There’s an annoying sense of giddiness in a lot of the commentary that has appeared about the first few days of the Egyptian unrest. “Politicians like stability. Bankers like stability,” Anne Applebaum wrote here in Slate—presumably suggesting that we the people, who can’t stand politicians or bankers, don’t care much for stability. We crave the rapid change of the information era, the jump-cut excitement of reality-show revolutions. We call time on Mubarak: “Help him fuel the presidential jet and load the gold bullion,”wrote Eugene Robinson in the Washington Post. The people have spoken. Live on your TV screens, live in your living rooms, livelier than any other show, except, maybe, war—and more upbeat than anything else, war included. “The yearning and hopefulness of these Egyptians taking huge risks is intoxicating,”said Nicholas Kristof. And indeed it is. Revolution of the kind seen in Cairo is the Prozac of our usually gloomy news world. It’s exhilarating.
So, preaching caution as demonstrators rally in the streets is the news-world equivalent of telling viewers not to pay attention to Tareq and Michaele Salahi crashing a state dinner. There’s no downer like cold water thrown on a live revolution, ruining the party. How can anyone not be excited at the prospect of the Cairene masses swarming the streets, striving for more freedom, holding up signs telling the old bastard to f—k off?
It is quite amazing to watch the entire American commentocracy become cheerleaders for the once-contemptible neocon—dare we say Bush—agenda. “The gigantic wave of demonstrations in Egypt and the more recent marches in Yemen all make clear that Bush had it right,” said Elliott Abrams, Bush’s Middle East go-to guy. But what Bush was right about and what we can learn from events in Cairo is somewhat fuzzier. (I’m sure it’s not fuzzy for Abrams, but it is for the rest of the pundits.) Look how confused it all seems. For Kai Bird, writing here in Slate, the crucial lesson is that we must not repeat the mistakes of 1978 Iran: “It is imperative that Washington finds a way to place itself on the side of those political forces advocating change and reform.” For others, looking at the same Iran, the same year, the same ousted shah and agitated public, the lesson is quite the opposite: “The fate of Iran after the U.S. abandoned its ally shows where events this week could lead.” “Revolutions are like multiple-stage missiles,” said former Israeli foreign minister and historian Shlomo Ben Ami. By that reckoning, the act now playing out in the streets of Cairo is merely the elevation of a cylinder into the sky. The number of stages is unknown. The duration of the voyage is still unclear. The direction is as yet undecided. The landing—well, that’s the trickiest part. It isn’t clear whether the rocket will land safely or if it will crash.
Recent events in Egypt have pushed aside the other great regional drama in Lebanon. Who cares about Lebanon, the country where just two weeks ago Hezbollah toppled the government? Who cares about the prime minister first losing his father and then losing his post—and his country—to the brutality of a terror organization and the manipulation of an expansionist regime? Yet Lebanon is the country you have to look at as you enthusiastically embrace Cairo’s freedom fighters. Like Tunisia’s Jasmine Revolution and Cairo’s not-yet-a-revolution-but-getting-there, Lebanon’s 2005 “Cedar Revolution” set off a chain of fervent speculation about eventual democratization in the Middle East. But half a decade later, as the trajectory of the cedar missile became clearer, Lebanon is in crisis. Lebanon has crashed.
This doesn’t mean that Egyptians aren’t right to demand their freedoms, that Bush was mistaken, that supporting Arab democratization is wrong. This doesn’t mean Mubarak has to stay, or for that matter that it’s imperative for President Barack Obama to pursue policies that put “stability” above “change.” It does mean, though, that revolutions are dangerous. That change can also be change for the worse. That as the people of America move toward their next drama (perhaps over health care), the people of Egypt, and those of neighboring states, will be still stuck cleaning up the mess in Tahrir Square.
Revolutions can bring chaos, or failure, or even more oppression, or radical Islamization, or terrible violence. They create opportunity not just for the good guys (human rights activists) but also for the bad guys (Hezbollah, Iran). They take time and patience and determination and planning and, yes, caution. And while there’s very little most observers can do to help them succeed, the least they can do is greet the revolution that is unfolding in their living rooms with wariness rather than a reality-show response of juvenile glee.
Shmuel Rosner blogs daily at Rosner’s Domain.