To the American imagination over more than two centuries, some nations have seemed more “real” than others – and it is in fact true that a few states in today’s international world convey a seemingly eternal essence while most are ordinary modern creatures.
Egypt and China have engraved scratches on the American mind. Their images may fade in or out, be impressive at one time or decadent at another, but seem permanently lodged in our national consciousness. Mysteriously, Egypt’s hieroglyphic and China’s ideogramic systems of pictured meaning were a powerful lure to the life of the mind of the United States in the formative years of the republic. Champollion’s 1822 deciphering of hieroglyphics opened a time of “Egyptomania” in America.
Still, the adoption or attraction of neo-Egyptian styles remains to be fully understood, from the selection of an Egyptian-like obelisk as the Washington Monument to the “Egyptian Revival” architecture of Yale’s Skull and Bones society to Walt Whitman’s early fixation on Egyptology to the nation’s operatic infatuation with Aida all the way to the extravagant King Tut exhibition of the 1970s, which Henry Kissinger intervened to acquire for the Metropolitan Museum of Art, claiming that such a display of Egyptian antiquities in New York would be a factor of consequence in his Middle East diplomacy.
This Yankee fascination was not wholly Pharaonic. Nineteenth-century American missionaries immersed themselves in Arab and Muslim thought, faith, and culture and, when their conversion strategy proved a nearly futile undertaking, turned into educators, founding the American University in Cairo. Their offspring, as natively fluent Arabic speakers, took diplomatic and political positions in support of the causes of “heart-beguiling Araby,” with some becoming influential in American foreign policy as the State Department’s “Arabists.”
Now once again Egypt is the focus of intense American interest and concern, this time aroused by the July 2013 military coup to overthrow the elected Muslim Brotherhood government and the huge pro- and counter-demonstrations that have followed. Just when the 2011 “Arab Spring” eruption and the ensuing region-wide violent incoherence was causing a certain American sense of “Middle East” fatigue, Egypt’s new upheaval has re-ignited American concern. But the imagined Egypt of the American mind seems impossibly remote from the multifarious afflictions ravaging Egypt today.
The doctors of international security scribble out their prescriptions: declare it a coup and suspend U.S. aid or lose credibility – but call it a coup and delegitimize any successor government. Take an active diplomatic mediating role; but risk being blamed for whatever ensues. Press Egypt to change from a presidential to a parliamentary system to co-opt the various Islamist factions. Put forth a “Marshall Plan” for the Nile Valley. Wash our hands of the whole mess. And so on …
“There’s a lot of ruin in a nation,” Adam Smith observed – meaning the ability to endure even a series of devastating blows to a country’s foundations.
But holding utter ruin at bay will not solve the world’s “Middle East problem” which, potentially, is nothing less than a threat to world order itself. On the other hand, Egypt, as the long-acknowledged linchpin of the Arab-Islamic world, holds the potential, however fragile, for positive change in the region.
No prescription can make a lasting difference unless based upon understanding and accepting three realities for national survival and success in the twenty-first century:
First, the turn of the century marks the historical closure of an era in which imperial and authoritarian regimes could effectively suppress the aspirations of a multiplicity of different populations under their rule; the task of governing diversity is now inescapable. The Arab world, formerly presented as one nation, indivisible, is now revealed as a violent cacophony of omnidirectional antagonists;
A second, and related reality, is that all-encompassing ideologies, a feature of much of the modern age as religion-replacements, will not be sustainable in the coming era of universal electronic communication and clash. In the Arab-Islamic world, uniquely, the religion of Islam has been transformed by a sector of the faith into a political ideology now labeled “Islamism”;
Third, the moral, mental, and psychological deformity of conspiracy theorists. Every society has individuals afflicted in this way, but in some parts of the world, notably the eastern Mediterranean and the Balkans, whole cultures suffer from the disease, which is catching, and nearly fatal to national achievement. For a variety of reasons, Egypt has a bad case of it, to which is added the wider Arab derangement of antisemitism and fear of women’s equal rights.
Of the main Egyptian movements now actively vying for influence over the nation’s future, only the original youthful and outward-looking “Arab Spring” could quickly turn these three troubled matters in a positive direction. The military can be brought around; Islamism can only be changed by a massive, internal “agonizing reappraisal.”
At the same time, only the Arab Spring generation could easily reconcile with the other two of the three.
Conclusion: the “Arab Spring,” now trodden down by the military-Islamist power struggle, is not going away. Egypt’s future lies in their hands, a reality that all Egyptians should grasp.
Charles Hill is the Brady-Johnson Distinguished Fellow in Grand Strategy at Yale University and co chair of the Herbert and Jane Dwight Working Group on Islamism and the International Order, Hoover Institution.