31 January 2011

Denial is not a river in Egypt

In July 1789, as everybody knows, there was no Twitter, no al Jazeera, no David Burchill, although there was a lot of half-baked historical determinism that ignored contemporary reality. It is creepy that Burchill insists that "We are hypnotised", we are this and we are that (except for opinions held only by lefties with pot-plants), and then he disowns those opinions due to factors that are no longer particularly relevant.

There have been only two popular ideologies of consequence in the Middle East since colonialism's squalid death in the 1950s: Soviet-style authoritarianism, with its specious liturgy of anti-colonialism, and the grand, exultant nihilism of the Muslim Brotherhood and its fellow extremists.

Neither of whom, David, featured in Tunisia or Egypt to any real extent. The MB are scrambling to take credit for the Egyptian uprising but people want things that they can't deliver: real jobs in a real economy that provides those lacking political connections with a greater range of possibilities than starving, or just getting by.

Even today informed observers are hard-pressed to name consistent Egyptian voices for liberal democracy and the rule of law ...

Because they're in prison, David, or floating face-down in the Nile.

... and to find them you have to scour the Egyptian media for lonely coracles of sanity in a vast ocean of paranoia, where the Protocols of the Elders of Zion masquerade as established fact, and the historic failures of a rich region are forever passed off as somebody else's fault.

Yep, and what did you expect from media controlled by a dictatorship - lifestyle supplements? Spinster politicians yearning for love? When you scoured the media of East Germany there was bugger-all reference, flattering or otherwise, to Angela Merkel or Yulia Timoshenko or Vaclav Havel.

The fact that there is no leader of the Egyptian uprising is encouraging. Mohammed El Baradei is presented as a figurehead acceptable to the West. It is to his credit he is smart enough not to throw his weight around; it is to the credit of Egyptians that they aren't fawning over him as any sort of saviour. They seem to want a government that will allow them more opportunities - economic, civic and otherwise - than they have had (or can get) from Mubarak-Sleiman. They want more than the MuBros or even Burchill's communists (if there are any) could possibly imagine.

When you see images of burqa-clad women throwing themselves at armed police (and not in a sexual way), it's mildly interesting from a cultural studies perspective to ask how passive can these oppressed beings really be, and to watch Western journalists fail to wedge them into any sort of cliched narrative. The narrative, however, is not their problem; if they can throw off a beef-witted dictatorship they can make us think differently about who they are and what they want. A people wanting to be recognised for their efforts and talents can't focus too hard on keeping women in the kitchen. This isn't to say that this uprising promises all things to everyone (except David Burchill), but it is fair to give people a break.

In Western societies demonstrations have to be organised, usually by pissants with no ability to translate massed narcissism into meaningful social, political and economic reform. People like Danny Cohn-Bendit, Tariq Ali or Richard Neville are neutered politically by their celebrity, but celebrity was all guys like that ever wanted anyway. Western observers viewing demos are right to be suspicious, but only if they fail to imagine a society so radically different to their own that to be conservative is to be in thrall to an unsustainable fad. When the stakes are both higher (in terms of an economy that must grow to sustain its population) and more personal (there must be food on the table and meaningful work for people to do), the sort of pissantry that so often fuels demos is so overwhelmed that it can't even bob to the surface let alone waddle toward the avant-garde.

The openness brought about by contemporary media (and the fact that media space is no longer so limited that it can be hogged by wankers or commandeered by despots) is like oxygen to the fires that threaten the despotic regimes of northern Africa and the Middle East. Mind you, news from Tunisia these days has been hard to come by. Gaddafi and the Algerian regime have been very, very quiet - too quiet. Not a lot of news out of Southern Sudan, either. Because they're not putting out press releases, yer modern journalist is pretty much ignoring them.

From an Australian point of view, it's heartening that the media have started to focus on Australians with friends and relatives in Egypt. It's great that the journosphere is trusting academics to explain what is going on, recognising the limitations of their profession (and denying the arrogant notion of @tzarimas and others that "a well trained and exp[erience]d journo can do anything!" - anything but save their own 'profession'). It's interesting that the Foreign Minister should contradict the Prime Minister without a press gallery meltdown - could they be getting some perspective on an issue that's bigger than Gillard's earlobes? How willy did altPM look when he "hoped" the situation could be resolved "without violence" when twenty souls lay beastly dead? We should be grateful that Julie Bishop has apparently kept her trap shut.

Time to bring forward the release of any Wikileaks relating to Mubarak, or they'll lose currency. It will be interesting to see how the boofhead government of Israel reacts to them, and how the US will go about building bridges with people they've apparently observed so closely yet do not understand.

It will be fascinating to see what sort of societies come from these uprisings. Fascinating to see what sort of leaders, too: can I just say, in the fullness of time, they are unlikely to be the kind of stage-managed dullards we get here. They are also unlikely to be the sort of knuckleheads indulged purely for their "commitment to the revolution", like Castro or Mbeki. A few basic measures to keep the peace and secure the positions of investors will see foreign capital pour into those places. For those of us far away from these tumultuous places, all we can ask the media is to keep bringing the piccies and the analysis from those who'd know - and for the cliche-mongers, the desperate I'm-really-smart-I-am tools like Burchill or Greg Sheridan, just shut up and piss off.

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