For anyone who’s a fan of science fiction, one of the most commonly mined themes is time. How it’s not always what we think it is. How we can travel forward, backwards, or across it. In some stories, people exist at different times from the people around them, rendering them invisible to everyone else. There are a few seconds behind, or a few minutes ahead, and as such it is as if they inhabit different universes despite being not inches from us but instead minutes away.
Today, Mubarak issued a defiant speech, a speech that may have worked last Thursday, but is already many days too late. You could say Hosni Mubarak is traveling increasingly slowly through time. Egyptians want him gone, and his insistence on sticking around for several more months (and presumably guaranteeing free and fair elections thereafter) is unacceptable. And once more unfortunately our president has missed the opportunity to make history. To assume that the people who have braved injury and death for days now will somehow accept that their dictator of 30 years will hand over power in seven months is insulting to their intelligence. Correcting himself a few hours later, Obama’s called for a faster transition of power. Good, but not good enough.
For now, Egyptians of all classes and backgrounds have shown tremendous restraint, but how long can a popular revolution maintain itself without a leader? What happens when the economic implications of a paralyzed country becomes unavoidable? What we need now is a transition plan. Something actionable. Something that tells the military they will be rewarded for their decency, and only if it stays that way. A temporary caretaker government, perhaps a unity coalition guaranteed by the military, leading to free and fair elections after the shortest time possible within which campaigning can be organized. This requires all the stakeholders on the ground, who are not representatives of the dictatorship, to come to the table, and to receive guarantees both from one another but also from regional powers who can help nudge the process forward. The military has won itself a seat at the table, by refusing to pick sides (which, in effect, picked a side for them).
I can think of two powers that would have to be involved: Indonesia and Turkey. Indonesia, because it is the world’s largest Muslim democracy, and is far enough away to be presumed neutral. More important still is Turkey, the power in the region with the diplomatic skill and flexibility to handle this charge. If we ask ourselves, who else would the Egyptian people trust, we would find ourselves forced to admit that in the last week we have lost what little leverage we may have had. Unlike in 1989, it isn’t America standing for freedom, but a neighboring Muslim democracy that has taken the lead.
Shortly before Mubarak issued yet another underwhelming and entirely inexplicable speech, Turkish Prime Minister Erdogan issued his own remarks. Referencing the shared universe of Muslim eschatology, Erdogan reminded Mubarak that he would one day die and have to answer to God for his actions, indicating perhaps that now was a good time to go, not only for Egypt but for Mubarak’s soul. Those words came from the elected leader of the most secular democracy in the Muslim world, but nevertheless were more powerful and more relevant than anything we had to offer. It was a message that spoke the language of religion in order to achieve the cause of democracy. It is a hammer blow to Al Qaeda, but it is also an indication that while our voice is still often heard, it is less listened to. What Erdogan said in this short statement meant more than anything Obama has had to say, and it shows.
Nor should we think this is a partisan issue. Americans of all stripes have sensed the inability of our political culture to think creatively about the challenges ahead of us. We have become so constrained by our foreign policy posture that we lack any incentive to take a look around and realize that conditions around the world are tremendously different from when Mubarak came to power in 1981. In fact, I would go so far as to suggest this: Egypt’s revolution is just part of a broader redefinition which is going on in the Muslim world, one no longer formed by reference to the West. It is now a Muslim leader chiding a Muslim dictator, and pointing the way forward. America has become a bystander of a kind, a little bit invisible to people moving at their own pace.
*This post has been revised — ed