A Few Things I Learnt From the Egyptian Revolution

On Thursday and Friday I was glued to the internet and rolling news on the television. Along with millions around the world I was able to share in the frustration, pain and then euphoria of the Egyptian people as they claimed their birthright, their freedom. And when the vice-president, Omar Suleiman, at around 6 pm Cairo time, made his one sentence announcement that Mubarak had resigned, and the Al Jazeera live English feed simply showed the crowd in Tahrir Square exploding with joy and wisely added no commentary, the exhilarating, intoxicating, uplifting feeling was simply overwhelming. Whatever happens next – and it was always the case that the path from the overthrow of Mubarak to a functioning and stable democracy was going to be a difficult one to tread – no one will be able to take away from the Egyptian people their phenomenal achievement. And I don’t think it’ s wrong for anyone, wherever they live, to feel that they can share in the Egyptian joy and to be moved to tears by what has been achieved. The Egyptian revolution has spoken to the deepest desires of humanity for freedom, independence, peace and justice and shown that these values can be achieved without violence. We live at a time when it often looks like every day just brings another thousand random acts of brutality and evil. The Egyptians have proved that life can actually be made up of a thousand random acts of kindness every day.

We should all be allowed to savour our feelings and emotions at this time, none more so of course than the very people who brought about the revolution and the masses who, we all fervently hope, will benefit from it. But this is also a moment – for me at any rate – to try to capture a few things I think I have learnt over the past three weeks and that may be of relevance to others too.

Wrong assumptions about Arabs

I’m sure that I, along with so many other Westerners, have been influenced by the derogatory stereotypes of Arabs and Muslims that portray them as backward, untrustworthy, loving death over life, unable to appreciate the virtues of democracy, predisposed to violence and so on. All groundless. As I became increasingly aware of Middle East realities and understood more what lived multiculturalism meant about our shared humanity, I have always been on guard against inadvertently judging events and issues concerning Arabs and Muslims on the basis of false assumptions. How wonderfully encouraging then for the world at large to learn the lesson from the Egyptian people, the heart of the Arab world, that they are no different from the rest of us; that we share the same values and aspirations.

The nature of this revolution, the determinedly peaceful approach of the protesters and their youthful leaders, the self-discipline, the cleaning and tidying they have undertaken, especially since the protests have wound down following Friday’s momentous changes – the transmission of these images around the world, and particularly in the West, will have a far greater positive impact on changing attitudes to the Arab and Muslim worlds than any-number of Cairo-type speeches by President Obama. But it also necessitates a fundamental shift in assumptions about the possibility of positive, grassroots-led change in the region. And it shows just how misguided has been the Western policy of putting stability first and turning a blind eye to repression and the abuse of human rights.

The power and weakness of the media

I listened and watched intensively as events unfolded, but hardly in a systematic fashion. And I certainly wasn’t engaged in a media-monitoring research exercise. But the significance of Al Jazeera’s live English-language streaming from Egypt was unmistakable. They seemed to have so many more informed commentators and correspondents on the ground in Cairo and many other towns and cities than their closest rivals. The continuous coverage meant that it was impossible for the regime to prevent the world from seeing exactly what was going on. Any attempt by Mubarak and his henchmen to portray the actions of hired pro-regime thugs as legitimate and spontaneous not only failed completely, but hastened the regime’s downfall. And not even the targeting of journalists, especially those from Al Jazeera, or the burning down of Al Jazeera’s headquarters in Cairo, prevented the details of what was going on from being reported.

It may be possible to argue that Al Jazeera’s coverage was sometimes blatantly anti-Mubarak and pro-democracy protesters, rather than dispassionate and objective. But from what I could see, hardly any reporter from any news organization was immune from being swept up at some point in the passions and the emotions of the rapidly unfolding events. And frankly, any other kind of approach would have failed to communicate the essence of what was going on. Moreover, with Twitter, Facebook, SMS and live blogging, there were so many sources of news, information and comment, it’s clear that in such situations today, the media overall constitute a powerful force for change – not necessarily decisive, as the case of Iran and the response to the presidential election there in 2009 showed – that cannot remain above the fray.

And yet it seemed to me that there were also clear signs of weakness in the major news outlets. I thought that the BBC in particular struggled to find original angles on what was going on, such that they kept recycling the same reports, with at least one of their rather long-in-the-tooth correspondents decidedly off the pace for much of the time. As with other agencies, the BBC then leaned heavily on ‘expert commentators’, many of whom ended up with egg on their faces when events didn’t quite go the way they suggested they would. For me, this gave added force to the stream of instant news in tweets and live blogs on newspaper websites like the Guardian. This material was not always consistent and was pretty anarchic at times, but since it came from people who were actually in the thick of things, or just a short SMS or mobile phone call away from them, it gave you a very good sense of the gritty ebb and flow of events and of history being made.

