Victory to the Egyptian people!

Everybody seems to agree that Mubarak must go, but the confused character of the revolt means nobody knows what will come after him.

Brendan O'Neill

Brendan O'Neill
chief political writer

Topics World

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Only those with a heart of stone, and a mind of mulch, will fail to feel inspired by the events in Egypt.

Tens of thousands of people have been cockily challenging President Mubarak’s regime, demanding that this Washington-backed authoritarian step aside and allow Egyptians to enjoy political and individual freedom and exercise real democratic control over their futures. Mubarak’s concessions so far – sacking his government, installing his first-ever vice president and promising a few political reforms – clearly do not measure up to the Egyptian masses’ expectations of meaningful political overhaul. This can be glimpsed in the much-reproduced banner sending a very modern-sounding message to Mubarak: ‘Game over.’

But if the protests tell us a story as old as history itself – that people want freedom and will take extraordinary risks to get it – they also reveal much that is new and peculiar about today’s political world. The contradictory reaching for historical antecedents to the Egyptian uprising, with some observers saying it is the ‘Arab world’s Berlin Wall moment‘ and others claiming that Egypt could become another Iran circa 1979, only shows the confusion that prevails in relation to these events. It reveals an understandable inability to grasp that this – and Tunisia before it – might represent a new stage of politics in the Arab world and the Middle East, one that is more unpredictable and less shaped by clear, clashing interests than the political upheavals that went before.

Perhaps the most striking thing about the uprising is the absence of driving leadership on both sides – at both the decadent top of Egyptian politics and also amongst ‘the street’. The protests have revealed the thin nature of political authority in Egypt, and by extension the impotence of Washington’s clout in the Middle East today. The speed with which the protesters put Mubarak on the back foot has surprised even progressive Egyptian observers, one of whom says Egyptians have shown ‘just how easy it is to tell a dictator it’s time to go’. Relatively quickly, the protests exposed a regime that is entirely reliant on bodies of armed men and the manipulation of the political agenda, on the disorientation of its own people, for its authority. Mubarak, supposed strongman, is now reduced to rushing through cynical reforms and flying fighter jets over protesters, in a desperate ploy to appease and/or terrify ‘the street’.

It is the exposed weakness of the regime, the sheer hollowness and illegitimacy of it, that is now largely incentivising the continuing protests. The bewildered response of Mubarak acts as an invitation to the protesters to continue pushing for more reforms and for the final removal of Mubarak himself. For these protests are themselves diffuse, even directionless at times, expressing an aspiration for more freedom, yes, but with little sense of how that might be enacted or by whom. As Arab observer Amr Hamzawy describes it, there has been a ‘complete absence of the ideological rhetoric that has dominated Egypt’s political and public space for many years’.

Indeed, the two great social movements which in recent decades tussled for influence in Arab countries – progressive leftism and conservative Islamism – have been notable by their absence in the uprising. So, says Hamzawy, ‘activists from small leftist organisations have attended, but the usual denunciations of global imperialism, colonialism, and Zionism were absent’. And yes, ‘the Muslim Brotherhood youth and some of their leaders participated in the protests, but there were no signs saying, “Islam is the solution”‘. Where the protests have torn away the wispy veil of Mubarak’s legitimacy, they have also, more unwittingly perhaps, exposed the lack of purchase of both left-wing politics and political Islam today. That no individuals or force have stepped up to lead the protests is very revealing. (And no, Mohamed ElBaradei, one-time UN inspector of naughty Third World countries that possess nuclear materials, does not count as a ‘leader of the protests’, however much the Western liberal media fancy him in that role. He’s out to milk the anti-Mubarak surge for his own narrow political benefit.)

Then there is Washington, perhaps the most bewildered player of all. The uprising has revealed the extent to which America has lost its ability to guide or even meaningfully impact on Middle Eastern affairs. Washington officials are reduced to wide-eyed spectators of these events. Most strikingly of all, Washington’s view of the world seems to be 30 years out of date. President Obama’s attitude towards the uprising is being widely referred to as his ‘Shah moment‘, in reference to President Jimmy Carter’s dealings with the Shah of Iran shortly before he was ousted in the Iranian Revolution of 1979 and replaced by Islamic rulers. Turning Iran 1979 into the reference point for Egypt 2011 shows both how disconnected Washington is from global affairs today, and how much it is governed more by the politics of fear, by its own past nightmares, than by anything resembling political intelligence.

For the truth is that Islamism is also a fairly exhausted political phenomenon. Only the utterly cut-off could believe that Egypt’s admittedly very influential Muslim Brotherhood remains a radical organisation that will transform Egypt into ‘Iran 1979’ or even into Afghanistan as it was under the Taliban. If that were on the cards, why has MB largely absolved itself of involvement in the streetfighting and instead thrown its weight behind the UN square ElBaradei? As sensible thinkers have argued in recent years, political Islam has ‘failed’; it is better understood, not as a mortal opponent of the West, but as a system that promotes Western modernisation and Western forms of politics with a traditionalist spin. Even neofundamentalism, such as that exercised by al-Qaeda, expresses the death agony of political Islam. In the words of Fawaz Gerges, the rise of contemporary jihadism has ‘coincided with the declining fortunes of religious nationalism’.

Those Washington officials and commentators saying ‘The uprising is good, but what if MB takes control…?’ are expressing both their dysfunctional relationship with reality and their fundamental fear of mass demands for change. People of Muslim origin are shouting and rioting, and in the view of some people that can mean only one thing: Taliban-style tyranny. With Hillary Clinton insisting we mustn’t let a ‘void’ emerge in Egypt, and Obama announcing at a press conference that he telephoned Mubarak and gave him a stern talking-to, we have an insight into the combination of panic and impotence that increasingly characterises America’s dealings with the Middle East.

What we end up with is a very unpredictable event, one where it is hard to tell if it will go in a progressive or a reactionary direction. The absence of political agency is captured in the fact that many are now effectively asking What Will The Military Do? As one radical blogger put it, ‘The army will have to decide – shoot at protesters or bring down Mubarak’. The absence of left ideology, the relative invisibility of Islamists, the American fear of a ‘void’ – these events reveal not only that Egyptians have had enough but that the world has changed and is changing enormously. What will happen next? spiked will be analysing the uprising throughout this week.

Brendan O’Neill is editor of spiked. Visit his personal website here.

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

Topics World


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