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Bernard-Henri Lévy

Bernard-Henri Lévy

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Why Egypt May Not Be Tunisia

Posted: 02/ 1/11 11:47 AM ET

Of course, Tunisia's jasmin revolution and the revolt taking place in Egypt today have some points in common.

Mubarak's despotism is at least as despicable as that of Ben Ali.

The same wall of fear is falling, a hundred flowers of equally unprecedented freedom of speech bursting into bloom everywhere--wasn't the saying, in Egypt, that the only place one is entitled to open his mouth is at the dentist's?

The beauty of the insurrection, its dignity--this human chain, for example, spontaneously organized to protect the Cairo Museum after looters had broken in.

The demand for democracy. It's been drummed into us often enough that there are peoples to whom the demand for democracy is ontologically foreign and who haven't the right to it. Well, this has been proven untrue; and the proof is there, in Cairo as well as in Tunis.

And I am not mentioning the unease of the great powers, equal in both cases all the way to China (which one must get used to placing in the front ranks of the greatest of the great powers), where the word "Egypt" was blocked on its Sina micro-blogging network!

Yet the fact remains that the situations are not the same and that the differences, whatever the current preconceived ideas, weigh more heavily than the elements they have in common.

For openers, Mubarak is not exactly Ben Ali and, despot for despot, he will offer tougher resistance; this is evident in the diabolical skill with which, in the very first hours of the movement, he withdrew the police, opened the prison doors, and let the gangsters out to sweep through the capitol and terrorize the middle class.

Then, Ben Ali's regime was a police State, whereas Mubarak's is a military dictatorship. But police States, with their networks of informers, double agents, and undercover infiltrators, survive as long as people are afraid and fall when they revolt, whereas military dictatorships, revolt or none, hang on as long as the army does, crumbling only when the army withdraws its support.

The Egyptian army, precisely, is not the Tunisian army. It gave birth to Nasser's regime and was its pillar under Sadat. Today, after thirty years of a state of emergency, it is the framework not only of the State, but of part of the society--will this army shove Mubarak on to his plane as quickly as was the case with Ben Ali?

Democracy is rapidly learned. Nothing and no one, I repeat, can condemn a society to non-democracy. But it would be absurd to deny that the maturity of the Tunisian people, their political culture, their rate of literacy, is lacking, for the time being, in the rural areas of Upper Egypt, in the megalopolis of Cairo with its neglected neighbourhoods, or in places like Shoubra, in the north, where the 2 dollars each that permit millions of inhabitants to survive from one day to the next constitutes as well the limits of their horizon.

All the more so because Egypt is burdened with an obstacle that could be considered negligible in Tunisia, that of radical Islam. Up until now, the Muslim Brotherhood of Cairo has been extremely prudent, that is certain. But none the less certain is their political clout (in 1987, the Brotherhood was the driving force behind the Islamic Alliance which, despite massive fraud, took 60 seats in the parliament). None the less certain is their control of the country's social organizations (in March 2005, for example, they won the majority of seats in the lawyers' union). Also certain is their presence, since the evening of the 27th, at all of the demonstrations. (On the rare images that reach us through the social network, compare the number of veils and black robes with their virtual absence in Tunis.) Non negligible, then, is the risk of seeing them scoop up the stakes after Mubarak's falls--with the perspective of an Egypt turning towards State fundamentalism, to become to Sunnism what Iran is to Shiism.

All that to say that the rebels of Cairo have not one enemy but two: Mubarak and the Muslim Brotherhood.

All that to say that what is taking place before our eyes is not one event, but two: a successful revolution in Tunis and another, in Cairo, still trying to define its identity.

And all that to emphasize that, to contemplate these events, to conceive of them in their singularity and help them, especially, to produce the best part of themselves, one must get rid of preconceived ideas, beginning with that of a unique "Arab revolution", broadcasting on one unique wavelength, that should be hailed in identical terms from Tunis to Sanaa, and Alexandria in between.

The French Revolution, after all, had its democratic phase, then its phase of terror, and its Thermidorian phase--not counting, with the cult of the Supreme Being, its theocratic moment. What if that were happening, not on the scale of a country, but that of a world? And if the same world could be the stage, at the same time, or nearly so, of spontaneously democratic revolutions (Tunis), those that immediately turned violent (Téhéran), or possibly theocratic (an Egypt that would not block the way, right now, to the Brotherhood)? And what if, in this world as in the others, we dared to dream of revolutions skipping their harmful phases, going straight to a fortunate Thermidor (the aspiration, as I write these words, of the lifeblood of the revolution on the move in Egypt)? It's a hypothesis. But one that has the merit of saying why one is fighting, and against whom.