The Arab Spring- 2011
March 1, 2011
The Arab Spring- 2011
Worldwide coverage on the revolutionary spirit in West Asia and Africa.
‘Like being in love’
Alaa Al Aswany: Literary reflections on the Egyptian revolution

For the best-selling author and star of a new generation of Egyptian novelists, there is much in common between a revolution and being in love. “When someone is in real love, he becomes a better person,” says Alaa Al Aswany, the celebrated author of The Yacoubian Building and Chicago. “A revolution is like that.” Everyone who takes part knows what kind of person he was before the protests started “and now he is going to feel different. We have dignity. We are not scared any more.”

Aswany has participated in the protests with a passion. He will write a book about the events still unfolding here: “It has been a unique experience not to read about history but to live inside history,” he told The Independent.

The 53-year-old author is an acute observer of what he and many millions of other Egyptians now fervently hope will be the final days of the autocrat who has ruled them for the past 30 years. The atmosphere reminds him of that surrounding the fictional Caribbean dictator conjured in Gabriel García Márquez’s novel, The Autumn of the Patriarch.

First, he says, there is the phase of “total denial”. Second, the preposterous accusations that those protesting are being “used and manipulated [by those] who hate our country”. Third, the “new game” of doing anything to stay in power. And only after all that, to run away.

The writer, a long-time critic of Mubarak’s regime, senses something “medieval” about the concentration of presidential power. He also rails against what he sees as government propaganda. Aswany says he has seen a leaked ministry of interior document containing “a very clear instruction that Egyptian TV should interview women, saying how afraid they are and… calling on Mubarak to save them [from the criminals]”.

Like many fellow Egyptians, Aswany is at pains to play down fears that the protests might usher in rule by the Muslim Brotherhood. The fears have been cooked up to create the misconception that “either you accept Mubarak or you need to get prepared for another Hamas or Taliban in power,” says Aswany. “This revolution has nothing to do with the Muslim Brotherhood.”

A comparison the former dentist prefers is to Spain returning to freedom after the Franco years and a return to Egypt’s 19th century standing as a bastion of liberalism and democracy.

He also rejects another western and Israeli “stereotype” that a new Egypt would cancel the three-decade-old Camp David accord with Israel. He is puzzled that Israeli officials cannot “see that making a peace treaty with a responsible democracy is much better than making a peace treaty with a corrupt dictatorship. If you respect the Egyptian people and their choice, they are going to keep the peace process on a very steady and strong course.”

Aswany is contemptuous of the new Vice-President Omar Suleiman’s planned consultations with opposition political parties, adding that “the opposition is the street, not in the political parties”. The movement will throw up its own, predominately young, leadership and if it needs older figures to advise it, they should be the ones to choose.

He is not talking about Mohamed ElBaradei, whom he says many young Egyptians respect for his integrity, while emphasising that this is not “ElBaradei’s revolution”.

And a role for him in the new Egypt, minister of culture perhaps? “It is much better to be a good novelist,” he says. 

Courtesy: The Independent;

Archived from Communalism Combat, March 2011, Year 17, No.155 - Revolution.
What came before… What lies ahead?
Egypt: Straight from the heart

Signs of the despair and rage of the ‘Arab street’ that have finally burst out into angry protests across the region were in ample evidence when I visited Egypt last year although I must confess I did not expect they would take the form that they now have. Forty days traversing the country, including a fortnight in Cairo and trips to the Mediterranean coast, isolated oases in the Sahara and down the Nile to Abu Simbel and to Aswan near the Sudanese border, were, to put it politely, no relaxed vacation. Egypt, despite being a favourite holiday destination that attracts hundreds of thousands of foreign tourists every year, is not quite an easy country for a lone tramp on a shoestring budget to navigate. 

Cairo, home to almost half of Egypt’s population, is a rapidly decaying city. I chose to stay in a dirt cheap funduq, a lodge frequented by travelling Egyptian and other African door-to-door salesmen which was located in the heart of the old city, also called ‘Islamic Cairo’. It was situated in a narrow lane just off the grand Al-Hussain mosque which, according to local lore (although this is contested), contains the severed head of Imam Hussain, grandson of the prophet.

