I say you want a revolution, Egypt

 
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By Osama Diab

Activists in Egypt should look to the hippy movement of the 1960s for a successful model in bringing about long-term social change.

Since the establishment of the Kifaya (Enough) movement in 2004, the Egyptian political scene has changed dramatically. If this continues, political resistance in Egypt is likely to become much more dynamic than it has been since the 1952 revolution, which overthrew the monarchy and established a republic.

Movements such as Kifaya, the April 6 youth movement and the national coalition for change headed by Mohamed Elbaradei, have all played their part in making the political life of Egypt less stagnant. They have managed to increase the margins of freedom and push for political reforms and will continue to do so, but they can’t do it alone.

These groups all focus on short-term political gains. Their demands focus on short-term goals – constitutional change, free and fair elections, putting an end to emergency law – but they often ignore the most important element that could drive real change in the future: social change.

With a society that is reversing social progress and embracing conservative values, the drive for democracy and equality may find few supporters. Many in Egypt still do not recognise the equality of women and embrace discrimination against religious and ethnic minorities. Some discard democracy and human rights as a western invention and as part of an imperialist agenda. What Egypt needs, rather than a few groups preaching against the current regime and political system, is a durable social movement that decades from now can influence politicians and decision-makers.

Look, for example, at the social and political impact the hippy movement had in the US and, arguably, the entire world. Some argue that America wouldn’t have had a black president if it wasn’t for the social progress and momentum built in the 1960s.

The reason behind the hippies’ success in changing the course of history is not only their anti-war sentiments, care for the environment, or their criticism of middle-class values and big corporate practices. These are values that were all preached by others long before the hippies.

No, what made the hippy movement attract millions of youth in the United States and globally was the subculture to carry their messages, rather than the value of the message itself. Their hip and exotic fashion, music and lifestyle is what appealed to tens of millions of young people confused by the Vietnam War and examining the values of their parents. The new fashions they created, and the focus on art and culture in their movement, made it easier for their message to spread.

Whether we agree or disagree with the values of the hippy movement, one can’t deny that it had its own distinctive culture, creating one of the strongest social revolutions in history. Its emphasis on equality and environmental and pacifist values still influence the world today, and its subculture became part of American mainstream culture in the 1970s.

Here in Egypt, a country that puts so much emphasis on people’s gender, social class and religion, a strong grassroots social movement and a subculture needs to emerge with a list of social, political and environmental demands. Ayman Massoud, the keyboardist of the Arabic rock band Massar Egbari (“Compulsory Direction”), explained to me what they mean by the name of the band. In his view, society draws a compulsory direction for us to take in order to fit society’s idea of what is proper and successful.

“If someone wants to become a drummer, their parents will tell them to finish college first and then they can do whatever they want. But after they finish college, society will force them to find a job and practise their hobby on the side. After that, they will become too drained from their jobs and gradually forget about their old dream,” says Massoud.

Egyptian dissidents don’t have to – and should not – follow in the footsteps of others, but establish a culture that will make it easier to promote their beliefs. I wrote before in Egypt Today about how an underground music scene is emerging in Egypt focusing more on societal issues. This appeals to those who are tired of a pop scene dominated by attractive singers chiming love songs to western beats: music that avoids issues facing Egyptian youth today. This can be the root from which a new subculture can stem.

A movement like this would likely face huge social condemnation. It is inevitable it will be described as a threat to national security by the regime and a threat to society and its values by religious groups, but new ideas and social change are often faced with resistance.

Khaled Diab pointed out in Brian Whitaker’s book, What’s really wrong with the Middle East, that Egypt has a million Mubaraks – meaning that authoritarianism in Egypt exists not only in the political leadership, but also in families, schools and workplaces. As long as people themselves don’t believe in the values of democracy and liberty, no number of political groups lobbying for change will succeed in pushing for reform.

This column appeared in the Guardian newspaper’s Comment is Free section on 17 July 2010. Read the full discussion here.

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Diagnosing the Middle East’s ills

 
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By Osama Diab

Author and journalist Brian Whitaker diagnoses the Arab world’s problems.

18 January 2010

When debate opens up on the problems in the Middle East, finger pointing is the first weapon in the argument. Whether it is Middle Easterners blaming contemporary problems on centuries of Western interference or the West focusing on authoritarian regimes and militant religion, the source of problems in the region can always be found in one place: somebody else’s lap.

Brian Whitaker sums this up succinctly in the first sentence of his book What’s really wrong with the Middle East: “The problems of the Middle East are always someone else’s fault.”

