Caution: this is not an update.
It’s come to this for the Arab revolt. To be gawked at, poked, bullied, pushed this way and that, pitied by some, feared by many and truly befriended only by die-hards.
It’s not just strangers who gape in wonderment. The locals as well are at once riveted and unnerved by the beast. It’s been, what? 12 months--an ant’s scream out there in the wilderness, but never mind that--a roaring millennium in web years and this creature still won’t reveal its actual colors.
And so, the guessing game must proceed, because, well…because it simply must proceed. I am not being ironic here. People, decent people, make a serious living off of it. For all I know, the whole world ticks because of it. And, as is our wont, the more uncertain the moment, the more incessant our need to pound it to death and render it benign and reassuringly familiar.
I suppose, if only for effort, the professionals—journalists, hacks, pundits, anthropologists…--should be thanked. Except that they’re flailing as they hold all ten fingers to the wind, and left with very little to fall back on, they’ve begun to hang on, for dear life, to the same themes.
For a while now, I’ve been feeling like a beggar in these revolts. I go from site to site, rag to rag, pundit to pundit, mind in hand, looking for the rare informed opinion in the piles of junk. There is something distinctly unusual about this upheaval (as Egypt’s SCAF keep discovering after every bold decision turned gaffe), and yet, remarkably, most of the literature divides between déjà vu (been there, done that) and something wicked this way comes.
Often, friends call me as they sit stunned, not from living the revolts but from reading about them. While the Aluf Benn’s of this world can’t quite keep a lid on their overzealous imagination and predict--for sure--a total breakup of the postcolonial Middle East (except for Israel, of course), the Robert Kaplan’s see little more than a “crisis of centralized authority.” Sort of like, “Oh, Jesus, shit, you’re dying;” vs. “Take these! And get a grip on yourself, will you, woman!” after which comes the knowing look back and,” I’ll call ya in the morning,” before the door slams shot.
But these are the ones singing at the door of the echo chamber. The hum inside is all about Islamist upsurge and the equally revelatory it’s one thing to remove a dictator, it’s another to change a regime, which swells into a rapturous crescendo with, we really don’t know what will happen, but, since this is the Arab world, this may well turn out to be a tempest in a Turkish coffee cup. Which actually works out just fine, because the Turkish Model is the best of the available wannabes and the Arab Muslim Brothers are happy to do business even if they look so damn hairy. Win, win, when you think about it—for the West, at least.
Then, inevitably, comes the mind-numbing repeat of the same question: Will they or will they not play nice? After which come the tricky answers to it: yes, no, yes and no, with the same, exact reasons reappearing in different paragraphs in different articles.
Just like that, a year of revolts and we already have a body of consensus, which, soon enough, will solidify into groupthink and then finally cement as conventional wisdom.
Too bad, because—I don’t know? I could be wrong—it seems like the surface has barely been scratched and already vital questions are being left by the wayside for societies in genuine flux. For example, silly as it may sound, what exactly does an Islamist upsurge mean? Would, say, less than 40% of eligible voters qualify as an upsurge, or might it suggest an intriguing twist in the electoral system that lands you with a much bigger slice of parliament than of life? I wonder if it would not make sense to look into who voted for whom and why? (Here are a few hints from Gallup). And where, dare we ask, might these interesting factoids fit in this stimulating discourse?
In the Middle East and North Africa, SMEs [small and medium sized companies] comprise the most substantive part of the economy: there are 12 million SMEs, which make up 95 percent of the private sector… In Egypt, these enterprises account for about 75 percent of total employment and 80 percent of the gross domestic product.
Nothing major, a few questions for more nuance and added insight, so that when the brave types leap into judgments and fall flat on their faces they have something soft to cushion the crash.
Truth be told, there are the rare wise voices reduced, alas, in this din of mad harmony, to whispers. I do need to name names, just because I am so grateful: Peter Harling of the International Crisis Group, Nicholas Pelham of MERIP and the New York Review of Books, Mona el-Ghobashi of Barnard, Khalil Anani of Durham University, along with a few merciful others. (By all means, feel free to click on the links).
Then there is the tempo of these dizzying times which we Arabs get from those, like us, who are living them day in, day out. Raw footage, I call it; or, to borrow from the Economist’s review of Ahdaf Soeif’s new book, Cairo: My City, My Revolution, those “well-observed details [that] have an unmistakable ring of truth…revisionist historians ignore…at their peril.”
But, really, when it comes down to it, what makes these revolts especially intriguing for us Arabs is the utter disarray into which our own clairvoyants have fallen. Once upon a time, we were not meant to tell the difference between conspiracy and conviction, between high principle and base interest, between rhetoric and action. Now, once immovable ideologues are jumping all over the place, ostensible democrats are offended, Islamists are having to discover the meaning of victory (although the West seems to have figured it all out) and brothers in arms are parting company.
The rules are a changing and, for a people who have been stuck for so long in the trenches, that alone is liberating enough.