Monday, February 21, 2011

Everyone wants a piece of the revolution

Lama Bashour

Re-published with permission from Lama's Scrapbook

Before we get into this, I'd like to clarify two things:

I am fully aware that the situation we are in is most likely the result of years and years of bad government policies and opportunistic behaviour by a select few.

I am even more aware that I will probably never make an impact in the real world, because my ideals are too extreme and frustratingly impractical.

Fortunately for me, and maybe unfortunately for you, technology has given me this platform to let my voice be heard, if only by a small number of people. I know that a lot of us are still high on the domino effect of democracy that started with Mohamed Bouazizi's desperate act of giving up on his country. Yet, we are struggling to find our own path, some of us asking for reform, others for a secular government. I am not quite sure, however, if we are just riding the wave of revolution or if there is a genuine desire (I had argued in an earlier post that I don't believe there is a real need) for change. Are we certain that we don't just want the desire to change, instead of change itself?

I look around me and all I see are individuals who are part of the system they want to change, benefiting from it and sometimes bending the rules when it suits their purpose. I see people demanding of their government economic reform, and asking it for more jobs for their followers. I see people lobbying for a secular government, claiming it's the other sect that is preventing it. I see people insisting on anti-corruption laws, and requesting a relative to make sure that their government application is processed quickly. And of course, time and time again, I see people ignoring others - in a queue, crossing the street, driving a car - as if they were not members of the same community they are seeking a better future with. I see you, because I am you.

The thing is, we can't ask for change, if we are unwilling to make it ourselves. So if any of us are serious about this revolution or whatever you want to call it, let's all take a long look at ourselves, and if we can't find anything worth improving, then we're not looking hard enough. And if what needs to be improved requires too much of a sacrifice, then we're not ready for it. And if we don't look at every single mistake, not just the ones that inconvenience us, as unacceptable, then we may never be.

You can join all the Facebook groups you want and retweet every piece of news you read, but the barrier of fear that was broken in Tunisia and Egypt is not the same as ours. Ours is much more difficult to overcome, because the enemy we fear is in us.

Saturday, February 19, 2011

The Hypocrite Inside of Me

Joseph El-Khoury 

"The true hypocrite is the one who ceases to perceives his deception, the one who lies with sincerity" Andre Gide (1869-1951)

So much has happened over the past few weeks that I struggled initially to find a specific thread for this piece.

To state the obvious, the Middle East is on the move after decades of stagnation and the absence of meaningful macro-political evolution, effectively since the 1980s. Being one of those who spent their University days dreaming of a new dawn of ‘Arab Revolt’ that would reverse the status quo emanating from the last Arab Revolt (Think Lawrence of Arabia, Lord Balfour and Sykes-Picot), I was bound to be shaken and stirred by the sight of hundreds of thousands of Arab men and women taking to the streets of Tunis, Cairo, Sana’a and now Manama and Benghazi in the name of a basic right to human decency. But a lot has been written about the emotional connection that transcends the fictitious borders established by the colonialists and their heirs. With my growing dose of cynicism, I will not be able to compete with the revolutionary fervour that has swept Tahrir square but also Twitter and Facebook to land at the doorstep of every Liberal Orientalist enthusiast. So I will stick to pointing out the slightly perverse side of the current maelstrom (not to be confused with Tsunami in the Lebanese context).