Whitaker should know: he spent seven years as the Middle East editor at British daily The Guardian and holds a degree in Arabic from the University of Westminster. Whitaker utilises his depth of experience in the region to diagnose the problems that plague it, conducting a series of unstructured interviews with a kaleidoscope of people to pinpoint what he believes to be the Middle East’s key problems. But don’t expect the book to be an author’s sermon on the ills of the region. What’s really wrong with the Middle East cedes the pulpit to Whitaker’s interviewees.

“I deliberately chose not to interview politicians or any of the talking heads favoured by visiting journalists,” Whitaker tells Egypt Today, adding that the people he talked to were not selected according to any agenda. “They were mostly people I had come across in the course of my work who seemed to have interesting things to say. I tried to let them shape the interviews as much as possible. I didn’t have a fixed set of questions or anything like that. I gave them a list of 10 statements — about politics, oil, the media, corruption, etc. — and asked them to choose those they wanted to talk about.”

Whitaker divides the book into nine chapters, each tackling one topic that, in his opinion, hinders reform. For example, the first chapter explains how education in the Middle East is designed to discourage free and critical thinking. Instead, it encourages “thinking inside the box” and is used by regimes to maintain power. The book moves on to explain how power is inherited and is usually driven from the father’s power. In chapter three, there is a discussion of the distance between Arab governments and their citizens, as well as the often-negative perception the public has of governments.

Although Whitaker emphasises that regime change will not immediately solve the problems of Arab countries, he spares no criticism of the region’s governments. He sees power in the region as an almost genetic inheritance that engenders all manners of nepotism, bribery and administrative corruption.

However, in Whitaker’s mind, Arab countries are more than simply repressive political regimes. Deep faults in civil society, he posits, are doing just as much damage to the region as the regimes that manage it.

“What I’m saying in the book is that the problem is a lot more complex and you have to look at Arab society as a whole, not just the regimes,” he explains. “It does mean there are no quick fixes. I’m sorry about that, but to pretend otherwise would just be deceiving ourselves.”

Whitaker similarly takes to task the censorship of the press and the internet, the lack of political expression in Arab countries, discrimination, resistance to globalization and the lack of openness to other cultures fostered in this climate.

With emphasis on interviews and real-life stories, supplemented with studies and comments from experts, What’s really wrong with the Middle East reads more like an in-depth feature article than a textbook survey of the region. “I wanted to give it a different flavour from most books about the Middle East,” says Whitaker, “so I decided to use Arab sources wherever possible — things that Arabs had written or said, but preferably available in English so that Western readers could explore them in more detail if they wanted to.”

The book took Whitaker more than a year and a half to compile and write, due in part to the legwork he felt was necessary. “To stop it from becoming too dry and academic, I wanted to include some face-to-face interviews,” he explains. “I made trips to Egypt, Jordan and Lebanon, as well as to France, Belgium and the Netherlands especially for that.”

Whitaker’s objectives in writing the book were two-fold. First, he believed that debate in the West about Arab countries and the problems plaguing them was ill-informed — especially in the United States during the Bush presidency.

“I wanted to give a more complete picture,” Whitaker says, “one that delves beyond the usual issues such as terrorism and dictatorship into areas that are less often talked about: authoritarianism within the family, corruption, social discrimination, the pressure to conform and not think outside the box.”

His other objective was to confront the culture of denial in Arab countries. “If the problems are acknowledged at all, they are usually blamed on outsiders,” he says. “Western countries certainly bear some responsibility, but that’s no excuse for Arabs to sit back and do nothing. At some point they’ll have to say: ‘OK, we’re in a mess. How are we going to get out of it?’”

In the book, Whitaker points to how the invasion of Iraq highlights the West’s belief that overthrowing tyrants is a silver bullet to address the region’s woes. He finds that ousting authoritarian regimes is not a panacea for the region as a whole. The book implies that authoritarianism exists in schools, colleges, families and the workplace, and overthrowing regimes will not and cannot instantly change that. The thread Whitaker weaves throughout the book is that political change and democracy cannot happen unless preceded by social change.

While the title implies that someone — maybe Whitaker — holds all the answers, the author’s real conclusion is that there are no quick fixes for the region’s ills.

Despite his challenging observations, Whitaker believes strongly that progress is being made: “Arab society is definitely changing, if only slowly at the moment. But the more it changes, the more it is likely to change. And I think the forces driving that change — globalization, satellite TV, the internet, foreign travel and so on — are virtually unstoppable in the long term, even if there are setbacks along the way.”

This review first appeared in the January 2010 edition of Egypt Today. Republished here with the author’s consent. ©Osama Diab. All rights reserved.

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