hamas to operate. If the U.S. helps bring the regime down, the message will be that the U.S. pulled the plug on one of the only two Arab states to make peace with Israel. What are the odds that any other Arab state is going to see the benefits of formally recognizing Israel after that?
As for Egypt itself, the fall of the regime could unleash terrible religious violence. The Christians of Iraq have already paid a terrible price as a result of the “liberation” of their country. The Copts and other Christians are at risk of facing similar treatment.
We’re in for bumpy ride. But you probably don’t give a lot of time thinking about Egypt, of course. But after all these years, and all the Mummy movies, it may be time to do that.
And there’s a pop culture reference – the 1986 hit song from the Bangles, Walk like an Egyptian – one of the songs deemed inappropriate by Clear Channel following the September 11, 2001 attacks of course (as was Louis Armstrong singing What a Wonderful Life). It’s not inappropriate any longer.