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October 10, 2006

Despair and its Aftermath
Posted by Shadi Hamid

I just read a fascinating, if despairing account of the tragedy known as modern Egypt in Vanity Fair, a magazine which, despite its glossiness, has some of the best political coverage out there today. If you want to understand why Egypt (and, by extension, the Arab world) is a powder keg, I suggest you give it a read. It is a tragic but familiar story of the humiliation of life under autocracy and how such humiliation can push people over the edge, to say and do dangerous things. The article is a bit long, so here are the most affecting parts:

Where Farouk still nursed a flickering hope for something better, Ashraf, his elder, had given up. If angrier than any other Egyptian I'd met, Ashraf also seemed to personify a facet of the Egyptian personality I'd long sensed lay just beneath the surface: the rage of a people living in a state of near-constant humiliation.

Some of these humiliations come with life under a dictatorship—the corruption, the petty harassments—but others are specific to Egypt. In the land of one of the world's most fabled ancient civilizations, the average Egyptian now struggles to get by on less than $1,000 a year. About the only opportunity for most Egyptians to economically advance is to labor as indentured servants for their far richer Gulf Arab cousins, or to obsequiously cater to the foreigners in their midst...

"Look at me," Ashraf said. "I feel like I'm 70. I feel like I don't have any future. Not even 1 percent of my dreams have come true. If I had a chance to do something, I'd take up a gun. It's the same life for me whether I live or die."

And then this:

[Farouk’s] ultimate dream, though, was to win the American-visa lottery. Every year, the U.S. awards some 50,000 work visas around the world, and this was the fourth year in a row that Farouk was applying...

For some minutes, Farouk rhapsodized about what his life would become if he won the lottery, how it would answer all his dreams. "Because I know in America I would be a great success. Everything would be wonderful for me then." After a short time, though, Farouk seemed to reflect on just how improbably small the odds were of this happening, and grew more solemn.

"You remember my friend Ashraf?" he asked. "He didn't tell you this, but last year he got an Iraqi visa. He wanted to join the jihad—as a fighter or as a shaheed [martyr], he didn't care—but so many Egyptian men have gone there that they have closed the land routes. To go to Iraq now, you first have to fly to Syria, and he didn't have the money for that."

It sounded like some bad joke, a guy so down on his luck he couldn't even get himself killed, but then Farouk continued in a soft voice.

"Sometimes I think maybe I should do that. They talk about it a lot in the mosques, about all the young men going there. I think I'm too soft to be a fighter, that it's not in my spirit, but I don't know … If I could go and kill some Americans before I die, then maybe my life would have had some meaning."


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Mr. Hamid,
I don't think you have to go to Egypt to find despair. I believe that you might easily find it in East Saint Louis, or Cleveland, or Detroit, or Cody, or in many other places closer to home. And in many of these places one could also find a willingness to die for one's beliefs, whether it be one's country, family or god. Despair and commitment, they seem like mutually exclusive opposites, like a contradiction, but isn't life full of contradicitons? Yin and yang--the opposites that hold us together.
So the question is: What do Progressives intend to do about it, the tragedy known as modern America?

While i don't deny that there is tragedy and despair in "modern America," I don't think its fair or appropriate to compare life in a democracy, however flawed, to life under dictatorship. One is worse than the other.

On your question of what progressives intend to do about "the tragedy known as modern America," there is a lot we're already doing. If the Dems come to power next month, you will see major action on health insurance, minimum wage, etc. We already have excellent policy prescriptions on these issues. What we are lacking, however, is a cohesive vision on foreign policy.

I didn't compare--my point is that we should worry about, and do something about, the despair in this country before we concern ourselves with Egypt's despair. We have some quality of life issues that require attention--two million people in prison, half our cities' children living in poverty, lack of medical care for many, a failed drug war, a mangled Constitution--you know.

We have a government, whether it be Republican or Democrat, which, while not a dictatorship, although it's heading that way, is more interested in corporate welfare and having its way with other countries than it is in helping Americans in, say, Cleveland. That's a fact.

My principal interest is also, like yours, apparently, in foreign policy, specifically in raising a general clamor against our incessant proclivity to make judgments about other peoples and lord it over them with economic and military imperialism.
How much do we give to the Egyptian dictatorship every year, from either the elephant or the donkey, two billion? More to Israel; the back of our hand to the Palestinians.

As to the expected Dem takeover, we might see an increase in the minimum wage but I wouldn't hold out much hope for anything more in domestic policy. Your "etc." Health insurance--you really think so? Bush would veto it, wouldn't he? The minimum wage also, probably. Certainly Kerry didn't much address domestic problems when he had the floor. In foreign policy, with the Dems so tight with the Zionists, matters can only go downhill. Look forward to "better managed" wars. The recent bloated Pentagon budget was voted "aye" by every Dem senator, Senator Clinton wants a bigger army and the Dems want to prove their mettle with Iran. I feel a draft, thank you very much Charlie Rangel. Hold on tight and keep your dual citizenship if you have it.


I hope you're right that if (hah, let's just say 'when') the Dems take the house next month that they actually do make push for some advances in health care or minimum wage. I fear however that they will mire the congress down in two years of hearings, to the detriment of any productive legislative action and to detriment of progressive hopes for taking power in '08 when they would be in a better position to oversee a serious policy shift in the US.

