Monday, January 25, 2016

Arab Spring: To Dream of a Fairer World is Not Only Possible But Also Necessary

There is something surreal, even unbelievable, about realising that today marks five years since that extraordinary January 25th when Egypt rose to demand 'bread, freedom and social justice.' Many of the voices who led that uprising have been silenced: by murder, jail, torture and exile. Yet for all the deserted, heavily militarised streets in Cairo, Alexandria, Port Said and elsewhere, the conditions that led to those now-mythical Eighteen Days have not changed. If anything, the situation has grown more acute. But this is not a piece about politics, or even war. Instead, I want to write about history, and dreams, and imagination.

On February 6, 2011, I had lamented that we had no Edward Said to help make sense of the events.  I had specifically noted that the Arab Spring movements were another set of developments in the decolonisation process for the world:

"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)."

In the five years since those heady Eighteen Days, my fears of brutal oppression have sadly come true. However, a huge shift in culture has also become clear. Even as voices are silenced in the region by dictators, militias, their international backers and a profitable weapons industry (Syria is an exception in this cocktail although more for the geopolitical mix of its backers instead of a difference in factors), the struggle for a narrative of decolonisation has not stopped. And just because Western mainstream media moves on, grows bored, or indeed  refuses to cover complex stories, does not mean the transformations have stopped.  On  March 21, 2011, I wrote:

"In the long term, these convulsions of history are unescapable. They will continue - not on media schedules and not for the next few weeks - but into the next couple of decades as historic changes do!  At the end, those who put short term interests over long term paradigm shifts will find themselves on the wrong side of history."

It was obvious to me even in 2011 that we needed completely new "definitions of statehood, political franchise, strategic relations, political and cultural narratives.  We are in the midst of historic times where none of the old models and certainties can hold."  

These definitions and ideals cannot and will not arise in five years. Rather they need both analysis and imagination. And most of all, these need the power to dream. It is crucial to think of the Arab Spring not in terms of days or months or even years, and not even in terms of a struggle for fundamental transformation of political, social and economics structures, but in terms of imagining new, fairer, different worlds.  In November 2011, I responded to the many 'hot takes' about the failure of the revolution

"What we are witnessing is not a blip in time but a massive and extraordinary change.  Not SCAF (Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, Egypt Army's junta) nor USA's paid stooges, nor Saudi Arabia's useful idiots, nor Europe's favourite business boys will be able to withstand the wave that has risen.  And whether the revolutionaries stand or fall, live or die, are incarcerated or free, is immaterial. The change is inevitable. The only choice is the side we choose - within Egypt, and abroad - to stand."

Today as we stand at a what appears to be the nadir with the devastation wreaked by Assad in Syria, rise of ISIS, Erdogan's near ignored crimes against Kurds, and Western-backed bombing of Yemen seemingly flagging up the worst of our fears about the region. All too often in these discussion, the old Orientalist narratives are reassserted - by the region's regimes and by their often Western backers (and increasingly - albeit temporarily, I would argue - by Russia). We are told about 'blood thirsty savages' but rarely about how they are funded or armed. We are told to shudder in horror at beheadings by ISIS but to ignore those by the Saudi regime. The destruction of Palmyra is held up as evidence of 'their' barbarism but the destruction of historic Sanaa by Western bombs delivered by a Western ally (KSA) with targets identified by Western advisors is almost entirely erased from our news channels and papers (Meanwhile, the sale of Palmyra antiquities looted by ISIS and magically sold in European markets is something few are even ready to discuss). We are told about the horrors of Russian bombs in Syria but apparently Western drone and airstrikes, even on MSF hospitals, are 'humanitarian.' If the above paragraph seems like another outraged postcolonial rant, it is deliberately meant to be so. 

I am tired. Tired of seeing lives shattered, families torn apart and displaced, people slaughtered. But more than that, I am tired of the lack of imagination on part of these regimes, as well as the bulk of Western leaders and commentariat (I also add Putin to this list, with his desperate need to emulate empire-builders despite the many economic and political constraints). To varying degrees, imperial thinking has a near complete lock on Western politicians, journalists, academics, analysts, leading to little more than short-termism, and endless replication of  outdated thinking dressed up as analysis. As long as instant sales of tear gas, missiles, guns, or building another prison in the Gulf, can bump up annual profits of another friendly corporate and buy 'stability' from another dictator, our leaders seem satisfied. It is a geopolitical version of the same short-term thinking that many on the Western left accused the bankers of back in 2008-9. And it is a form of policymaking that is so locked into short-term profits and fears of losing them that it can see no further than knee-jerkism. 

But exhaustion does not mean despair. Many pieces are moving on history's chessboard, many of which we have yet to take notice of completely. Over Christmas, I re-read Frantz Fanon's Toward the African Revolution, with many of the essays written during the Algerian war. I was struck by the prescience in the writings as well as Fanon's equanamity in accepting that the decolonisation process would be bitterly opposed by the constantly mutating forms of the declining empire(s).  It reminded me of the biggest mistake in my thinking in 2011: I had underestimated the bitterness with which the decolonisation has been opposed, even as the forms of colonisation and colonisers have evolved and mutated. We no longer have  formal colonies, but the colonial elite (as described accurately by Fanon) continue to be propped up, helping shore up unjust, exploitative, brutal economic, political, social structures for their former masters and current paymasters.

But recognising the intensity with which decolonisation - of social, political, economics structures, but more importantly of culture, narrative and minds - is being resisted also gives me hope. In the past five years, even as many voices have been silenced in Middle East and North Africa region, the change has not stopped. Instead, the Arab Spring gave decolonisation another historic push - Rhodes Must Fall, for example, is a not so distant, albeit often unrecognised offspring of the Arab Spring, as are many resistances across the world. In 2011, the revolution was waged in the 'Arab' world. Five years later, it is being dreamed in many lands and minds across the globe.

And note that term: dream. Because five years later, as the former colonisers make their paucity of imagination amply clear, there are many new dreams being woven in minds across the globe. To look at the world today is to see a clash of mythic proportions. Not between civilisations, as many without imagination would prefer to think of it. Instead, it is an epic struggle between those who demand the right to dream for ourselves and those with much fear and no imagination. In this battle between imagination and fear, January 25th, is not only the Egyptian or Arab, but decolonisation's 'shot heard around the world.'

Decades from now, when historians look back at our times, that may well be the most influential legacy of the Eighteen Days.