Your correspondent hadn’t been at CPAC – the conservative political action conference, the annual US right-wing jamboree – for ten minutes before he realised he was in the wrong place. Not because of the usual crush of Republican kids, 20-year-olds in blue suits and pearls, or the wild and whacky stalls for everything from the ‘concealed weapons campaign’ to ‘geocentrism’, the new campaign to refute Copernicus. No, there he felt at home, among mad America, the whacky Jacobins of the American revolution.

But CPAC had had the bad luck to be double-booked with the Egyptian revolution, as it went into its next stage. By mid-afternoon in Egypt/morning in the US it was already warming up. While the good ol’h boys and girls were queuing to hear Donald Rumsfeld and Dick Cheney, it was clear that Egypt was reaching a flashpoint.

A week ago, CPAC’s good people would have known what to say about these events: that they were a result of the call for ‘freedom’ that George W Bush had issued in 2003 when invading Iraq, and a vindication of the neoconservative vision.

Now they’re not so sure. Suddenly, according to people like John Bolton, what is occurring in Egypt is not a revolution but a mob, that looks nothing like democracy. We’re a long way from Donald Rumsfeld’s grunt that ‘stuff happens’.

On FAUX news, there’s an obsessive focus on both the Muslim Brotherhood and, above all, the consequences for Israel. Neatly, they’ve managed to turn this round into an anti-Obama point – not because he supported Mubarak by default, but because he had not yet denounced the Muslim brotherhood.

The Egyptian uprising – it’s a measure of its historic power that it hasn’t acquired one of those dinky ‘rose’ ‘jasmine’ etc brandings – is proving to be slippery for all comers. I can see approximately nine different narratives:

  1. Bushian neoconservatism: this is just a long delayed response to US efforts to start democratic pressure in the Arab world. No longer being used in the US, though a few ‘Scoop Jackson’ UK Tories are trying to push it.
  2. Zionist neoconservatism: the new default-setting of large sections of the US right. The supreme task is to revive a sense of radical Islamism as the enemy, and pre-emptively label this as a new 1979, and to have Americans identify Israel’s interests as their own. The de facto position would be that the US should support Mubarak if he can negotiate maintained power.
  3. Paleoconservative isolationism: The Ron Paul group, and other strands within conservatism arguing that this is proof that the US should not be entangled within foreign regimes. The strategic version is that this always ends badly; the Paulite version is that we should take no position on other people’s affairs.
  4. Conservative realism: round Kissinger and other types. Hoping against hope that Mubarak can somehow maintain, but willing to make a sudden switch to the army as long as it clamps down quick.
  5. Liberal realism: basically the Obama administration position. Effectively, they do not welcome the disorder, and the disturbance that creates a risk to their chance to create a sh-tty settlement in the Israel/Palestine. Erring on the side of stability, they now have no position to take.
  6. Liberal imperialism: the uprising is a catch-up to the west, and the only legitimate result would be a western style system with free trade, a secular state and probably Starbucks.
  7. Left-liberalism: the uprising is a Good Thing, but the possibility that Egypt may not end up looking like the world social forum is a Big Risk. Should the latter occur, it will shade into (6)
  8. Twitterism: New media alone created this uprising, and any result will be networked dehierachised TED webinar multitasking. Idiots. Easily shades into 7) and then 6).
  9. Liberation: The uprising has multi-layered causes and the participating groups have multiple aims. Any attempt to define its present legitimacy in terms of its future course is essentially a category error, and implicitly imperialist.

And the winner is … 9, you will be surprised to see. The point about radical event is that what looks like a ‘catch-up’ is always something more. Egypt projects itself forward by its very actions, and creates new possibilities. The idea that one can anticipate a certain future result, and somehow see it as curled up within the present, is a misunderstanding about what history actually is.

That judgement applies to the causes of the uprising too. Most conservative and liberal versions see Egypt through the prism of propaganda about our own society – that economy and politics are wholly separate spheres, and that all the Egyptians want is a set of pseudo-western institutions. But it is absolutely clear to anyone paying attention to global affairs that the preliminary condition of these uprisings has been the global food price spike combined with entrenched unemployment and stagnation.

Deepening scarcity has caused the implicit social contract between people and dictator — that if things are just good enough, we can keep going — to break down, because people cannot project their individual lives into the future. Once hopelessness becomes totally individualised, the only source of hope is in collective action. Once that starts, and crosses a critical threshold, it can only be suppressed by heavy violence – ie re-individualising people by fear and mass death.

The particular form the Arab world has taken is in part a product of its political predicament – it has modern media technologies laid across a society that has failed to industrialise over the last decades. There’s less of a middle, between widespread impoverishment, and the networks of cheap mobiles, Facebook, etc as well as omnipresent satellite TV from across the entire Arab world. That is why the uprising is taking a new and distinct form, being both rapid and yet also self-managing, regulating itself (the public controlling looters and provocateurs for example).

Not only is that a reason why such uprisings became so quickly supercharged – but it is also a reason why any future political settlement may not take the pre-ordained form that both liberals and conservatives want.

Furthermore, the fact that economy and society are put together differently, also suggests that such radical disruption will not be limited to the spheres that western liberals and conservatives define as undemocratic, and in need of change. With another jolt or two in the world economy, many other countries’ politics will have torque-like-an-Egyptian*. People are looking to Jordan, Syria etc as a possible flashpoints.

But the first place that will take up the torch from Egypt may well be Greece – oriented profoundly to the Mediterranean, and seeing itself as part of that world, and equally unlikely to take on narrow liberal imperialist notions of what freedom actually is. It cannot be incorporated into any easy pre-existing narrative, and the notion that it is a long-delayed result of the 2003 Iraq invasion is absurd.

It is clear that the Iraq invasion delayed this event, by years, and those sections of the left who broke off to support the 2003 invasion did nothing other than help to delay this one, the genuine revolution they were seeking. Iraq 2003 gave Mubarak and others another half-decade of life, allowing them to draw on reserves of anti-imperialism and national and pan-Arab feeling. Now, the pathways are uncharted, and among those nations to be shaken may eventually be Iraq itself. The earth – geocentric or otherwise – is shaking on its axis.

*seriously dude, unpack it. You’ll see it works.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey