Who decides?

7 replies
Joined: 26 January 2011

 Throughout the ‘revolts’ and ‘rebellions’ across the so-called Arab world, a persistent theme was that the Arabs were ‘awakened’ (e.g., ‘the Arab awakening’, ‘Le réveil arabe’, ‘Arabische Erwachen’  or ‘el despertar árab’). So many commentators in both the old and the new media alike often repeated the mantra that the Arab ‘revolutions’ signalled an ‘awakening’, if not long-time coming, one that at least was overdue. Does the triumph of the term ‘awakening’ to describe these revolts and rebellions indicate orientalism, linking these revolutions to their original incarnations in European and American revolutions? Yet, using the term ‘awakening’ may also indicate that these revolutions fall short of full ‘enlightenment’ and are ‘merely’ awakening. This way judgement is held as to their consequences. If, for example, Muslim Brotherhood succeeds in Egypt to gain power, it may well be that Egypt will not deserve the full enlightenment badge and may even be downgraded from ‘awakening’. What decides? What makes an interpretation prevail over others?  What do you think? 

Joined: 2 February 2011

I've argued elsewhere [1] that this apparent 'awakening' of the Arab peoples is born out of an appropriation of the revolutions to what has been referred to as "best democratic practice" - that is, western secular traditions. Understood from this perspective, the insistence on describing the revolutions as an awakening is associated with their perceived 'non-Islamic' character. It therefore follows that the 'overdue awakening' is at the very least partially attributed to notions of the incompatibility of Islam with democracy.

In the first few minutes of this interview, Prince Hassan of Jordan rejects the notion of the incompatibility of Islam with democracy and argues instead that it is oil and the politics of oil that are incompatible with democracy.

The questions posed in the opening of this forum bring these issues to the fore. Will the story of an Egyptian ‘awakening’ be followed by a sequel on ‘enlightenment’ if the Muslim Brotherhood come to power? What about Libya with its vast oil wealth? Is it Islam, or even Islamism, that are incompatible with democracy, or is it, as Noam Chomsky argues, the politics of control (and as follow, of oil)?.

We already know how the world reacted to a democratic election in an Arab country which was won by an Islamist party. The boycott of Hamas is the 'price' being paid by Palestinians under siege. It is as if the boycott of Hamas was not preceded by decades of the boycott of the Palestinian story itself.

The Egyptian activists have at least changed this. They found a way of telling their stories to the world: stories of hardship, of injustice, of resilience, of hope and of dignity. If the Muslim Brotherhood does come to power in Egypt, will the stories of the Egyptian people still find receptive ears or will their stories share the fate of Palestinian stories? And how different will the Libyan story be when the oil is no longer controlled by Qaddafi?

[1] http://www.oecumene.eu/blog/whats-in-a-name-that-which-we-call-tahrir
[2] http://urdunmubdi3.ning.com/video/change-human-dignity-prince
[3] http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/cifamerica/2011/feb/04/radical-i...

Joined: 25 January 2011

Egyptians voted on 19 March 2011 in a referendum on changes to the constitution that will accelerate new parliamentary and presidential elections to take place within six months. The revolutionary youth of Egypt are concerned that early elections will favour long-established political parties such as the Muslim Brotherhood and the former ruling National Democratic Party. Their argument is that new political forces which came to play during the days of the revolution would still need time to better prepare themselves to compete in elections. This is why they rallied for a ‘No’ vote in the referendum.

However, despite the revolutionary youth’s major campaining efforts, the country voted for constitutional change and early elections with overwhelming majority. The outcome of the referendum means a waking up to sobering reality for many of the activists involved in the revolutionary movement. It just reminds us once more that for all of us awakening might be a process of seconds but substantially changing the political landscape of a country of 80 Million will take more time.

Joined: 2 February 2011

In order to think about the figure of the “awakening” I would like to start calling the attention to the figure of “the people” involved in these revolts. Who would be awakened after all? We have been witnessing right from the beginning a constant reference to a certain people, and more particularly to certain demands of this people, as if they had been always there, in silence, waiting for their hour to be expressed. But we should be aware of the fact that the shift from populations to people is not a trivial one. We can think that in fact, these populations became peoples precisely at the moment of their appearance on the streets (in the Arendtian sense), constituting a new public (space). If we consider that “the people” to whom every discourse referred to didn’t actually exist as a consistent referent for these discourses prior to its actual articulation in the event of the revolts and trough the actual articulation of their demand for their respective governments to leave power, we will find that these peoples are already the object of a “global” political struggle. At stake is the definition of who these peoples are. If these “whos” then depend on the kind of demands that configure them as a people, at stake is the insistence on the claims for freedom, democracy, justice, dignity, that have been pretty much at the centre of every debate. The struggle for the meaning of these idealsin the context of the revolts is an ongoing one, and it is under this light that we could think that the orientalising figure of the “awakening” doesn’t come alone as a bad persistent colonial habit… The fears about what will come after, the actual interventions –or for that matters, the considerations about whether to intervene or not, where, when and how- of foreign powers, are part of this struggle over the meaning of these political claims and therefore, what kind of people these peoples may become –yes, it is about colonial control. Of course this will of power is expressed in the figure of the awakening, but maybe this figure is also “unconsciously” expressing these fears on another level, for it maybe the case that these peoples are not so much just (re)awakening to a euro-american liberal democracy, that is the rhetorical colonial hope, but that they are too awake to believe in its sweet dreams.

