What Egyptians Really Want

Mubarak has fallen. Chants of "Democracy for Egypt" are plastered all over the Western media. But "Death to Israel" or "Death to America" might be the motto that wins out in the end. 

Most enlightened commentators in the United States, most prominently in The New York Times, have been pressing for the immediate removal of the Mubarak regime. This was also the tone of the correspondents of BBC World and CNN, and the desire of most spokesmen of Western European governments. The same tone dominates the discourse in the West following Mubarak's resignation. Democracy has been enthroned.

Western journalists and spokespersons seem to have been, and will continue to be, driven by a euphoria of democratization and an assumption that the Egyptian protesters are simply seeking governmental change and popular self-determination to replace the military autococracy that has ruled Egypt since the military coup d’etat of July 1952 (which replaced the monarchy that ruled during the previous decades). It is assumed that the values underlying the upsurge in the streets of Cairo and Alexandria are those of Western democracy—a desire for liberation, freedom, equality. And it is also assumed that this represents the will of the mass of Egyptians, urban and rural.

But this may well be an optical illusion. Many of history’s major successful revolutions were driven by the desire for material betterment, for very concrete bread, not by a desire for such abstracts as political freedom and human rights. Egypt’s is probably no different.

But more specifically, the largely unthinking euphoria in the West—in the publics and among government spokesmen—about the motives and aims of the protesters is driven mainly by statements by the people the Western media are selecting for interview on the Egyptian street, hour by hour, day in, day out.

And the Western interviewers, especially from the BBC and CNN, are in effect hearing and then broadcasting representatives of a thin layer of Egyptians, who know decent English (who have lived in the West or are children of mixed Egyptian-Anglo-Saxon parentage or were educated at the American University of Cairo). They are relatively sophisticated and generally secular (or seemingly secular). Wael Ghanem, of Google, is a good example.

Western journalists interview them because they, the journalists, don’t know Arabic or because the journalists prefer interviews in English that can be readily transmitted and are understood by their networks’ viewers. But these interviewees are unrepresentative of the vast mass of Egyptians, urban and rural (mostly poor, mostly without English).

The result of this unrepresentative interviewing is that the consumers of the Western media, in London, Washington and the capitals of Europe, are getting a skewed (indeed, perhaps thoroughly misleading) view of what Egyptians think and want. Occasionally, the viewer will hear, from somewhere off center stage, “Death to Israel” or “Allahu Akbar.” But these voices are drowned out by the mellifluous English speakers, chanting “freedom,” “human rights,” “democracy,” into receptive Western ears. The sophisticated, not to say manipulative, interviewees know that this is what BBC and CNN viewers in the West want to hear.

Alas, I fear, Westerners will see what most Egyptians actually think and want if and when the country holds free and fair general elections (perhaps in September-October). And I fear that they will be surprised—perhaps even shocked—by the results, and by what the Egyptian masses then say about what they actually think and want. I fear that at that point, “Death to Israel,” “Death to America,” and “Allahu Akbar” will drown out every democratizing and liberalizing chant.

But by then the genie will be well out of the bottle; by then, it will be too late.