Monday, January 31, 2011

Tumult in Egypt

Demonstration at Imbaba in Cairo. Creative Commons photo by Ramy Raoof
The Nile Rises

I've been following the events unfolding in Egypt for a while now. As I write this, there are probably already new developments, and for reasons I'm about to articulate, by the time you read this, (since most of my readership is American and probably tucked in for the night) there may have been massive bloodshed. It's also entirely possible that there will have been no major developments. Such is the uncertainty of the situation. My heart goes out to the people in Egypt, the people on the streets clamoring, shouting at the tops of the lungs for change. I'm with any people trying to overthrow an oppressive dictatorship. Egypt is not only no exception, but it is the Arab dictatorships in particular I hold a special contempt for.

I lived in the Middle East, in and of itself that information does not entitle me to special knowledge or interest. Many a time I've chafed at the pampered expatriate military brat or oil company spawn that claims expertise by simple virtue of the fact that they grew older there. Especially since my experience with such "experts of circumstance" has been that they are heavily sheltered from the realities most of the people living in these countries face. My general rule is that if someone cannot carry a conversation in the language of the country they are discussing, they fall short of the minimum standard for expertise, hands down.

No, I don't claim academic expertise, what I claim is that I deeply give a damn about the outcome. That while not being Egyptian, I desperately want the Egyptian people to succeed in getting a credible democracy because while Tunisia was the spark that ignited this, Egypt will be the key to unlocking a new future for the whole region. People called January 25th, 2011 a day of anger, but if you knew what it was like in Egypt, the poverty, the lack of sanitation, the way basic services were more about lining the pockets of corrupt politicians than fulfilling their roles as a public good you'd know better. You'd know that every day was a day of anger, of frustration, of knowing your lot could be better if it weren't for the meddlesome and capricious nature of living under the dictate of one person and his cronies, and the cronies' cronies.

All across the Middle East, people are subject to governments that don't represent them or their interests adequately. In the Gulf States, the oil wealth has buoyed authoritarian rule by guaranteeing a high standard of living to the citizens of those countries (and really only the citizens- woe betides the Southeast Asian who commits the sin of being a laborer there). But those exceptions prove the rule, since having a foreign-born labor force means malcontents are easily dealt with by deportation. In the other Arab countries malcontents get treated far worse.

Meanwhile, nepotism and the networks of corrupt officials help to separate women from power and their rights in countries just as much as explicit discriminatory laws would in others. A dictator for life must represent the majority and repress and scapegoat the minorities. They enforce their rule with thugs, for whom thuggery proves profitable and reward enough in itself to support the regime. It is my great hope that people in these countries will, for once and for all be able to create open societies that give the breathing room necessary to challenge other oppressions. It's a day I never thought I'd live to see. If we have indeed reached that day.

Graffiti on a military vehicle. Creative Commons Photo by Mona

We may not have reached that day for a number of reasons. There have been reports that indicate the military in Egypt may side with the government. It is entirely possible that these reports -of the military surrounding government buildings- may be accurate while being misinterpreted. It may be the military is simply trying to fulfill a protective role, and sees itself as ensuring that whatever happens, the country does not descend into anarchy. I'm somewhat more pessimistic. The military in Egypt has not traditionally taken sides, but the possibility it may side against the people is not one that I, at this point, can discount. If it does, I anticipate bloodshed. Meanwhile the Egyptian people will grow weary as slowdowns and shutdowns mean that food is becoming scarce and other necessities wear thin. How this plays out not only lies with the disposition of the military. It is clear that the will of the Egyptian people will be tested. But I have faith in them. I hate the trite pathetic generalizations people often make about "quaint" people that border on insulting. Often they marvel at how "sophisticated" people from a certain region are, and pretend that this is anything but a backhanded compliment. I'm not going to do that. I will only say that I have faith in them because they deserve at least that little from me, and from all people. Anyone who fights their own oppression deserves to be given the chance to show that they do not need to be oppressed to be "stable" or "happy" or "prosperous". Indeed, it's common American uncertainty and apprehension over such things that has me retching.

American Apathy, Antipathy, and Uncertainty

The Muslim Brotherhood:

First let us deal with the myth pervading US media at this time. I say it is a myth because only in the media are lazy prognostications presented as fact with a straight-face. There is, I repeat, there is no evidence whatsoever that:

A.) The Muslim Brotherhood plan on taking over.

B.) That they are liable to take over.

C.) That if they did take over, Egypt would descend into absolute theocracy, Taliban style.

Let's take each of these matters separately. First of all, the Muslim Brotherhood has declared that they do not own the revolution. This is not only a statement of fact, but a guarantee in and of itself that they do not own what's happening on the streets. If they did, they could afford to be less shy about it.

As it stands, anyone who knows anything about Egypt knows this about the Muslim Brotherhood: They do not have the popular vote. I think American media likes presenting political situations in other countries as being analogous to American politics, where there are two main parties, and all others are ignored. So everything is heavily dichotomized. Either it's the Muslim Brotherhood, or it's Mubarak. That's not the case at all. Astute Americans and people from other countries know that a lot of countries, Egypt included, use a parliamentary system where there are more than two parties. The diversity in Egyptian political parties ensures that it is unlikely no one will get the plurality of the vote. Would the Muslim Brotherhood gain seats? Yes. Would they have the ability to rule Egypt with an iron fist (assuming they would want to)? No.

