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Egypt’s other Rosetta Stone

Herb Boyd | 7/11/2013, 11:56 a.m. | Updated on 7/11/2013, 11:56 a.m.

If folks close to the chaos and turmoil in Egypt are not sure what to make of it—a suspension of democratic rights, political upheaval, a military coup, a looming civil war or an Arab Spring evolving into Arab Summer—what are we to make of things there, way up here in Harlem?

What is abundantly clear is that the often inscrutable happenings in the Middle East and North Africa have become even more complex, making it more difficult to determine what’s going on and where we—and most specifically, the U.S. and the Obama administration—side on this situation.

And I can see I’ve raised yet another question. But I am clearly not alone in trying to sort out things in an increasingly volatile and hostile Egyptian society, where there appears to be a terrible disagreement on the democratic process. Of course, there’s nothing new about that; we’ve too many examples here of a so-called democratic society failing to live up to its cherished, high-sounding rhetoric about “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”

Mohammed Morsi was Egypt’s first democratically elected president, and there was a general feeling that things were going to be much better with Hosni Mubarak no longer running the show. But, as we can see now, that was just wishful thinking. When the losing half of the population felt the Morsi government and its constituents in the Muslim Brotherhood were not moving fast enough to change some of the country’s ongoing inequities, they took to the streets. The new form of democracy was quickly overrun by the traditional means of change.

As we go to press, there are no easy answers about the violence in Egypt, in which more than 50 people were recently killed (reportedly pro-Morsi supporters fired on by the military) and hundreds wounded. Even the Obama administration is reluctant to define the upheaval, refusing to call it a “coup.” To do so would mean curtailing any foreign aid to their long term ally in this troublesome neck of the woods.

Not calling the violent change by the military a coup but merely “an incredibly complex and difficult situation,” as the White House has declared, seems a bit disingenuous. You may be shielded terminologically, but it’s an awkward euphemism, like calling an adjunct professor “inadequately compensated contingent faculty” or torture an “enhanced interrogation technique.”

The U.S. is clearly caught between a rock and a hard place in dealing with the crisis in Egypt, and it’s very similar to the situation they face when attempting to come to grips with the strife in Syria. The red line the Obama administration drew on the conflict in Syria has turned yellow, indicating caution before concluding that the Syrian government had actually used chemical weapons against the anti-government rebels.

A flag of caution has arisen too on what’s to be done in Egypt, and that may the best alternative, given the dramatic twists and turns that seem to occur daily. Most of us are at the mercy of the media in getting a handle on the developments a world away, and even resorting to the reliable outlets doesn’t always provide a full picture of what’s taking place. Watching Al Jazeera, for example, you witness large crowds of pro-Morsi supporters in Nasr City, around Cairo University and in Alexandria, while there is only one anti-Morsi demonstration shown at Tahrir Square. Are these venues reflective of the mood in the country at this point? Should we believe that there are more pro-Morsi rallies than others?

We began with a question, and that’s where we end, and we’ll probably have a heap more before there is a reasonable and credible answer to the problems in Egypt. It may have been easier to decipher the Rosetta Stone than the current turmoil in Egypt.