Town Meeting in Egypt




As this issue goes to press, hundreds of thousands of Egyptian citizens have taken to the streets to demand elections and reforms and to air a variety of grievances against their government. First on the protesters' agenda is the ouster of their leader of 30 years, a man who seized power in a state of emergency and then never let go. I hope the images of that struggle are still on a few minds this month as New Hampshire citizens hammer out budgets in town meetings.

I covered small town politics for years as editor of a weekly paper for the towns of Bow, Dunbarton and Hopkinton. In that time I attended countless town and school budget hearings and local elections. Someone once described war as long periods of boredom punctuated by terror and violence. That's not exactly a definition of town meeting, but it's pretty close. For the most part, the motions and procedures are so predictable that a seasoned reporter can write the story in advance and just drop in the names and the figures from the town report. But usually, at some point in the night, some controversial warrant article is read and you can practically hear the swords being drawn as the two sides prepare to clash.

Science fiction enthusiasts and futurists like to ponder a world in which bloody war is replaced with a bloodless electronic battlefield, where the two sides fight it out via digital avatars. We may never get that civilized, but in some ways, that's what the whole American political system is like. OK, so it's more like a game of Dungeons and Dragons, where our dungeon masters (mostly politicians and lawyers) run the scenarios using dusty old books filled with arcane rules, but the end result is the same. We agree that whoever wins the game gets the prize and the losers just vow to play harder in the next round. Our elections, nasty as they might be, are like non-violent revolutions. Candidates may indulge in mutual character assassination, but voters would frown upon an actual assassination attempt.

If this is all a bit cerebral, I beg your pardon. As I write this note my son Daniel is preparing to board a plane to fly to the Middle East. No, not as a soldier. He'll be taking college courses in Amman, Jordan, for the spring semester and learning Arabic. Take a look at a map and you see that Middle Eastern countries are almost as closely packed as New Hampshire towns. As you might imagine, neighboring Egypt is on my mind.

The tectonic collision of Middle Eastern and Western cultures has had many bad consequences, but if anything good is to result it will come from people crossing battle lines to better understand one another, make friendships and share wisdom. Maybe a Yankee boy from New Hampshire can plant a seed of thought or harvest an insight so that, in a generation or two, Middle Eastern politics are handled in contentious local meetings rather than in endless tribal wars.

Maybe the revolution in Egypt is the first sign that this process has already begun.

Anyway, as I wish my son a safe and meaningful journey, that's my prayer for him and for the Arab world.

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