The dubious coverage of events in Egypt reveal the extent to which Western media outlets remain mere neoliberal cheerleaders, incapable of conceiving that the Egyptian people have both the right and capacity to determine their own direction, writes Adrian Crewe.
Nothing better illustrates the bankruptcy of the (‘realist’) Washington/Western European position on the gathering wave of revolt in the Middle East than the paralysis that it has so spectacularly displayed in its response to the events unfolding in Egypt. Unwilling to ditch Mubarak when the political opportunity to do so was clearly available – and thus ‘buy into’ an emergent democratic Egypt – Washington and its allies now face the prospect of managing an even more volatile chain of events over which they will likely have even less control. In parallel, nothing has been less edifying over the last 10 days than the mainstream TV networks’ endlessly repetitive presentation of the Egyptian drama within the worn-out paradigm of the ‘clash of civilisations’. The blind amplifying the blind.
The reason why the ‘analysis’ offered by CNN, Sky and the BBC has been way ‘behind the curve’ of events throughout is not hard to find. It is not possible to grasp the dynamics of revolt and revolution if you remain mired in an ahistorical, depoliticising economism at the service of a casually brutal neoliberalism and a coldly cynical geopolitics of the Middle East. The reductionism that continuously undermines and exposes the networks’ faux ‘sympathy’ for the protestors continuously rises to the surface in the framing of Egypt’s possible futures via a single ‘organising’ question: consolidation of democracy or spread of the caliphate? Thus while a show is made of admitting the theoretical possibility of ‘deepening democracy’, combined with (a still entirely speculative) emergent ‘Islamist hegemony’, this outcome (and the many other possible outcomes) is implicitly invalidated in advance, on ideological principle. That is to say, the networks can offer no illumination of the generalised ‘unrest’ in the Middle East because they think the problem of revolt from the ideal standpoint of ‘homo economicus’: the rational, self-interested, passive consumer of goods and services. Such a figure can have no legitimate interest in revolt or revolution as long as the economy is ‘performing’ in line with neoliberal growth nostrums. There must therefore be manipulation at work. The talking heads that repeatedly stress Egypt’s ‘impressive recent reform and growth record’ are otherwise at a loss to explain the depth and intensity of the uprising, other than via a lame personalisation of the ‘problem’: Hosni Mubarak is ‘an octogenarian … increasingly out of touch with his people’s needs’. (This was not, of course, a ‘problem’ until a week or two ago. It had never even surfaced as an ‘issue’, either for commentators or for Washington – with Secretary of State Clinton warmly describing Mubarak as ‘family’).
But suddenly everything has changed. The network anchors’ cherished ‘reforms’ have clearly not registered with the overwhelming majority of enraged Egyptians, perhaps for the simple reason that the depth and scale of ‘reform’ now revealed as politically indispensable cannot be contained within the straitjacket of macro-economic tinkering and elite manipulation. A conceptual blockage has thus arisen: the discourse (and hard practice) of market liberalism can no longer cohabit unproblematically with the (soft) mantra of freedom and human rights. The repressed makes its return with a vengeance. And now too – thanks to the courage of the Egyptians (and a little help from Al Jazeera) – it is no longer possible to gloss over the proximate historic conditions that have given rise to the revolt: three decades of oppression by a narrow, corrupt elite; a dictatorial, semi-fascist party-state that has allowed no substantive freedom of expression and has routinely resorted to illegal imprisonment, torture and extra-judicial murder; and, finally, Egypt’s role as Washington’s Arab policeman and interlocutor of choice with Israel.
Given all this, the depth and breadth of the revolt are not hard to grasp – if, that is, one is able to grasp that for all this time the vast majority of Egyptians have been politically excluded, physically oppressed, culturally stifled and systematically blocked from meaningful democratic participation. This is one reason, no doubt, why the Egyptian ‘middle classes’ have been so actively involved in the uprising. (As Hamlet ironically put it: ‘Sir, I lack preferment!’)
