For decades, the men who ruled the Arab world could justify their repression on two grounds. The state of Israel, they claimed, was one constant threat; and the threat of Islamic fundamentalism was the other. They claimed to stand alone between the devil and the deep sea. One would supposedly annihilate them; the other would destroy them, without specifying which was which, as they tried to convince the people they suppressed that there was no alternative.
One by one—or thousands by thousands—Arabs are disagreeing. Tunis, Cairo, perhaps Algiers—and who knows if Tripoli is next, and some day Riyadh.
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In spite of decades of Western support to the regimes of a Ben Ali here and a Mubarak there, there is method to the uprisings. The targets are the big men—we haven’t yet seen Western embassies attacked or flags burned. The demonstrators are not men in flowing beards with Kalashnikovs, who’d lock up their daughters, stop women from wearing skirts, ban music or kissing in public. In scene after scene, we see ordinary people, men and women fed up of having to live a life of lies, refusing to accept that their president had 90% support, unwilling to respect a parliament without an opposition, or read newspapers without freedom, or trust judiciaries that offered no justice, or rely on a police force that did the looting—one bribe at a time, as in Tunis, or ransacking the treasures of a museum, as in Cairo.
For too long, the Middle East was seen as exotic, the Other, to borrow the framework of the late Edward Said. Strong men promised to keep passions calm. If you tried to understand the society, television would show agitated faces of young men marching angrily, shouting “Death to America” on one hand, and clerics would issue sermons and ridiculous fatwas against women, deciding what they can wear and what they can do. They reinforced the message the strong man wanted conveyed —après moi, le deluge (after me, the deluge).
Many countries seemed outwardly calm. Two friends who were in Cairo for different reasons last November say they are stunned by the events. Uprisings are like that—those cities look placid 10 minutes before the tumultuous eruption. Think of Fujiyama—the Japanese mountain—and the calm without, fire within, as Nandalal Bose explained the ferment bubbling within the snow-capped peak to a young Satyajit Ray, who studied art under him at Santiniketan. In a recent conversation with the Financial Times, the Burmese Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi cited Timothy Garton Ash’s description life in Communist Europe, in explaining the Burmese condition: “It was like an iced-up pond, but life was going on beneath the surface.”
What has erupted in Arab streets and squares is that suppressed life. The dunes that looked calm and serene concealed a real world, kept buried within, which is now emerging from the sand. That creates fears of instability. But it is the instability of normalcy, where people take charge of their lives. It is the daily routine of walking the streets without fear, of expressing an opinion without wondering if someone else is watching or listening. Democracy is not an end; it is the means. There is no assurance that the people who will replace the current crop of leaders will necessarily be democrats. But it is crucial to note who is marching the streets—ordinary people, men and women.
The biggest lie, then, is to assume that the only people who want change are religious fundamentalists, or anti-modern, anti-Western ideologues. To be sure, they exist and are powerful. Hassan al-Banna, credited as the founder of the Muslim Brothehood, was Egyptian, as was Sayyid Qutb, and as Paul Berman demonstrates in his book, The Flight of the Intellectuals, there is a link connecting the Brotherhood with Abul Ala Maududi and his Jamaat-i-Islami, and, as Berman argues, it has shaped the intellectual underpinnings of the controversial Islamic scholar, Tariq Ramadan.
Men like Mubarak claim to stand against that tide. A joke doing the rounds in Cairo has US President Barack Obama telling Mubarak to prepare to say goodbye to the Egyptian people. “Why?” Mubarak asks. “Where are they going?” This echoes Bertolt Brecht’s poem, The Solution, in which a party functionary upset with the outcome of an election says:
Would it not be easier
In that case for the government
To dissolve the people
And elect another?
That time will end. The Egyptians have spoken, and Mubarak, who was never democratically elected in the first place, has said he has listened, and will leave in September. He may not have that much time.
For too long the discourse on “the West” and “Islam” had marginalized local liberal voices—“The Others’ Others”, as the legal scholar Karima Bennoune calls them. Intellectuals, trade unionists, women, writers and the marginalized. It is now their time, not of bearded sermonizers, or another man in uniform.
Salil Tripathi is a writer based in London. Your comments are welcome at email@example.com