Almost seven years have passed since I spent some time in the Middle East. The closest I get to the opinions of "the Arab street" these days is the fellow who runs the delicatessen a block away from me. Mohamed is Egyptian, with family living in Cairo and outside the city. All of them are safe -- as far as he knows.
Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak must go, Mohamed says, but he fears that regardless of the promises, Mubarak will figure out a way to keep his henchmen in power and the brutal legacy of cruelty and torture will continue.
So much is confusing or unknowable; so much took everyone by surprise or remains to be seen. American intelligence already is being criticized for not being on top of the situation. Stephanie O'Sullivan, the White House nominee for principal deputy director of national intelligence told the Senate Intelligence Committee on Thursday that late last year the CIA warned President Obama "of instability [in Egypt] but not exactly where it would come from... we didn't know what the triggering mechanism would be."
But how much could they have known, really? This is the Butterfly Effect writ large and in cosmic collision with realpolitik; small changes quietly accruing to create immense, unpredictable consequences for the global power dynamic.
Who can calculate where that first flutter of the lepidopteran wings took place? Long ago and faraway perhaps, but eventually there were two significant deaths: in December, the self-immolation of a fruit vendor named Mohamed Bouazizi, harassed to suicide by Tunisian police, and last June's murder of young Egyptian businessman Khaled Said, beaten by security men in Alexandria. Demonstrations in the wake of Bouazizi's death led to the overthrow of Tunisia's President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali; their success further inspired those who had marched in Egypt to protest the fatal attack on Khaled Said and led to millions making common cause in Cairo's Tahrir Square, across the country and beyond.
"I swear by Almighty God that I cried with joy to see Egypt reborn in Tahrir Square on Tuesday night," Emad El Din Hussein wrote in the independent Egyptian newspaper Al Shorouk. "... Members of Muslim Brotherhood, Nasserists and Marxists were all present; you could recognize them from their physical appearance and the way they spoke or dressed. But they were few and far between... The majority of those present were ordinary citizens... thousands of people mingled together shouting different slogans and singing together... other demonstrators sat talking about poverty, unemployment and violation of human dignity."
This week, in the shadow of the Egyptian Museum, filled with antiquities reflecting glories past, they battled Mubarak's thugs and goons, the warring sides using equally ancient weapons of stone and fire, even men with whips riding horses and camels. Then the guns came out. So far, the Egyptian Third Army stands in between, firing warning shots and using water cannons to put out the flames of Molotov cocktails, but not shooting into the crowds. As this is written, no one knows for sure where it's all headed. Clearly, as pressure mounts from within and without, there are deep internal rifts within the Egyptian government.
But as far as the United States and Egypt are concerned, one thing is certain: blowback -- the unforeseen consequence of our policies abroad -- is a bitch. "For too long," Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chair John Kerry wrote in The New York Times this week, "financing Egypt's military has dominated our alliance. The proof... tear gas canisters marked 'Made in America' fired at protesters, United States-supplied F-16 fighters streaking over central Cairo." All because, Kerry said, there was "a pragmatic understanding that our relationship benefited American foreign policy and promoted peace in the region."
Or, in the words of a 2009 American embassy cable, part of the WikiLeaks document dump, "The tangible benefits to our... relationship are clear: Egypt remains at peace with Israel, and the US military enjoys priority access to the Suez Canal and Egyptian airspace."
In exchange, we willfully paid little or no heed to the Egyptian dictatorship's abuse of human rights, despite its role in radicalizing such terrorists as Ayman al-Zawahiri, Osama bin Laden's operational and strategic commander. In fact, our strategy of rendition in the wake of 9/11 -- sending terror suspects to other countries for interrogation -- took advantage of Egypt's torture cells. As Jane Mayer writes in her book, The Dark Side, and on The New Yorker magazine's "News Desk" blog, Omar Suleiman, Egypt's new vice president and the former head of the country's general intelligence service, was "the CIA's point man in Egypt for renditions." Former US Ambassador to Egypt Edward S. Walker, Jr. described Suleiman as "very bright, very realistic" and "not squeamish."
One of those whose rendition Suleiman helped oversee was Al Qaeda suspect Ibn Sheik al-Libi, who told the CIA, according to a bipartisan report from the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, that he was locked in a tiny cage for more than three days, then beaten because, at the behest of the United States, the Egyptians wanted him to say that Saddam Hussein was going to give Al Qaeda chemical and biological weapons. "They were killing me," he told journalists Michael Isikoff and David Corn. "I had to tell them something," and so his coerced confession wound up in Colin Powell's now notorious address before the United Nations in February 2003, justifying war against Iraq.
Ironically, blowback from the propaganda offense claiming the existence of Iraqi weapons of mass destruction now enhances the credibility among Egyptian protesters of a man that same campaign tried to discredit -- Mohamed ElBaradei, former director-general of the International Atomic Energy Agency, Nobel Peace Prize laureate and, according to the BBC, a big fan of Woody Allen and Jerry Seinfeld (I am not making this up).
During the buildup to the invasion of Iraq and since, he has needed a sense of humor. Insisting that his agency's investigations proved that WMD's did not exist -- followed by his moderate stance on the Iranian nuclear program -- led to angry attacks by the Bush administration, especially from Ambassador to the UN John Bolton, and even the tapping of ElBaradei's telephone. They attack him still, yet in this current crisis he is, as one journalist wrote, "about as much of a liberal secularist as the US could realistically hope for."
A new "pragmatic understanding" is necessary by which, in the words of Moroccan-American author Laila Lalami, we dispose of our forked tongue, one moment lecturing on democracy, the next offering support to dictators.
If blowback shows us anything, as she writes in The Nation magazine, "A pro-American dictator is not a guarantee of protection from extremism; more often than not, his tyranny creates the very radicalism he was supposed to stop.
"The future of Egypt looks uncertain," Lalami continues, but if fears of Islamic extremism cause us to falter in our support of the pro-democracy movement, "What is certain is that siding with a repressive regime against the Egyptian people, especially against young Egyptians, will turn these fears of extremism into a reality."
Michael Winship, former senior writer of Bill Moyers Journal on PBS, is president of the Writers Guild of America, East.