My Cairene friends were horrified at my decision. A cafeteria in the area, which was once popular with foreign tourists, had been bombed recently and numerous people, including some tourists, had been killed. “All sorts of shady characters lurk in these parts,” they warned. Hardly any foreign tourists, they said, dared to stay there now, preferring hotels in the more upmarket parts near the Nile for safety. The area, they added in order to dissuade me, was filthy. But I had to save money for the long stay I had intended and this miserable funduq was all I could afford. Besides, I wanted to see life in ‘Islamic Cairo’ first-hand. My ramshackle rat-infested inn, which charged me the equivalent of 300 rupees a night for a diminutive room, was the best place to be based in for that purpose. 

Densely populated ‘Islamic Cairo’ consists of a maze of lanes that envelops a dazzling number of ancient Islamic monuments – mosques, madrassas, tombs and Sufi lodges – some of which go back to as early as the eighth century. At the heart of this sprawling quarter is the grand Al-Azhar, considered to be the world’s most influential seat of Sunni Muslim scholarship. Despite its historical importance, ‘Islamic Cairo’, like much of the rest of the city, and indeed all of Egypt, had, as I saw it then, all the telltale signs of despair and discontent that are now being excitedly discussed in the media. Most of the houses in the area, narrow and dingy and built cheek by jowl, were rapidly collapsing; garbage piled up in enormous pyramids along the lanes and even basic civic amenities were conspicuous by their absence.

Overburdened with a rapidly expanding population, with only two per cent of the country’s land area inhabitable (the rest being desert), vast numbers of Egyptians had flooded into Cairo in recent years. Over half a million of them had made the ancient tombs in the City of the Dead adjacent to the ‘Islamic City’ their home where they lived in miserable poverty. Only some isolated parts of Cairo, such as leafy neighbourhoods across the Nile where the country’s minuscule elite, many of them tied to the Mubarak regime, lived, were cheery.

And as for the people, not just in this part of Cairo but across Egypt, I must confess (at the risk of political incorrectness) that I found them rude, gruff and aggressive, with notable exceptions, of course. The country’s dismal economic conditions may have had something to do with that but I suspect that this was not the only factor. There were simply not enough jobs for the ever increasing number of graduates. Prices were skyrocketing although, unlike India, almost everyone I saw, including hordes of beggars who thronged outside mosques, seemed reasonably well-fed. Inequalities were rapidly mounting and the government apparently had done precious little to address the issue. It was apparent that the massive amounts of money that America was supplying Egypt to bolster the Mubarak regime – Egypt is the largest recipient of American aid after Israel – was certainly not benefiting Egypt’s poor millions. Rather, most of it was probably spent arming Mubarak’s army, to be used to quash any dissent, and to prod Egypt to stay at peace with Israel. 

Outside Cairo the situation seemed to be even grimmer. Berbers in the remote Siwa oasis near the Libyan border complained of how they were forcibly denied their cultural rights and how the state was hell-bent on Arabising them in the name of Islam although they insisted they were better Muslims than the ‘Arab’ Egyptians. The more visibly ‘African’ Nubians, denizens of largely impoverished ‘upper’ Egypt near the Sudanese frontier, too suffered neglect at the hands of the government and racial prejudice at the hands of the more Arabised and politically dominant northerners. Violent attacks on Coptic Christian churches in the area (two such incidents were reported during my stay) by suspected Islamist radicals were propelling large numbers of Copts, who long predated the Muslims in the country, to flee to Cairo or, preferably, to the West.

The rapid depletion in the ranks of the country’s religious minorities was having a devastating impact, I was told by Egyptians concerned at where their country was heading, on the country’s economy and on its long-standing progressive traditions, shrinking the liberal space and making the task of those who wanted Egypt to be ruled in strict accordance with a literalist reading of the Shariah all the more easy. 

That task was also being impressively assisted by Mubarak’s dreaded repressive rule. Government informers, I was repeatedly warned, were on the prowl everywhere. Mubarak had brutally crushed all dissent and I was told to stay clear of any political discussions with the people I met. Even mosques, often the refuge of those who have no other space in Muslim societies to vent their opposition, were tightly controlled by the government. Mosque imams had to fall in line with state diktats. To ensure their compliance, they were paid by the state and were thus for all practical purposes its agents. Their Friday sermons were prepared by the governmental authorities. Their task was simply to read them out, whether or not they personally agreed with their contents, without adding or deleting a dot. If they dared to disobey and spoke their minds, they easily risked being thrown into prison, branded as rabble-rousing ‘fundamentalists’.

