By Richard Cohen
Monday, February 7, 2011;
Every once in a while, I resurrect my Oveta Culp Hobby Award. Hobby was the Texas newspaper publisher who became Dwight D. Eisenhower's secretary of health, education and welfare. When she was asked to account for why she had failed to order enough of the new Salk polio vaccine, her response, uttered after countless years of polio epidemics and summers of sheer terror, was virtually immortal: "No one could have foreseen the public demand for the vaccine." This year's Hobby Award goes to the Obama administration for failing to foresee the upheaval in Egypt.
I grant you that events in Egypt have been fast-moving. But it has been clear for many years now that Egypt had all the ingredients for a revolution: a repressive regime, widespread poverty, a lack of job prospects for the burgeoning middle class, an unpopular treaty with a loathed neighbor, a significant underground political opposition and a leader who surrounded himself with flatterers and incompetents the likes of whom have not been seen since Louis XVI. The only revolutionary element missing was a rousing song. It has been replaced by the subversive sound of the Tweet.
What is happening in Egypt is likely to happen elsewhere in the region. There are no democratic regimes in the Arab world, nor has there ever been one (with the possible exception of Iraq). Some of the nations themselves are the afternoon's work of British civil servants who drew lines on a map and created the present-day Iraq, Jordan and some of the Gulf states. The borders were imposed, unseen by the local tribes or the wandering goat. Hashemites were placed on the thrones of Iraq and Jordan - a nice touch by a grateful empire, except they had come from what is now Saudi Arabia. The Iraqi line was extinguished in 1958 with the murder of King Faisal II.
Egypt is something of a Middle Eastern exception. It is an ancient culture, geographically contiguous, had a measure of self-government even under the British and has been the intellectual leader of the Arab world. Yet it, too, lacked - and lacks - democratic institutions and traditions. Hosni Mubarak succeeded the murdered Anwar Sadat, who had succeeded Gamal Abdel Nasser, who in 1952 overthrew the creatively dissolute King Farouk (200 cars, all red), a scion of a royal line going back not all that far to 1805 - and to Albania.
What is amazing is that the Obama administration had a detailed, if cockamamie, plan for Israeli-Palestinian peace but seemed stunned that Egypt went haywire. Where was that plan? And if there was one, why wasn't it followed by saying the same thing day after day - praise for democracy and leave it at that? The ugly dilemma is that there is a conflict between our long-held principles and our immediate self-interests. A democratic Egypt that abrogates its treaty with Israel and becomes hospitable to radical Islamists is not in our interests.
Certain pro-democracy advocates in the Western media envision a transition period of months that will produce democratic bliss in the region. Not likely. The Middle East must first pass through somewhat the same process as did Central and Eastern Europe. Before World War I, it had no democracies. The region was ruled by monarchies.
After the war, nearly every state (the Soviet Union was the most prominent exception) was a democracy and one, the most culturally and politically advanced of them all, had an exemplary constitution and a resplendent bouquet of political parties. Nevertheless, this country reeled from Weimar Republic to Nazi dictatorship in virtually no time at all.
The rest of Central and Eastern Europe was different only in degree, not in kind. By the end of the 1930s, these countries were mostly right-wing dictatorships of one sort or another. It took another World War, a Cold War and lots of help for democracy to take root. Even so, some of these countries show twitches of recidivism.
To think that the Middle East will vault this process is endearing but dotty. The one advantage the region has is that it's relatively homogenous, mostly Sunni Arab. (The Copts of Egypt and the Christians of Lebanon are anxious for good reason.) Before the Middle Eastern countries can be put together as democracies, they will come apart as something else, possibly as Islamic republics. If Obama wants to know what will happen in the future, he need only consult the past. It is, just as the cliche says, prologue.