Finally, the Muslim Brotherhood is not an equivalent of the Taliban. For one thing, they've shared the experiences of Leftists and moderates they've shared cells with. There's a genuine empathy among the disenfranchised and persecuted that makes them anything but the Taliban, or Al-Qaeda. Al-Qaeda is a paramilitary organization. The Taliban is a Pashtun-dominated Deobantist militia. The Muslim Brotherhood is an opposition political party that publically renounces violence to achieve it's goals and will honor democracy. I can't emphasize enough that here be apples, there be oranges, and waaaaaaaay over there behind the shed tied to a post is a horse. Just because Islam is a common theme throughout, it doesn't make them the same thing. The argument it does is similar to the argument that books have pages, bills have pages and lawsuits have pages, so you don't buy books lest you end up with a lawsuit on your hands- it's completely twisted logic. It only lends credence to the position (which I take) that American media is inherently Islamophobic, and takes for granted that 1.6 billion people manage to live their lives by Islam to differing extents without miraculously all being violent and unpredictable at once. That's what the Muslim Brotherhood is, an extent. I'm no fan of theocratic rule, but I'd take theocratic elements endorsed by the people over despotism and dictatorship any day.

Why American media keeps bringing the Muslim Brotherhood up, despite its eminently non-special role in this is entirely predictable in an environment where the US president only very recently announced that Muslims have a legitimate place in this country.

Israel, and Our Uncritical Support

Let's be honest, talk on Fox News and other networks about Israel in this matter is motivated entirely by a concern for that country that overrides any concern ever shown for democracy in the Middle East. Everyone agrees real democratic reform in the Middle East leads to hostilities against the Israeli state, which has shown unprecedented belligerence for a nation of its size and position. Mainly because we have allowed them to show unprecedented belligerence ever since a US policy shift around the 1967 war. The reason we get mealy-mouthed remarks from Obama and Clinton is due in large part to a realization that if they throw one Arab dictator under the bus, the others are sure to object, and then where, pray tell, would Israel be? The Israelis know better than to brush off what's happening. Right-wing or left-wing, they all see the events unfolding in Egypt and understand the implications. As a side note, where the Saudi and Israeli positions coincide- I'm against them both.

White House photo of Barack Obama talking to Hosni Mubarak.


What's interesting is that US silence and mumbling is in large part due to a bizarre idea of realpolitik. I would argue it's much more realistic and beneficial to US in the long-term over decades to stop propping up dictators and try to make friends with the actual people of foreign nations, it's almost as if the White House (regardless of administration) think that ethical actions are necessarily ineffective and eschew them.

So you see, I'm not  a cynic- I just think the people running our foreign policy are incredibly stupid.


Empathy for Adults

One other trend I've noticed, even among many self-proclaimed liberals- is this notion that they shouldn't take sides. Lest it get worse for the Egyptian people. What? Am I hearing this correctly? One group is persecuting another, and you don't want to take sides because the persecuted group might act irresponsibly or act against its own interests in future? That's akin to saying, "Oh, I don't want to be against that pimp, she might spend her money foolishly without him." Am I the only person who sees the furious inanity of that position? Surely I can't be.

This is the difference between viewing the Egyptians as real people with real agency on the one hand, and acting paternalistic and treating them like children on the other. That you are concerned for the future of the Egyptian people is admirable and cute and all, but they have to be treated like adults, and you have to support their right to take risks. Even if they risk their lives. Those lives are theirs to risk. You don't waver on whether an adult should be free just because they might use that freedom to make choices you wouldn't. So you do in fact have to take a side, because this is one of those situations where not taking a side is taking a side. Either you support an undemocratic status quo by default, or you support the right of a people to self-determination. That's something you can do without supporting what they determine.

Others have said their wishy-washy cowardice on the matter is a function of being unsure of who will replace Mubarak. What if the protesters end up with a military dictatorship? So? I fail to understand how siding with the protesters makes either you or them responsible for unexpected outcomes. How does supporting the rights of oppressed people mean that you'd somehow be supporting an unintended consequence of yet another autocracy? At that stage, do you know what you do? You continue to side with the people of Egypt! Do you see how simple that was?


I don't know about you, but I side with this man and that young girl:



I'll let the people on the streets of Egypt have the last word:
الشعب يريد إسقاط النظام   

3 comments:

Smores said...

Thank you so much for your comprehensive and moving post. I jumped over here from Shakesville and I really appreciated hearing your perspective -- particularly after hearing the Fox News panic over the Muslim Brotherhood this morning. Of course, anything with the word "Muslim" in it precipitates a panic on that channel.

Smores said...

Thank you so much for your comprehensive and moving post. I jumped over here from Shakesville and I really appreciated hearing your perspective -- particularly after hearing the Fox News panic over the Muslim Brotherhood this morning. Of course, anything with the word "Muslim" in it precipitates a panic on that channel.

Mcfarlandlogo said...

But it is the Arab absolute rules in particular I hold a unique contempt for.

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