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March 29, 2011

Tyranny is Not the Arabs' Fate

Egypt’s “heroes with no names” may steer history in a direction no one expected. By Fouad Ajami.


An old friend, an American-educated architect of deep culture and civility in his mid-seventies, reached me from Egypt. “Gamal Abdul Nasser and Anwar al-Sadat and Hosni Mubarak had taken away from me the love of my country,” he said. “I despaired of our people, thought they had given up liberty for this mediocre tyranny. Then, on January 28, leaving the Friday prayer, I saw an endless stream of humanity, heading to Liberation Square. I never thought I would live to see this moment, these people in that vast crowd. They gave me back my love of my country.”

It will be said that this revolution is likely to be betrayed or hijacked, that the hard-liners and the theocrats are certain to prevail at the end of the day. The so-called “realists” will argue that this is a people without the requisites of democracy, without the political experience to sustain a reasonably democratic polity.

There is also a concern that the stability provided to Pax Americana by this regime for three decades will be torn apart. But this view misses the dark side of the bargain we made with the autocrat: we befriended him but enraged his population. And the furies repressed by this cruel, effective cop on the banks of the Nile came America’s way.

Ayman Nour
When candidate Ayman Nour (in glasses) failed to wrest Egypt’s presidency from Hosni Mubarak in 2005, he and his supporters cried foul. Mubarak then jailed him for more than three years. This year, Nour returned to the streets—and began vying for a role in a post- Mubarak Egypt.

At the end, Mubarak took pride in the claim that he would not quit the land, would not give up his country to chaos. His apologists even said he should be given time to write his own legacy. For a last few days he remained deaf to the sounds of his own country, blind to the disaffection with him and his reign. Then, when the truth of the tumultuous world beyond the isolation of his presidential palace finally shook his indifference and disdain, his abdication became inevitable.

Egyptians in the street
Thousands of Egyptians spill into the streets of Cairo in late January as street protests swept away Hosni Mubarak. The Egyptian autocrat’s resignation left the army to supervise an uncertain transition.

The protesters surprised him, and in the process they surprised themselves. “Heroes with no names” was how an Egyptian studying in Canada dubbed the leaders of this uprising.

There has always been a great Egyptian pride in their country. This love of home, the desire to retrieve the country from the grip of the autocrat and his retainers, was what animated a hitherto submissive population.

This was not Iran in 1979; no turbaned ayatollah stepped forth to summon the crowd. A young Google executive, Wael Ghonim, energized the protest when it might have lost heart, when it could have succumbed to the belief that this regime and its leader were a big, immovable object. Ghonim was a man of the modern world. He was not driven by piety. The condition of his country—the abject poverty, the crony economy of plunder and corruption, the cruelties and slights handed out to Egyptians in all walks of life by a police state that the people had outgrown and despaired of—gave this young man and others like him their historical warrant.

A new Arab politics has been spawned in Liberation Square, a movement of a piece with the modern ways of protest and reform.

The jihadists had been unable to overthrow this state, but we remember how they struck at American targets instead. Mohammed Atta and Ayman al-Zawahiri were bred in the tyrannical republic of Hosni Mubarak. Zawahiri, the vengeful Cairene aristocrat, was explicit about that. He drew a distinction between what he called the “near enemy” (the Mubarak regime) and the “far enemy”—the United States. The hatred of America that drove Zawahiri was derivative of his hatred for the regime that had both imprisoned and tortured him in the aftermath of the assassination of Anwar Sadat.

The bargain with Mubarak was never a brilliant, unalloyed success. American officials managing the Egyptian-American relationship were not entirely in the dark about its workings. Several years ago, in the aftermath of the decapitation of the Saddam regime in Baghdad, the administration of George W. Bush made a run at Mubarak: Washington wanted him to open up his country, give it a badly needed dose of reform. The administration had taken notice of the anti-Americanism and the antimodernism of his regime, how he had belittled the Iraq war and declared it a project of folly. Mubarak spoke openly of Iraq’s need for the heavy hand of a strongman. Democracy was not for the Arabs, not now, this autocrat of the barracks proclaimed.

America befriended the autocrat but enraged his population. And the furies repressed by the cruel, effective cop on the banks of the Nile came America’s way.

Mubarak waited out that American moment of enthusiasm. He appealed to his country’s nativism. He didn’t have to worry. The Bush administration would soon abandon its “diplomacy of freedom.” It had done heavy, burdensome work in Iraq, and it would now leave well enough alone. Mubarak then smashed a nascent challenge to his tyranny: a fragile liberal movement whose name alone summed up the alienation between pharaoh and his people: Kifaya, or “Enough!”

Egyptians know that this Arab revolution of 2011—and the upheaval has earned that name—did not begin in their metropolis, that it had traveled eastward from Tunisia. But when that revolt arrived in Cairo, it found a stage worthy of its ambitions. Umm al-Dunya, the mother of the world, is what Egyptians and other Arabs call the fabled city of Cairo. It was there, in that city founded a millennium ago, that Islam fashioned a civilization, made its peace with the world, outwitted and outwaited conquerors. And for decades now, Egypt has been the lens through which Arabs see their history.

A new Arab politics was spawned in Liberation Square, a movement of a piece with the modern ways of protest and reform. It will be said that the great, enduring dilemmas of Egypt—a huge country that has lost out in the game of nations—will still be there. There will be accounts to settle, a struggle between those who were sullied by the dictatorship and those who weren’t. The Egyptians will be tested again as to their fidelity to democratic ways. But if the standoff that ended in the demise of the dictator is any guide, the Egyptians may give us a consoling tale of an Islamic people who rose to proclaim their fidelity to liberty, and who provided us with a reminder that tyranny is not fated for the Arabs.


Fouad Ajami is the Herbert and Jane Dwight Senior Fellow at the Hoover Institution and the cochair of the Herbert and Jane Dwight Working Group on Islamism and the International Order. From 1980 to 2011 he was director of Middle East Studies at the Johns Hopkins University. He is the author of The Arab Predicament, The Vanished Imam: Musa al Sadr and the Shia of Lebanon, Beirut: City of Regrets, The Dream Palace of the Arabs, and The Foreigner's Gift: The Americans, the Arabs, and the Iraqis in Iraq. His most recent publication is The Syrian Rebellion (Hoover Institution Press, 2012). His writings also include some four hundred essays on Arab and Islamic politics, US foreign policy, and contemporary international history. Ajami has received numerous awards, including the Benjamin Franklin Award for public service (2011), the Eric Breindel Award for Excellence in Opinion Journalism (2011), the Bradley Prize (2006), the National Humanities Medal (2006), and the MacArthur Fellows Award (1982). His research has charted the road to 9/11, the Iraq war, and the US presence in the Arab-Islamic world.


Reprinted by permission of the Wall Street Journal. © 2011 Dow Jones & Co. All rights reserved.