A young man I met at the Al-Azhar mosque told me how he was summarily dismissed from his job at a book booth located inside the mosque simply because he had stocked some titles other than those strictly prescribed by the authorities. Islamically assertive men feared to sport beards, for, as some of them who dared to do so told me, they could easily be branded as ‘fundamentalists’ and be carted off to jail. That explained why even in Al-Azhar, which churns out would-be ulema in their thousands every year, almost every student was beardless. The vast majority of them, like their teachers (widely respected ulema), wore western clothes and not the flowing ‘Islamic’ djellaba, in many cases not through choice but rather because of fear. “Muslims have more religious freedom in your India than here in Egypt,” many an Azharite told me. It was clear that Mubarak, like many other pro-American Arab dictators, found the spectre of radical Islamists useful even as he sought to crush it, it being just the handle he needed to extract crucial western backing for his hugely unpopular regime by projecting himself as a bulwark against ‘Islamic fundamentalists’.

 It was also apparent that as people grew increasingly restive against Mubarak’s rule, which he had hoped to turn hereditary by passing the mantle to his son, Islam was assuming the form of a potent vehicle to articulate opposition to his regime. The increasing public display of ‘Islamic’ religiosity that I observed was clearly a form of defiant assertion of identity, a political statement in the face of a dictatorial regime that was seen as having bartered away Egyptian, Arab and Muslim interests to its western overlords.

The much touted ‘Islamic revival’ I witnessed in Egypt (and I suppose the same could be said of the phenomenon in much of the rest of the ‘Muslim world’) was deeply conservative and in many senses frighteningly obscurantist. Hundreds of ‘private’ mosques, defying the law that sought to place mosques under close government surveillance, had sprouted up all over the country. Satellite television had effectively demolished the state’s monopoly on Islamic discourse, with dozens of ‘Islamic’ channels, many of them peddling a deeply conservative neo-Wahhabi brand of Islam, now being beamed into almost every home. Saudi-funded publishing houses did brisk business, the Islam they advertised being profoundly supremacist and anti-western but without being politically revolutionary. The Muslim Brotherhood continued to exercise a pervasive influence through its many frontal organisations. The hijab had become so ubiquitous, donned even by women who were not particularly pious themselves, that it was said that girls and women without hijab were automatically assumed to be Christians.

 All of these were signs not, I believe, of a sudden mass burst in piety, as is sometimes alleged by poorly informed journalists, although no doubt this might have been true in some individual cases. Corruption and brutality continued undiminished in civil society, even among the more visibly ‘Islamised’ sectors of it. Becoming more visibly ‘Islamic’ did not necessarily mean becoming more socially engaged or even more purist when it came to money matters.

To cite a telling instance, in the vast market just across the street from the Al-Azhar Seminary, the ‘Islamic’ hub of Cairo, over a hundred smart shops (scattered among dozens of ‘Islamic’ bookstores) specialised in shimmering bras and skimpy belly-dance costumes, specimens of which they slung tantalisingly outside their windows and which adorned rows of buxom mannequins. Some of these shops were run by veiled women, others by bearded men with large prayer callouses on their foreheads. This blatant defiance of Islamic morality had not sufficiently stirred the ulema and students of Azhar – who, one supposes, are the backbone of the ‘Islamic’ revival across the country – to protest. It was not just fear that had forced them into silence and indifference. It was probably also that such blatant sexism did not provoke their righteous anger in quite the same way that, say, hounding ‘heretical’ writers – in which the Azharites have taken a leading role – has. 

The public face of the ‘Islamic’ revival that was directed against the Mubarak regime (implicitly in some cases, overtly in the case of underground radical Islamists who have been subjected to harsh repression), which I saw all around me, was by no means a positive one even though its target – toppling Mubarak and his cronies – may have been a laudable objective. The dominant version of Islam that informed this revival seemed to me to be harsh, fun-less and punitive and at the same time thoroughly incapable of providing a progressive alternative to Mubarak’s regime although it definitely had the potency to challenge it.

It sat in the growls, scowls and permanent frowns of the vast numbers of men propelling it. It lay in voluminous tomes and fatwas that prescribed medieval laws for dealing with contemporary problems. It was definitely anti-intellectual, as reflected in the enormous number of books I spotted in Cairene bookstores that (so I learned from an Indian student at Al-Azhar who translated their titles and tables of contents for me) spoke of Islam in terms of empty slogans, offering no sensible guidance for running the affairs of a modern society and economy deeply networked into a globalised world. It was reflected in graffiti scribbled on street walls exclaiming in triumph, ‘East or West, Islam is the best’ and ‘Islam is THE solution’. It was also incarnated in waves of bombings of churches and the growing demonisation of local Christians as alleged conspirators against Islam. 

