Sunday, February 13, 2011

Subjects of History

January was a historic month for Egypt and her neighbours. On the far side of Libya, Ben-Ali was tossed out by the popular uprising that inspired Egypt's own. To the south, Sudan may finally know a lasting peace. All the while, the monarchs of the Arab world and the Israelis are watching nervously, seeing their cherished stability unravel in the face of popular sentiment that loathes the injustice necessitated by that stability.

We in the West are used to thinking of Muslims, and particularly the Arabs, as the objects of history. They are like surgery patients, lying paralysed on the operating table, waiting for people with power to do various things to them - usually without anaesthetic. They may have opinions, but they do not matter, because those opinions are rarely rational, and generally dangerous. Edward Said only wounded Orientalism. He did not kill it.

As many have pointed out, including a few of the Middle East's wiser observers and denizens, the danger remains that it will be the Egyptian military leadership, and not the people of Egypt, who will determine the nature of the new order. As the formidable Robert Fisk wrote:

. . . the future body politic of Egypt lies with up to a hundred officers, their old fidelity to Mubarak Рsorely tested by Thursday's appalling speech, let alone the revolution on the streets Рhas now been totally abandoned. A military communiqu̩ yesterday morning called for "free and fair elections", adding that Egyptian armed forces were "committed to the demands of the people" who should "resume a normal way of life". Translated into civilian-speak, this means that the revolutionaries should pack up while a coterie of generals divide up the ministries of a new government. In some countries, this is called a "coup d'etat".
Fisk, however, for all his decades of experience living and working in the Arab world, didn't predict the uprising to begin with - to my knowledge, no one did - and so we can hold out some hope that his grimmer instincts may yet prove wrong.

No matter what happens from here, though, the precedent has been set, and the principle established. Kings and generals may have power and influence, but the final say goes to the population, if they all want the same thing badly enough. They are no longer passive objects, but active participants in their own history. They have an opinion, and it matters.

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