Like most Americans who pay attention to world affairs, I stand in mediated awe of the protests in Egypt. Part of me cheers the protester's rallying cry for democracy and the end of tyranny, and part of me worries about what happens next. As the co-author of a new book on the role of master narratives in Islamic extremism I am confident that calling for the end of Mubarak's regime by labeling him the last Pharaoh has deep cultural resonance with Muslims, Christians, and Jews, but I know that this revolution has nothing to do with extremism of an Islamic kind. It is a protest, a movement, that should be understood as a political unity organized by an emerging story of hope rather than one organized by a political party or extremist ideology rooted in fear.
The Egyptian protester's story could be called "the audacity of hope," although that title has already been used and this revolution has nothing to do with Obama. It is the hope of a youthful population--the average age of an Egyptian is 24--for the better life they see elsewhere in the world, and the idea that it can also be theirs. It is the hope that springs from the promise of economic opportunity and equality more so than freedom, although at least some freedom from repression and corruption of the sort they have endured under a military dictatorship is certainly part of it. It is the hope that food will be more affordable, wages will be higher, and that promised reforms will bring an unprecedented ability to get ahead and to enjoy their lives. In this way, the "story" on the street is one of hope for the future. It is hope chanted in poetry, sung in popular songs, and cried out in slogans that echo other popular uprisings both at home and abroad.
Of course no one knows how it will turn out. The politics of regime change are at best tenuous and at worst, well, we have already seen what a band of thugs armed with machetes and razor blades can do to a peaceful crowd. To say nothing of the obvious fact that the Egyptian military doesn't intend to give up its power or influence in whatever government follows this one. Or that protesting in the streets for democracy does not automatically translate into a fully functioning democratic society.
Whether the Obama team will be successful in helping to engineer a peaceful and timely transition to a post-Mubarak democratic era is questionable. We are not exactly credible peacemakers in the Middle East. Nor is our official posture aided by Press Secretary Robert Gibbs statement yesterday, in which he affirmed that the U.S. would only work with the Muslim Brotherhood if they renounced violence, something the Muslim Brotherhood has done, repeatedly, for the past twenty-five years.
Not that it matters a whit "over there" what our news media says about their protests, but it does matter here in ways that directly influence how the Obama administration and congressional representatives--sensitive to pollsters--and talk show hosts and financial analysts--sensitive to investors--portray it.
So far, that story is predictably contentious and already dominated by extreme views on the right. Chris Matthews' display of Glenn Beck's "connect the dots of the worldwide conspiracy" lunacy--a lunacy that somehow pulls together into the same plot communists, socialists, and radical Islamists--is just one example.
But given that right wing pundits make reputations and fortunes by applying FDR's "we have nothing to fear but fear itself" to anything perceived as left of far right, as well as their undeniable success in using fear narratives to influence elections, should be reason enough to at least pay some attention to them. Like Mubarak's use of the same fear strategy to suggest that without him the extremists will take over the government--which Egyptians and knowledgeable academics roundly dismiss--this fear narrative won't just go away.
The battle of narratives over Egypt is just beginning. But there is something missing from the emerging storyline on both sides of the political spectrum here in America. It is the failure of the media to accurately and intelligently report on the real cause of the uprisings in the Middle East, or at least not to bury it amid the riveting images of crowds, and the spectacle of bloodied shirts and armored vehicles separating the mobs from each other.
Here it is: people take to the streets when the low wages they have been earning fail to pay for the basic necessities of life. Food consumes about 40% of the average Egyptian's paycheck. The cost of food often prevents young Egyptians from being able to afford to get married. The rising cost of food threatens their future.
Of course they want democracy. It's not just about votes or freer elections; democracy is a code word for more affordable food, better paying jobs, and greater fairness in how the system works. It is also about what we call "income inequality," which is a shorthand term that too often obscures the real pain and suffering caused by a vast divide between the haves and the have nots, a divide in Egypt that is flaunted by overt theft and corruption in government as well as by the rich having friends in high places.
In a more democratic society Egyptians on the streets believe food would be cheaper and economic opportunity more widely available. There would be less for the rich and more for the poor and middle class. What Egyptians want is a better, fairer life. It's not so much the audacity of their narrative that is missing from journalistic accounts of the protests, but what "democracy" really means to them. Which is to say, what is missing from the reporting is the part about "promoting the general welfare" that is otherwise known as an appeal to common humanity.
And why is that so? Why are reporters missing the point?
Stories about food shortages don't sell, unless accompanied by widespread death and famine as well as images of emaciated women and children. That, fortunately, is not (yet) happening. Neither do stories about unemployment captivate viewers and readers. And income inequality is a hard sell to an American audience stoned on "rags to riches" myths.
If you doubt me, just think about how little we are told by the media about food and jobs and income inequality in America. When was the last time you shook a fist at the television when a story came on about rising food prices? Or how about unemployment? Or how about how the rich get away with not paying their fair share of taxes?
So long as it isn't our family that can't afford food or a member of our family who loses a job, it's just a bunch of statistics, story filler used as transitions to more compelling murders, fires, and mayhem. To underscore the point, our government representatives--from the lowliest new congressional electee to the high office of President--acting on the propaganda-engineered will of the people, just voted tax extensions for the wealthiest Americans despite a looming national debt. The rich have friends in high places. Their election contributions are bribes. Some might call it corruption.
Collectively, we Americans often behave badly when confronted with reality. We say, "it's sad, yes, but hey, pass me another Kentucky Fried drumstick and watch how fast I can change that boring channel. Isn't Snooky on? Or a game?" In media-saturated America, nobody likes to hear bad news.