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Romantic Revolutions

A Commentary by Susan Estrich

Wednesday, February 09, 2011

In the first days of the demonstrations in Egypt, almost everyone I know was glued to their television. Many of them were caught up in what they saw as the romanticism of the moment: students and young people in the streets, willing to risk their lives to stand up to a tyrannical regime and replace it with a democracy. Irresistible.

Television anchors jumped on planes to report from the middle of the demonstrations. Commentators waxed eloquently about the power of new technology and social media to bring freedom and democracy to countries long under the thumb of tyrannical rulers. What could be more exciting or, for that matter, more American?

As it turns out, a lot of things.

The anchors who went came back almost as fast -- revolutions are dangerous. Anderson Cooper was not a hero among the masses. Maybe they didn't know who he was, although a guy surrounded by cameras and film equipment who appears on international television every day is not that hard to recognize. Maybe, more likely, they didn't care.

This is not the American Revolution broadcasting from Cairo.

It is true, of course, that Egypt is not a democracy. It is true that Hosni Mubarak has held power for three decades. It is certainly true that during that period many Egyptians have called -- without success -- for greater freedom, free elections, free press and an open democracy. But most of those people are not on the streets.

"It's the economy, stupid," the smartest observers keep pointing out. People are on the streets in Cairo and not Beijing because, first and foremost, Egypt's economy has grown much slower than its population, while China's is the exact opposite. The streets in Cairo are not necessarily filled with well-educated ideologues but with frustrated job-seekers, young people who have found not opportunity but closed doors in their home country.

The rallying cry is "Replace Mubarak." But the motivation is as much economic as it is political. And equally if not more troubling, to the extent that it is political, it is not about emulating the West, but rejecting it. The voices from the street are not just saying that Mubarak has been in power too long, or even that he has failed to pursue policies leading to greater economic growth.

They are saying he has been too supportive of the West, too close to the United States and, even more importantly, too close to, too supportive of and too engaged with Israel.

They are saying that one of the best and most courageous things Mubarak has done -- despite some difficult periods, he maintained relations with Israel and recognized its existence -- is reason enough for his downfall.

I have a hard time finding anything romantic about that.

Many young people today don't remember the days of "realpolitik" -- the idea, popular during the Cold War, that America's foreign policy should be based on our national interest and not on ideology, meaning we supported dictators who liked us without regard to how they treated their people. The downfall of the policy, depending on your politics, was either our victory in the Cold War (which might have proved that it worked) or the repeated downfall of the dictators we supported (which might have proved that it didn't). If you're giving a speech at a convention, it always sounds better to say that our foreign policy must be based on our values; that our goal should be to support freedom and democracy, even if that results in leaders we like less.

It sounds very good. But in a dangerous world, what sounds good is not always what will work well, what will protect our country and our allies and our children.

I am rooting for Egypt. I'm rooting for it to find a way out of these troubles, to restore the economic growth whose absence fuels such anger, to find a path to greater individual freedom and participatory democracy.

But I am also rooting for us, and for our friends in Israel, that Egypt's path will not bring greater instability and danger to our world. Revolution is not a romantic adventure. It's a rather terrifying thriller with no guarantee of a happy ending.

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