The Arab uprisings and specifically the Egyptian chapter of it uncovered a latent hypocrisy that defines the position of pretty much everyone interested in the Middle Eastern question. Many insist that Democracy is at the core of their wishes for this region. I would argue that it is more a case of democracy with a small ‘d’ that we all humbly aspire for. The US administration, which is contemplating the most serious threat to its regional pack of cards within matter of months proclaimed its understanding of the people’s aspiration, having spent decades and millions propping up the ugliest authoritarian regimes. You only need to google images of ‘Obama and Mubarak’ to confirm the admiration that the former had for the latter, until 10 minutes prior to his departure from office. France’s 180 degrees on the defunct Tunisian regime was as sharp. Ben Ali got on his plane believing Sarkozy was a genuine buddy to be disowned by the time he flew over Sardinia. But hypocrisy is not particular to our American friends. Fellow Arabs, of the ragtag Leftist, Islamist, Nationalist, Anti-Zionist alliance have so far successfully managed to shut down half of their brain matter in the assessment of the credentials of their own anti-imperialist allies. Iran, Syria and to a lesser degree Qatar are either ignored or reluctantly mentioned under duress as textbook examples of authoritarian, autocratic and intolerant regimes. The Baath party’s fondness for the art of political imprisonment and the Iranian Mullah’s tendencies for repressive social regulation are weighed against their supposed determination to liberate Palestine. I will not even comment on the Israeli government position, as the ‘Only democracy in the Middle East’ Pin-up verges on losing its misleading title while eyeing another expansionist adventure to its North and to its South. As for me, I will come clean and declare that I am torn between my animosity for the dictatorships and my discomfort at Islamist movements taking over the task of defining the next few decades, which I believe to be the likely outcome of recent events (and I say this out of conviction rather than scaremongering).

So the Egyptians rioting in Tahrir have also displaced the fig leaf and we have all been revealed stark naked for our biased, selective and superficial subscription to democratic principles, nominally the rule of the majority within a system guaranteeing the safeguard of individual and communal rights. Displacing one tyrant is no guarantee of freedom and prosperity. All is not lost and Democracy with a ‘D’ can be earned through the multifaceted struggle that begins once the naive anarchist fantasies of some are satisfied. This struggle will need to be led by reformists in the old tradition of a spearheading core with a solid perspective on the near and distant future. The uprising, beyond its very powerful symbolism in shattering the psychological wall of Arab impotence, should remain a means to an end. That end is still ill defined among true reformists and incomplete revolutions offered on a platter to military opportunists or retrograde faith/ethnically based organisations may yet bring a series of new challenges.

By all accounts this promises to be an exciting year... but then so was 1918. Unless!

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

‘Influencing each other’: Arab Democracy and America

Jade Salhab* 

 While the risings in Tunisia and Egypt unequivocally showed the universal appeal of democracy, they also showed the fragility of the ‘democratic grasp’ among many Americans and Arabs. By ‘democratic grasp’ I mean the profound understanding that any group of people - popular or elitist, spontaneous or organized - can harbor a genuine diversity of views on any given issue. Despite the generalized belief in the merits of democratic governance, ‘democratic grasp’ was often forgotten when analyzing the latest social and political events. We can do better, if we’re really aiming for true democratic practice in both worlds. We can do better, if we’re really hoping to inaugurate a new era of respectful relations between both worlds.

As protesters poured into Tahrir Square, pundits and amateurs alike were pouring their thoughts into the public sphere expressing sincere admiration for the ‘Egyptian people’ and the ‘spirit of democracy’ they embodied.

But as we look back - now that we‘re trying to learn from these events– one thought comes to mind: throughout the turbulent process, Arabs and Americans analyzed each others’ moves using incredibly counterproductive and misleading simplifications.

Let’s start with some common misreadings in the United States.

The better known one is the Conservatives’ fear that Mubarak’s autocratic regime would be replaced by a Muslim Brotherhood theocratic regime. But the more interesting one is found among Liberals who, understating any influence of the Muslim Brotherhood, admire the ‘revolution of Wael-Ghonim’s young and inspired Internet generation’. The protests, they assert, were led by this emerging, free-minded youth that has awoken and is about to sweep the Arab world out of the yoke of darkness.

