Egypt: Graveyard of Empire

Egypt: Graveyard of Empire

If Wittgenstein can end the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus with an invitation to mystical flight, it is not amiss, I hope, to end this issue with the kind of vague-minded musing on human movement for which any scrupulous thinker will mock Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri at every opportunity. Much as we all recognize that Egypt’s political and social future is very much in suspense, it is difficult not to feel that something special occurred on February 11, when, with a magician’s affinity for instantaneity and disappearance, Hosni Mubarak announced through his taciturn henchman Omar Suleiman that he had resigned as president. Poof! (That Suleiman eliminated in the same stroke the prospect of his own presidency only added to the magic. Mubarak offers a face of tyranny under a thick halo of palliating hair dye; Suleiman offers a face of tyranny in all of its mustachioed brutality.)

Benjamin Netanyahu and Saudi King Abdullah excepted, who did not feel just a little of the jubilation that swept every Egyptian city? My mother, who left Cairo on January 25 for the relative calm of Port Said, called this a revolution long before the papers did, and even in the midst of real fear arising from the regime’s release of prisoners was certain that a better Egypt was being born. As soon as Mubarak stepped down, my father e-mailed, reporting that he had tears in his eyes. An emigré who left Egypt in the weeks following the Six-Day War to land in a Canada throwing itself an enormous centenary celebration, he knew what it was to see a nation dispirited and a nation brimming with optimism. Egypt at long last had become the latter.

In the wake of the Egyptian Revolution, it has become commonplace to say that this is the most democratic chapter in the country’s very long history. True, but it is also more. Egypt has always been a jewel for which empires grasp with the covetousness that spells their doom. It was conquered by the Persians and ornamented the greatness of Alexander. It was annexed by the Romans whence it passed to the Byzantines, was swept through by the Arabs, taken over by the Ottomans, craved by a young Napoleon, and seized by the British. For this reason its desert is still haunted by Rommel’s landmines, for this reason Khrushchev got cozy with Gamal Abdel Nasser and America adopted Mubarak as willing lapdog. Charting with Herodotus the grandness of pillaging pharaonic wares and exoticizing with Shakespeare the pull of Cleopatra’s sexual allure, empire projects an image of the glory for which its hubris aches.

AND YET Egypt’s democratic moment has arrived. It has arrived through the heroic efforts of a young, progressive generation, and in the teeth of the world’s great powers who in their desperation could not scare it away by raising the bogey of the Muslim Brotherhood (which, they seem to forget, has survived half a century of being outlawed thanks in no small part to Cold War funding and organizat...

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