DAVOS, Switzerland—As fate would have it, I am in Davos, at the World Economic Forum, and not in Cairo. All around me is gloom. The markets are down. Oil is up. A thorny bundle of uncertainties has just been thrown at the fragile economic recovery—just as it was all going so well! Last night, I heard a famous economic pundit admit that someone had asked him only a few days earlier whether events in Tunisia had any significance for the world economy. No, he had said. None whatsoever. But now he was busily eating his words: If Egypt blows, anything could happen.
I don’t know what people were saying in Davos or its equivalent in November 1989, because I was in Berlin. But I bet it was more or less the same thing. In 1991, back when Ukraine was about to declare its independence from the Soviet Union, President George H.W. Bush made a declaration (this was the infamous “chicken Kiev” speech) in praise of the Soviet Union. For several years, he and his advisers ran around Eastern Europe and the Balkans doing duct-tape diplomacy, trying to piece a fracturing world back together again.
Politicians like stability. Bankers like stability. But the “stability” we have so long embraced in the Arab world wasn’t really stability. It was repression. The benign dictators we have supported, or anyway tolerated—the Zine al-Abidine Ben Alis, the Hosni Mubaraks, the various kings and princes—have stayed in power by preventing economic development, clamping down on free speech, keeping tight control of education, and above all by stamping down hard on anything resembling civil society. Every year, more books are translated into Greek—a language spoken by 11 million people—than into Arabic, a language spoken by more than 220 million. Independent organizations of all kinds, from political parties and private businesses to women’s groups and academic societies have been watched, harassed, or banned altogether.
The result: Egypt, like many Arab societies, has a wealthy and well-armed elite at the top and a fanatical and well-organized Islamic fundamentalist movement at the bottom. In between lies a large and unorganized body of people who have never participated in politics, whose business activities have been limited by corruption and nepotism, and whose access to the outside world has been hampered by stupid laws and suspicious bureaucrats. Please note that the Egyptian government’s decision to shut down the entire country’s Internet access over the weekend—something it can do because Internet access is still so limited—had almost no impact on the demonstrators. For all the guff being spoken about Twitter and social media, the revolution in Cairo appears to be a very old-fashioned, almost 19th-century revolution: People see other people going out on the streets, and they join them.
We are surprised, and no wonder. For the last decade, successive U.S. administrations have sometimes paid lip service to democracy and freedom of speech in the Arab world. Some U.S. organizations, official and unofficial—the National Endowment for Democracy comes to mind—have supported independent human rights activists in Egypt and elsewhere. Some U.S. journalists, such as my Washington Post colleague Jackson Diehl, have cultivated Egyptian democrats, interviewed them, written about them. But to U.S. presidents and secretaries of state of both political parties, other issues—oil, Israel, and then the war on terror—always seemed more important. Our money subsidized the Egyptian army and police, and the Egyptians know it. In Cairo, police were firing “Made in the USA” tear gas at protesters.
Hence the gloom. If there are potential leaders in Egypt, other than the stuffy and somehow unlikely Mohamed ElBaradei, we don’t really know them. If there is an alternative elite, we haven’t worked with it, as we had worked with the alternative elites in Central Europe in the 1980s. The George W. Bush administration spoke a good deal about “democracy promotion,” but then it allowed the idea to become confused with the invasion of Iraq. Real democracy promotion—support for journalists, judges, and educators; financing of independent media and radio; encouragement of open discussion and debate—has never been a priority in the Arab world.
Our options are now limited. But there are a few, and we should exercise them immediately. We should speak directly to the Egyptian public, and not only to its leaders. We should congratulate Egyptians for having the courage to come out on the streets. We should smile and embrace instability. And we should rejoice—because change, in repressive societies, is good.