Semi-Daily Journal Archive

The Blogspot archive of the weblog of J. Bradford DeLong, Professor of Economics and Chair of the PEIS major at U.C. Berkeley, a Research Associate of the National Bureau of Economic Research, and former Deputy Assistant Secretary of the U.S. Treasury.

Monday, October 16, 2006

Hearts and Minds

Hearts and minds. We are not winning the War of the Islamic Reformation in Egypt: Despair and its Aftermath: Shadi Hamid: I just read a fascinating, if despairing account of the tragedy known as modern Egypt in Vanity Fair, a magazine which, despite its glossiness, has some of the best political coverage out there today. If you want to understand why Egypt (and, by extension, the Arab world) is a powder keg, I suggest you give it a read. It is a tragic but familiar story of the humiliation of life under autocracy and how such humiliation can push people over the edge, to say and do dangerous things. The article is a bit long, so here are the most affecting parts:

Where Farouk still nursed a flickering hope for something better, Ashraf, his elder, had given up. If angrier than any other Egyptian I'd met, Ashraf also seemed to personify a facet of the Egyptian personality I'd long sensed lay just beneath the surface: the rage of a people living in a state of near-constant humiliation.

Some of these humiliations come with life under a dictatorship--the corruption, the petty harassments--but others are specific to Egypt. In the land of one of the world's most fabled ancient civilizations, the average Egyptian now struggles to get by on less than $1,000 a year. About the only opportunity for most Egyptians to economically advance is to labor as indentured servants for their far richer Gulf Arab cousins, or to obsequiously cater to the foreigners in their midst...

"Look at me," Ashraf said. "I feel like I'm 70. I feel like I don't have any future. Not even 1 percent of my dreams have come true. If I had a chance to do something, I'd take up a gun. It's the same life for me whether I live or die."

And then this:

[Farouk's] ultimate dream, though, was to win the American-visa lottery. Every year, the U.S. awards some 50,000 work visas around the world, and this was the fourth year in a row that Farouk was applying...

For some minutes, Farouk rhapsodized about what his life would become if he won the lottery, how it would answer all his dreams. "Because I know in America I would be a great success. Everything would be wonderful for me then." After a short time, though, Farouk seemed to reflect on just how improbably small the odds were of this happening, and grew more solemn.

"You remember my friend Ashraf?" he asked. "He didn't tell you this, but last year he got an Iraqi visa. He wanted to join the jihad--as a fighter or as a shaheed [martyr], he didn't care--but so many Egyptian men have gone there that they have closed the land routes. To go to Iraq now, you first have to fly to Syria, and he didn't have the money for that."

It sounded like some bad joke, a guy so down on his luck he couldn't even get himself killed, but then Farouk continued in a soft voice.

"Sometimes I think maybe I should do that. They talk about it a lot in the mosques, about all the young men going there. I think I'm too soft to be a fighter, that it's not in my spirit, but I don't know.... If I could go and kill some Americans before I die, then maybe my life would have had some meaning."

Of course, that we are not winning does not mean that we are losing. It means that we are drawing closer to a world in which the peoples of the Middle East--Egyptians, Iranians, Iraqis, Syrians, Israelis, Palestinians, and others--lose really bigtime.


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