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Egyptians don’t need yet more lectures…

…whether from Western politicians telling them they aren’t ready for democracy or radicals praising them for resurrecting ‘real politics’.

Brendan O'Neill

Brendan O'Neill
chief political writer

Topics World

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There have been two uprisings in Egypt. There has been the real thing, an inspiring mass surge for democratic rights. And then there has been the media version, the interpretation of these tumultuous events by political actors and journalists outside of Egypt. This media version, this refraction of the Egyptian people’s streetfighting through the prism of outsiders’ concerns and aspirations, has revealed a great deal about the current corroded state of democracy and debate over here, far away from the Arab world.

From day one, our understanding of the events in Egypt has been influenced by the projection of Western fears and angst into the Tahrir theatre. From concerns about the unpredictability of the power-demanding demos to the wild hope that the Egyptian tumult signifies the rebirth of meaningful politics, even of human subjectivity itself, the events of the past three weeks have revealed not only that Egyptian people want more control over the lives, but also that many in the West feel dislocated from democracy and fearful of freedom.

One of the most striking things about the uprisings in Egypt and elsewhere is that they have taken place at a time when democracy is not highly prized by political institutions and thinkers in the West. Of course, politicians and editors are paying lip service to the Egyptian people, talking about the ‘precious moment of opportunity’ they have created for a new era of ‘democratic rule’. Yet these platitudes disguise a deep discomfort with the workings of democracy and a conservative instinct for elevating the virtues of stability over the alleged vice of ‘mob rule’ (as one US official described Egypt’s mass protests).

The disdain for the democratic impulse has expressed itself most explicitly in the idea that Arabs somehow aren’t ready for democracy. A US official says there is a danger of ‘mob rule’ supplanting ‘stability’ in Egypt – by which he presumably means the Egyptian people, brown and unpredictable, supplanting Mubarak, brown but at least predictable. With spectacular shamelessness, Tony Blair – who once pranced around the world stage posing as a glinty-teethed facilitator of democracy – is now ‘cautioning against moving towards elections’ in Egypt, on the basis that Islamists might win power. One British journalist says out loud what these politicians, constrained by PC, only hint at – ‘many, if not most Egyptians harbour Islamist, anti-Western and ferociously anti-Jewish ideas’ and therefore the West should consider continuing to support a ‘repressive regime’.

However, alongside these odious, colonial-echoing claims that wogs can’t do democracy, there has also been a general sense that democracy shouldn’t be introduced too fast in Egypt, that it should be done bit by bit, incrementally, alongside a campaign to build ‘the right institutions and the right attitudes’. So Time magazine argues that ‘too often, idealism assumes democracy can be plopped into a culture without a middle class or a history of free institutions’. A writer for USA Today says ‘democratic transition is hard enough without pressure demanding that it be rapid’, before using that soul-destroying s-word that is sure to zap the zest and life out of everything: ‘[T]he Egyptian revolution must be sustainable.’ Meanwhile, more leftish observers have asked whether democracy – a Western construct, apparently – is really the right thing for a place like Egypt.

Here, we can see that it is not only fear of the Other, of the wild-eyed Arab in this instance, that motors the discomfort with events in Egypt – rather it is a disdain for the institution of democracy itself. In their fear that Egypt doesn’t have the right amount of middle-classness or the correct type of civil service to do democracy properly, we can glimpse Western observers’ conviction that politics is best done away from the people, insulated from the masses, in grey buildings occupied by experts and judges. At a time when even young American voters can be described as a ‘glassy-eyed, brainwashed cult’ (as Barack Obama’s youthful champions were branded in 2008), when white working-class voters in Britain are looked upon by the liberal elite as an alien breed of ‘bigots’, and when leading Western thinkers deliver speeches titled ‘Why democracy is overrated’, it’s not surprising that Egyptians, too, are seen as a marauding mob with weird passions.

From the outright anti-Arab sentiments to the demand that a better middle class be created in Egypt before the creation of democracy, from the colonialist snobbery about foreigners to the cultural relativism about whether ‘our’ political systems are suitable for them, the response to the Egyptian uprising has revealed Western observers’ multifaceted lack of faith in the very ideal of democracy. The general sentiment is not so much that ‘democracy is okay for us but not for those people’, à la Clive of India, so much as ‘democracy – eeurgh’. Some in the West see excitable Egyptians merely as a more extreme version of the rowdiness that lurks within democracy everywhere, always threatening to erupt.

Alongside the mad fear of the Egyptian masses, there has also been an overblown belief that this uprising will resurrect ‘real politics’ and single-handedly overturn the smallness of the contemporary political imagination. Both left-wing groups and mainstream commentators claim Egyptians have breathed life back into revolutionary politics. One writer says the Egyptian uprising is ‘a revolution of world-historical significance’ which may have opened up a ‘new age in world history’. Another argues that ‘the battle of Tahrir Square means we can all be human again’. Apparently the protesters ‘brought the human subject and human emancipation back into politics’, revealing to both postmodernists and the purveyors of the politics of identity that there is still a ‘grand narrative’ in politics after all.

Of course, as spiked has said from the outset, these are extremely important events. The Egyptian people’s thirst for freedom, and their willingness to fight in order to get it, is inspiring. Yet the idea that Egyptians have not only elbowed aside Mubarak, but also the post-political, anti-universal ideas of identity that have dominated the Western political sphere for the past 20 years, is a fantasy. Yes, the Egyptian masses have shown that people have the capacity to make history (even if not in circumstances of their choosing) but that does not mean they have jumpstarted historymaking itself, replacing the widespread politics of presentism and managerialism with a revived politics of emancipation. Rather, some Western observers seem to be expecting rather too much of the uprising. The irony is that their claim that the Egyptian masses have forced human subjectivity and political decisiveness back on to the agenda actually reveals their own passivity: it is their 20-year failure to develop the tools and ideas with which to challenge today’s small-minded politics of identity that means they now desperately hope that one uprising will do it all for them; that Egyptians will save us from historical and political stasis as well as saving themselves from Mubarakism.

What these revolution-hunters fail to realise is that the key dynamic in the Arab world is the unravelling of the old regimes, the corrosion of the post-Second World War set-up that ensured a semblance of soulless stability in these countries. It is this process of political demise and physical decay which is effectively inviting the revolts, rather than the other way round. And, sadly, some of the revolting has been influenced by the very politics of identity, by the celebration of the vacuous ideas of ‘leaderlessness’ and ‘inclusivity’ and by po-mo notions of fluid power relations, that the revolution-hunters claim the Egyptian uprising has swept aside in favour of old-style revolutionary emancipation. The much-celebrated leaderlessness of the uprising is at least one reason why the military came to play a decisive role: with a seemingly slow-motion stand-off between the protesters and the regime, and with no forceful sense of agency on either side, the military became kingmakers by default. And now Egypt is ruled by soldiers, at least partly because of the pernicious influence of modern political ideas on what looked like an old-style uprising. There is a very conservative instinct behind the widespread use of the word ‘revolution’ in relation to Egypt: first it implies that revolutions are personal rather than political, so that the removal of the mere figurehead of the regime, the hated Mubarak, comes to be seen as a shift of revolutionary proportions; and second, the implicit message underpinning the use of the r-word is ‘you’ve had your revolution, well done, now please go home’ – despite the fact that the military rules.

Without doubt, the Egyptian protesters have shown that it is possible for people to effect meaningful political change. Their impact on the world will not soon be forgotten. But they might now need to focus their ire on the military, while we in the West can best support them by challenging today’s widespread denigration of the democratic ideal and the idea that you can win power without leadership.

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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