Critical Social Theory and Cultural Commentary

Saturday, 29 January 2011

Viva La Revolución

One can't help but have a good degree of scepticism towards the unfolding events in the Middle East given the number of times that we have seen such movements co-opted by reactionary forces, or crushed by the military around the world. Commentary within the Western media has been a continuation of the realist grand narrative that has underpinned policy towards the region for such a long time; namely that the US and her European allies have a difficult balance to strike between the support of democratic forces and the need for regional peace and stability, something which can only be guaranteed by the likes of Mubarak and Ben Ali. Such policy has however always been weighted firmly in favour of the dictators/peace and stability argument, with only an occasional nod towards democracy and social justice in the region. The irony is that whilst the autocratic regimes have provided a degree of stability through the maintenance of peace with Israel and acquiescence to the US, the reality of such a policy has been to build popular hostility towards America, which is seen to be pulling the strings and keeping these people in power. There has always been the potential that such popular anger could reach a tipping point and endanger prospects for peace. Anyone who has studied the history of political Islam within the region, from the likes of Sayyid Qutb and the Muslim Brotherhood to Bin Laden and Zawahiri, will recognise that these are movements essentially driven by domestic political grievances, that have always existed in the context of Western imperialisms, be they British, French or American. Anger that is extended towards the West is reflective of the extent to which Europeans and Americans have denied Arabs true self-determination, through direct interventions as well as the indirect support of corrupt and authoritarian regimes. Soumaya Ghannoushi has written an excellent article for the Guardian in which she highlights how the state system within the Middle East has been that which was inherited from colonial rule; designed to contain divisions and repress dissent, and hence has often lacked popular legitimacy and independence from Western or Soviet sponsors. Whilst early post-colonial Arab leaders enjoyed a degree of popular consent they were replaced by authoritarian rulers who increasingly relied upon external support. States within the region have thus been rotten to the core, and a brewing powder keg ready to explode, with fear the only thing holding people back - now that this has gone anything is possible. The movement in Egypt seems to be drawn from a fairly broad demographic with no particular centre of leadership. Although initially more Middle class and secular, with smaller numbers, the intervention of the Muslim Brotherhood and the Mosques appears to have transformed the momentum of the movement. Reaction within mainstream Western media has unsurprisingly been one of horror directed at the [currently remote] prospect of outright Islamic rule, and hostility towards American interests, repeating the aforementioned peace and stability narrative. Whilst my own personal preference would be for something akin to the Bolivarian Revolution in South America to sweep the Middle East, it would be wrong and unrealistic to project our own desires onto the Middle East, as this has been such a big part of the problem from the outset. It is important to recognise that just as in South America, any grass roots popular changes within the Arab Middle East would likely reflect that regions' own social and cultural traditions, with Islam likely to play a key role. A turn towards Islam and against the established American-led order of international relations does not imply an end to peace in the region. Egypt has been incredibly uncritical of Israel during the last thirty years, and when America remains so unwilling to pressure its ally, the urging of Israel's largest and likely most feared near neighbours, Egypt and Turkey, could play a vital role in forcing a permanent Middle East peace settlement. Of course it is crucial how the West and Israel react to any changes in the region, with hostility likely to be reciprocated. The onus is on the Obama Administration to listen and not impose.

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