Joined: 15 February 2011

The recent western media craze for the so-called 'Arab awakening' seems to reveal the ironic 'nearness' of the Arab world to Europe or the western world. People in North Africa and Middle East are, for them, 'the Other' next door. The Otherness at their door step has been always there conveniently for Europe to re-define themselves as something completely opposite. Civilised/barbaric, democratic/autocratic, reasonable/fanatic etc, etc. The Other next door is so close that their otherness appears acutely different, contrary, and incompatible to Europe. Their Otherness is also something Europe can imagine as a clear fear because of their physical, geo-political and possibly cultural nearness. The otherness of the Arab world is imaginably 'different' but not so different and far removed to be unthreatening. However, the otherness of South Asia or East Asia is something far beyond Europe's customary imaginary constructions of Otherness. South Asia is geographically sufficiently distant to be interestingly exotic but unthreatening. It can even become a part of us in an abstract fashion. Hence the discovery of Sanskrit - an ancient language compared to Latin and Greek - and the Aryan theory of European origins. East Asia is yet more exotic and remains the land of the inscrutable, incomprehensible and a place ultimately therefore of little importance for Europeans. By contrast, the Arab world is near and feared: they could be like 'us' and we could be like them. Indeed it is commonly assumed that this is the dynamic in process (particularly in connection with the recent uprising).

The contradictory mixture of joy and fear in the media representation of 'Arab awakening' - 'they are becoming like us', 'but what about Islam?' - is understandable because of the nearness of this particular Other. Europe and the western world will probably remain torn about the Arab awakening. At the same time they can be happily silent and non-interventionist about the other Others. It is said by the UN that currently some 6 million are again under threat of starvation in North Korea. This could be construed as a genuine case of genocide, but who will care or dare to intervene in North Korea?

Joined: 2 February 2011

Let's be entirely uncritical and assume Arabs are really awakening. What have they awoken to? Through Western euphoria we tend to interpret this as an awakening to the possibilities of democracy, freedom, liberal rights and other such principles of a post-enlightenment era. This may be the case, only the frontline will be able to say, but even then we might not be able to listen. But “Arabs” can equally be seen as still asleep, even in light of uprisings. Gamal Nasser, Michel Aflaq and Abdullah of Jordon might have thought so in their pan-arabism moments (we might add their dictatorial positions could not have been possible without “awakening” to colonialism). This brings me to the realisation that the Arab revolutions are not really “Arab” in the strict modern elite sense of the term but national. It seems obvious, but crucially it suggests that an awakening is always structured by what preceded. It is with some irony that the flag of Libya now being waved has an equally blood soaked history in its tacit support of Britain during the Suez crisis, on the opposite side of the awakening fence at that moment!
There is undeniable courage in the face of death, but awakenings are hazy and dreary-eyed, awakenings can never be complete. This is not some failure on the part of Arabs to be like Europeans but awakenings never translate into being awake. They only serve to assure those who are not in the process of an awakening that they are either asleep (like populations from other dictators) or awake (like populations of the West). Both are equally false.

Joined: 2 February 2011

Who is the subject? the answer to this short but complicated question would drives us to consider whether media are being orientalist (as "orient" is inferior to "west") or not. If the subject is the "Arab", referring to the Arab people as the one that had no capacity to revolt because its submission to religion (Islam..) and this means that still the separation of State and Religion, as happened in France-Europe (really happened?), is to be done, the idea is completely orientalist. Emancipatory struggles against Power, Colonial or not, and also against Religion have occurred at least in the last 50 years in most of these regions, although Western was just looking at them as irrational terrorism against the metropolis or fight among tribes. But if we consider the idea of the Arab awakening just as a localization of the global revolt against Establishment (Global capitalism, post-colonialism, oppression...), I would say that it it would refer to the awakening of the sleeping multitude that sleeps al around the world. Western is completely asleep, as narcotized by badly called welfare reforms administrated by leftist governments and facilitated by mainstream unions. It is precisely this lack of welfare morphine that has spurred on the peoples of Egypt, Bahrein, Libia, Siria. By the way, should we remember that all these revolts started in Iran in 2009-2010? Maybe the media meant the first one, other we would like to see the second one.

Joined: 14 March 2011

Throughout the past three decades, Arabs never thought that they need to change their regimes. Since the era of decolonization of the Arab world in the early 1970s until the Tunisian Uprising in December 2010, there was no change in any Arab regime unless it was a coup d'état which simply means citizens were happy with their regimes even if they are ruled by who are insane, dictators or an insane dictators. After the communication revolution in the Arab world, it became beyond any doubt that Arab citizens realized that their rulers are not heroes and thanks to human rights movement, people knew about the atrocities committed by these rulers. Once these rulers were exposed, people were prepared to rise up against them but the problem was who stands first. Everyone was waiting for anyone to take the lead (whether this person is charismatic leader or not) then the spark of the revolution would start. When Ben Ali fled Tunisia in January 2011, political analysis predicted what they called Dominos' Effect which is the case now in Egypt, Syria, Libya, Bahrain and Yemen. However, it is not true that what happened in these countries was an attempt to copy what happened in Tunisia, it was willingness to topple such regimes but waiting for a signal which came from Tunisia. I would see what happened after Tunisians managed to overthrow Ben Ali's regime as if people were in feast and all are around the table waiting to eat. Once the first invitee started eating, all others would follow him. They are not imitating what he was doing, the fact is that they are hungry and thirsty but they waited for the first person to start and their hunger was the motivation not their willingness to imitate the one who ate first. Arabs were not awakened, Arabs were waiting for the signal a decade ago.

Oecumene: Citizenship after Orientalism is funded by an European Research Council (ERC) Advanced Grant (Institutions, values, beliefs and behaviour ERC-AG-SH2).

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