Richard Cohen Explains Why Egyptians Can't Have Nice Things

The images coming out of Egypt today are as powerful as any that we've seen during the past week. Few are unmoved by what's going on. But at least one person thinks that while democracy is great and all, the time isn't right for the Egyptians to have freedom. That person is Richard Cohen, and all I can say is that if Richard Cohen doesn't support your pro-democracy revolution, then your pro-democracy revolution is in pretty good shape.

"The dream of a democratic Egypt is sure to produce a nightmare," worries Cohen! And he brings to bear an immense amount of crystal-clear thinking on the issue. This is the sort of op-ed that contains lines like this: "The United States remains powerful and important, but it has already lost control of events -- not that it ever really had it." Yes: we've lost control of something we didn't have control over! It is also filled with equivocations that comfortably and conveniently cushion what look like deep and abiding prejudices:

My take on all this is relentlessly gloomy. I care about Israel. I care about Egypt, too, but its survival is hardly at stake. I care about democratic values, but they are worse than useless in societies that have no tradition of tolerance or respect for minority rights. What we want for Egypt is what we have ourselves. This, though, is an identity crisis. We are not them.

I care about this! But I care about that! Planes collide in my brain! Network error! Abort! Abort!

But abort he does not. (Neither does he stop to consider the fact that Egypt, as a society, is rejecting the rule of a regime that has no tradition of tolerance or respect for anyone's democratic rights.) And while Cohen readily admits that it is "impossible to get a fix on what is happening in Egypt," he nonetheless offers you a summary of his own fixations: Muslim Brotherhood fearmongering! Trouble for the pretend Israel-Palestine peace process! As Alex Pareene points out, with sarcasm:

That "mob" certainly does seem pretty bloodthirsty. They clearly want all-out war with the region's sole nuclear power. Pretty sure that's what these demonstrations are about. "I'm actually pretty cool with Mubarak but I really wish we were waging war against Israel right now" -- An Egyptian protester.

Through what I would generously call "remarkable leaps of anti-logic," Cohen manages to somehow tie the protest movement in Egypt to the Taliban, insisting that the "Islamists of the [Muslim] Brotherhood ... would treat women as the Taliban now does." I tell you what, all those women on the streets demonstrating on behalf of democratic freedoms are going to feel so conned!

The bottom line is that it's just too soon for the Egyptians to have nice things, because of what some other people in other places may or may not be doing:

Majority rule is a worthwhile idea. But so, too, are respect for minorities, freedom of religion, the equality of women and adherence to treaties, such as the one with Israel, the only democracy in the region. It's possible that the contemporary Islamists of Egypt think differently about these matters than did Qutb. If that's the case, then there is no cause for concern. But Hamas in the Gaza Strip, although recently moderating its message, suggests otherwise. So does Iran.

Like Pareene said, the politics of the Gaza Strip are a thing apart from what's going on in the streets of Cairo. And Iran? Did I miss something, or weren't there pro-democracy demonstrations on the streets of Tehran not too long ago? It's almost as if the vast majority of Muslims actually want Western-style freedoms.

The other argument for popular sovereignty in the Muslim world is far more straightforward: It's what the vast majority of Muslims actually want. The 2005-2007 Gallup World Survey of more than 30 Muslim majority countries found that, far from hating Western freedoms, most respondents coveted them--especially the freedom of speech and worship. It's true that they also overwhelmingly endorsed the idea of Sharia law -- but that is not a prescription for jihadist theocracy, as witless American commentators and state legislatures are prone to conclude. Sharia, rather, is a cultural tradition seeking to imbue broad ideals of personal conduct under the rule of law -- and far from a monolithic regime of hand-amputating, honor-killing and adulterer-stoning one encounters in dispatches from the American right. Here, yet again, the Iranian theocracy has been made the poster regime for a wide panoply of Muslim believers it does not, in fact, actually represent.

Essentially, Richard Cohen is no more coherent on this matter than Thomas Friedman was on this Sunday's "Meet The Press." Democracy is nice, but have the Egyptians truly earned it? Are they really a part of 21st-century humanity? I don't see Egyptian protesters swashing their way down the slopes of Davos, swaddled in high-end leather couture! So, until that day, they'd better lie back and try harder to enjoy life under a western-funded dictator.

Gah, this is seriously how Cohen closes this out: "America needs to be on the right side of human rights. But it also needs to be on the right side of history. This time, the two may not be the same." Sounds like someone is counting on history to be written in Texas.

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