WASHINGTON -- To follow the coverage of the Egyptian and Tunisian revolutions in the U.S. press these days is a little like wanting to marry a 24-year-old maiden whose parents and childhood you know nothing about. "Living in the moment" may be thrilling for artists, but it only lasts so long for marriage.
Oddly enough, both countries have similar backgrounds, which would tell us a great deal about what is happening:
In Egypt, the dazzling and impoverished center of the Arab world, the madding crowds have now swept out onto the streets of Cairo for more than a week to force the retirement of the country's autocratic President Hosni Mubarak. During these days, analysts have repeatedly said that the Muslim Brotherhood had nothing to do with the demonstrations, but ....
When I went to see Dr. Essam El-Erian, the spokesman for the mysterious organization, five years ago in ragged Cairo, I was first stunned by their meticulous and beautiful offices. El-Erian himself was dressed like an upper-class Englishman and greeted me in such a manner.
"Islam instructs us to be clean, to be beautiful," he explained.
But was the Brotherhood constitutionally able to be part of a secular, democratic political society? First he said, yes -- of course! Then, without missing a beat, he said in exactly the same even, unrevealing tone of voice: "Don't believe anyone who says this is a secular state -- for 7,000 years, our religious leaders were gods, not kings."
Thus it was the Muslim Brotherhood, founded in 1928, which served originally as the goad toward the autocracy that Mubarak has come so hatefully to represent today in Egyptian eyes. As it grew to more than a million members by the end of the 1940s, having supported the Nazis during the war, radical members of the Brotherhood formed a "secret apparatus," which began by assassinating the prime minister.
In 1952, the Brotherhood nearly burned down Cairo, accused of taking part in a massive apocalyptic arson that destroyed some 750 buildings -- particularly targeted were nightclubs, theaters and hotels and restaurants in its desire to end the sway of cosmopolitan Cairo.
Its attempt to assassinate President Gamal Abdel Nasser in 1954 got members imprisoned and deported; it was a student offshoot of the Brotherhood, Tanzim al-Jihad, that assassinated President Anwar Sadat in 1981; and it was Egyptian Islamists who were the original religious inspiration for the al-Qaida America is fighting now.
Today, the Brotherhood has again been permitted to run for office, garnering about 20 percent of the vote in the last elections. Meanwhile, it provided the realistic excuse for leaders like Mubarak to exercise autocratic rule.
The narrative of radical Islamism in Tunisia is uniquely -- even weirdly -- similar to that of Egypt's. The Tunisian Islamist organization, which morphed into a political party known as An Nahda or the Renaissance Party, became extremely active in the 1980s, even as the hero of Tunisian independence, Habib Bourguiba, was still alive. But there, too, in their arrogance, the Islamists soon overextended themselves.
Their leader was a professor of philosophy, Rached Ghannouchi, who charmed and won over more religiously oriented Tunisians with his charismatic rhetorical speeches. It was the age of Third World young men seeking solutions and solace in communism, and so -- no surprise! -- the Islamists first looked there.
Ghannouchi found his enchantment in -- of all places -- the most repressive of communist regimes, in Albania. After the Arabs' defeat in 1967 at the hands of the Israelis, he let his beard grow ("like Castro," he said), and soon got super-secret theological "fatwas," or rulings, giving him sacred permission to overthrow the Tunisian government.
Again, the same steps. The Islamists formed a super-secret "special apparatus" of intelligence and assassination, bombs went off in four hotels on Aug. 2, 1987, 12,700 Islamists were arrested.
But the coup against the government planned for Nov. 8, 1987, was forestalled by the takeover of Interior Minister Zine el Abidine Ben Ali from Bourguiba. Ironically, it was the beloved Bourguiba who had wanted to hang Ghannouchi; it was Ben Ali, the supposed "tough guy," who saved his life, while he went into angry exile in England. Radical Islam was considered all-but-dead in Tunisia until last week.
These two examples -- related both to the character of the people and in historic time sequence -- bring forward many questions, not all of them so obvious.
During the Egyptian riots, for the first week, the Muslim Brotherhood was nowhere to be seen -- and innocent bystanders said, "See, you see, the Brotherhood is not taking part!" Smarter ones recalled how the communists held back in St. Petersburg in 1917 until the crowds were worn out and the Leninists could take power. After seven days, they suddenly appeared.
In Tunisia, too, the order had changed. Rached Ghannouchi soon traveled back to Tunisia from England and was greeted by frenetic old supporters at the airport. And both many Egyptians and Tunisians were asking: Was this what it would turn out to be all about? That they had only exchanged secular developmentalism and autocracy for fundamentalist dictatorship?
One had to wonder if any of the supposedly wise and accepted old truisms still applied. American observers kept saying, "We have to stay ahead of history." But what did that mean today? The Tunisian government, with its high level of education and investment, thought it was doing just that. And the Egyptians say they want jobs and dignity, but jobs take years to create and these demonstrations are precisely against any idea of waiting any longer.
In fact, these last two weeks, in these two important countries, show that all the old narratives have failed. Monarchy, Islamism, Arab nationalism, military rule, one-party rule -- now, we can only ask what would come next? Indeed, what COULD come next?