Sunday, February 20, 2011

What Cleopatra knew (Sunday Reflections for February 6, 2011)

While most of our attention has been on the weather this past week, we are also aware of the demonstrations and upheaval in Egypt and elsewhere. This is big news, as the networks remind us when they send their top reporters to be on the scene (a bigger deal than before in these days of slim news department budgets).

While events in Egypt have gotten the most attention, they are part of a chain of uprisings across the Arab world. It began in Tunisia with the popular overthrow of a decades-long dictatorship, and then spread to Yemen, Egypt and Jordan. There have also been calls for demonstrations in other countries, like Syria.

Hosni Mubarak was relatively unknown when he succeeded Anwar Sadat as Egypt’s President, following Sadat’s assassination. Nonetheless, he has remained in power for thirty years. On paper Egypt is a democracy, but elections are assumed to be rigged and opposition parties are heavily restricted or banned outright.

Since the Camp David peace accords, Egypt has been a staunch ally of the United States. It is the second largest recipient of US military aid, after Israel. It has no real threats on its borders but its military is viewed by American officials as a stabilizing force in the Middle East. Nonetheless, that military power has served primarily to keep the Egyptian government in power and has earned the US considerable hostility with the Egyptian public. Pictures of tear gas canisters with “Made in the USA” on the side have been widely seen.

Sadly this repeats an all too familiar pattern of US intervention in other nations’ affairs. Since the Cold War it has often adopted a policy of “the enemy of my enemy is my friend.” This has resulted in our support for dictatorial governments whose policies would seem to be anathema to our own liberal democratic principles, but are perceived as allies against other threatening powers.

In the long run these policies have almost always backfired. Perhaps the biggest debacle was the US support for the Shah of Iran, for which we are still paying the price. Ironically, one consequence of his overthrow and replacement by a hostile Islamic republic was our support for another dictator, neighboring Iraq’s Saddam Hussein. We all know how well that turned out.

Egypt is a large country with a history unmatched by any other. I’ve watched developments there a little differently since finishing the new biography of Cleopatra. Egypt was already ancient in her day, and living a century before Jesus we think of her world as ancient. By the time of her reign, many of Egypt’s famous monuments were already in decay (with graffiti!) and some were even unknown by her, lost in the sand only to be rediscovered centuries later.

Mubarak should have studied Cleopatra because he would have learned some pertinent lessons. While she was ultimately undone by the rise of Roman power, her rule over Egypt was one of the most prosperous and peaceful times it had known. What most people don’t know about Cleopatra was that ethnically she was not Egyptian but Greek. Her family the Ptolemy’s had ruled Egypt since Alexander the Great’s conquest three centuries earlier.

Egypt was a wealthy nation, often called the bread basket of the Mediterranean. Its capital, Alexandria, was a rich and cosmopolitan city, an ancient combined version of New York and Paris. (At this time Rome was viewed as kind of a “cow town,” a sprawling urban mess yet to have its great monumental building spree.) Cleopatra made Alexandria even more fabulous.

The key to Cleopatra’s domestic success was her intentional efforts to bridge the cultural gap between herself and her people. Unlike her predecessors, she was fluent in Egyptian and studied Egyptian culture. Cleopatra actively participated in Egyptian religious festivals and hence was viewed as both a queen and a goddess. She planned for agricultural disasters and stored food for emergency distribution. She worked to make the Egyptian bureaucracy and legal system responsive and fair.

Today, in Egypt and the other nations in turmoil, hundreds of millions of young people have become overwhelmed with frustration. Many have grown up in poverty or just barely above it but see no prospect for change or economic opportunity. They see leaders who have been in power for decades yet have done little but build their own personal fortunes and those of their cronies. Tiny wealthy oligarchies live in gated McMansion communities, untouched by the impossibly frustrating lives of most of their fellow citizens.

The rise of the Internet, mobile phone networks, and global TV, however, is creating a new international community among the down-and-out. And in numbers and knowledge there is power. They are now in communication with each other, are inspired by each other, and respond to each other. All these uprisings are linked by global telecommunications and this is a genie that can’t be put back.

The gap between the haves and have-nots has been growing around the world, including in this country. While such a gap may be inevitable, it is has its limits and those limits are becoming tighter in this electronically connected world. Out ranking both religion and politics, the basic concern of all people is fairness and opportunity. In times of distress, everyone must share in the suffering. In times of prosperity, everyone must receive some part of the growth. In many places that hasn’t been happening. But where in the past those disparities could be kept under wraps, today they are being displayed for all to see. As in Jesus’ parable, the lamp is on the stand illuminating all in the house, whether they like it or not.

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