Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Thoughts on Egypt

The riots in Egypt over the last two weeks have laid bare a conundrum in American policy and ideals. We face a situation in which an allied dictator of sorts is threatened by a populist uprising. President Mubarak of Egypt has kept the peace with Israel and ruled over a stable nation for nearly thirty years, but there is clear discontent in his society over corruption and economic failures. I love liberty to an extent that many might consider excessive (libertarians are few and far between in our nation today, though this seems to be changing), but can the protesters be supported in this case? Machiavelli and Hobbes were quite right to pronounce stability a sine qua non to a prosperous society. Yet every dictator loves stability, too. The expansion of liberty must always be won with a wager against stability, but such undertakings are indeed gambles liable to failure.

In this particular case, failure would come at an exceedingly high cost. Egypt, along with Jordan, is one of the few examples of a stable nation with some degree of prosperity not dependent on oil in the Middle East. Moreover, any change in government risks future conflict with Israel, a conflict that certainly would engulf the whole region. We have an image to uphold of supporting freedom, an image of moral and strategic importance, but supporting the rise of chaos (or worse) is counter productive.

Liberty will never be sustained in a nation where the people do not acknowledge the rights belonging to others. The United States was extremely fortuitous to be created by colonists possessing a fierce devotion to such liberty and to have crafted functioning local governments based on this idea by the time independence was declared. Very few places are so blessed, and Egypt is certainly not in their number. Far too often, the people are tempted to disregard the vital liberties of disliked societal groups. A constitution is worthless scrap paper if the people at large do not respect the rights of speech, religion, property, and a host of others. France found this out the hard way after 1789. A people must possess a civic education to know right from wrong in terms of liberties and the civic virtue to abide by it, even if it means forgoing certain pecuniary advantages or the ability to silence critics.

Even with such citizens, the machinery of government must be adequate. If chaos emerges, the most ruthless and least disposed towards liberty generally emerge victorious. France, Iran, and most of post-colonial Africa show this. The people of Egypt could overthrow Mubarak, but they would not be able to replace him.

And this is why liberty must be held dear wherever it may exist already. Free people in stable societies are the rare exception in mankind's lamentable history. The combination of education, virtue, and a fertile political ground to grow liberty seems to be a sparse gift from Heaven; I do not see how those elements could be created but in the presence of the others, a rare condition indeed. The greatest threat to existing liberty comes from within, those who have lost their virtue of lack the proper education.

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