4 Feb 2011

The Egyptian Uprising: on the universal aspiration for freedom

The sheer exhilaration that I felt in response to the  Egyptian uprising, admittedly as a voluntarily-implicated observer, has been somewhat dampened by the reaction of Western elites to this phenomenal display of courage and yearning for change. On the one hand, it seemed that the Egyptian people have managed, despite extremely adverse circumstances, to translate the universal ideals of liberty and autonomy into concrete political actions that have inspired millions around the world. But on the other hand it seems to have exposed how little faith in those very same ideals there is in the West today, as exemplified by the strange debates that are being conducted about the prospects of the Egyptian uprising. The most bizarre suggestion that I have heard is that this uprising somehow vindicates the neo-con position that democracy is possible in the Middle East! This confirms the impression that I had about some in the anti-Iraq War camp: their opposition to the War was not based on a principled rejection of Western intervention but on their lack of faith in democracy and liberty as universal values.

This position is normally phrased through the language of cultural relativism: we can’t impose our values on other cultures, we can’t pretend to know what’s better for other people, and the democratic model is not suitable for everyone. To be sure, many Arab intellectuals have fully absorbed this patronising outlook, ironically by uncritically accepting ideas that are fashionable in Western academic circles. The most blatant omission within such assumptions is that the problem here is not in the values themselves but in the act of their forceful imposition. Democracy can only thrive as a translation of popular will, and that can only develop within an autonomous framework. It is absolutely hypocritical of the West to pretend today that democracy is not suitable for Egypt, having interfered actively for several decades to prop up the Mubarak’s regime and support with large packages of military aid, and not see that as one of the key factors that worked against the development of the pro-democracy movement. The gnashing of teeth in Washington about the prospect of Egypt turning into ‘another Iran’, aside from being unjustified, is even more hypocritical considering the historic support that the US lent to Islamic movements with the aim of fighting the spread of communism.

The historical short-sightedness that afflicts the contemporary Western outlook towards the Arab world completely ignores the history of secular movements and uprisings there throughout the 20th century, and even more blatantly ignores the role of the West in combating the spread of those movements. The most pressing question for Western elites has now become whether it is possible for democracy to develop in Arab countries, feeding the scepticism and anxiety about the Egyptian uprising. Astoundingly, it doesn’t strike any of those asking this question that merely posing it is incredibly patronising, as if there is something about Arabs that is inherently opposed to democracy. Many will point to the victory of Hamas in the Palestinian elections and the victory of the Islamic Front in the 1992 elections in Algeria as evidence that Arabs will inevitably vote for Islamic parties when given the chance. Aside from the obvious disregard for democracy that this suggests, it also ignores the context in which those electoral victories were achieved. Crucially, Western intervention had a role to play in both instances: by backing the authoritarian Algerian regime and by promoting and forcefully pushing the peace process that discredited the Palestinian Authority and led to popular discontent with its rule.

But what’s happening now in Egypt should be a reminder that democracy is a messy business, unlike the neutered version that European bureaucrats promote today. It seems that Western elites can only understand democracy through the prism of the paternalistic version they have been promoting for decades and that’s why the un-predictability of the Egyptian uprising scares them. No one knows for certain what the outcome will be, especially given the frantic Western efforts to find a suitable solution that would maintain ‘stability’, but the brave actions of the Egyptian people today are the living embodiment of the universal aspirations for freedom and democracy. It is Western elites and governments that are betraying those ideals through their hypocritical and cynical attitude. The sheer arrogance of suggesting that people who are risking their lives by standing up against a brutal regime are not ‘ready for democracy’ is insulting and patronising. Western governments should stop lecturing about democracy now that their lack of belief in it has been starkly exposed.   

But as one friend jokingly remarked, perhaps the West is not ready for democracy yet.


  1. Well put, Karl. It's yet to be proved that democracy is a gene you find in some races and not in others.

    Another factor needed for democracy to develop is stability. Lets not forget that after only one strike (September 11) USA changed so many regulations going many steps backward and tightening individuals freedom. Now imagine a USA passing through the curve of conflicts Middle East suffered for decades.

    I also can't understand how democracy is good when it fits the west and bad when it gets west oppositions to power. Are they dangerous? So as many. After all, George Bush proved being a Ben laden who needed no civil planes to cause massacres. He had enough F16 to do the job.

    So lets not start talking about democracy nitpicking. Democracy also requires equal opportunities and the right of people to receive the right information so they make the right voting decisions. Not sure how far fox news and co. fits that criteria.

  2. Thanks Ramzi and keep up the good work on your blog.

    I generally agree with you, except for the point about the media. If the Egyptian uprising has taught us anything, it's that the role of the media is exaggerated, after all Egypt has a state-dominated media but most Egyptians can see through them. I tend to have more faith in the ability of people to make up their minds regardless of the misinformation and the propaganda. I would rather live in a world where there is a free press that I don't agree with than a restricted press that generally says the 'right' things.

    Commitment to democracy means we have to take the risk on people making the right judgement. Otherwise, we substitute one form of authoritarianism with another...

  3. Great read. Your reMark about those who didn’t support the war coz they lacked belief that the ‘East’ can grasp democracy really hits the nail on the head! Whether its direct intervention or showing support, sympathy or pity, it’s the same 1-directional form of outward-looking know-it-all patronizing-from-a-distance position, sadly internalized by us, which amplifies this enduring unidirectional colonial look. Ok I’m not as angry as I sound by the way :P and I don’t think it’s the classic east vs west in that radical sense (at least not at the level of individuals) but I haven’t slept in days so I’m just gonna say out loud yeah.. why are they always worried if we have the damn gene, while they don’t question their own? It’s always about what’s happening out there and how well we are catching up because the Eurocentric model of democracy (and civilization in general) is simply taken for granted and we’re all lagging behind with the impossibility to catch up, of course. As you say, it’s simply asking the wrong question, and as Doreen Massey writes, it’s about taming or reducing space into time, by saying that the ‘west’ is different from the ‘east’ in that it’s ahead in time. We’re a different place(s), different cultures with different trajectories and the story will always be open-ended, so….. might as well open up, look inside and maybe we can help you catch up on all that you’ve missed all these years you’ve been looking outwards forgetting to look inside!!!! (ok now I’m screaming :P)
    On a more sober note, living democracy that emerges from autonomous engaged groups, that messy kind, is much more intuitive and promising and I think self-stabilizing than rigid long-established taken-for-granted democracies which are as prone to producing disinterest, and simultaneously radical reactions, as authoritarian regimes. Autonomous democracies.. could be utopian, but worth dreaming of, building pieces of. After all, what’s the use of a stable, more like static, concept of a democracy if it doesn’t support the momentum of interaction and growth?

  4. "After all, what’s the use of a stable, more like static, concept of a democracy if it doesn’t support the momentum of interaction and growth?"

    You've just summed up my political philosophy there. (And part of the architectural one, but that's another discussion). But, as you say, this is not about East vs West and I don't believe in those categories or cultural conflicts. There are societies at different stages of their historical development.

    The West's attitude to the uprising in Egypt is driven mainly by its risk-aversion: all it can see is what can go wrong in this situation. This is not because they don't believe we don't have the 'gene', Western elites don't think their own population has that gene. This insecurity and risk-aversion has driven the West towards a more authoritarian form of governance, in the name of protecting people from themselves. Similarly, when it comes to the outside world, precaution is their first priority.

    I don't want to oversell Egypt, but at least it's going in the other direction: away from paternalism and towards a more dynamic political sphere. After that, it's up to the people.


Karl reMarks is a blog about Middle East politics and culture with a healthy dose of satire.

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