Sunday, February 06, 2011

Missing Edward Said: Some Thoughts on Egypt's Youth Uprising

Like most people, I too have been caught off-guard with the events in Egypt since January 25, 2011. For years, I have been following global events, analysing and at times writing about them. For example, I made a case for the shift of power to the east nearly fifteen years ago, when India was still stumbling unsteadily into globalisation. It has been gratifying to note that I was right!

But despite following events for the past two decades, I have to confess, I got Middle East wrong! I believed that once the power of US and Europe had shifted to the east, and the pernicious postcolonialist influences exercised directly or indirectly by Europe and US diminished, Middle East would find its feet. Mistakenly, and perhaps with a dose of cultural arrogance of my own, I believed that the region would find its historical sense of self once China and India regained their postcolonial importance.

My analysis based itself on one primary factor: culture and cultural production of a society, and its ability to control and shape its own narrative. I believed that as literature, art, music, film were so tightly controlled, that as mass scale cultural production was not happening at a large enough scale, in a free enough environment, the Middle East would not be able to shake off its postcolonial burden of an identity thrust upon them, of the Orientalist narratives of political apathy, autocracy, religious fanaticism, poverty, fecklessness.

A disclaimer: I know there will be political and economic analysts who will write more knowledgeably than me on those factors, but I am more interested in longer historical cycles, in ways in which deep-rooted cultural identities are reformed, reshaped, and revived constantly, consistently and repeatedly. Perhaps that is why I have been thinking of the great scholar Edward Said, and wishing repeatedly that he were alive to see the way his region has risen up to definitively shatter the narrative of Orientalism.

And yet the signs that perhaps a different cultural production was going on in the region were there to see. By this, I do not only mean the various Arab language TV channels, including of course Al Jazeera. I mean a larger, almost invisible, popular culture in which the region's population has been participating: the digital one.

I do not want to over-emphasise the role of social media here, as implicit in some of the lauding of that has been a covert desire for western commentrators to take credit for Egypt's (and Tunisia's) changes, as if Mark Zuckerberg were - in some fashion - a Lawrence of Arabia for the 21st century.  The phenomenon goes beyond simply the availability of digital technology and social media.

First of all, some basic points which are specific to Egypt but can, with slight modifications, be applied to many states in the region:

A large segment of Egypt's population is under twenty five. While this point has been noted in economic and political terms, lets just place it in its historical context. This means that most of Egypt's youth - and the bulk of those in Tahrir Square - are truly postcolonial.

What does this mean beyond a short hand?

The literacy rate at the point of decolonization in most countries around the world in the middle of the twentieth century was abysmally low. The educated sections of the population formed a colonised elite - so amply explained by Franz Fanon - who were removed from their own cultural roots, dislocated from their own history, often collaborators with the colonial regimes that not only showered them with largesse during the empire but repeatedly jockeyed to position them as leaders for the decolonization. The strategy then was not too different from the one now: replace the regime but replace it with one that would be sympathetic.

Poverty stricken, illiterate, battered, the decolonizing masses around the globe relied on leaders - who were not only often corrupt and autocratic, but also propped up by the Cold War order - and were repeatedly disappointed.

However, this has been steadily changing over the past decades. Even the most backward decolonized nations show  distinct improvement when compared to the days of the empire(s). Which is why, the protesters in Tahrir Square are no Fanonian elite. Born not only in a decolonized country, but also after Egypt's peace treaty with Israel, they demonstrate a sense of identity that does not rely on "othering" or indeed on difference. For the first time in the region, there have been few anti-Israel or anti-US slogans raised, and done so only for their complicity with their own hated regime. What we're seeing today is a revival of an older identity, recovered, revived, re-formed in Egypt which relies on itself. This is not to argue for some "essentialist" ideal, but rather a decolonization of the mind! And it is happening right across the postcolonial world.

And this brings us to the issue of popular culture. While Arab and Persian language television has much to contribute, there has also been a revolution in popular culture in the region thanks to the internet. In the (almost) decade since 9/11, more young people in the region have joined online communications with extraordinary results.

Although this process began - in a limited way - with Iraq, the first major shift that I had noted was in 2006 as Israel's began its punishing war on Lebanon. While most global mainstream media continued reporting through the typically Orientalist lens (Israel = civilized, democratic, right; Lebanon = barbaric, fanatic, wrong), there were other, newer narratives being shaped, not only on television, but also online. Bloggers posted photographs and eye-witness accounts. Suddenly those who have so long been classified by western media and governments as "collateral damage" not only had voices, but faces, homes, families, stories. Not surprisingly, since so few western reporters were actually on the ground (that is another tale, for another day), the narrative that emerged from within Lebanon was primarily shaped by the Lebanese with accounts and photographs of not only the dead and wounded, but of parties held amongst the rubble; of young people cleaning and rebuilding, of returning to their normal lives.

That story was repeated in 2008 with Israel's bombing of Gaza. Once again, photographs and accounts turned up on blogs and social media websites. In this case, Palestinian and foreign citizen journalists took on the burden as mainstream media went missing.  Again and again, average citizens uploaded their pictures and accounts using precious diesel for generators.

There are many who have pointed to Tunisia as the event that started Egypt's uprising. I don't agree! Tunisia may have provided the spark, even been the first domino to fall. But the process began earlier. More importantly, the foundations of this change and its engine are not economic or political, although they are undoubtedly huge factors.  The foundation of Egypt's uprising as well as many others bubbling around the Middle East are cultural. The key to this uprising is the not only the change in narrative, but also the newly found power to shape it. And that is also the reason that the political failure or success of these protests is immaterial in the longer term (although obviously hopefully they will succeed; failure will mean brutal oppression of these brave young people).

This is also the reason the dominos won't fall in the line predicted by many analysts. After all events of the past week demonstrate that access to Facebook, Twitter, Youtube and other sites is not enough. As Egypt rose to reclaim its position as a pre-eminent civilization through its "Twitter/Facebook revolution" the same websites were amply being used by Pakistan's youth to show their outrage at granting even minimal protection to minorities. There are lessons in the histories of both nations - you just have to look closely at each land in order to solve the mystery.

But for the moment, closely watching Egypt and the larger Levant reshape the Orientalist narrative of oppression, I can't help wishing Edward Said were alive to watch this extraordinary moment of history!