Monday, January 31, 2011

The Egyptian Mirror

One of the more interesting aspects of the uprising in Egypt has been to watch the reactions of observers in the United States and Western Europe (a.k.a “The West”), and how readily what's happening on the streets of Cairo and other Egyptian cities is so easily conformed into the existing notions of the viewer. A few brief examples:

Egypt is the Bush Freedom Agenda in action. This is a position being pushed by former members of the Bush Administration as well as some neoconservative commentators. Bush made spreading the “blessings of liberty” around the world a key part of his foreign policy, it became the rationale for America's invasion of Iraq - at least once it was clear that no one was buying the whole Weapons of Mass Destruction thing. The idea was that a democratic Iraq would send ripples across the region, ushering in a wave of democratic conversions across the Arab world.
In reality, if anything, the uprising in Egypt is happening in spite of the Bush Freedom Agenda. The Arab street viewed the situation in Iraq not as something to emulate, but rather to avoid, especially after the chaotic period that gripped the country from 2003-2008. Bush further undermined his own Freedom Agenda by cozying up to Arab autocrats, including one Hosni Mubarak. And protesters in Cairo have been quick to note that the tear gas canisters Mubarak's police are firing at them are stamped “Made in the U.S.A.”.

The Revolution is Social Media in action! There's at least a little truth to this one; scenes of the successful uprising in Tunisia were widely shared via YouTube and Facebook, one Egyptian cleric said over the weekend that the people were not following him, but Facebook, and of course Egypt tried to bring the situation under control by killing the Internet in the country. That said it is easy to overestimate the impact of Social Media in the protests. Less than a quarter of Egyptians have access to the Internet (some estimates put the number at only 8-10%), and once the Internet went down, the protests actually got larger. Organizers resorted to old-fashioned methods like passing out leaflets and knocking on doors to get the word out. In fact, the media outlet that seemed to have the biggest impact on getting the people to rise up was Al-Jazeera, which beamed first the story of the Tunisian situation and later the first Egyptian uprisings to homes around the country (Egypt finally pulled the plug on Al-Jazeera over the weekend). Yes, Social Media has played a role in the Egypt revolts, but revolutions were happening long before Facebook went online, and this one almost surely would have happened without Twitter and YouTube as well.

Egypt will go all Fundamental Islamic. This meme has been gaining traction over the weekend in the American press, and comes from fears that Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood, which supports Hezbollah and Hamas, could “take over” in the power vacuum that would likely follow Mubarak's deposal. Not coincidentally, casting the MB as bogeyman is exactly the strategy that Mubarak has used for years to coerce Western nations to support his autocratic regime. But noted Egypt scholar Fawaz Gerges argued on MSNBC on Sunday that the Muslim Brotherhood's constituency within Egypt is in fact limited, perhaps only a third of the nation at best supports them, and that they have not been a leading force in the uprisings. He went on to argue that the MB has become more moderate and mainstream in recent years, leaving behind the violent radicalism that marked their rhetoric in the 80s and 90s. More important is the man on the street opinion. One Egyptian I saw on CNN asked the reporter: “who here is Muslim? Who is Christian? We are together and we want Mubarak gone.” The mood on the street certainly would seem more supportive of a broad coalition government than a fundamentalist Islamic state – after all, the Egyptians are trying to get rid of an oppressive regime not merely trade Mubarak in for a Taliban-style one. Would the Muslim Brotherhood be part of a coalition government? Yes, but that is not the same as “taking over”, and certainly is not an indication that Egypt is about to turn fundamentalist.

It's racism! Finally there's this nugget via my old University's email listserv where one student took great offense at the term “Day of Rage” as one of the early protests in Egypt was called, launching into a tirade about how “whites” viewed Africans as savages only capable of rage, etc., etc. Never mind that the term “Day of Rage” had been coined in Lebanon a week earlier to mark a protest over Hezbollah's attempts to appoint a new prime minister, or that reportage of the term seems to have originated with Qatar-based Al Jazeera. She wanted to see racism, and coverage of the events in Egypt allowed her to see it.

Just like a mirror.

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