posted by brazn
To say that the recent unrest in the Middle East has come as a bit of a surprise is a wild understatement. This is perhaps in equal measure due to it truthfully having escalated seemingly overnight, and the fact that we take the Western foreign policy narrative that tells us that the Middle East is supposed to run through dictatorships as gospel. This narrative, as much informed by realpolitik as it is racism, has lulled us in the Global North into adopting a sense of cultural relativism that ultimately clouds our perception. The recent unrest seems to not only have shaken long-oppressed citizens from their submission to the status quo, but also challenged our own perceptions of what the people in the Middle East want.
Over the past many decades Western think tanks, diplomats and policy analysts, and politicians have worked hard at creating, perpetuating, and reinforcing a narrative that allowed not only the extension of influence to the far corners of the globe, but one that also did so in as benign a way as possible. And it’s monumental; by all accounts they should be proud because no one even bothers to question it anymore. It is a common truth that the Global South, a collection of resource rich or geographically important political backwaters, simply runs better when governed in the ‘old’ style. No democracy, only dictatorships; that’s just the natural order of things. This view tends to hold a particular rigidity in political thought about the Arab Middle East. Crazy Islamists need an especially strong fist to keep them in check and that’s why in every ‘post’-colonial state from North Africa to the Eastern frontiers of Afghanistan, it is a messy collection of tribal chiefs, presidents and monarchs who seem to rule in perpetuity. Apparent exemptions might include Iraq, a place were a ‘functioning’ democracy was installed, but one need look no further than the rhetoric of alarmists who feared a Shiite and Kurd resurgence upon the ouster of the Ba’athist Saddam Hussein in 2003. Saddam had kept them repressed for decades and upon his removal, they would flow out of the woodwork.
That was, of course, until some twenty-six year old street vendor in Tunisia set himself on fire in front of a government building in the middle of last December. His act, brought on by the desperation of poverty and humiliation at the hands of a corrupt government, has done more to burn down the edifices of Western-backed dictatorships and the false beliefs that supported them than anything else in recent memory. A little poetic, perhaps, that the work of thousands of people at the top levels of government, millions of man-hours of analysis, countless billions of dollars in foreign aid, and regime after regime of oppressive dictators came undone at the hands of one downtrodden, impoverished young man in a North-African country that seldom registers on the Western psyche.
The rest speaks for itself. Since December, the streets of the Arab world have been flooded with discontented youth who have known nothing but the stifling status quo: excruciating poverty, soaring unemployment despite an educated workforce, highly inflated prices for basic necessities, and paralyzing government corruption. Following their example, the rest of civil society has followed them into the streets. Large protests have also happened in Yemen, Jordan, Algeria, as well as smaller ones happening all across the Arab world. Just under a month ago, the Tunisian president after more than two decades in power fled the country after resigning. Just a few days ago, Hosni Mubarak, the draconian president of Egypt stepped down after three weeks of continuous protests. Other long-time ‘democratically-elected’ leaders have announced substantial changes in cabinet make-up, social and economic policy, or a commitment to not run for re-election.
In each of these cases, broad swaths of citizens in cities around each country have come out demanding change. They are tired of stagnant, fraudulent governments buttressed through foreign aid and clandestine intervention. They are speaking out against rising food, fuel and commodity prices that have been an effect of the global economic collapse (that was, by the by, caused by an avaricious American speculative bubble). They are demonstrating because of their ongoing torture and exploitation. They are clamouring for freedom of speech, press, the right to peaceful assembly, and for free and fair elections. They have in one resounding, clear and unified voice made a demand for democracy.
Within the course of a month, then, the picture of the Middle East has changed. The very place where we were told democracy would never take root, and if it did it would lead to Islamist, anti-Western governments, we are now seeing and hearing the raw and unfiltered voice of the people. In Egypt, we have seen amidst state sponsored violence, people have remained largely peaceful; despite the effective removal of all telecommunications, citizens have gathered at mosques and churches to organize and assemble. Even the removal of emergency infrastructure (state police, fire brigades, etc.) has done little to stem protests as groups of young men and women have taken to the streets to set up neighbourhood patrols, security checkpoints, and assisted in preventing the looting and destruction of the nation’s rich historical artefacts. We have seen doctors, lawyers, factory workers, unions, civil servants and public works employees, parents, children, men, women, the rich, the poor, the young and the old all band together over weeks of continuous protests.
Anti-Western and anti-Israeli ideology has not driven these protests, and neither has a sense of religious fundamentalism. Nor can we say that it was only Arab men who demonstrated, as we saw the sisters of the nation came out in full force with just as much as stake. The only thing negative in tone about these protests was the desire to remove parasitic leaders and malignant governments; rather, a firm and constructive desire to rebuild the nature has fuelled these demonstrations. These protests have effectively undone every rationale that the Western foreign policy establishment has used to buttress repressive governments.
Those willing to read just between the lines of the Western narrative about Middle Eastern politics have always been able to detect the racist veneer that justifies the unconditional support of dictators; Western citizens, though, whether they see the façade or not, materially support the oppression of those in the Global South through their tax dollars used for foreign aid. Recent events in the Arab world have all but removed the flimsy stereotypes that suggested that people in the Middle East are necessarily Islamist and harbour anti-democratic sentiment thereby posing a threat to life in the Global North. It becomes all too clear to us now that those who live on less than two dollars a day under constant fear of the state are more interested in the basic dignities of life that should be afforded to every human being. Decades of lies have created the assumption that we in the West are inherently different from those in the Middle East. Tunisians, Egyptians and now Algerians, by simply reclaiming their nations, are proving in many ways how wrong we were. It is high time to take the example that they have set for us and knock down the doors of government to demand that the lies that perpetuate misery and oppression end.