Saturday, 4 May 2013

First published in the Backbencher April 23 2013

Revolutionary Egypt

Revolutions tend to follow a pattern – the situation becomes intolerable for too many people, leaders emerge and the old regime is thrown over. Not long after, the revolution goes bad as the new leaders introduce worse conditions than existed before and lives are thrown into brutal disarray. The seeds of anarchic self-destruction are somehow built into the revolutionary project from the beginning although rarely recognized at the time by those who are living through it. The legacies of Robespierre, Stalin and Mao are well known cautionary tales for the youthful would-be-revolutionary.

So what of the recent revolutionary ‘Arab Spring’ in the Middle East – does it fit the same model? We should first note that the term ‘Arab Spring’ carries western assumptions that imply an eventual goal to grow to look like western summertime democracies. We – or at least western media – continue to read the events of other cultures through a lens configured by our values and our history.  Our default assumption is that what happens will be right if it fits our model and wrong if not.

Such cultural imperialism is either niave or ideologically contrived. We are not simply witness to the unfolding of these events, we are instrumental in it – economically, militarily and historically.  The track of global capitalism lead by the west is not optional, it is causal and structures the possibilities for the ‘Middle East’ – again a term configured by its position relative to the West. We would like to believe that the blood is not on our hands and we try our hardest to preserve that illusion, but we are wrong.

I travel to Egypt quite regularly and have several Egyptian friends – what do I see when I look in their eyes a few years after their revolution? I see increasing anxiety, fear and despair. They don’t know where the revolution is going and they imagine the worst. The Muslim Brotherhood led by Mohamed Morsi has suggested that Palestinians could live in the Sinai – a suggestion treated with horror by the people who live there. Unemployment is high and the streets of big cities are no longer safe. Even more ominously the pay of military personnel has been increased nearly four times – a move clearly intended to buy their loyalty. My Egyptian friends comment with a measured degree of humour, on the irony of this because the revolution was in large part a revolution against the oppressive military – but it is the military that ends up being heavily rewarded! Buying off the security services clearly fits the pattern of the big revolutions – it expresses the fragile paranoia of a marginal leadership.

I tend to move my conversations quickly on to brighter subjects when my friend’s emotions rise and their eyes beginning to water, but the fact that I have to do this worries me even more. The fears they are dealing with are not mere abstract cerebral matters for political discussion, this is their lives and the futures of their children at stake and there are very few positive indicators. On the occasions – usually when there is no one else around – that our conversation does go to speculate the future, their talk is bounded by hope and faith rather than reasoned speculation.

And there is perhaps the nub of the matter. We assume that the affairs of humankind should and could be led by careful equity structured reason. Sadly and especially when we are pressed in to conflict, reason seems to fail us and we reach for something else.

What is it? Prayer?


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