As Egypt continues to transition from an ill-defined quasi-secular diplomatically-skilled dictatorship into an ill-imagined-no-one-yet-knows-what, following the story is like trying to watch a film or read a book through a yard of waxed paper; nothing is clear.
On January 25, as the Egyptian people took to the streets over food supplies, the American president and the world's diplomatic community seemed to be caught off-guard by the sheer magnitude of discontent. For the first few days, the message out of Washington was decidedly mixed. While Vice President Biden defended Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak as “not a dictator,” President Obama was spinning his 2009 Cairo speech as some sort of prescient warning, and said that he had “told Mubarak to get ahead of this.”
“This” remained undefined. Meanwhile, Secretary of State Clinton repeated flat, empty platitudes about “unacceptable violence” and a “peaceful transitioning,” of the Egyptian government into . . . something. No one quite knew what.
It is not really surprising that America seems all-of-a-vagueness about Egypt. So much going on there seems like a fun-house mirror reflecting the United States: President Obama, having recently forced through a signal piece of legislation that his citizens plainly told him they did not want, was suddenly lecturing Mubarak—without irony—that “the voice of the people” must be listened to and respected.
In the very same week Egypt erupted, the Democrat-led Senate was re-introducing the notion of empowering the president with an “Internet Kill Switch”; Obama could not have appreciated having to step up to the microphone and publicly tell Mubarak to turn the internet back on. Meanwhile, the mainstream media, who look upon Christians at Tea Parties as bellicose theocrats yearning for a chance to control the nation, seem inclined to speak well of the Muslim Brotherhood, albeit in hazy terms.
Even now, nearly two weeks into Egypt’s churning, it is difficult to get a sense of who or what is rising to the top. That Mubarak is finished seems the conventional wisdom, but some analysts still dispute that, and even among members of the mainstream press there is an unusual lack of a cohesive, settled narrative. One gets the impression that the media would happily get behind whatever notion the Obama Administration hands to them, if only the White House knew what it wanted.
Lacking that, they are staggering about and stepping on each other’s hooves in their corral of muted indistinctness. ABC’s Christiane Amanpour reports with certainty that the Muslim Brotherhood are not extremists, that they are not interested in establishing a theocratic government and are not a substantial threat to a democratic process. Only when Israel is mentioned does she tumble into the beige. Journalist Kirsten Powers—communicating with Coptic Christian family members in Egypt—writes exactly the opposite about the Brotherhood, with no mincing of words but then also drifts into a vague and helpless shrug as she writes, “This isn’t to say that Mubarak deserves our support.”
Unsure of both their safety and the indistinct narrative, news anchors Katie Couric, Brian Williams, and Anderson Cooper left Egypt. They appear to be circling around, waiting for instruction.
In fairness, the uncertainty over Egypt does not begin or end with President Obama, or with the press; it is of a piece with a cultural clash that exists between the West and the Arab world, and within the Arab world itself.
For the West, the problem is one of language. Our understanding of secularist governance is linear: church and state are strictly separated and the individual expression of faith is something kept to prayer breakfasts and re-election campaigns. In the Arab world, the fact that something called a “Muslim Brotherhood” can even be seriously considered as a viable political faction amply illustrates that what passes for “secularism” in Egypt is quite different from what we are used to. If we are fundamentally incapable of understanding each other when we use the same word, we may assume we are missing a great deal in translation, on every story.
In 2003, when the United States liberated Iraq, an older Iraqi man related his vision of what life would be like without Saddam Hussein. “Democracy!” he shouted. “And whiskey! And sexy!” Yes, but perhaps with a Middle-Eastern, faith-based spin that intellect-based Washington could never quite grasp, not in Iraq, not in Afghanistan, and now, not in Egypt.
Meanwhile, in cities where people often cannot safely drink the water from their kitchen taps, men and women peer into their laptops and iPhones in passive participation; a product of unimpeded Western creativity fits in the palm of their hands, and through its glass there is light, color, opportunity, and a limitless world of imagining. If the West is coming to understand that our material excesses often leave us spiritually empty, the Arab world may be looking at those same excesses and weighing them against the spiritual overfill of their region.
The West doesn’t particularly want to let go of its excesses, and the Arab world would be very unlikely to abandon a culture rooted in faith. And yet . . . and yet . . . things cannot go on as they have been, anywhere. Everyone senses it.
A presidency that already had people whispering “Jimmy Carter II” thanks to high unemployment, rising gas prices, energy issues, and economic uncertainty has an interest in delaying clarity; no president can be comfortable with the spectre of Iran, 1979 hanging over his head. President Obama, while making noises of general—and vague—appreciation of the Muslim Brotherhood, is not going to be fast to jump into their corner. But Mubarak cannot remain.
Perhaps, then, the White House, and the diplomats and the press should make a point of talking about the only stories coming out of Egypt that are truly unambiguous, distinct and clear: At Christmas, Egyptians guarded Christian worshipers with their own bodies, during their liturgy, and less than a week ago, on the streets of Cairo, Christians linked arms and guarded Muslims during their prayers.
In a world of vagueness, where no one seems to know what to do, it might be smart of the president and the press to start there, with those stories—with those people, who on a very basic level know who they are and what they want. Highlight them, lionize their generous actions, and help them to become leaders in their communities, and maybe—in the mysterious way of faith—the rest will become clear.
Elizabeth Scalia is the Managing Editor of the Catholic Portal at Patheos and blogs as The Anchoress. Her previous articles for "On the Square" can be found here.
Christiane Amanpour on Muslim Brotherhood
Kirsten Powers on Muslim Brotherhood
Democracy, Whiskey, Sexy!
Muslims protect Christians
Christians protect Muslims