Rather than hold out hopes for this November, and the angry, retrospective congress that it will almost surely produce, What about 2008? It promises to be the most open presidential election since 1860 and carries with it the promise for as much change within the US.

A unrelated request for you: would you send your post from last winter on the Danish cartoon protests to...

Keep on rocking in the free world.

Mr. Hamid,
By the way, thanks for responding. As a relative newcomer to this site I've been very pleased with the high quality of the diaries but shocked at the postings--the quality is very good but why so few? I'm a refugee from the Truthout blog which shut down and the situation there was rather the opposite--mediocre diaries but a lot of give-and-take on the many postings. "Sparring." Time for Nossel to put out the word to Halperin and company--you're also expected to cross-post and recruit posters! Just kidding, of course. Thanks again, and don't be a stranger.

The irony in not being able to win the lottery to America leaving one with only the thought of going to another land and killing Americans there is something Strangelove might understand. Even more so when the the despair is mostly caused by the dictatorship of Egypt and yet the great evil enemy is the nation that got rid of a dictator and is trying to get a democracy running instead (however one views the rightness or even legality of the original action and however one views the competence or lackthereof since).

One can understand the lack of hope and despair but if one feels that deeply, to the point of the only noble action being to become a martyr, how is it possible to not make the logical jump to changing the system in the nation where he actually lives?

Further how is it possible that if the prefered dream is to come to America that it's possible that at least some of the basic realities of America and not understood (Life, Liberty, Freedom to pursue happiness, Freedom of expression, Democracy, Tolerance)? If some of these things, and more, partly make up the "dream" then why does the dream only exist in a land called America?

Moreover, even if one were to argue that it's all a Hollywood version that does not explain the differences in assimilation in Arab and/or Muslim immigrants to the US and Europe. There is something positive about America on a basic level that contributes to immigrants wanting to become part of society instead of seeing oneself as a society apart.

That so many want to come to America and yet somehow do not understand what America means and stands for is a basic communication and/or education failure. It is not clear however that this is going to be corrected anytime soon on Arab TV, or the local Mosque, or in Egyptian newspapers.

If the problem is the regime in Egypt and the world has decided that regime change by outside military means is not a good idea and the only real hope is revolution born from within than what hope Egypt. Moreover, since democracy in Egypt, Jordan, Syria, etc., at least initially might be fundamentalist and/or US hostile to the US what exactly is the motivation for the US to support this other than the long term help of those oppressed?

Should the policy of the US be to stop all aid to Egypt? Should there be more or less student visas granted? Should the US try to overtly and/or covertly destablize the regime in Egypt. What exactly is the Democratic parties policy toward Egypt and how is different from say the Clinton or Bush (41 or 43) policies toward Egypt. Is the answer for Egypt going to come from the US or from Egypt?


You say: "My point is that we should worry about, and do something about, the despair in this country before we concern ourselves with Egypt's despair."

This is a usual, and somewhat tiresome, type of argument that one often hears on the Left. If we have to address American despair before addressing the despair of others, then we might have to wait forever, b/c America will never be depair-free.

When did we liberals start becoming nationalist neo-isolationists? This contradicts the very notion of liberalism. If this is the case, then let's call it a day, then, and cast our lot with the likes of Pat Buchanan.

Egypt's despair should be of the utmost concern to Americans, because such despair can and will push people to resort to violence and terrorism and we as Americans will likely be the first targets. The political situation "over there" is directly tied to our national security "over here." This is about the most fundamental issue for us - our country's safety and security. This is a big deal and, no, it cannot wait until we have health insurance for all Americans.

You're absolutley wrong. The US governemnt was established for Americans not Egyptians, and your tendencies to the opposite are irrelevant.
"We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. --That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed."
"We, the people of the United States, in order to form a more perfect Union, establish justice, insure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America."
Do you see any mention of Egyptians here? Oh, you say, to "provide for the common defense" we have to eliminate despair in Egypt. And Bangladesh? And Bolivia? And Mexico? Everywhere? Leave no continent in despair! Poppycock.
We have problems in America and they take priority. Why tax Kentuckians to improve the lot of Egyptians? Why? There is no legal or moral basis for it.


The world is interconnected. We don't live in the 19th century anymore. What happens in Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the rest of the Arab world affects us as Americans. Last time I checked, terrorism was a serious problem and something that was an obvious threat to our country's national security.

You say: "Bangladesh? And Bolivia? And Mexico? Everywhere? Leave no continent in despair!" Well, Mexicans and Bolivians aren't exactly launching terrorist attacks against us, so alleviating despair in Bolivia, while important, is not as important as alleviating despair in the Middle East.

Last time I checked, terrorism was NOT a serious problem. For someone in an American city rat bites, drive-by shootings and lack of pre-natal health care--to mention just a few--are problems and not terrorism. Check the statistics.
You've bought into the government's Global War On Terror which is simply designed to (1)increase corporate welfare through Homeland Security and Defense spending and (2)imcrease domestic repression and the shredding of the "19th century" (actually 18th) Constitution. Is the US Constitution truly outmoded?

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