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Susan Estrich
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Romantic Revolutions


In the first days of the demonstrations in Egypt, almost everyone I know was glued to their television. Many of them were caught up in what they saw as the romanticism of the moment: students and young people in the streets, willing to risk their lives to stand up to a tyrannical regime and replace it with a democracy. Irresistible.

Television anchors jumped on planes to report from the middle of the demonstrations. Commentators waxed eloquently about the power of new technology and social media to bring freedom and democracy to countries long under the thumb of tyrannical rulers. What could be more exciting or, for that matter, more American?

As it turns out, a lot of things.

The anchors who went came back almost as fast — revolutions are dangerous. Anderson Cooper was not a hero among the masses. Maybe they didn't know who he was, although a guy surrounded by cameras and film equipment who appears on international television every day is not that hard to recognize. Maybe, more likely, they didn't care.

This is not the American Revolution broadcasting from Cairo.

It is true, of course, that Egypt is not a democracy. It is true that Hosni Mubarak has held power for three decades. It is certainly true that during that period many Egyptians have called — without success — for greater freedom, free elections, free press and an open democracy. But most of those people are not on the streets.

"It's the economy, stupid," the smartest observers keep pointing out. People are on the streets in Cairo and not Beijing because, first and foremost, Egypt's economy has grown much slower than its population, while China's is the exact opposite. The streets in Cairo are not necessarily filled with well-educated ideologues but with frustrated job-seekers, young people who have found not opportunity but closed doors in their home country.

The rallying cry is "Replace Mubarak." But the motivation is as much economic as it is political.

And equally if not more troubling, to the extent that it is political, it is not about emulating the West, but rejecting it. The voices from the street are not just saying that Mubarak has been in power too long, or even that he has failed to pursue policies leading to greater economic growth.

They are saying he has been too supportive of the West, too close to the United States and, even more importantly, too close to, too supportive of and too engaged with Israel.

They are saying that one of the best and most courageous things Mubarak has done — despite some difficult periods, he maintained relations with Israel and recognized its existence — is reason enough for his downfall.

I have a hard time finding anything romantic about that.

Many young people today don't remember the days of "realpolitik" — the idea, popular during the Cold War, that America's foreign policy should be based on our national interest and not on ideology, meaning we supported dictators who liked us without regard to how they treated their people. The downfall of the policy, depending on your politics, was either our victory in the Cold War (which might have proved that it worked) or the repeated downfall of the dictators we supported (which might have proved that it didn't). If you're giving a speech at a convention, it always sounds better to say that our foreign policy must be based on our values; that our goal should be to support freedom and democracy, even if that results in leaders we like less.

It sounds very good. But in a dangerous world, what sounds good is not always what will work well, what will protect our country and our allies and our children.

I am rooting for Egypt. I'm rooting for it to find a way out of these troubles, to restore the economic growth whose absence fuels such anger, to find a path to greater individual freedom and participatory democracy.

But I am also rooting for us, and for our friends in Israel, that Egypt's path will not bring greater instability and danger to our world. Revolution is not a romantic adventure. It's a rather terrifying thriller with no guarantee of a happy ending.

To find out more about Susan Estrich and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate website at



6 Comments | Post Comment
We can hope all we want that Egypt will go the way of the USA but it won't happen. They want a theocracy, not a democracy! Haven't you seen the polls of the Egypians done lately?
By the way, Democracies are mob rule governments where there is no minority influence. We are a Republic, not a Democracy.
Comment: #1
Posted by: Early
Wed Feb 9, 2011 5:07 AM
Today it appears King Abdullah is running our foreign policy. We have been weakened in the view of the Mid East. So be it with the new administration.
Comment: #2
Posted by: Early
Thu Feb 10, 2011 6:56 AM
Obama bowed one time too many. Of course he had to honor his Muslim elder.
Comment: #3
Posted by: Paul
Thu Feb 10, 2011 10:46 AM
You know, Paul, there's pictures of George W Bush holding hands with some Saudi prince or other. You can google it. . . .Didn't hear you complaining then.
Comment: #4
Posted by: capiscan
Thu Feb 10, 2011 12:27 PM
Re: capiscan
Bush somewhat guilty also, but he wasn't raised in a Muslim world with a Muslim father. Also, I don't remember Bush bowing to foreign leaders. All leaders shake hands; you bow to superiors.
Comment: #5
Posted by: Early
Fri Feb 11, 2011 5:32 AM
Refreshing to see realistic and accurate column from you, but you were incorrect albeit politically correct when you said the "realpolitik" policy was over when the "cold war" ended. Neither the policy or the cold war are truly gone. The only difference is that the current rhetoric is to say they are because it is the popular delusion of the day, but actions have always spoken louder than words. Our previous presidents and President Obama have all supported dictators because they felt it was in the USA's best interest. A perfect example is the difficulty President Obama had in determing who he needed to support when he spoke out about the protests in Egypt. Another was the grand reception for the Chinese at the White House. The Chinese have one of the worst human rights record of any country, but because we own them so much money and need more our President treated them like royalty (or better). He's also made it clear that he is supportive of the Muslims. I expect our presidents to reach out and try to develop a rapport with these countries, but it should not be at the expense of our national interests or our values. That is a delicate balance, and the reason it is so difficult finding the right person to be our President. You should pull your keen sense of observation and objectivity out of the closet more often, and turn it to the current Democrats in power and any deserving politicians of the other parties. It is only a matter of time before they determine that pulling support for Israel and the personal freedoms of Americans are no longer in the best interest of the USA government. A man who could deny being aware of the feelings of his mentor of 20 years is willing to do or say anything to gain or maintain power.
Comment: #6
Posted by: Elaine
Sun Feb 13, 2011 9:36 AM
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