Scream, Mummy, Scream: Changes Down in Egypt Land
by Jim Washburn
There are two songs that keep boring through my head this week, Van Morrison’s “Tupelo Honey” and Richard Thompson’s “Pharaoh.” Lucky me, compared to my editor, who can’t get “Jaan Pehechaan Ho” out of his noggin. [100% Washburn's doing - Ed.]
“Mandy” or “Silly Love Songs” stuck in your iLobe is pure audio spongiform cephalopathy, but “Jaan Pehe” carries a whole other risk; it is too wonderful for the human soul to partake of in long draughts. It’s like staring into the life-giving sun.
That’s his lot. Meanwhile, it’s Egypt that’s causing my cranial reprise of the Van & Dick songs. There’s “Tupelo Honey” because Van sings, “You can’t stop us on the road to freedom, You can’t keep us, for our eyes can see.”
Just maybe, that is the arcing tendency of humanity: towards consciousness, freedom and fraternity. The events that have just unfolded in Tahrir Square and across Egypt sing to that. Their revolution wasn’t without violence and sacrifice, but it’s as peaceful as Woodstock compared to the events two countries over,Iraq, where 100,000-plus have died so far following our missile-led attempt to introduce corporate democracy there.
Then there’s Thompson’s “Pharaoh”, because it speaks of the darker side of humanity, arguing that things have changed little for mankind since the days when the Pharaohs lorded over them.
Those were not particularly good times, unless you were a Pharaoh or one of his clique, in which case you were the incarnation of a deity, and every other person unquestionably belonged under your whip and heel.
In concert, Thompson has been known to describe “Pharaoh” as the ultimate conspiracy theorist’s song, but always with a nod and a wink, as if to acknowledge that, Illuminati, Tri-Lateral Commission and Sam’s Club aside, when we do indeed have a shadowy oligarchy that is staggeringly successful at using its wealth and power to accrue ever more wealth and power, it’s not exactly a theory anymore.
A thousand eye, a thousand ears,
He feeds us all, he feeds our fears,
Don’t stir in your sleep tonight, my dears,
We’re all working for the Pharaoh.
And I think about Mubarak and the Egyptian old guard (and you know I mean mummies) seeming only slightly less astonished than their Pharaonic forebears would have been to find that their vassals had wants and dreams of their own.
Egypt has a great and proud culture, but when it was in its dynastic glory, it also was the beating heart of ancient evil. I’ve watched a lot of Stargate episodes, so I know. I mean, most places in the world, it was bad enough just being a slave, but you’d live in hope that someday massa would die and you could have a jubilee for a day or two until the new massa hit his stride. But in Egypt, when Boss Neferhotep dies, but you don’t get a single goddamned hour off because you’re busy schlepping stone slabs around, to entomb his sarcophagus in a pyramid, entombing yourselves by the hundreds as well; to wait, poisoned and asphyxiated at your master’s moldering feet just in case he thinks up some more shit for you to do for the rest of eternity. That’s how harsh Egypt was back then, and they never did get their Rosa Parks moment until now.
You can’t stop us on the road to freedom. What we just saw in Egypt was historically grand. It bore a resemblance to our civil rights movement, but with a crucial improvement: When events turned nasty and the whips came out and the cops started making people disappear, in the US, we fretted about the “conscience of the nation” in Life magazine; in Egypt, when thugs on camelback began whipping the crowds, it compelled everyone to turn out in the streets, until the sheer mass of humanity standing alongside the nation’s young, poor and disenfranchised so shifted the gravitational pull of history that even the old mummies in power got the message.
Mummies don’t go away. They just go underground, get some heavy rest and wait for their sequel. I’m talking about Russia, for example, where the jubilation of freedom soon soured to grim resignation once the old power elite nabbed the inside track on privatization, adopting only the most mendacious, shark-like aspects of capitalism. Meet the new boss, same as ...
There is also the US, where, thanks to one of the most “activist” Supreme Court decisions in US history, corporations and monied arachnids like the billionaire Koch brothers can now buy elections without so much as a curtsy to transparency. And what’s the closest thing we’ve had to street-level action in recent years? It’s the Koch-funded Tea Party, at least it is if you ignore Jon Stewart’s “Rally to Restore Sanity” or the massive nationwide anti-war protests this past decade, which our media largely did ignore.
The Koches probably have their good reasons; it’s just that throughout history rulers’ good reasons tend to be in complete accord with their self-interests. Manifest destiny. Indians are savages incapable of realizing the bounty of their land. Negroes lack the ability to reason, and need us to guide them. Women are too flighty and emotional to vote. God anointed us. We are the chosen people. We’re so great the rules don’t apply to us. Dingoes ate my baby.
Such are the rubrics by which we justify doing things unto others that we would most ardently wish not to have done to ourselves, no sirree. We have made a damned sorry mess for ourselves by backing anti-democratic forces around the world.
