Searching For Egyptian Metaphors

by Conor Friedersdorf

Earlier in the week I praised Ross Douthat's column on Egypt. Now Thomas Friedman, foreign affairs columnist for The New York Times, is opining on the crisis, and I'm puzzled by parts of the resulting analysis.

Here's how it begins:

I’m meeting a retired Israeli general at a Tel Aviv hotel. As I take my seat, he begins the conversation with: “Well, everything we thought for the last 30 years is no longer relevant.”

That pretty much sums up the disorienting sense of shock and awe that the popular uprising in Egypt has inflicted on the psyche of Israel’s establishment. The peace treaty with a stable Egypt was the unspoken foundation for every geopolitical and economic policy in Israel for the last 35 years, and now it’s gone. It’s as if Americans suddenly woke up and found both Mexico and Canada plunged into turmoil on the same day.

This is a comparison aimed to make the conflict understandable to the laymen. That's definitely me. And I'm left confused. Mexico is already in turmoil. If Canada followed suit tomorrow – say there were a ripped from the pages of David Foster Wallace novel scenario where the Quebec dispute escalated in the most unlikely way – the new USA geopolitical reality would still be totally different than what the Israeli people now face, right? And surely Canada's sudden failure as a state would come as a bigger surprise than the much more foreseeable and arguably inevitable developments we're seeing in Egypt?

Now another line from later on:

What the turmoil in Egypt also demonstrates is how much Israel is surrounded by a huge population of young Arabs and Muslims who have been living outside of history insulated by oil and autocracy from the great global trends. But that’s over.

In what sense have these young Arabs and Muslims in Egypt been living outside history? Let's take a 31-year-old protestor born in 1980. On the Internet he reads Al Jazeera, he's part of the first generation using social media in Egypt, and prior to these rallies he wasn't exactly a political virgin. In 2009 alone, the president of the United States gave a major address in Cairo, tensions flared between Egyptian police and Coptic Christians, 26 alleged members of Hezbollah were tried in Cairo for plotting a terrorist attack there, a soccer game against Algeria turned into an international event, the Egyptian government was enmeshed in a controversy about whether or not it would allow a boat with relief supplies to Gaza, the Egyptian government says it prevented an Al Qaeda attack on the Suez Canal, and a bomb attack in Cairo killed one and injured 24.

In 2008 the Egyptian military tried and jailed 25 prominent members of The Muslim Brotherhood, and 800 more members of that lead opposition group were arrested, sparking a boycott of municipal elections. Numerous Egyptian journalists were tried and jailed by the government in 2007. The same year Amnesty International criticized the Egyptian government for torturing prisoners, dredging up earlier controversies about Egyptian cooperation with the American CIA in its War on Terror. In 2006 the International Atomic Energy Agency declared Egypt one of several countries developing a domestic nuclear program. A bomb attack at a Red Sea resort killed 20 people that year, and there were several rounds of Muslim Brotherhood arrests too. In 2005 20 Sudanese immigrants died at a protest in Cairo, scores were killed in a bomb attack on the Red Sea, and a parliamentary election ended with clashes between the police and the Muslim Brotherhood. In 2004, Yassir Arafat's funeral was held in Cairo.

If you were a 31-year-old protestor, would you feel as though you'd been living outside history, insulated from global trends?