The entertainment director on the ship of fools that constitutes so much mainstream analysis of the Middle East—I refer, of course, to Thomas Friedman—has produced a wonderful paragraph that beautifully characterizes the problem, exquisitely expressing a Western mentality that not only makes it impossible to understand the Middle East but even to set up the question in a way people that could help people even begin to confront the truth. So perhaps it is worth disassembling. Sound like fun? Let’s go!
The paragraph is from an article entitled, “Egypt – The next India or the next Pakistan?” And that’s the first problem. Analogies are no substitute to understanding the specific reality of a country and culture, its history and balance of forces that shape the local political culture. You don’t understand Egypt by comparing it to India or Pakistan—very different places indeed—but by examining Egypt itself.
Let me first quote the entire paragraph and then deal with it a bit at a time. Here’s the whole thing:
“Yes, democracy matters. But the ruling Muslim Brotherhood needs to understand that democracy is so much more than just winning an election. It is nurturing a culture of inclusion, and of peaceful dialogue, where respect for leaders is earned by surprising opponents with compromises rather than dictates….More than anything, Egypt now needs to develop that kind of culture of dialogue, of peaceful and respectful arguing — it was totally suppressed under Mubarak — rather than rock-throwing, boycotting, conspiracy-mongering and waiting for America to denounce one side or the other, which has characterized too much of the postrevolutionary political scene. Elections without that culture are like a computer without software. It just doesn’t work.”
I will now go a sentence at a time.
“Yes, democracy matters.” It is strangely ironic that suddenly democracy has become the main issue shaping the American debate over the Middle East. When President Jimmy Carter in 1978 called for democracy in the shah’s Iran that call might have played some role in setting off a revolution that didn’t turn out too well. After a hiatus—due in part to that debacle—the democracy issue returned under President George W. Bush. The people who pushed that idea became known as “neoconservatives” and were absolutely loathed, even demonized, by liberals and the left.