Mubarak certainly deserved to go, about that there is no doubt, but as to whether those who will now replace him, including possibly the Islamists, will prove to be any better, I am not so sure.

Archived from Communalism Combat, March 2011,Year 17, No.155- Revolution
Overcome 9/11 through 2/11
The road to reconciliation leads not through Baghdad or Kabul but through Tahrir

Perhaps the most effective antidote to 9/11 will prove to  be 2/11, the day Hosni Mubarak conceded the game was up with his 30-year-old dictatorship and left town under military escort for the beach.

We’ve tried invasions of Muslim lands. We’ve tried imposing new systems of government on them. We’ve tried wars on terror. We’ve tried spending billions of dollars. What we haven’t tried is tackling what’s been rotten in the Arab world by helping a home-grown, bottom-up movement for change turn a US-backed police state into a stable democracy.

This is the critical opportunity Egypt now presents. Islamist radicalism has thrived on the American double standards evident in strong support for the likes of Mubarak’s regime. It has prospered from the very brutal repression that was supposedly essential to stop the jihadists. And it has benefited from the reduction of tens of millions of Arab citizens to mere objects, shorn of dignity, and so more inclined to seek meaning in absolutist movements of violence.

If westernised Egyptians and the Muslim Brotherhood can coexist in Egypt’s nascent Second Republic, and if a long subjugated Arab people can show that it is an actor of history rather than its impotent pawn, the likelihood of another Mohamed Atta walking the streets of Cairo will recede.

In 18 riveting days Egypt has become a key to the unresolved 9/11 conundrum, the one President Obama promised to tackle by building bridges to the Muslim world, before Afghanistan diverted him.

“If we get Egypt right, it could be the best medicine to get rid of radicalism,” Mohamed ElBaradei, the Nobel Prize-winning opposition figure, told me.

In the Middle East, you expect the worst. But having watched Egypt’s extraordinary civic achievement in building the coalition that ousted Mubarak, having watched Tahrir Square become cooperation central and having watched the professionalism of the Egyptian army, I’m convinced the country has what it takes to build a decent, representative society – one that gives the lie to all the stereotypes associated with that dismissive shorthand “The Arab Street”.

In fact, post-Tahrir, let’s retire that phrase.Speaking of streets, I watched them get cleaned the morning after the revolution. All the sweeping, dusting and scrubbing tempted me to suggest that there was no need to get carried away and try to turn the glorious metropolis of dust, Cairo, into Zurich. But Marwa Kamal put me right.

Kamal, 26, looked proud in her purple hijab. She was next to a sign saying, ‘Sorry for disturbance, we build Egypt’. I asked why she swept. “All the dirt’s in the past,” she said. “We want to clear out the old and start clean.”

A retired chemist, Mahmoud Abdullah, stepped in: “This is a very precious generation,” he told me, pointing at her. “They did what we failed to do.”

Right now Egypt has no president, no vice-president, no Constitution, no Parliament and no significant police presence on the streets. But it has the meeting of generations between these two Egyptians; and it has a new sense of nationhood forged through countless other barrier-breaking discoveries of 18 shared revolutionary days.

Perhaps it was a good thing that, cocooned with his yes-men, Mubarak proved so stubborn, locked in the prison of his formal Arabic and his hubris while language and nation unloosed themselves. I think it was over once the army declined to shoot. But by lingering Mubarak gave Egyptians time to get to know each other.

Revolutions, like wars, have their interludes of boredom. They were filled with chat. And what did Egyptians find? Here’s one scene: Marwa Kassem, 33, westernised, living in Geneva, talking to bearded Magdy Ashour of Muslim Brotherhood sympathies. She’d rushed to Cairo after the uprising began. He’d joined the protests after a friend was killed. If they’d passed each other in the street a month ago, each would have pulled back from the other, divided by fear.

He tells her he was arrested at regular intervals. How often? Sometimes twice a month. And? Ashour’s 14-year-old son is watching. He asks him to leave, saying, “I want to show him freedom, not my cowardice.”

A frisson of tension stirs. Ashour stands up. They stripped me naked, he says, blindfolded me. He links his hands behind his back: this is how Mubarak’s security goons shackled him. They hung me from a hook on the wall, he says. Then came the electric shocks: to his toes, nipples, genitals.

There are tears in his eyes now. There are tears in Kassem’s, too. He pulls up his pants to his knee, revealing a terrible black scar on his calf. She cannot look. Why this treatment? “They wanted to know if I knew Osama bin Laden.”

