Maybe western leaders are afraid that, having seen what it is like when a people dictate to their government what it should do for them, rather than the reverse, we might start to take our own rights back, wholesale
Europeans just cannot seem to get Islam, or more properly, Islamism, out of their heads. This seems to be particularly true of Europeans who have not spent much time in the Islamic world, and whose idea of immersion journalism is to spend an afternoon wandering round an immigrant neighbourhood in the European capital city of their choice with a view to chatting up a few swarthy-looking men over a cup of mint tea.
And even some more serious writers have ended up falling into the same trap over the last few weeks. Take Timothy Garton Ash, for instance, whose reporting of the decline of the Soviet empire in Eastern Europe in the 1980s was exemplary in its combination of in-depth research and first-hand experience. In a series of articles in The Guardian, Garton Ash has been greeting the wave of insurrections sweeping across the Arab world with a wall of worry. In his latest piece, published last week, a visit to the Calle de Tribulete in Madrid plunged him into new depths of anxiety. Despite garnering some half-hearted expressions of ill-defined hope, it was not long before he and his interlocutors were overtaken by the memories of terrorism past. He even managed to run into a young man at a bus stop spouting Wahhabi-inspired anti-semitic conspiracy theories to casual passers-by. Needless to say, the overall effect was far from encouraging.
“Only a fool would fail to recognise that this is a moment of danger, as well as opportunity,” he concludes. “The path forward for Tunisia and Egypt is far less clear than it was for east European countries – and there is no warm, safe house of EU membership beckoning at the end of the road.”
The leitmotiv of Garton Ash’s fears is that the threat of Islamic fundamentalism is real, however it may have been instrumentalised by western democrats and their client dictators, and that the task now falls to Europe to do something to prevent this menace from bring translated into reality. Without our help and guidance, the current upheaval in our Arab neighbours is likely to install regimes more oppressive for their citizens, and more dangerous for us than those which they have replaced.
The problem with this scenario is not just that it depends on a faulty reading of history, one which minimises or ignores the role of the western powers in supporting the rise of Islamism in the first place, and in particular in installing a theocratic regime in Iran in order to ensure ‘stability’ and preempt a genuinely progressive revolution. Even if history did agree with Garton Ash, his argument would still be undermined by the present. For it is entirely contradicted by everything we know about what is happening today in Egypt, the only one of these revolutions so far to have reached a point where, at least provisionally, the balance of power seems to have given the revolutionaries some measure of control.
All the reports we have concur that once this particular Arab street had liberated itself, its first instinct was not to revert to some authoritarian moralistic Golden Age, the mediaeval theme park of Orientalist imagination, but rather to create an entirely new kind of society symbolised by and embodied in the occupation of Tahrir Square. The result, as Yasmine El-Rashidi has described it, was something like a cross between a vernacular religious festival (the kind of joyfully chaotic carnival which textbook Islamists generally cannot stand), and an anarchist commune. A space that was self-organising, self-securing, self-policing, self-recycling, and in which people were constantly devolving power back to one another – devout Muslims to Christians and to ‘godless’ youth, has-been and potential leaders to the mass of the people, and soldiers (up to fairly senior officer rank) to civilians.
In other words, absent outside intervention, whether positive or negative, the most likely course of the Arab revolutions now in progress would be to produce creative forms of political organisation and social conviviality which, while rooted in the long histories of their indigenous cultures, and in the more recent civilisational traditions that overlay them, are as unprecedented in the experience of those now living through them as they are unpredictable for external observers.
The problem, then, is not what Europe can do to help them, but how we Europeans can keep our governments safely out of their way, and ensure that our political and financial elites do not try to subvert these movements for their own purposes. (This is a practical problem, and it requires practical solutions – that is, things we can do, not just things we can demand that others do.) The greatest problem facing Egypt today is not the Muslim Brotherhood, or high levels of poverty and illiteracy, but the vicious co-dependency that exists between the upper echelons of the Egyptian army, the Israeli military-political complex and the bi-partisan US establishment, and of which the most obscene symbol is the US armament casings that littered the streets of Cairo after the insurrection’s blackest days
“Friends of the family”
Led by the Egyptians and the Tunisians, the Arab world stands on the brink of inventing forms of democracy and participation that should not only destroy the dominant Orientalist image of the region once and for all, but from which the people of the US and Europe have much to learn, too. What is not clear is whether the leaders of the west, and their paranoid courtiers in the media, are ready to let us benefit from this inspiration.
The good news, however, is that it is probably already too late for them to stop us. The people of the west have already had ample opportunity to see both what real democracy in action looks like over the last month – what it is like, that is, when people take their rights for themselves, rather than voluntarily down-converting them into “privileges” to be granted by a higher authority – and how our so-called democratic leaders react when confronted with this kind of behaviour. From Tony Blair’s description of Mubarak as “a force for good”, to Hillary Clinton’s admission that she and her husband counted the dictator of Egypt and his wife as “friends of the family”, or the revelations that half the French cabinet seems to have been relying on North African tyrants for cut-rate holidays and last-minute travel plans, we have been reminded of something that should have been obvious from the beginning. The attitude of our elected leaders towards the bullies, torturers and thieves who still continue to run a large part of the tragically misnamed “developing world” is not just one of uncomfortable tolerance. These are their friends, their allies, their co-conspirators. Though the ways in which they have risen to power may differ, the culture which that power confers upon them is essentially the same.
