A deluge of articles, statements and comments on the peoples’ protests across a region defined in imperial geopolitical and cultural discourses as the Middle-East or the Arab World have so far been driven by two main questions: ‘how it happened?’ and ‘what will happen next?’
The ‘how’ and ‘what next’ are impossible questions at times like these, because they make impossible demands on what happened and misrecognize the fact that it is still happening. The event—regardless of how it is currently referred to: uprising, unrest, crisis, revolt, or protest—will not reveal itself as an object of thought and study precisely because it is mindless and acephalic. Both the domino-effect thesis and the snowball thesis are narratives and speculations after the event and the latter image seems particularly out of place across a region where snow falls on few of its remote mountaintops and does not register with the vast majority of its 300 or so million.
Both the course and ultimate outcome of the people’s protest are neither to be determined nor defined precisely because they are a-topical, without a place where they can be situated, posited, imposed, reposed, deposed or even ex-posed, for it would be a major mistake if they are seen as a remote spectacle without deafening resonances closer at home. This is perhaps where time and place, history and space have parted ways; but have they? And then what’s an event anyway?
In all that has been said and is bound to emerge, there is that same persistent rhetorical paradigm of universalisms (commodified, romantic, liberal or revolutionary) from Fukuyama to Richard Branson, from Zizek and Badiou to Chomsky and Roudinesco. Lesser-known orators and speculators will come forward and speak their minds. We will hear from those who shall soon be commissioned to write essays and books on the subject, as of from, no doubt, all sorts of other ambulance chasers.
It’s September 11 all over again, except that this time the Free World is on the wrong side of the equation and if anything its leaders are no longer the conquerors but may well be the conquered, no longer the preachers of freedom and democracy, but perhaps its force-fed recipients. Once more, the event has ‘called off its strike’ (assuming that it has ever went on strike) and both ‘history as well as the conditions of analysis are disrupted.’ At times like these, Baudrillard once called for a Taoist attitude: ‘when events speed up, one must slow down’.
The ‘how’ and ‘what next’ are not just impossible questions; they are also and essentially the wrong questions to ask in the first place. Europe and the United States were largely absent from the Tunisian events. True, perhaps this may not be the case at the level of agencies and institutions of foreign policy makers and strategists, but the harrowing silence of Western media about the most important episodes of the protest movement in Tunisia have already written off their come-late engagement with it and with all other subsequent instances of protest movements across the region. By the time the Western media woke up to the magnitude and scope of what has just transpired in Tunisia—that part of the world, which gave its original name to an entire continent—it was already too late; but late for what and for whom?
Both Western media and politics are now running breathless after stories and events in a desperate effort to make up for lost time. But the initial silence, the initial attitude of denial which in some ways persists with regard to media coverage on, for instance, Yemen as opposed to Bahrain are symptomatic of an endemic problem that one needs to ponder over in a separate piece. Where were the media when the death toll among Tunisian protestors kept rising by the minute? The answer is both simple and cynical. The Arizona shootings were more newsworthy. But also so was the New York City’s annual No Pants Subway Ride event. Mistakes kept accumulating on the French side from French Foreign Minister Michele Alliot-Marie’s request to send protest police and equipment to support Ben Ali in his efforts to kettle protestors, to the ill-informed appointment of a new ambassador, a close friend of Sarkozy, a young man rushed from Baghdad to Tunis when technically there was no Tunisian government to accept or reject the appointment of France’s ambassador in the country.
While the whole world was busy localizing Tunisia on the map and marvelling at the story of its educated street vendor who set himself on fire because he lost face over a female officer’s slap, Egypt took central stage. This time around, the presence of both the media and the United States were impressive. The most obvious thing to say is of course that Egypt is a bigger country, that the stakes are higher with respect to the United States’ and those of its allies’ interest in the region. But that reading will fall short of understanding the underlying logic, which is fomenting these protest movements. The real force behind this relentless sequence of events is oblivious to Western interests and Western logic and for that matter alone it would be a serious mistake if it is judged by the very logic it is oblivious to in the first place.
The Sheikh mentality, the ages old attitude of western adventurers in the ‘Orient’ which singles out a leader of the pack to conduct their wheeling and dealings with, has by no means changed. This time around, though, calls on specific individuals to come forward and reveal themselves as potential future leaders have fallen on deaf ears. Even worse, no one is interested in a coup-d’état. Why? What happened? Have they lost their appetite for thrones and leadership?
The inability to figure out what has happened, what is still happening and what will happen next have been prominent in politics, in the media and even more so among intellectuals and writers. But is this difficulty dictated by the unprecedented and exceptional nature of events or does it refer to empty thoughts for which the Western mind is yet to invent some content, and blind intuitions onto which Western ideologies and values are trying to graft some concepts? Perhaps we don’t speak the same language, after all; and even less, we are not all inscribed in the same historical or theoretical fantasy of Fukuyama’s evolutionary pattern of a ‘universal history’ of liberal democracy.
Three key words have been prominent in these protest movements across national boundaries. They have been translated as ‘people’, ‘street’ and ‘revolution’, which is fine up to a point. But that is not exactly what they mean. They are of course ultimately untranslatable, but the word translated as ‘people’ is ‘shaab’ in Arabic (شعب), which evokes among other things spatial images of labyrinthine entanglement and narrow passages. It is into this labyrinth that the Arabic ‘people’ are taking the world. In becoming aware of these differences that disrupt the roadmap of correspondence and references structuring most of the comments on the mediatised spectacle of the Arab street, we may discover that a different revolutionary path of deferred dreams is being taken.
(To be continued)