What they both want now, this secular woman and this religious man, these two Egyptians, is a state of laws and rights.
Overcome 9/11 through 2/11: the road to reconciliation leads not through Baghdad or Kabul but through Tahrir. 

Archived from Communalism Combat, March 2011,Year 17, No.155 - Revolution

Courtesy: The New York Times;
The uprising
Democratic Turkey is the template for Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood

Even as the mass demonstrations began in Tunisia, who would have thought that Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali’s regime would have collapsed so quickly? Who could have predicted that Egypt would soon witness such unprecedented popular protest? A barrier has fallen. Nothing will be the same again. It is quite likely that other countries will follow the lead of Egypt, given its central and symbolic significance. But what will be the role of the Islamists after the collapse of the dictatorships?

The Islamist presence has for decades justified the West’s acceptance of the worst dictatorships in the Arab world. And it was these very regimes that demonised their Islamist opponents, particularly Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood which historically represents that country’s first well-organised mass movement with the political influence to match. For more than 60 years the Brotherhood has been illegal but tolerated. It has demonstrated a powerful capacity to mobilise the people in each relatively democratic election – to trade unions, professional associations, municipalities, Parliament and so on – where it has been a participant. So are the Muslim Brothers the rising power in Egypt and if so, what can we anticipate from such an organisation?

In the West, we have come to expect superficial analysis of political Islam in general and the Muslim Brotherhood in particular. However, not only is Islamism a mosaic of widely differing trends and factions but its many different facets have emerged over time and in response to historical shifts.

The Muslim Brothers began in the 1930s as a legalist, anti-colonialist and non-violent movement that claimed legitimacy for armed resistance in Palestine against Zionist expansionism during the period before World War II. The writings from between 1930 and 1945 of Hassan al-Banna, founder of the Brotherhood, show that he opposed colonialism and strongly criticised the fascist governments in Germany and Italy. He rejected the use of violence in Egypt even though he considered it legitimate in Palestine, in resistance to the Zionist Stern and Irgun terror gangs. He believed that the British parliamentary model represented the kind closest to Islamic principles. Al-Banna’s objective was to found an “Islamic state” based on gradual reform, beginning with popular education and broad-based social programmes. He was assassinated in 1949 by the Egyptian government under orders of the British occupiers.

Following Gamal Abdel Nasser’s revolution in 1952, the movement was subjected to violent repression. Several distinct trends emerged. Radicalised by their experience of prison and torture, some of its members (who eventually left the organisation) concluded that the state had to be overthrown at all costs, even with violence. Others remained committed to the group’s original position of gradual reform. Many of its members were forced into exile: some in Saudi Arabia where they were influenced by the Saudi literalist ideology, others in countries such as Turkey and Indonesia, Muslim-majority societies where a wide variety of communities coexist. Still others settled in the West where they came into direct contact with the European tradition of democratic freedom.

Today’s Muslim Brotherhood draws these diverse visions together. But the leadership of the movement – those who belong to the founding generation are now very old – no longer fully represents the aspirations of the younger members who are much more open to the world, anxious to bring about internal reform and fascinated by the Turkish example. Behind the unified, hierarchical façade contradictory influences are at work. No one can tell which way the movement will go.

The Muslim Brotherhood is not leading the upsurge that is bringing down Hosni Mubarak: it is made up of young people, of women and men who have rejected dictatorship. The Muslim Brotherhood, and the Islamists in general, do not represent the majority. There can be no doubt that they hope to participate in the democratic transition when Mubarak departs but no one can tell which faction will emerge in a dominant position. That makes it impossible to determine the movement’s priorities. Between the literalists and the partisans of the Turkish way, anything can happen; the Brotherhood’s political thinking has evolved considerably over the past 20 years.

Neither the United States nor Europe, not to mention Israel, will easily allow the Egyptian people to make their dream of democracy and freedom come true. The strategic and geopolitical considerations are such that the reform movement will be, and is already, closely monitored by US agencies in coordination with the Egyptian army which has played for time and assumed the crucial role of mediator.

By deciding to line up behind Mohamed ElBaradei, who has emerged as the chief figure among the anti-Mubarak protesters, the Muslim Brotherhood’s leadership has signaled that now is not the time to expose itself by making political demands that might frighten the West, not to mention the Egyptian people. Caution is the watchword.

Respect for democratic principles demands that all forces which reject violence, which respect the rule of law (both before and after elections), participate fully in the political process. The Muslim Brotherhood must be a full partner in the process of change – and will be, if a minimally democratic state can be established in Egypt (though no one can define the intentions of foreign powers).

