The Revolution Will Be Rubbernecked

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Egypt Revolution (edited)..
Picture remix by Emad Raúf; original photograph by Yannis Behrakis of Reuters. Tahrir square, Cairo, Egypt, 29 January 2011.

While the recent protest movements in the Middle East reveal much about the present state of civic community among the people of those nations — Iran, Tunisia, and Egypt (and a growing list of others) — our reaction to them reveals more about ourselves than we should perhaps find flattering.[1]

I will explain.

Consider the Egyptian “revolution” that started with a few demonstrations on 25 January 2011 and snowballed into a national movement that came to demand the resignation of President Hosni Mubarak and his thirty-year reign — and succeeded in securing it by 11 February 2011.[2]

And Tunisia’s “Jasmine Revolution” that also ended a presidential career — the twenty-four year rule of President Ben Ali — with Ali’s resignation on 14 January 2011, some few weeks after protests broke out in December 2010.

And, of course, Iran’s “Green Revolution” that raged into 2010, long after the initial fury over electoral fraud during the June 2009 presidential election — now, admittedly, less successful by Egyptian Tunisian standards (since President Ahmadinejad has yet to resign) but presumably still simmering.

These revolutions belong to their respective peoples and nations and no one else; yet, they are being championed as proof of the inevitable march of history — aided by technology — toward progress.

Social media have claimed these revolutions as a victory for itself and technology.

That citizens in Iran, Tunisia, and Egypt are using the latest communications technology to organize is interesting but belies the fact that such tools are also used by the state to suppress dissidents and the general public. Platforms like Facebook and Twitter can be used to build community and facilitate commerce but have little direct impact on solving the underlying socio-economic conditions that force people to organize — at considerable personal and familial risk — in the first place.[3]

Politicians have claimed these revolutions as a victory for themselves and democracy.

That citizens in Tunisia and Egypt (and to a lesser extent, Iran) have suddenly gathered en mass to contest their current state of governance — to topple tyrants — belies the fact that many of these rulers enjoy (or have enjoyed) the support of supposedly pro-democratic governments around the world. The tendency by many in the West to denigrate other peoples for their apparent backwardness, while praising them for finally ‘joining history’ when they gather to depose tyrants, is contradicted by the actual policies pursued by the so-called “free world” as it publicly preaches freedom and progress.[4]

And so, while you might find these protest movements inspiring — and indeed, they are — we would do well to remember that these our not our movements. Whatever governance structure emerges from them is entirely up to the citizenry of those nations. If we are so excited about freedom and democracy, we might tap that enthusiasm for use at home.

To be clear, my point here is not to take sides or join the familiar chorus of established Western criticism with a redundant reading from the book of Contemptible Hypocrisy and Other Duplicitous Misdeeds; rather, it is to suggest that while we look at Egypt and want to say, “what took so long?” we should actually be saying, “excuse us for interfering.”

And, more importantly, we must recognize that what happened in Egypt during the thirty-years of Mubarak’s rule was, in fact, history — not just the made-for-TV summation of an era — as is what went before and what will come in the next days, months, and years.

We forget that history happens whether or not we’re paying attention.

We should make more of an effort to listen for the voices of the people all of the time — not just when they seem poised to march forward, aided and abetted by the tools we see as having already delivered ourselves.

NOTES

[1] By “our” I mean anyone who is not a citizen of these nations but also the West in general. This applies throughout the post.

[2] Calling last week’s events in Egypt a “revolution” may be premature. Do recall the hydra-like persistence of military rule in post-colonial Egypt: General Naguib formally succeeded the monarchy in 1953; to be succeeded by Nasser in 1954; to be succeeded by Sadat in 1970; to be succeeded by Mubarak in 1981; only to be succeeded, last week, by Omar Suleiman. It is unlikely the protest movement in Egypt will succeed in altering this pattern overnight. The revolution, in other words, is likely to be slow and gradual.

[3] Malcolm Gladwell’s article, “Small Change: Why the Revolution will not be Tweeted” attempted to cover as much in the aftermath of Iran’s “Green Revolution” but did so poorly and without much nuance. His update last week, “Does Egypt Need Twitter?” reiterated his earlier argument and resulted in what can perhaps only be referred to as the first formal social media character assassination. Still, he may have a point. And the same can be said of his critics, particularly Ari Melber.

[4] Mubarak, for example, enjoyed the support of numerous world leaders throughout his time in office. And, within the same example, it is not difficult to observe how the public rhetoric differs from the actual policy.

A.J. Rowley is currently completing his MA in History at Trent University that examines the Canadian media reaction to the Cuban Revolution. More of his writing can be found at http://www.ajrowley.org/

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