When history decides to shift, people are always looking in the wrong direction. That’s what makes so-called tipping points so unsettling — the experts miss them so often. In the case of Egypt, nobody expected peaceful popular uprisings to topple Mubarak. The Arab world was focused on the dangers of Iran or the Muslim Brotherhood, al-Qaeda or Israel. It was taken for granted that the repressive regimes of the Arab world were here to stay, backed by the military, secret police, and powerful friends on the side like the United States.
History apparently had different ideas, and so we stand at a moment like the fall of the Berlin Wall, where a society collectively says, “Enough is enough.” The way in which collective consciousness makes such decisions is mysterious. The day before change occurs, there’s every reason to think it won’t. Hosni Mubarak had been in place for thirty years, Soviet Communism for seventy. What we will see now is a great deal of backing and filling as the experts tell us all the factors that made this a predictable upheaval, and the pro-Mubarak West eats a little crow for not supporting the protest movement quickly or strongly enough. One of the protesters had appealed to an American reporter, “Why can’t you see that we are just like you?” A good question.
The day after a tipping point is always full of danger. Post-Soviet Russia lost an empire, witnessed the rise of mobsters and oligarchs, spun into widespread corruption, and eventually defaulted on the ruble. Freedom came at the price of unleashing forces that an authoritarian system had kept under control, or at least under wraps. Egypt has reached its “Now what?” moment, and if the experts are right, the real issue isn’t the departure of a dictator who outstayed his welcome but of democracy being stifled by the military powers that hold sway almost totally. Much the same structure is in place throughout the Muslim world, with its blend of royal families, oil oligarchs, anti-Israel demagogues, inflammatory clerics, and a booming birth rate.
In other words, “Now what?” doesn’t seem to have any good answers. Egypt, like the rest of the Arab world, waited too long to educate its poor, illiterate population, stripped its wealth to favor the privileged few, obstructed the rise of the next generation, and fell far behind the curve in technology and modern industry. Those factors remain a huge stumbling block. And yet this moment had to come, and we can look upon India, which had exactly the same problems twenty years ago but managed to turn the corner in spectacular fashion. The secret is to reverse course and change hidebound policies.
Clearly such a reversal isn’t in the interests of the military or the ruling elites in the Middle East, because their greatest fear is the rise of the populations they suppress in order to remain in power. The status quo benefits the few, but it’s the few who hold the reins of every institution except the mosque. India prided itself, as it still does, on being the world’s largest (and messiest) democracy. So it would seem that before history can truly move ahead in the Arab world, the rise of the dispossessed must be allowed to occur, and that cannot happen without democracy. Despite their huge problems, Arab countries need to exist for the people. “Now what?” doesn’t have a simple answer, but the immediate need couldn’t be more clear.
Published by The San Francisco Chronicle