Neither repression nor torture has been able to eliminate the Brotherhood. The opposite is true. It is only democratic debate and the vigorous exchange of ideas that have had an impact on the development of the most problematic Islamist theses – from understanding of the Shariah to respect for freedom and defence of equality. Only by exchanging ideas, and not by torture and dictatorship, can we find solutions that respect the people’s will. Turkey’s example should be an inspiration to us observers.

The West continues to use “the Islamist threat” to justify its passivity and outright support for dictatorships. As resistance to Mubarak mounted, the Israeli government repeatedly called on Washington to back his junta against the popular will. Europe adopted a wait-and-see stance. Both attitudes are revealing: at the end of the day, lip service to democratic principle carries little weight against the defence of political and economic interests. The US prefers dictatorships that guarantee access to oil and allow the Israelis to continue their slow colonisation, to credible representatives of the people who could not allow these things to continue.

Citing the voices of dangerous Islamists to justify not listening to the voices of the people is short-termist as well as illogical. Under both the Bush and Obama administrations, the US has suffered heavy losses of credibility in the Middle East; the same is true for Europe. If the Americans and Europeans do not re-examine their policies, other powers in Asia and South America may begin to interfere soon with their elaborate structure of strategic alliances. As for Israel, which has now positioned itself as friend and protector of the Arab dictatorships, its government may well come to realise that those dictatorships are committed only to its policy of blind colonisation.

The regional impact of Mubarak stepping down will be huge yet the exact consequences are unpredictable. After both the Tunisian and Egyptian revolutions, the political message is clear: with non-violent mass protest anything is possible and no autocratic government is safe and secure any longer.

Presidents and kings are feeling the pressure of this historical turning point. The unrest has reached Algeria, Yemen and Mauritania. One should also look at Jordan, Syria and even Saudi Arabia: preventive reforms have been announced, as if there were a common feeling of fear and vulnerability. The rulers of all these countries know that if the Egyptian is collapsing, they run the risk of the same destiny. This state of instability is worrying and at the same time very promising. The Arab world is awakening with dignity and hope. The changes spell hope for true democrats and trouble for those who would sacrifice democratic principle to their economic and geostrategic calculations. The liberation of Egypt seems to be just the start. Who will be next? If Jordan and Yemen follow, so will Saudi Arabia – the heart of the Muslim world – and Riyadh would be in a critical position with no choice but to evolve towards a more open political system.

Around the world, among Muslims, there is a critical mass that would support this move, the necessary revolution at the centre. In the end, only democracies that embrace all non-violent political forces can bring about peace in the Middle East, a peace that must also respect the dignity of the Palestinians.

Courtesy: The Huffington Post;​

Archived from Communalism Combat, March 2011,Year 17, No.155-Revolution

Fuel to the flame
The destiny of this pageant lies in the kingdom of oil

The Middle East earthquake of the past five weeks has been the most tumultuous, shattering, mind-numbing experience
in the history of the region since the fall of the Ottoman empire. For once, “shock and awe” was the right description.
The docile, supine, unregenerative, cringing Arabs of orientalism have transformed themselves into fighters for the freedom, liberty and dignity which we westerners have always assumed it was our unique role to play in the world. One after another, our satraps are falling and the people we paid them to control are making their own history – our right to meddle in their affairs (which we will, of course, continue to exercise) has been diminished for ever.

The tectonic plates continue to shift with tragic, brave – even blackly humorous – results. Countless are the Arab potentates who always claimed they wanted democracy in the Middle East. King Bashar of Syria is to improve public servants’ pay. King Bouteflika of Algeria has suddenly abandoned the country’s state of emergency. King Hamad of Bahrain has opened the doors of his prisons. King Bashir of Sudan will not stand for president again. King Abdullah of Jordan is studying the idea of a constitutional monarchy. And al-Qaeda are, well, rather silent.

Who would have believed that the old man in the cave would suddenly have to step outside, dazzled, blinded by the sunlight of freedom rather than the Manichaean darkness to which his eyes had become accustomed. Martyrs there were aplenty across the Muslim world – but not an Islamist banner to be seen. The young men and women bringing an end to their torment of dictators were mostly Muslims but the human spirit was greater than the desire for death. They are Believers, yes – but they got there first, toppling Mubarak while bin Laden’s henchmen still called for his overthrow on outdated videotapes.