But the broader reason why events in Egypt are taking what begins to look like a revolutionary turn is that middle-class rage is matched by an equal or greater fury on the part of the ‘popular strata’ – the working class, the chronically unemployed, the rural destitute, the socially and economically excluded – all those who ‘in normal times’ may only appear onstage as fly-blown recipients of aid. This now is the very combination of forces that is approaching critical mass, driving events toward the tipping point. But while poverty and unemployment are all too clearly crucial components of the uprising, the initial, overwhelmingly unifying demand echoing across Tahrir Square and the streets of Alexandria and Suez has been crystalline in its simplicity: ‘Mubarak must go – now!’ In other words, the core unifying aspect of the revolt that has emerged is extra-(or supra-) economic – an outpouring of cross-class solidarity manifested in the continuously reiterated cry for dignity. It is this condensation of the lived experience of social blockage, humiliation and degradation that is largely ‘unimaginable’ to the networks. And this in turn guarantees that whatever further analyses they develop down the road – as the inevitable fissures and latent antagonisms within the uprising begin to appear and the terrains of politics, governance and civil society are tumultuously reconfigured – those analyses will be dead in the water before they start.
Washington – and its European acolytes – talk human rights and freedom but think market freedom, mineral resources and geopolitical order. The spectre of the demos is as powerful a bogeyman to them as it was to their 19th century imperialist predecessors, as encapsulated (in an interview with Sky TV) by the fading satrap of the Washington consensus, Tony Blair: ‘What is inevitable is that there's going to be change and the question is; what change and how do you [sic] manage it? … So the change that people want to get to [sic] is a situation where the Egyptian government evolves and you have full, fair and free elections at a certain point in time… It must be managed in a way that means that they will have a proper democracy, but also means that the relationship between Israelis and Palestinians is not adversely affected, but rather improved by what happens.’
The gritting of teeth is almost audible as the grudging admissions are forced out: ‘change’, ‘evolution of governance’ and full, free and fair elections ‘at a certain point in time’! Five years? Ten years? After the military has restored order and got business back up and running (though ‘deploring the bloodshed’)? Crucially, however: ‘We’ must manage the process; ‘they’ are incapable of doing so; indeed, have no fundamental right to decide on any process for themselves). Enter, stage left, the spectre of ‘Islamism’ – here in the guise of the Muslim Brotherhood – the ‘irrational’, the ‘pre-modern’ beguiler of the naïve oriental masses, the ‘foreign body’ that has to be excluded, or surgically removed – together with its mistaken adherents, at whatever cost – from the emerging polis. Crisis has a way of making the silences of neoliberal geopolitics speak. What is now on full display is not only what Slavoj iek has called ‘the shameless cynicism of a global order whose agents only imagine that they believe in their (own) ideas of democracy and human rights’, but its underlying, constitutive aporia.
In summary, the issue of ‘Egypt itself’, as articulated by the leaders and commentator-cheerleaders of the stuttering global neoliberal order, has in fact very little to do with the condition or aspirations of the Egyptian people. It is not, indeed, – even in its own terms – ultimately about ‘Islamism’. The West has been able to cohabit just fine for the last decade with the ‘Islamist’ Turkey of Recep Tayyip Erdoan, which has, in turn, been extraordinarily accommodating towards Israeli regional policy. The governing discourse is of course that which constructs the couplet Israel–Palestine, and legislates the maintenance of that order, that brutal ‘balance’, at any cost. It is about who will remain the regional hegemon in the oil-rich Middle East, which secondary regimes will buttress that form of hegemony – if, indeed a form of control that relies so little on consent can be termed ‘hegemonic’ – and how the present (dramatically weakening) regional regime of ‘stability’ will be maintained, even as it provokes ever more dangerous forms of instability and fresh possibilities of regional war. Forget ‘the people’ – if the stability of the regional system is at stake, anything goes.
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