Tahrirosaurus Rex: Reflections on the Revolution(s) in the Arab World.

A few years ago, in an interview with “Writers and Co.,” Salman Rushdie compared the recent trend of extremism in the Arab world to the former USSR. He said we have this impression that these regimes have been around forever and will be for the rest of time; that this is the way these countries/people are and there’s nothing we can do about it – a simple fact of nature. Nevertheless, Rushdie observed, the more repressive the regime, the greater the contempt the people hold for them. These despots are like a dried up, old forest: just light one small match and the whole thing threatens to go up in flames; and an autocracy that seemed bigger than life just turns to dust and blows away.

I think it’s safe to say we are currently seeing this very thing happening right now.

This whole narrative begins in Tunisia with a fruit vender named Mohamed Bouazizi. A cop demanded a bribe from Bouazizi but he refused. The cop beat him, took his scales, and trashed his goods. Humiliated and exasperated, Bouazizi went to the Governor to complain and threaten to light himself on fire if he wasn’t seen, but the Governor refused to oblige him. Bouazizi made good on his threats of self-immolation and later died in hospital.

The people of Tunisia were inspired by Bouazizi and sympathized with his situation. They came together in a shared frustration over the events and conditions that led Bouazizi to take such drastic measures. They demanded Zine El Abidine Ben Ali’s resignation. There were reports of police violence and the deaths of several protestors. Others copied Bouazizi’s self-sacrifice. It all lasted about a month until Ben Ali finally resigned.

Although it’s an incredible story, the revolution in Tunisia was a somewhat ancillary news story. Given Tunisia’s population, and the general unrest in this area, people weren’t really captivated by the events. This all changed when Egypt decided they wanted the same thing and played copycat.

There are several possible reasons why the revolution in Egypt got the kind of press it did. Three months ago, if you were to think of an Arab country on the brink of a radical revolution, Egypt wouldn’t have been very high on the list. It is the most populated country in Africa and has a relatively stable economy. Literacy and education levels are reasonable, especially considering other countries in the region. Mubarak’s regime was considered secular and fairly moderate, as oppressive as he was to his own people and opposition parties. Mubarak has been in power since Reagan and while he’s no F.D.R., he isn’t exactly Ahmadinejad either. Most importantly, he was an ally to the West and a voice of moderation in the region, especially in regards to Israel. Taking all these things into consideration, it is understandable that the revolution in Egypt legitimized what had already happened in Tunisia and spurred what is happening now in Bahrain, Jordan, Yemen, and Iran.

I don’t want to bore you with my amateurish recap of what you probably already knew, but I must contextualize in order to make my point.

Hegel famously states, “The history of the world is none other than the progress of freedom.” In what is often a violent struggle, consciousness strives to become self-consciousness. The world spirit strives continuously to understand itself, and in each step of understanding, the subject comes to differentiate itself from its objectivity, thus becoming increasingly freer. Think of a child. In its infancy, a child is essentially at the whims of its natural necessity: it eats, sleeps, shits, and cries whenever it needs help with any of these things. However, as the child grows, it becomes self-aware (Lacan’s mirror-stage?) and frees itself from its purely, natural existence. The same can be said of world history. We move from the objective concerns of natural necessity and gradually turn inward, becoming self-reflective, not only about our own feelings, but about our experiences as living in the world, and how the world works. However, this process isn’t a smooth ride, and progress is marked by a concept overcoming its own contradiction in what Hegel calls sublimation. Basically, it means an idea is put forward, its contradiction or inner opposition is immediately manifested, and the two clash until there is a synthesis, beginning the process anew, like a phoenix rising from the ashes. This is what is known as Hegelian Dialectic.

This is why History is basically one violent struggle after another. The American Revolution is shortly followed by the battle of 1812, which is followed by the Civil War. Of course, examples abound and you may feel free to run with your own historical analysis. Mark Twain sums it up him like only he can, “history doesn’t repeat itself but it does rhyme.”

So, what about Egypt and the Arab world? Well, I think we can see no better example of freedom struggling to manifest itself than the current “crisis.” Which brings me to my point, why are we, the West, so adamant on labeling this as a crisis? What I see isn’t a bunch of violent fanatics clamouring for the seat of power. What I see is a group of people fighting for their rights. As far as game changers go, you don’t get any bigger than this. We’ve seen two countries achieve in weeks what it took America years to “achieve” in Iraq and Afghanistan. Yet, on the news, I see “Egypt in Crisis,” and pictures of angry Arabs rioting. I must agree with Slavoj Zizek, and assert that this is a cause for joy and celebration. Yet, the West cannot get over its condescension and anxiety towards the Arab world.

For me, this picture sums up the West’s attitude toward the East. We see a caucasion-looking man shrugging off the Autocracy with two other caucasions coming over to grace the Eastern world with the God-given gift of Democracy – courtesy of the West – only to be subverted by two Arabs carrying Theocracy. You need only look at Stephen Harper’s impotent treatment of the phenomena and the current limp-dick of Obama over Bahrain to see the West’s latent Islamaphobia. Like Edward Said says, the West’s understanding and perception of the East is tainted by its own vested interest in the area. Call it oil, call it hegemony, call it what you will, we just cannot accommodate the East’s Otherness. We want to cancel its difference. So, we characturize Arabs as Koran-thumping extremists who “hate freedom.” We dismiss this uprising as an opportunity for fundamentalists to tighten their grip on the area, promising even more danger to “our way of life,” as is if Democracy were strictly a Western ideal, ours to distribute like a gift to the uncivilized world.

But we have no reason to believe this is anything more or less than people demanding their rights and freedoms. This is a completely secular phenomenon with no parcticular reference to any religion. Sure, the Muslim Brotherhood has hopped aboard the bandwagon but it was never theirs to begin with. In Egypt, we saw Christians forming a chain around Muslims to protect them as they prayed and if that doesn’t warm your heart, I don’t know what will.

I won’t deny there is an unfathomable amount of work left to be done in these areas before they can be considered advanced democracies and appreciate the kind of rights that the West does, but I just can’t understand the pessimism and anxiety that I’m seeing in the news. The situation looks chaotic at times and there’s a lot of uncertainty but we’re talking about revolution here, not the model UN. Drink deep, or taste not, the dialectical spring!

cheers,

-B

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~ by braddunne on February 21, 2011.

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