Growing up, me and Superman saluted the flag every day. If you have to be born somewhere, wouldn’t you just as soon it was the land of truth and justice, the beacon of freedom, lighting the way for other lands, extending the hand of friendship to all men of goodwill? Lucky me.
Then you grow up and find out how much of our foreign aid and effort has gone to supporting tyrants, satraps and military dictatorships wherever it was convenient—even staging democracy-outing coups to scoot things along—and we’ve helped train their armies and security goons to oppress their own people. It was not lost on the Egyptian people that the tear gas grenades tossed their way were manufactured in the USA, paid for with our military aid.
The Egyptians do not love us, I expect. It doesn’t mean they have to hate us. I think they know that most Americans mean them well, but that there’s a disconnect between us and our government, which serves softer voices. The Egyptians could probably empathize with that predicament. Maybe they’d have some suggestions for us.
Poor Obama. He’s been pummeled—sometimes by the same pundit—both for not remaining loyal to Mubarak and for not being more vocal in supporting the protesters.
After our meddling in Egypt’s affairs for decades, with a miserable result, we are not the ones to be telling them what to do. We lack the moral standing, plus our touch is like kryptonite in Egypt, as it is in the rest of the Middle East. Had we backed the protestors, it would have lent credence to the Mubarak propaganda that the leaders were KFC-fed US and Israeli dupes.
Obama did the exact right thing: Whatever diplomatic butch rubs he might have been administering behind the scenes, in front of the curtain he was pitch perfect in not saying an inflammatory word yet still getting the idea across that maybe this administration is willing to give democracy a chance.
Some of the tea party movement’s flow-thru windbags, including Glenn Beck, had warned against allowing freedom in Egypt, because then Muslims or socialists could take over, or our regular fix of oil might get bottled up in the Suez Canal; or they might kick up a whuptedoo with Israel again.
(That last one is no idle concern, given that one of Egypt’s biggest pop hits of the last decade bore the catchy title “Death to Israel.” When it came on the air, Cairo cabbies would crank their radios up and whole neighborhoods sang along, like they were in an old Coke commercial, except for the “Death to Israel” part. But I’m thinking that a lot of Egypt’s youth, like youth everywhere, has had enough of that tired old shit. For every kid who is keen to let Uncle Kabob strap a bomb to his abdomen, there must be a thousand kids who’d rather live and love and be in a United Benetton commercial hanging out with other hot young teens while Van, thankfully off-camera, sings, “You can’t keep us, for our eyes can see.”)
Success has a thousand fathers, and suddenly nearly everyone except Beck is trying to get on the good side of the Egyptian revolution, because it’s thrilling. It’s like seeing the Berlin Wall come down, or the Beatles onstage.
This change is a damn good thing, and our press finally recognized it as such. That happened much the way it did during the police riots in Chicago in 1968. Up until then, press coverage had not at all sympathetic towards the peace movement, up until when the police batons started raining on reporters, too. It’s apparently an enlightening experience, because again, in Egypt now, all it took was Mubarak’s thugs giving reporters a taste of what they’d been giving their own people, and suddenly reporters got it: “Oh, there are good guys and bad guys here, and we should tell people which is which.”
Now that the revolution is the feel-good story of the season, I’ve heard Republicans trying to claim it as their own, saying it was George W. Bush’s pro-democracy policies that opened the door, as if anyone seeing the homicidal mess we’ve made of Iraq is saying, “Yes, I want to get me some of that.”
The Egyptians got their own freedom, and will doubtlessly have a mess entirely of their own. The nation has been led from its military ranks for generations, and now the transition from that is to be presided over by the military. It won’t be easy, and the changes will ripple through other nations, for better or worse.
If we suddenly have a harder time getting oil, I will only remind people of what Donald Rumsfeld said when confronted with the carnage we’d unleashed in Iraq: “Freedom is messy.” If we’re fine with that when it’s convenient to us, we should be when it’s inconvenient as well.
One of the coolest takeaways from the Egyptian revolution, aside from how much more civil it was than ours, is that it cost virtually nothing to organize. These people didn’t need billionaires to back them; most of them live in poverty by our standards and many are homeless by anyone’s standards, yet they sang, and stayed and stood together and threw a few needed rocks, and they threw off the chains that have shackled their people nearly since the time when chains were invented. Poor people did that. They stood up, then others joined them. That’s a story for the ages.
(A side note on the Tupelo Honey YouTube clip: Yes, it is Van during his diffident, I-nicked-this-stage-suit-off-Neil-Diamond period, and his band doesn’t exactly swing, except for the horn section, but it Van regardless, which is always better than not-Van, plus if you hang in there, you’ll hear a tremendous Pee Wee Ellis sax solo.)