Ever since the fall of Louis Philippe’s July Monarchy set off a round of sympathetic insurrections in Europe, revolutions have tended to appear in waves. The recent uprisings in the Middle East are no exception. The reaction to them among liberals and conservatives will be familiar to anyone who experienced the cold war. In those days, conservatives tended to support “anti-Communist” dictators against popular uprisings, and liberals tended to support the “democratic movements” against these “corrupt dictators,” even if their leaders happened to be Pol Pot or Ho chi Minh. Now, thanks to the Internet and other modern means of spreading the word, the related narratives on the left and right are similar, but more uniform, pervasive, and predictable than ever.
In the case of Egypt, for example, conservatives seldom write anything concerning recent events there without raising the specter of the Muslim Brotherhood. Liberals, on the other hand, are cheering on the insurgency, scoffing at the suggestion that it could ever be hijacked by Islamist radicals. For the most part, the proponents of the two narratives possess little or no reliable information on the balance of political forces in Egypt, and certainly not enough to support the level of certainty with which they represent their points of view. As with earlier revolutions, the notion that even the best informed human beings are sufficiently intelligent to reliably predict the eventual outcome is merely another one of our pleasant delusions.
In fact, the belief of the vast majority of those on either side of the issue that the point of view they support with such zeal was arrived at independently via the exercise of their own intellectual powers is also a delusion. The utter sameness of these “independent opinions,” as like to each other as so many peas in a pod, and their almost inevitable association with an assortment of other “independent opinions” of like nature, demonstrate their real character as ideological shibboleths that define the current intellectual territory of the in-groups of the left and the right.
What, then, of Egypt? Who can say? The political history of the Middle East, the rarity and evanescence of democratic governments in the region, the traditional role of the military as a quasi-political party holding all the trump cards, and the lack of experience in or ideological attachment to popular government do not encourage optimism that a modern democratic government will emerge from the current chaos. Still, as noted above, none of us has the intellectual horsepower to predict with certainty what will happen, although of all the guesses being made, some of them will surely be lucky. One can only suggest to the Egyptian people that, given the outcome of some of the other “popular movements” that were greeted with similar euphoria during the past century, it would behoove them to be very careful whom they allow to lead them.