In fact, not only were both of these groups equally active actors in the Egyptian rising, but they were also two among many. Heaps of protesters were simple workers, yearning for a better life, better salaries, and lower prices. Many were also from a previous generation, alienated by the excessive submissiveness of Mubarak to the American-Israeli geopolitical interests. Any Arab individual would be able to describe how diverse the crowd was and how this ‘Egyptian people’ was, in fact, composed of Muslim conservatives, young liberals, workers and union-organizers, leftist intellectuals, nationalist Nasserites and many more. In contrast, few in the US lent themselves to such a nuanced reading of the movement, and fewer even are ready to put-up with the diverse -and possibly inconsistent - perspectives and aspirations that will very shortly start emerging from it.

Here’s why this is important: if Americans are unable to truly think democratically and accept this diversity, they will also be unable to effectively support democracy in Egypt, consequently deepening the rift between America and the Arab world.

But let’s also take a moment to look at how much democratic grasp we, the Arabs, have shown in our interpretation of ‘America’ and its response to the protests.

Many Arabs started criticizing ‘America’ from the moment the protests broke out. For some, Obama was not doing what he could to support the rise of democracy in Egypt; for others he was acting hypocritically: supporting the crowds and abandoning the 30-years-long loyal dictator only because he had no other choice. For Hassan Nasrallah it was even doing both things at the same time - go figure.

Ironically, one argument was recurrently used by all critics alike: the contradictory messaging of the Obama administration throughout these 18 days. The argument goes like this: “Americans say one thing and then its opposite: They are either trying to bet on both horses, or trying to hide their true agenda”.

Here’s my question: how can we Arabs be nuanced enough to understand the complexities of the Egyptian dynamics - or ultra-complex Lebanese dynamics for that matter- and yet fail to understand that ‘America’ is not one single block?

An article on Sunday in the New York Times plainly exposes how divided the American administration really was: rather than being the monolithic, all-conspiring, all-powerful, synchronized, hegemonic and satanic machine that your average Arab taxi driver is always eager to blame for the world’s misfortune, ‘America’, it turns out, was truly debating its way to a new era of relations with the Arab world.

The article shows how the White House staff - composed of a younger and more progressive team - was genuinely inclined to back the protests and honor Obama’s Cairo speech, while the State Department - composed of overly prudent, institutional realpolitik bureaucrats that are as nimble and dynamic in their minds as a tanker ship – where trying to save the furniture of the Titanic.

One tempting conclusion from the article is that the mixed messaging was simply a failure on behalf of the White House to tame the State Department and keep its diplomats on message (the message being: “the orderly transition to democracy needs to start now, and now means yesterday”). But a deeper conclusion would be that between those who want change and those who fear it, those focused on principles and those on interests, a genuine internal debate is raging in America, and this White House is struggling to strike a reasonable balance.

The general point I’m trying to make is that peoples, organizations, and even administrations in free societies - as well as not so free ones - are diverse, incoherent, inconsistent, and dynamic. Acknowledging this fact is of the essence, if we are to build a democratic society - or pretend to be one, in the case of the USA. Acknowledging this fact is of the essence as well, if we are to find common grounds that will encourage ‘America’ to develop a more nuanced and reasonable foreign policy towards our region.

It is time for Arabs to understand that the American Administration is not a cohesive hegemonic imperialist machine, as much as it is time for Americans to understand that Arabs are not a lump of sheep-minded followers of retrograde imams. Only then can we start ‘influencing each other’ as Bashar el Assad - of all people - has eloquently put it in his recent interview with the Wall Street Journal. Only then can we consolidate truly democratic behavior within and between our respective worlds.

*Jade Salhab is a Lebanese architect and urban planner, born in Beirut in 1976. He graduated from the American University of Beirut in 1999. He  went on to complete a Masters in Urban Environment and Sustainable Development as well as  post-graduate studies in Urban Planning at the Universitat Politécnica de Catalunya in Barcelona. Between 2002 to 2010 he lived and worked in Brussels where he established a succesful private consultancy firm. He is currently based at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government completing a Masters in Public Administration.

Saturday, February 5, 2011

Demonstration in support of Democracy in Egypt - London 5/02/11

The following snapshots were taken earlier today outside the Egyptian Embassy in London.  I am hoping they catch the positive and diverse atmosphere that prevailed throughout the afternoon.They are dedicated to the brave activists maintaining the pressure in Egypt and abroad in the hope of a better future.