But now a warning. It’s not over. We are experiencing today that warm, slightly clammy feeling before the thunder and lightning break out. Gaddafi’s final horror movie has yet to end albeit with that terrible mix of farce and blood to which we are accustomed in the Middle East. And his impending doom is, needless to say, throwing into ever sharper perspective the vile fawning of our own potentates. Berlusconi – who in many respects is already a ghastly mockery of Gaddafi himself – and Sarkozy and Lord Blair of Isfahan are turning out to look even shabbier than we believed. Those faith-based eyes blessed Gaddafi the murderer. I did write at the time that Blair and Straw had forgotten the “whoops” factor, the reality that this weird light bulb was absolutely bonkers and would undoubtedly perform some other terrible act to shame our masters. And sure enough, every journalist is now going to have to add “Mr Blair’s office did not return our call” to his laptop keyboard.

Everyone is now telling Egypt to follow the “Turkish model” – this seems to involve a pleasant cocktail of democracy and carefully controlled Islam. But if this is true, Egypt’s army will keep an unwanted, undemocratic eye on its people for decades to come. As lawyer Ali Ezzatyar has pointed out: “Egypt’s military leaders have spoken of threats to the ‘Egyptian way of life’… in a not so subtle reference to threats from the Muslim Brotherhood. This can be seen as a page taken from the Turkish playbook.” The Turkish army turned up as kingmakers four times in modern Turkish history. And who but the Egyptian army, makers of Nasser, constructors of Sadat, got rid of the ex-army general Mubarak when the game was up?

And democracy – the real, unfettered, flawed but brilliant version which we in the West have so far lovingly (and rightly) cultivated for ourselves – is not going, in the Arab world, to rest happy with Israel’s pernicious treatment of Palestinians and its land theft in the West Bank. Now no longer the “only democracy in the Middle East”, Israel argued desperately – in company with Saudi Arabia, for heaven’s sake – that it was necessary to maintain Mubarak’s tyranny. It pressed the Muslim Brotherhood button in Washington and built up the usual Israeli lobby fear quotient to push Obama and La Clinton off the rails yet again. Faced with pro-democracy protesters in the lands of oppression, they duly went on backing the oppressors until it was too late. I love “orderly transition”. The “order” bit says it all. Only Israeli journalist Gideon Levy got it right. “We should be saying ‘Mabrouk Misr!’,” he said. Congratulations, Egypt!

Yet in Bahrain, I had a depressing experience. King Hamad and Crown Prince Salman have been bowing to their 70 per cent (80 per cent?) Shia population, opening prison doors, promising constitutional reforms. So I asked a government official in Manama if this was really possible. Why not have an elected prime minister instead of a member of the Khalifa royal family? He clucked his tongue. “Impossible,” he said. “The GCC would never permit this.” For GCC – the Gulf Cooperation Council – read Saudi Arabia. And here, I am afraid, our tale grows darker.

We pay too little attention to this autocratic band of robber princes; we think they are archaic, illiterate in modern politics, wealthy (yes, “beyond the dreams of Croesus”, etc) and we laughed when King Abdullah offered to make up any fall in bailouts from Washington to the Mubarak regime and we laugh now when the old king promises $36bn to his citizens to keep their mouths shut. But this is no laughing matter. The Arab revolt which finally threw the Ottomans out of the Arab world started in the deserts of Arabia, its tribesmen trusting Lawrence and McMahon and the rest of our gang. And from Arabia came Wahhabism, the deep and inebriating potion – white foam on the top of the black stuff – whose ghastly simplicity appealed to every would-be Islamist and suicide bomber in the Sunni Muslim world. The Saudis fostered Osama bin Laden and al-Qaeda and the Taliban. Let us not even mention that they provided most of the 9/11 bombers. And the Saudis will now believe they are the only Muslims still in arms against the brightening world. I have an unhappy suspicion that the destiny of this pageant of Middle East history unfolding before us will be decided in the kingdom of oil, holy places and corruption. Watch out.

But a lighter note. I’ve been hunting for the most memorable quotations from the Arab revolution. We’ve had “Come back, Mr President, we were only kidding” from an anti-Mubarak demonstrator. And we’ve had Saif al-Islam al-Gaddafi’s Goebbels-style speech: “Forget oil, forget gas – there will be civil war.” My very own favourite, selfish and personal quotation came when my old friend Tom Friedman of The New York Times joined me for breakfast in Cairo with his usual disarming smile. “Fisky,” he said, “this Egyptian came up to me in Tahrir Square yesterday and asked me if I was Robert Fisk!” Now that’s what I call a revolution.

