Sunday, February 13, 2011

Egypt and The Underpants Gnomes

Latest Newspaper Column- The Pilot

Several people have asked me, with varying degrees of courtesy, "So when are you going to write something about Egypt?"

Problem is, every time I sit down to write about the situation there, something new happens. That's always the challenge with a story like this: The stuff I turn in by my deadline may be as obsolete as an eight-track tape by Sunday when you read it.

I had, for example, already written and e-mailed a column wondering whether Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak was going to resign. Then he did it. Which leads us to the inevitable question: What now?

On one of the more surreal episodes of the TV Show "South Park," there were these creatures called the Underpants Gnomes, whom one of the minor characters blamed for sneaking into his room and stealing his underwear.

All of the other kids thought he was nuts, until it turned out that there actually were gnomes stealing underwear, and, being gnomes, they hoped to make money off it. Unfortunately, the gnomes' business plan was more than a little vague, in that it consisted of three steps. Step One: Collect underpants. Step Two: ??? Step Three: Profit!

A lot of the pontificating about Egypt during this uprising has reminded me of the Underpants Gnomes. The "plans" I've been hearing seem to be, basically - Step One: Mubarak leaves and takes his corrupt cronies with him. Step Two: ??? Step Three: Democracy!

I wish it was that easy. Now that Mubarak seems to have seen the light and headed for the beach, probably with his suitcases full of bullion, I sincerely hope we see free and fair elections, leading to an open, transparent, and democratic government that's benevolent to its people, as well as peaceful towards its neighbors and toward the U.S.

I also hope that John Grisham will read one of my books and tell his publisher, "Hey, this Rhoades guy's the true and honest voice that American fiction has been looking for. Give him a seven-figure contract or I walk." I'm not, however, making all my plans on the assumption that either one is going to happen.

Don't get me wrong, I'm no Mubarak fan. I didn't shed a tear when he announced that he didn't intend to run again in one of the rigged elections that have kept him in power all these years. The guy's a thug who imprisons and tortures political opponents. The people who were advocating that we prop up Mubarak on the grounds that "he may be an s.o.b, but he's our s.o.b." seem to have forgotten that history has not been particularly kind to that doctrine.

But the people insisting that the American president needs to "manage" this situation, while armchair-quarterbacking every decision, are just as blind to the lessons of history. The situation is complicated further by the lack of a clear opposition leader. Every time someone seems to be rising to that position, like Nobel laureate Mohammad El-Baradei or former Google exec Wael Ghonim, I read a dozen interviews with protesters claiming, "He doesn't speak for us; this is a popular uprising."

Well, that's fine. I'm all for people taking to the streets to demand their rights. But then, who do they plan to run in these open elections we all hope for? With no clear opponent, and the looming specter of a nation of 80 million-plus people with no one at the helm, Mubarak appears to have delegated authority to the military.

Lovely. I'm just hoping we haven't seen the fall of one strongman who'll just be replaced by another. Toppling a dictator is great, but revolutions can quickly turn messy and unpredictable, and they don't always lead to a free society. Ask the French. Or the Russians.

Mubarak is gone, and that's unquestionably good for the people of Egypt. But now they, and we, need to move carefully and thoughtfully. The path between dictatorship and democracy isn't a paved road. It's a tightrope, especially in the Middle East, a place where so many of the West's good intentions (and a fair amount of our bad ones) have gone badly awry.

Frustrating as it may be, there may be little that we, or anyone outside Egypt, can do to influence what happens, other than encourage the forces of reform and wish them luck.