When Egypt rebelled against Hosni Mubarak last year, we questioned their ideals. Replacing Mubarak with the Muslim Brotherhood party is taking the fetter off your ankle and putting it around your neck. Now with this Egyptian soccer riot, instigated by fans politically tied to the rebellions, we are compelled to also question their methods. Are Egyptians actually becoming politically aware, or do they just like rioting?
The Rachel Maddows of the world employ every verbal machination to compare Arab Spring to the American Revolution. And they’ll get away with it because nobody wants to seem xenophobic, which is decidedly xenophobic. It’s like how the true mark of cynicism is to go out of your way to not sound cynical. But what we have forgotten is that the American Revolution—and indeed all successful, truly progressive revolutions—was about five percent demonstration, and 95 percent thought.
The American Revolution, in fact, started about a century before it actually started, with the publication of John Locke’s Two Treatise in 1692. For the first time in western thought, someone said that if society respected the freedoms of the individual, then there is no conflict between the individual good and the common good. A proper government, we learned, wasn’t about who has power, but who doesn’t have power.
Of course, you cannot just tell people something once and expect it to stick. This is why the common thread of religion is repetition. A Muslim who prays once per day ends up going to an American university and marrying a blonde. And it’s no coincidence that religion in America became more tolerable when people relegated mass to Sundays only.
So Locke’s ideas may have gone the way of Rachel Maddow’s intellectual honesty if it wasn’t for a separate but concurrent phenomenon.
Coffee and coffee houses were spreading throughout the western world at this time. (John Smith introduced coffee to the Americas in 1607, and the first coffee house in New York was built in 1700.) Colonialists didn’t just have new ideas, but they had a sanctuary to discuss, write, and think about these new ideas. Without the sober camaraderie cultivated by coffee shops, individual rights would have been the talk of the town until everyone got wrapped up in the excitement of the next public beheading of a political prisoner.
Though you would never know it by watching what’s going on in Egypt, revolutions aren’t exciting. They’re boring. A revolution looks less like Washington Crossing the Delaware and more like The Thinker.
That’s because what’s going on in Egypt isn’t really a revolution. As this soccer riot indicates, Arab Spring is the surrender to the numbing sooth of mob mentality. Anxiety is driving Egyptians, not to think and question and discuss, but to join together to get a hit of the most powerful benzo of all: the feeling of being part of something bigger than yourself.
If Egypt really wants to stage a revolution, and not just a public arm flailing, they of course need to incorporate better ideas. But to do this they need to do something more fundamental—they must strip all excitement from without, retreat to the coffee shops, and stimulate excitement from within.
They need to begin their revolution as individuals—studying, thinking, and writing alone. They need to each sit down with a pad of paper, ask themselves uncomfortable questions, and then try to answer them. Then, after a few years—and after their wives leave them from all the “navel gazing”—they can start talking with friends. First only with one, and then maybe another, keeping clear of charismatic leaders until they’re truly comfortable with their ability to think for themselves. Sobering solitude breeds honesty. If Egyptians really want to make Egypt better, and not just push an agenda, they’ll close the Koran and open Two Treaties.
Slow and steady thinking is akin to putting all your chess pieces in place before checkmate. It changes something more fundamental than politics—it changes culture. Egypt in the 21st Century can be like the American colonies in the 18th Century. They’ll build a universe within Egypt in which people like George Washington can lead, and Thomas Jefferson can write. It’s only from this soil that a government of individuals, as opposed to tribes, will naturally grow.
And Egypt already has the coffee shops.