Courtesy: The Independent;

Archived from Communalism Combat, March 2011,Year 17, No.155 - Revolution
Why fear the Arab revolutionary spirit?
The western liberal reaction to the uprisings in Egypt and Tunisia frequently shows hypocrisy and cynicism

What cannot but strike the eye in the revolts in Tunisia and Egypt is the conspicuous absence of Muslim fundamentalism. In the best secular democratic tradition, people simply revolted against an oppressive regime, its corruption and poverty and demanded freedom and economic hope. The cynical wisdom of western liberals, according to which, in Arab countries, genuine democratic sense is limited to narrow liberal elites while the vast majority can only be mobilised through religious fundamentalism or nationalism, has been proven wrong. The big question is what will happen next? Who will emerge as the political winner?

When a new provisional government was nominated in Tunis, it excluded Islamists and the more radical left. The reaction of smug liberals was: good, they are basically the same; two totalitarian extremes – but are things as simple as that? Is the true long-term antagonism not precisely between Islamists and the left? Even if they are momentarily united against the regime, once they approach victory, their unity splits, they engage in a deadly fight, often more cruel than against the shared enemy.

Did we not witness precisely such a fight after the last elections in Iran? What the hundreds of thousands of Mousavi supporters stood for was the popular dream that sustained the Khomeini revolution: freedom and justice. Even if this dream was utopian, it did lead to a breathtaking explosion of political and social creativity, organisational experiments and debates among students and ordinary people. This genuine opening that unleashed unheard-of forces for social transformation, a moment in which everything seemed possible, was then gradually stifled through the takeover of political control by the Islamist establishment.

Even in the case of clearly fundamentalist movements, one should be careful not to miss the social component. The Taliban is regularly presented as a fundamentalist Islamist group enforcing its rule with terror. However, when, in the spring of 2009, they took over the Swat valley in Pakistan, The New York Times reported that they engineered “a class revolt that exploits profound fissures between a small group of wealthy landlords and their landless tenants”. If by “taking advantage” of the farmers’ plight the Taliban are creating, in the words of The New York Times, “alarm about the risks to Pakistan which remains largely feudal”, what prevented liberal democrats in Pakistan and the US from similarly “taking advantage” of this plight and trying to help the landless farmers? Is it that the feudal forces in Pakistan are the natural ally of liberal democracy?

The inevitable conclusion to be drawn is that the rise of radical Islamism was always the other side of the disappearance of the secular left in Muslim countries. When Afghanistan is portrayed as the utmost Islamic fundamentalist country, who still remembers that 40 years ago it was a country with a strong secular tradition, including a powerful communist party that took power there independently of the Soviet Union? Where did this secular tradition go?

And it is crucial to read the ongoing events in Tunisia and Egypt (and Yemen and… maybe, hopefully, even Saudi Arabia) against this background. If the situation is eventually stabilised so that the old regime survives but with some liberal cosmetic surgery, this will generate an insurmountable fundamentalist backlash. In order for the key liberal legacy to survive, liberals need the fraternal help of the radical left. Back to Egypt, the most shameful and dangerously opportunistic reaction was that of Tony Blair, as reported on CNN: change is necessary but it should be a stable change. Stable change in Egypt today can mean only a compromise with the Mubarak forces by way of slightly enlarging the ruling circle. This is why to talk about peaceful transition now is an obscenity: by squashing the opposition Mubarak himself made this impossible. After Mubarak sent the army against the protesters, the choice became clear: either a cosmetic change in which something changes so that everything stays the same, or a true break.

Here then is the moment of truth: one cannot claim, as in the case of Algeria a decade ago, that allowing truly free elections equals delivering power to Muslim fundamentalists. Another liberal worry is that there is no organised political power to take over if Mubarak goes. Of course there is not; Mubarak took care of that by reducing all opposition to marginal ornaments so that the result is like the title of the famous Agatha Christie novel, And Then There Were None. The argument for Mubarak – it’s either him or chaos – is an argument against him.

The hypocrisy of western liberals is breathtaking: they publicly supported democracy and now, when the people revolt against the tyrants on behalf of secular freedom and justice, not on behalf of religion, they are all deeply concerned. Why concern, why not joy that freedom is given a chance? Today, more than ever, Mao Zedong’s old motto is pertinent: “There is great chaos under heaven – the situation is excellent.”

Where then should Mubarak go? Here the answer is also clear: to The Hague. If there is a leader who deserves to sit there, it is him.


Archived from Communalism Combat, March 2011,Year 17, No.155-Revolution