Sunday, February 6, 2011

Mubarak And Street Anger

By Mohammad el-Ashab
This commentary was published in al-Hayat on 06/02/2011
Around a year and a half ago, President Barack Obama delivered an address in Cairo, where he said that ‘no system of government can or should be imposed upon one nation by any other’. Then recently, there have been statements by American officials about the need for an immediate transition of power in Egypt, today rather than tomorrow. The difference between these two examples of rhetoric involves many ironies, most importantly, that the departure of the Egyptian regime has become something desired both domestically and abroad. In the initial phase, this process might be restricted to the regime’s leading symbols. But nothing can guarantee that the demands of the street will not reach the highest level possible.

The departure of Mubarak, in and of itself, has become something justified by the power of recent developments. Hosni Mubarak has forgotten that continuing his term involves, in itself, a reduction of his prerogatives, as with any product that goes beyond its expiration date. The situation has become more complicated because the recipe that he used to force the street to “swallow” the results of the last election, left competitors with no other option but the street. This is why the notion of this departure has become more tragic than taking the hemlock.

Perhaps it is the first time in which the head of an Arab state has witnessed a popular march that he is unable to confront. Although the president has conceded everything he could indeed concede, from a position of weakness, the spirit of the military leader who will only remove his medals before the guillotine has made things much harder for him.

One regime will go and another one will come – this is not a problem in democratic systems, based on the peaceful rotation of power. However, the Egyptian case, which was inspired by the experience of Tunisia with regard to popular anger that has swept the streets, has involved the de-legitimization of a regime that believed some compromises would be met by others; the regime ignored the fact that the anger of the street is like a fire that would be only kindled further when firewood is thrown to it. In the string of compromises that was offered, the issue of timing has been absent, as compromises came too late.

Regimes are assumed to possess information of an anticipatory nature. Whoever has the most information can be the closest to the pulse of the street, if this information is precise, and if it is communicated courageously and frankly. Useful information does not mean dry reports, or optimistic readings of the situation; it should not be cosmetic either, aimed at polishing reality. Instead, it involves explaining and drawing conclusions about the repercussions of any decision or measure, so that they are not diverted from their objectives. But what is taking place in Egypt, and earlier Tunisia, has revealed the extent to which the information being circulated by young people tapping on their keyboards, can outrace the calculations of the regimes that have lost their sense of hearing, and can imagine no alternative other than remaining in power.

All of the world’s revolutions have been based on the ideas and values formulated by philosophers, thinkers and observers of the laws of history. Rallying around ideas with an ideological and religious basis has always constituted an element of certainty, which is what moves and mobilizes people. However, the revolutions of social media have outstripped all earlier expectations. Thus they started out in near isolation, as they allowed young people to experience virtual worlds that satisfy their aspirations to gain knowledge and absorb technological changes. But they have since gotten out of control, for a simple reason. They do not rely on the logic of traditional revolutions, which require leaders, authorities and specific plans of movement. The young people who have taken to the streets to advocate changing reality are doing so inspired by virtual notions of deliverance in the form of bringing down this or that regime.

There are true differences involved here. Some have called it the struggle of generations in the past, while other portray it as a revolt against traditional values, beginning with the family, the school, and cultural legacies.

However, these differences would not have taken on the aspect of demanding radical change if the situation did not also involve deprivation, despair, and a lack of opportunities for educated university graduates.

In the Chinese revolution, the educated classes went to the farms to give villagers a rudimentary education in change. Today, the farmers and simple folk have moved from marginalized suburbs to the urban centers, and joined the young people. But the lesson that should be learned from history is that the logic of acting pre-emptively is better than waiting for things to happen. Those who are wagering on the United States government should reread the political stances being expressed; this is because friendships with states, like with people, do not favor the company of the weak.

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