The Egyptian Uprising: On the Universal Aspiration for Freedom

Karl Sharro

Published with permission from Karlremarks

The sheer exhilaration that I felt in response to the Egyptian uprising, admittedly as a voluntarily-implicated observer, has been somewhat dampened by the reaction of Western elites to this phenomenal display of courage and yearning for change. On the one hand, it seemed that the Egyptian people have managed, despite extremely adverse circumstances, to translate the universal ideals of liberty and autonomy into concrete political actions that have inspired millions around the world. But on the other hand it seems to have exposed how little faith in those very same ideals there is in the West today, as exemplified by the strange debates that are being conducted about the prospects of the Egyptian uprising. The most bizarre suggestion that I have heard is that this uprising somehow vindicates the neo-con position that democracy is possible in the Middle East! This confirms the impression that I had about the anti-Iraq War camp: its opposition to the War was not based on a principled rejection of Western intervention but on its lack of faith in democracy and liberty as universal values.

This position is normally phrased through the language of cultural relativism: we can’t impose our values on other cultures, we can’t pretend to know what’s better for other people, and the democratic model is not suitable for everyone. To be sure, many Arab intellectuals have fully absorbed this patronising outlook, ironically by uncritically accepting ideas that are fashionable in Western academic circles. The most blatant omission within such assumptions is that the problem here is not in the values themselves but in the act of their forceful imposition. Democracy can only thrive as a translation of popular will, and that can only develop within an autonomous framework. It is absolutely hypocritical of the West to pretend today that democracy is not suitable for Egypt, having interfered actively for several decades to prop up the Mubarak’s regime and support with large packages of military aid, and not see that as one of the key factors that worked against the development of the pro-democracy movement. The gnashing of teeth in Washington about the prospect of Egypt turning into ‘another Iran’, aside from being unjustified, is even more hypocritical considering the historic support that the US lent to Islamic movements with the aim of fighting the spread of communism.

The historical short-sightedness that afflicts the contemporary Western outlook towards the Arab world completely ignores the history of secular movements and uprisings there throughout the 20th century, and even more blatantly ignores the role of the West in combating the spread of those movements. The most pressing question for Western elites has now become whether it is possible for democracy to develop in Arab countries, feeding the scepticism and anxiety about the Egyptian uprising. Astoundingly, it doesn’t strike any of those asking this question that merely posing it is incredibly patronising, as if there is something about Arabs that is inherently opposed to democracy. Many will point to the victory of Hamas in the Palestinian elections and the victory of the Islamic Front in the 1992 elections as evidence that Arabs will inevitably vote for Islamic parties when given the chance. Aside from the obvious disregard for democracy that this suggests, it also ignores the context in which those electoral victories were achieved. Crucially, Western intervention had a role to play in both instances: by backing the authoritarian Algerian regime and by promoting the forcefully pushing the peace process that discredited the Palestinian Authority and led to popular discontent with its rule.

But what’s happening now in Egypt should be a reminder that democracy is a messy business, unlike the neutered version that European bureaucrats promote today. But Western elites can only understand democracy through the prism of the paternalistic version they have been promoting for decades and that’s why the un-predictability of the Egyptian uprising scares them. No one knows for certain what the outcome will be, especially given the frantic Western efforts to find a suitable solution that would maintain ‘stability’, but the brave actions of the Egyptian people today are the living embodiment of the universal aspirations for freedom and democracy. It is Western elites and governments that are betraying those ideals through their hypocritical and cynical attitude. The sheer arrogance of suggesting that people who are risking their lives by standing up against a brutal regime are not ‘ready for democracy’ is insulting and patronising. Western governments should stop lecturing about democracy now that their lack of belief in it has been starkly exposed.

But as one friend jokingly remarked, perhaps the West is not ready for democracy yet.