Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Tales of the road: part 10

There was a revolution while I was on vacation.

The protests in Cairo started January 25. I was in London, five days into my ramble and paying not much attention to the news. Won't last long, I thought, when I heard about it. Mubarak won't let it last long. While I went here and there amusing myself, frustrated Egyptians held out for change and 18 days later the strongman was gone. It was February 11 and I was making the return loop. It all looked the same in London, but the world had changed.

Unlike the Irish girl who quizzed me on Obama's re-election chances or the Belgian man who couldn't really believe we don't have a national heath care system, Americans don't give two shits about international news unless it affects their business interests or their family - with the exception of American Jews, who pay close attention to goings on in Israel. But word of people in the streets in middle eastern countries is a different animal. We see ghosts of Tehran 1979 and Saddam rolling into Kuwait and we wonder what this means to us and what's this going to cost us this time? Having had so much grief from Islamic fundamentalists the last thirty years we've got good reason to be wary. And besides, we're talking about Eqypt - a stable and predictable US ally for all those thirty years - not some wide spot in the road like Bahrain, or even obscure Tunisia. Eqypt matters.

While the youth movement was hoisting banners in Cairo, I was picking through postcards in Berlin showing similar, if whiter crowds massed in 1989 as the wall came down. Wandering through that tattered, glorious city I imagined what it could have been like to be held hostage in your own country - forced by wire and dogs and rifles to stay and subsist in a bleak world with no opportunity and little hope. Willing to risk your life to get away. Walking the Unter den Linden I thought about Berlin 1989 and Cairo 2011. They never built walls to keep people in Eqypt but twenty years later the world is completely different and completely the same.

Twenty years ago as a novice radio talk show host I learned how little people care about what's going on in the rest of the world, unless US troops are in the field. How hard it is to park your car in downtown Napa - that's a topic that lights up the phones. Gun control? Abortion? Taxes? People cared. Gorbachev and the European Union and Camp David round two? Crickets.

Why care about Eqypt? At the simplest level, our tendency to ignore the rest of the world doesn't work. We didn't care when young Iranians were pushing back against the Shah in the late 70s and our heads in the sand made us blind to the coming of the Ayatollahs. We've paid that price ever since. Right now it's easy to be amused by the guy from Google who tweeted a revolution and go back to watching TMZ. But listen, and you'll hear him say the US is no friend, the US backed Mubarak. Look, and see the Egyptian army driving American M1A1 Abrams tanks and flying the F16. The same US-funded army that kept Mubarak in power all those years, oddly now trusted to run things for awhile. We Americans like to root for the underdog and we like it when people clamor for democracy. But something tells me we wouldn't be warmly welcomed waving "Don't Tread on Me" in Tahir Square.

When the wall came down and the communists caved in some pundits said it was "the end of history" and we would now enjoy a "peace dividend." Instead we got Bosnia and the rampaging Russian mob. The populist wildfire in the middle east now has stirred the pot. It remains to be seen what meal will be served.

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