The power of words

Much of the above, especially the social networking element of it, speaks to the enduring power of words, even when compressed into no more than 140 characters. But I was also struck by how certain words that enter our vocabulary from a foreign language because of some political upheaval that gains international attention carry menace in some contexts and hope and opportunity in another. I’m thinking here particularly of the word tahrir, which, as all the world now knows from seeing the almost three weeks of demonstrations in Tahrir Square in central Cairo, means ‘freedom’. I suspect that most people in Britain and in Western Europe more widely who know this word do so as a result of the media attention paid to Hizb ut Tahrir, the pan-Islamic political organization widely regarded as having an extremist ideology that is homophobic, antisemitic, opposed to other religious views and wanting to establish an Islamic caliphate of all Muslim countries. The group’s name simply means the ‘Party of Freedom’ or ‘Liberation’, and yet mention of their name outside of the group’s members and small band of sympathisers generally provokes instant images of intolerance, violence and the destruction of Western values.

And now, the same word will forever be associated with a struggle for a freedom that the West has decided is entirely compatible with Western values, with peace, non-violence, co-operation, liberty and so on. I’m not suggesting that this should make us look any more favourably on Hizb ut Tahrir, but rather that, as a result of the persistence of orientalism, we are too quick to want to fit such words into a convenient Western way of thinking, rather than examine more deeply what such words mean in the Arabic-speaking societies from which they come.

I wonder, for example, what would have happened had the English word that has often been used to describe the last three weeks’ activities of the pro-democracy movement in Egypt, ‘uprising’, entered usage in its Arabic form: intifada. As Yonatan Mendel has pointed out, use of the word in the Israeli Hebrew language context, untranslated, has given it enduring ‘intimidating, demonic and violent connotations’, when the Hebrew word for it, hitkomemut, has positive associations ‘as being an act of resistance against occupying forces’. Israeli spokespeople and pro-government commentators have successfully ensured that for many in the West the word intifada has demonic associations. Had the word been used locally by the Egyptian activists themselves to describe their uprising, I wonder what impact that would have had on Western perceptions. Would it have muddied the widespread support for the pro-democracy movement or would it have resulted in a revaluing of the word intifada with subsequent positive knock-on effects for the Palestinians?

Implications for the wider Middle East

The Middle East isn’t Eastern Europe. I don’t suppose that the autocratic regimes in the region will collapse one after the other over a period of two years as did the communist regimes. Nevertheless, the impact of the Tunisian revolution and now the even more momentous Egyptian revolution on other countries in the region has produced unprecedented scenes of public dissent and discontent. Leaders have moved rapidly to be seen to be making concessions. It’s certainly much too early to judge whether any other regimes will go the way of Tunisia and Egypt. The balls have been thrown in the air and will certainly not just come back to earth in the same formation as before.

One country certainly needs a peaceful political upheaval, should move immediately to rescind emergency laws, but whose government is likely to move to tighten internal and external security and do nothing to curb growing anti-democratic tendencies in its poodle-like parliament – and that’s Israel. Various commentators have pointed out how the events in Egypt should be seen as an urgent wake-up call for the Israelis, and none more perceptively than Daniel Levy. As he argues in Haaretz:

Maintaining the peace treaty has morphed over time into maintaining a peace process that has ultimately entrenched occupation and settlements and made a mockery of its Arab participants. Post-transition Egypt is unlikely to continue playing this game. . . . Israel’s strategic environment – notably the capacity it provides to avoid making choices and to disguise the status quo as progress – is about to change.

The two responses offered by Israeli establishment voices, Levy says, are either ‘digging in’ or an urgent return to the peace process. He rejects these and sketches the outline of a third alternative:

Broadly speaking, this option has three components. First, an Israeli withdrawal to the pre-1967 armistice lines almost without preconditions or exceptions (minor, equitable and agreed-upon land swaps and international security guarantees could fall into the latter category). Second, Israel should undertake an act of genuine acknowledgement of the dispossession and displacement visited on the Palestinian people, including compensating refugees where appropriate, and thus set in motion the possibility of reconciliation. Third, there needs to be a clear Israeli commitment to full equality for all of its citizens, notably including removal of the structural barriers to full civil rights for the Palestinian Arab minority.

Not that he holds out much hope of such a policy shift coming about (and many of us would probably argue that Levy’s scenario doesn’t go far enough). Which only emphasises in what a dangerous position the Netanyahu government is in the process of placing the country. And while some have argued that Israel will become even more important to the United States, because the Obama administration will now see it as its one reliable ally in the region, I see this as wishful thinking. If anything, the opposite is the case. A strategy based around virtually unlimited and unconditional support for Israel will become even more of a liability. The US will now have to continue along the path it chose in relation to Egypt and be sensitive to the democratic demands of the peoples of the region rather than rely on autocrats and authoritarian regimes to maintain stability.

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