June 5, 2002
The Land of Denial
By THOMAS L. FRIEDMAN
read in yesterday's Times that Egypt's president, Hosni Mubarak, says he warned the U.S. of a plot by Al Qaeda before 9/11 and that he has a new plan for a Palestinian state. I suppose that's all to the good, but frankly, none of it leaves me feeling reassured, for one simple reason: We don't need Egypt to be our policeman, we need it to be our progressive.
What I mean is that we need Egypt to play the role that it played in Arab politics in the 19th and early 20th centuries — the role that history assigned it and for which it has no replacement: to lead the Arab-Muslim world into modernity with an ideological message that is rooted in Arab and Muslim tradition but is progressive, pluralistic and democratic. That is the most important thing Egypt can do for us, and that is precisely what it has not been doing for decades now.
Let me be blunt. Egypt is the center of gravity of the Arab world. It has the biggest middle class, the best-educated population and the people with the most potential. Egypt should be the Taiwan of the Mediterranean. But it is a country that has been stagnating, to a degree that smaller Arab countries are now passing it by.
Jordan was the first Arab country to secure a free-trade agreement with America; Bahrain is the Arab country doing the most innovative experiments with democracy; Qatar was the pioneer of free satellite television, with al-Jazeera; and Tunisia, despite its authoritarian regime, has led the way in economic liberalization and in forging closer ties with the E.U.
All these innovations should have come from Egypt, and had they, they would have had a modernizing effect on the entire Arab world, particularly its other big stagnating countries — Iraq, Syria and Saudi Arabia. But they are not happening. Egypt, which in the last century produced such towering Arab intellectuals as Naguib Mahfouz, Taha Hussein and Tawfik al-Hakim, has produced no successors to them. The intellectual air has gone stale in Egypt from too many years of controlled press and authoritarian politics.
President Mubarak says, "We have all kinds of democracy." Really? All kinds but genuine democracy, because a genuine democracy wouldn't be putting on trial an Egyptian democracy expert, Saad Eddin Ibrahim, for wanting the right to speak freely, press for social change and question official policy.
In the mid-1990's Mr. Mubarak seemed to realize that Egypt needed to reform and privatize its economy, to keep pace with a population that will double in 20 years. But after a little reform produced a little boomlet, he backed off doing the really hard stuff. Since 2000, Egypt's economic growth has been anemic; it has seemed unable to attract much foreign or domestic investment. Costa Rica, with 4 million people, exports more than Egypt, with 68 million; and Thailand, with the same population as Egypt, exports 10 times as much.
Yes, Egypt has been threatened by Al Qaeda too. But Egypt's way of cracking down has been to either arrest or expel radical Islamic leaders and then leave an ideological vacuum in their wake. The reason a psychopath like Osama bin Laden — with his Arab, Islamic but backward-looking message — could gain such currency is because no one in the Arab world, particularly Egypt, has articulated an Arab, Islamic, progressive, democratic alternative to counter him.
The Bush team wants to spend money on TV or advertisements to broadcast our message in Arabic to the Arab world. Frankly, there is no modern, progressive message we could broadcast in Arabic that would begin to compare in influence to one that would come from Egypt. But it's not coming.
Look, Hosni Mubarak is not our enemy. He is authentically pro-American and a bulwark against another Arab-Israeli war. But if he really wants to help us, and we really want his help, we don't need to talk to him about Al Qaeda or Israel. We need to talk to him about Egypt.
If we've learned one thing since 9/11, it's that terrorism is not produced by the poverty of money. It's produced by the poverty of dignity. It is about young middle-class Arabs and Muslims feeling trapped in countries with too few good jobs and too few opportunities to realize their potential or shape their own future — and blaming America for it. We have to break that cycle, and no one could help us do it more effectively than the Egyptians. Does President Bush dare say that, or are we going to keep lying to ourselves and to them?
Copyright 2002 The New York Times Company