Sunday, May 1, 2011

Egypt's Revolution in Deep Perspective

It's all too often that specialists in the ancient history of a region deign to weigh in with their perspective on current events there.  But in today's Chicago Tribune, Cambridge University's Toby Wilkinson provide a long-view take on the overthrow of Hosni Mubarak and not-too-sanguine forecast:
Egypt's rulers have adopted the same modus operandi for most of the country's subsequent history. Not for nothing was the ousted president Hosni Mubarak referred to as "a modern pharaoh." His overthrow, in the wave of popular protests that rocked Cairo in January and February, was all the more remarkable because it was the first time in 5,000 years that ordinary Egyptian people had influenced their country's destiny.

But before we rush to celebrate the fall of a repressive dictatorship and the birth of a new democracy in the Middle East, we would do well to study ancient history. King Narmer, who is remembered today as the first pharaoh, was in reality just one of several rival leaders of his time. His good fortune was to win the battle for supremacy, sideline his opponents and present his rise to power as the beginning of a new age. Subsequent military leaders — from Pharaoh Horemheb in 1322 B.C. to Pharaoh Nectanebo in 380 B.C. — did exactly the same. It is likely that whoever emerges from the current political upheaval in Egypt will do likewise.

Ever since the time of King Narmer and the birth of the Egyptian state, the army has been the chief power-broker in the land; it has proved remarkably adept at maintaining its influence. It would be misguided and naive to assume that the Egyptian army today is happy to hand over all power to a civilian administration. Mubarak has gone, but the generals are still in command. For 5,000 years, Egypt's strongmen have learned and understood the lessons of their country's long history. We should too.

For those not deeply steeped in Egypt's ancient history, Narmer is regarded widely as the earliest Egyptian king for whom we have evidence of a specific claim to have ruled the entire country, sometime ca. 3000 BCE.

But a couple of things about Wilkinson's take disturb me.  For one, his comment about Mubarak's overthrow being the first time that "ordinary Egyptian people had influenced their country's destiny" could be contested.  For example, what about the popular insurrections against the French occupation under Napoleon (about which Juan Cole produced a well-received book a few years ago)?  They surely contributed to Napoleon's decision to give up there (with, of course, a major assist from Lord Nelson and the British navy).  And how should one define "ordinary people"?  Does that completely eliminate members of Egypt's army from consideration?  What about the Egyptian foot soldiers whom the Macedonian Ptolemid pharaoh Ptolemy IV recruited and trained to take part alongside his Macedonian soldiers in the great victory against the Seleucid king Antiochus III at the Battle of Raphia in 217 BCE?  Or for that matter, what about the military "Free Officers" who led the coup that ousted King Farouk in 1951?  Men like Gamal Abdul Nasser and Anwar al-Sadat were of common origins, native Egyptians - ordinary people who rose to power?

There's also something about Wilkinson's approach that smacks of what Edward Said referred to as "orientalizing."  He essentializes Egyptian history and politics over the long haul as simply a kind of "Oriental despotism" trope of the rise and fall of strongmen.  And he implies that this kind of process is virtually ingrained genetically in Egyptians' mentality; that they are doomed to repeat it, seemingly eternally; and that the current revolution and reshaping in Egypt are doomed to result in another strongman wielding absolute control.  In essence, in his assessment, the Egyptian people are little better than easily agitated sheep waiting to be led by imposed or self-made goats.

The ultimate outcome of Egypt's revolution still hangs in the balance - and it's entirely possible that a general will emerge, wielding control over the Egyptian military, to reassert a kind of absolutism (perhaps melded with a kind of  religious appeal - manifested in the Muslim Brotherhood and Salafism ever more in evidence lately among Egypt's "ordinary people").  But in this era of Twitter and Facebook, of ordinary people being inspired by political ideas that originate and are shared well beyond state boundaries, and being organized and led by people from their own ranks - it seems too facile to simply slot the current uprisings as one more manifestation of a supposedly timeless history.

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