Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Egypt: 'Explaining' the Revolution

It should not be surprising that as the reverberations of Egypt’s revolution spread throughout the Mideast, igniting supporters and terrifying despots, there appears to be no lack of efforts to “explain” the upsurge as validating this or that cause, ideology or political myopia. Here are a few examples, mutually exclusive, of pundits claiming that the revolution merely reflects a justification of their own mind-sets.

In Iran, for example, where a rigidly Islamic government is now using brutal methods to suppress a similar uprising in its own front yard, chief cleric Ayatollah Khamenei recently said that the Egyptian revolution was nothing more than an “Islamic awakening,” a reflection of the example set by the Iranian Islamic overthrow of the Shah in 1979.

Not to be outdone, right winger Elliott Abrams (of Iran-Contra fame) wrote in the Washington Post on January 29 that the Egyptian revolution owes its very existence to none other than George W. Bush. For wasn’t it the former U.S. President who verbally championed the Cedar Revolution in Lebanon and gave lip service to, um, totally supported a democratic Palestinian state way back in 2003? And doesn’t that verbal support show that not only was he “defending self-government, not the use of force” in invading Iraq, but that he was encouraging democratic governments in the Mideast?

And so what if the Bush administration provided ongoing financial and technical support for Mubarak, let alone used Mubarak’s jails for torture and extraordinary rendition? So what if it supported as well the despots in Saudi Arabia and elsewhere? All that was just, well. . . realpolitik.

Among other American conservatives, Republican Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, speaking on CNN’s State of the Union program recently blamed, at least in part, Egypt’s formerly outlawed Muslim Brotherhood for the revolution, and warned: “I worry that we’ll rush to an election where the Muslim Brotherhood, who is the most organized but doesn’t represent the true will of the Egyptian people, will have a disproportionate effect.” On the same program, former Minnesota Republican Governor Tim Pawlenty, a potential presidential contender, criticized President Obama “for not explicitly declaring his opposition to the Muslim Brotherhood during an interview with Fox News Channel’s Bill O'Reilly a week ago.”

Incidentally, for an antidote to the argument that the Muslim Brotherhood played any significant role in the Egyptian uprising, see Egyptian journalist Hossam el-Hamalawy’s observation
on Al Jazeera that “The Brotherhood has been suffering from divisions since the outbreak of the al-Aqsa intifada. Its involvement in the Palestinian Solidarity Movement when it came to confronting the regime was abysmal. Basically, whenever their leadership makes a compromise with the regime, especially the most recent leadership of the current supreme guide, it has demoralized its base cadres.”

Unfortunately, it’s not only hard line Islamists and U.S. right wingers who seek to explain the revolution through their own political eyeglasses. In an otherwise excellent analysis of key global developments after the decline of the Soviet Union and the emergence of the United States as the world’s sole superpower, Tom Engelhardt, co-founder of the American Empire Project,
writes that “Pax Americana proved to be a Pox Americana for the [Mideast] region and the world.” In other words, to Englehardt, the Egyptian revolution was essentially an anti-American- imperialist movement.

Trouble is, this type of argument can be used by anybody of any persuasion: for example, a radical Islamist, taking its cue from Englehardt, can state, with tons of (selective) historic evidence, that western invasions of Islamic countries constituted an oppressive Pax Christianity-Judaism, embraced by Mubarak, against which freedom-loving Islamic truth-seekers rose up and defeated the infidel invaders. In other words, that the Egyptian revolution was at base a religious victory of Islam.

In a like vein, Adam Hanieh of The Socialist Project
writes that the struggles in Egypt and Tunisia “are best understood through the lens of class struggle.” Really? But the masses of Egyptians in Tahrir/Freedom Square represented virtually every class in Egypt--with the exception of those in Mubarak’s inner circle--including upper class physicians, middle class students, and lower class workers (if unemployed). As Mohammed Bamyeh, writing on the Arab Studies Institute's E-zine website Jadaliyya, noted: “[O]ver the days [in Tahrir Square] I saw an increasing demographic mix in demonstrations, where people from all age groups, social classes, men and women, Muslims and Christians, urban people and peasants--virtually all sectors of society, acting in large numbers and with a determination rarely seen before.” Emphasis added.

Apparently, none of that multi-class participation refutes a class analysis (which holds that conflict between classes creates the revolution) because, according to Hanieh, in the Middle East, “the ways in which ‘class struggle’ is expressed will take a variety of forms that constantly disrupts any reductionist economistic readings.” I guess one of those variety of forms is all classes working together. Class cooperation is the new class struggle? C'mon.

Even some people I invariably admire, like Israeli peace activist Uri Averni, has offered a
of the revolution that makes one think “Say wha?” Although Averni acknowledges that the “turmoil in Egypt was caused by economic factors: the rising cost of living, the poverty, the unemployment, the hopelessness of the educated young,” he doesn’t stop there. “But let there be no mistake: the underlying causes are far more profound. They can be summed up in one word: Palestine.”

He explains: “Betraying a poor relative is shameful in Arab tradition. Seeing Hosni Mubarak collaborating with this betrayal [of Palestinians] led many Egyptians to despise him. This contempt lies beneath everything that happened this week.”

To me, this is over the top. Certainly Palestine/Israel, especially Israel’s mistreatment of Palestinians, is an issue among the people in virtually every Arab nation, Egypt included. But it takes an enormous straining of credulity to hold that this issue, and this alone, lay “beneath everything” in the Egyptian revolution

My point in recounting all this? Those rushing to expound self-serving "explanations" should hold back a bit. Wait awhile, let history unfold before you rush to judgment, lest you reveal yourselves as, at best, spurious, and at worst, fatuous.

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