The problem with Blair and Clinton is not that they are prepared to compromise their Enlightenment values for the sake of political expediency – in order to protect Israel, to ensure access to cheap energy resources, or to take advantage of a police force that is happy to torture their prisoners for them while they keep their own hands clean. The real problem with ‘our’ leaders is that they have more in common with ‘their’ leaders than they do with the vast majority of the people whom they are widely, if implausibly, supposed to ‘represent’. And that, in the end, is why we need laws: not to govern us, but to restrain them.
Of course, the web of ties which binds together the internally violent and corrupt police states that still run most of the extractive zones of the world economy, and the externally violent and corrupt oligarchies-by-consent which are the ornament (and, increasingly, not much else) of those zones where consumption is the dominant form of oppression, is structural in nature, as well as personal. This is not just about Tony and Hillary sipping drinks by the pool with Hosni and Suzanne. Our governments and corporations sell their armies and police forces “non-lethal” weapons, and then train them in how to use them to create maximum terror among their populations. And we do this, not out of the kindness of our hearts, but precisely so that they can sell us in return their countries’ natural resources at a discount to the rate that would have to be applied if it was recognised that these resources belonged to all the people of that country, collectively and indivisibly, and not just to some tiny tyrannical minority that has managed to grab hold of the levers of former colonial power, and re-purpose them for the post-colonial era.
In this context, David Cameron’s decision to surf the wave of people power by stopping over in Egypt on Monday looks particularly opportunistic, on the part of a man whose government has managed in the space of a few months to authorize sales of tear gas to Bahrain, crowd-control ammunition to Libya, combat helicopters to Algeria and armoured personnel carriers to Saudi Arabia. Wherever we shouldn’t have been selling weapons this winter, we have been doing it. And our role in equipping dictators and their goons seems set to continue this week at the International Defence Exhibition and Conference (IDEX), the largest arms trade exhibition in the Middle East, which opened in Abu Dhabi Sunday. The Middle East remains a ‘priority market’ for the UK industry, supported by UKTI, and one in ten of the exhibitors at IDEX are UK-based companies.
Bringing Tahrir to Kensington
One of Garton Ash’s more implausible claims is that Europe has a duty to help the Arab nations determine their path going forwards, because we have a particularly rich experience of achieving successful transitions from dictatorship to democracy. It could equally well be said, however, that our power elites have a particularly rich experience of ensuring that the transition from colonial dependency to independent state in Africa, the Middle East, Latin American and large parts of Asia, turned out entirely compatible with the continuation and intensification of the old colonial circuits of exploitation and oppression.
Indeed, even within Europe itself, our leaders have always tried to ensure that any transition from authoritarianism to democracy, while openly welcomed, was effectively emptied of any real substance. In the process, ‘democracy’ was transformed from the real lived participation of all in the government of everyday life, into a pure spectacle – a system of propaganda that exists principally to make injustice and inequality far more ‘bearable’ than could any explicitly authoritarian regime (as Saroj Giri recently suggested, in the course of comparing the events in Egypt to the situation in India). Seen in this way, the advice of our governments on how to manage the ‘transition’ to democracy is probably something the Arab world will want to do without.
But that does not mean that Europe and the Arab world have nothing to learn from each other. On the contrary. If the revolutions now underway across the region are indeed able to deliver on their promise of reempowering their people, without being subverted by the combined economic and military power of the USA, the EU, Israel and Saudi Arabia, then it may be that the new Arab nations which emerge from this process will need and want to share their experience with us. Indeed, they may see it as vital to their own interests to help us, the people of Europe, retake control over our own economies and our own societies, not simply in order to export their revolution, but as the minimum condition for transforming us into a good neighbour for the rest of the region, rather than the source of chronic instability and insecurity we have been over the past several centuries.
Ongoing protests and actions in places from Madison, Wisconsin, to Central London have already appealed to the Egyptian experience, both explicitly, and symbolically. American public service workers last week brandished Egyptian flags to express their rejection of the state’s attempts to deprive them of their union rights, while British activists have called for a day of action in March to “bring Tahrir Square to Hyde Park”. While the nature of every act of human revolt is specific and, at some level, untranslatable, the energy of empowerment which it releases is by its nature infectious, and transgressive. How long before here, in the West, our own governments’ politically-motivated “austerity” programmes create the conditions in which a thousand Tahrirs can bloom? Looking back to recent events in France and Greece, we may feel that day is perhaps not so far away.
Noam Chomsky recently claimed that what western leaders are really afraid of is not an Islamist takeover in the Arab region, but the emergence of genuinely independent and democratic Arab states which will no longer kow-tow to Washington and do its bidding. That is surely part of the story. But I believe that what they are most afraid of is not just the emergence of democracy in the Arab world. However uncomfortable and embarrassing that may be, they know they can live with it. What they are most afraid of is that, having slept through the last 60 years of democracy, their own citizens/subjects may be about to wake up again to their own power: that, having seen what it is like when a people dictate to their government what it should do for them, rather than the reverse, we might start to take our own rights back, wholesale, rather than waiting for our rulers to grant us them in homeopathic doses – or fob us off with a placebo.
The victory of the revolutionaries of Tahrir Square, however partial and provisional, reminds us that we once started our own revolution, and that we failed to finish it. Maybe this is our time that has come again, too.
 See Serge Bricianer, Une étincelle dans la nuit – Sur la révolution iranienne 1978-1979, Ab Irato, Paris, 2002, for an account of how Iranian workers’ movements were sidelined and ultimately defeated in 1979.
 See “CAAT condemns empty words from Government as arms sale drive continues” and “UK arms sales to Middle East include tear gas and crowd control ammunition to Bahrain and Libya” for more details.
About the author
Frederick Bowie is an independent journalist. He has spent many years living and working in the Middle East, and was a regular contributor to Al-Ahram Weekly (Cairo).