Three years ago in the spring, Barack Hussein Obama came to the Middle East offering a new beginning. With that new beginning no longer would the United States support Arab dictatorships for the sake of its own interests. America 2.0 would defuse that great mythical wellspring of Muslim anger toward the Great Satan by embracing Muslim democracy.
On a cold winter’s day, two years later, Obama celebrated the fall of Mubarak by proclaiming that “the people of Egypt have spoken, their voices have been heard, and Egypt will never be the same.” Now one year later, in the teeth of another winter, an Islamist winter, Egypt seems very much the same.
There are hundreds of thousands of protesters in Tahrir Square denouncing the power grab by the ruler, there are roving gangs of regime sympathizers smashing skulls and assaulting women, there are police squads battling to put down the uprising and a regime media apparatus blaming the whole thing on an outside conspiracy.
The Egypt of the winter of 2012 is hard to tell apart from the Egypt of the winter of 2011. The big difference is that the bearded men who were formerly protesting against the regime are now the regime. Mubarak is Morsi and Morsi is fighting to suppress the Nov 22 Revolution in the name of the Jan 25 Revolution. And if the Nov 22 Revolution is successful, then before long the Muslim Brotherhood will be out in the streets with its own revolution or counter-revolution or counter-counter-revolution.
Obama, who gave Mubarak the boot one year ago, has had nothing to say about the gangs of paid rapists or the Muslim Brotherhood’s torture chambers. Instead the nation’s First Golfer has occupied himself with commemorating various dates in American history by being photographed next to some historically relevant object. While the wire services have filled up with photos of bloody Egyptian protesters, they have been matched by a frenetic output from the White House of photos of Obama stumbling with a wreath toward the Pearl Harbor Memorial or gazing blankly around Rosa Parks’ bus as if trying to escape into history, from the history that is taking place all around him.
“There are some who advocate for democracy only when they are out of power; once in power, they are ruthless in suppressing the rights of others,” Obama said in his New Beginning speech. That is a perfectly adequate description of the Muslim Brotherhood by a leader who has proven to be inadequate to the task of holding the same group that he brought to power accountable for treating democracy like an express train to the Thousand Year Caliphate.
But somewhere in between the golfing sessions and the aimless celebrity shindigs, the New Beginner has discovered that there are some dictators that he is willing to tolerate for the sake of the nameless interests that he holds dear. Every politician has his price and his pet tyrants. Morsi, like Erdogan and Jebali, is Obama’s pet tyrant. Or perhaps Obama is Morsi’s pet Democrat. Nietzsche said that when you stare into the abyss, the abyss stares back at you. And when you spend enough time cultivating tyrants, then eventually it turns out that it is the tyrants who have been cultivating you.
Stephen Hawking’s apocryphal story of an eccentric old woman approaching Bertrand Russell to put forward a theory of cosmology ends with her famous explanation, “It’s turtles all the way down” as its punch line. The story is meant to showcase the absurdity of creationists, but theoretical physicists have their own “turtles” moments culminating in the multiverse, which replaces turtles with universes but leads to the same place.
Every system of thought has its moments of equal absurdity when it must resort to a turtle loophole to fill in a hole in its own reasoning. But in the Middle East it isn’t turtles all the way down; it’s dictators all the way down.
Obama pledged to create a new beginning by ending, in the name of democracy, the old policy of supporting dictators, only to inaugurate a brand new policy of supporting dictators in the name of democracy. The ritual democratic elections led to the same place that they did in Iraq and the Palestinian Authority. And now Obama is forced to support a dictatorship in order to support democracy.
Obama’s support of Morsi has enraged the Arab Street, at least those Arab Streets in certain parts of Cairo, and nullified the entire point of the New Beginning program for winning over the hearts and minds of the Middle East.
Look down on Cairo, Baghdad, Benghazi or Ramallah, or any of those other exotic eastern precincts where the democracy dreamers thought the reformation and renaissance of Islam would begin, and as far as the eye can see, it’s dictators all the way down. The great spiritual, political and cultural revivals that were supposed to neuter terrorism, end the need for drone strikes and naked scanners, for men pouring water down on other men in secret prisons, and for all the rest of it, has never come to pass.
The world may not rest on turtles or infinite universes, but the Middle East does rest on dictators and no amount of new beginnings has changed that. Pull back one dictator and another pops up in his place. Hold elections, plan regime change, send in your activists or your warplanes, and when the dust settles and all the democracy dreamers are congratulating themselves on having pulled off a successful election, the new dictator steps out from behind the curtain to give his acceptance speech, impose martial law and begin rounding up dissidents.
A bigger man than Obama would concede failure. A decent man would feel that he owed it to the people whose cause he had encouraged to tell them something, anything. But Obama is too busy posing and primping for his place in history to waste time taking a long look at the debris in his rearview mirror. Like Carter before him, and like half the elected and unelected leaders of Europe, Obama bet everything that he had on Political Islam and has no interest in looking back to find out how his bet did.
Three years after his new beginning, the New Beginner, now verging on being an Old Beginner, closes his ears to the cries from Tahrir Square. There is a new dictator there now and the new beginning has the same old ending. It’s still dictators all the way down.
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