January 29th, 2011
09:00 AM ET

Letters to the President #740 'Egypt on fire'

Tom Foreman | BIO
AC360° Correspondent

Reporter's Note: The White House is keeping an eye on what is happening in Egypt. Probably not as intensely as they are keeping an eye out for my daily letters to the president, but still…

Dear Mr. President,

The events in Egypt certainly seem momentous. I am always amazed at how populations can sometimes bubble for years with discontent, and then suddenly boil over in a fit of smashed glass, overturned vehicles, and fires in the streets. But I think I have mentioned to you before a quote that I read in a history book long ago; it went something like, “The fundamental cause of all revolutions is the inability or unwillingness of the rulers to take seriously the complaints of the ruled.” I wish I could remember who wrote that.

Anyway, I am struck by how often that seems to be true when people and police start running at each other. Usually I think, if you consider all events, people are remarkably patient. They will endure years of low employment, weakened living conditions, and limited hope precisely because most citizens in most places realize that uprisings can be messy things; property gets destroyed, people get hurt, pets get lost, and it’s hard to figure out where things will stand when the smoke clears.

Still, when people are frustrated long enough, and feel too marginalized, they start imagining (or perhaps realizing) that they have no other choice.

It’s been suggested that it is impossible to predict when some place is going to flash into rioting and calls for a coup. But I’m not so convinced of that. Sure, it is hard to pinpoint a date, but often in retrospect it is easy to see how tensions rose, were ignored; rose higher, were pushed aside; rose still more…and finally exploded.

The secret is in seeing things not only through the eyes of the rulers, but also through the eyes of the ruled. The second is harder, because the ruled don’t sit in high level diplomatic meetings, or brief visiting dignitaries. But understanding the views of the citizens and taking them seriously is how uprisings are avoided; and ignoring them, is how revolutions are sparked.

Good luck with all your dealings with this over the weekend. Call if you can.


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Find more of the Foreman Letters here.