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We the Egyptian People
By ROGER COHEN
New York Times: February 4, 2011
CAIRO — There are a bunch of gated exurbs on the fringes of this sprawling city with names like Beverly Hills and Mayfair. They are the retreats of the super-rich who’ve thrived on connections to the Mubarak family. A friend, Saïd Zulficar, visited one the other day and, impressed by the vast green lawn beside one villa, inquired what it cost to keep all that grass watered.
Oh, said the owner, about 6,000 Egyptian pounds a month, or just over $1,000. Struck by the air conditioning blasting away in the midst of a mild winter, Zulficar also asked about the electricity bill: another 10,000 pounds, or almost $1,700. And, how was all that water arranged in a nation where farms aren’t getting enough for irrigation and subsidies for beans and bread keep the masses fed and anyone making over $100 a month is lucky? Oh, the owner smiled, my good friend Ahmed el-Maghraby sees to that.
El-Maghraby, the former minister of housing, is among those high-flying government officials who’ve now been named and shamed by the new government of Hosni Mubarak. In a desperate attempt to stem rage, Mubarak’s latest brigade has frozen the bank accounts of several former ministers and cronies from the puppet National Democratic Party. No matter that most of these officials shipped their fortunes to Switzerland long ago: The great clean-up, it is said, has begun.
Egypt’s not alone in seeing the gulf between its wealthy and the rest widen; that’s a global trend. But in a country of 83 million where almost 30 percent of the population is still illiterate, and the big bucks have often depended on an entrée to Mubarak’s son, Gamal, or his circle, the pattern has been particularly inflammatory.
I’ve heard many complaints in the tumultuous streets these past few days, but no words reappear as often as “corruption,” “stealing” and “thieves;” and nothing galls as much as a system of state-sponsored lawlessness where right and wrong is determined not in the courts but in Mubarak’s head.
Egypt had a Western-backed free-market economy run by a family with contempt for freedom: That’s problematic. It puts the global forces concentrating wealth into overdrive in the service of the chosen few.
“There’s no accountability, no independent judicial authority, no oxygen,” one Western diplomat told me. “Nobody knows the parameters. What system are you being arrested under? And if a judge does happen to order your release, they re-arrest you.”
I’m almost ready to shed a tear for el-Maghraby and the others now hung out to dry: They’re victims of the very arbitrariness from which they benefited. The exercise that now has them branded as criminals is futile. Only an open system can correct the ills of a closed one.
Without the transparency and independent authorities that would come with accountable and representative government, theft will just take new form. Somebody else will be arranging for those lawns to get watered for the croquet while farmland lies parched.
But 10 days into Egypt’s uprising, it’s still unclear whether Mubarak is ready to make way for that sea-change in the Arab world. One thing is clear: His time, like that of Tunisia’s Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, has passed.
All of this raises a question: In the name of what exactly has the United States been ready to back and fund an ally whose contempt for the law, fake democracy and gross theft flout everything for which America stands?
There are several answers. To stop the jihadists, who threaten American lives; to ensure the security of another ally, Israel; to spread free markets, however distorted, from which U.S. corporations benefit; to secure stability in the most dangerous of regions. Hey, the world’s an imperfect place. Sometimes the best strategic choice is just avoidance of the worst. It wasn’t only during the Cold War that our thugs had their place.
I understand all these arguments. As our thugs go, Mubarak’s been solid. But such views have endured through a persistent blindness: The unwillingness to see that the Middle East has evolved; that American hypocrisy is transparent to everyone; that Islamic parties can run thriving economies and democracies like Turkey’s; that popular rage over cronies’ green gardens feeds the jihadist cause; and that the most effective support of Israel is not one that leaves Israel locked in a defensive crouch but one that encourages it to reach out to the modernizing forces in the Middle East, not least in the West Bank.
Democracies can coexist with politically-organized religious extremists, as Israel itself demonstrates. That is one of their strengths.
In Tahrir Square, the mini-republic that is the Egyptian uprising’s ground zero, I ran into Seif Salmawy, the managing director of a publishing company. He was smiling; I asked why. “Suddenly we are human beings,” he said. “We think we can decide and that what we decide has worth and that we have some value as humans. Before there was the president, the police, the army and their money: We the people were just there to serve them.”
“We the people.” Isn’t that how good things like “the general welfare” begin?
-- You can follow Roger Cohen on Twitter at twitter.com/nytimescohen --
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