The Problem with Tahrir Fever

Posted on August 7, 2011

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The industrialized West loves big stories. I’m not the first person to notice this. In fact, in simpler and more honest times, the US and other Western governments had well labeled cabinet level departments designed to condense complex self-serving foreign policy issues into easily digested and exciting tales. The goal was to convince the populace to make geo-political problems their own, while handing over their cash and freedom to the government to do with as they would. And it worked. In the US, specifically, a regional European conflict over imperial territory and colonies in the developing world, was turned into a crisis of humanitarianism and an affront to democracy during WW1. This was an attractive story for Americans, recalling themes and villains that have permeated the American discourse since its political coming of age, and reaffirming the imagined morals and values shared by the American people, and endangered by “othered” enemies.

The bare-bones of the story remains central to the American psyche: the spirit of a great people rises up as one, with historically-proven and intrinsic values, to attack a well-defined and purely “other” evil enemy. More important, perhaps, is the reason why this narrative so easily inflames the hearts of Americans and like-nations–the chance to participate in a morally just crusade that imbues ordinary lives with importance, to be a part of the new “greatest generation”. Central to this narrative is the self-flattering and comforting seed of normalization; for if we are the “good” guys, then our values and actions are pretty much okay. We needn’t examine our own problems, our version of apartheid and genocide, our disparities in wealth. The narrative devices I’m talking about may even be of integral importance to imperial/colonial societies as a periodic cleansing, appropriate when the muck of the society’s bigotry, disparity and injustice become too great to ignore or accommodate.

It goes without saying that this is an especially dangerous characteristic of American society as far as the rest of the world goes. But I think it has some new permutations that have so far gone without much examination, and I’ll make the argument here that the replication of Tahrir Square in some of the most imperialist countries with the largest military operations in the world–the US and Israel–is at its heart a variant on the same kinds of narrative tropes behind the creation of targeted hobgoblins for our military adventures.

The lessons and context of Tahrir Square have been interpreted in bizarre ways by the mainstream American discourse. Foremost, it must be remembered that prior to the Egyptian uprising, Egypt was almost invisible to American eyes and ears. While the Arab World anxiously awaited the impact of the critical and consecutive legislative and presidential elections in 2010 and 2011, Americans were blissfully disinterested. That’s surprising to rational people, given that Egypt is the beneficiary of nearly three billion dollars a year in funding, making it second only to Israel as the recipient of our funding largesse. Even from a normative perspective, for those who support the US-Israeli-Arab security structure in the Middle East, Egypt was and continues to be a country of concern and interest as the country’s ruling elite attempted [and still attempts] to accommodate political policies that are contrary to popular sentiment.

When the American discourse did become interested in Egypt, it was with an almost comical ignorance of the centrality of the US to the oppressive government structure of the Mubarak/Military regime, and an unwillingness to recognize that the regime would have fallen much sooner without tacit support from our government. Rather than understand the uprising as a revolt not only against Mubarak, but against the US and its neo-liberal and imperial policies–against its wars, and its web of security agreements with compliant Arab governments–Americans instead, saw a reflection of their own political movements, and imagined their own history as a spiritual reflection of the “Arab Spring”; allusions to the civil rights movement and the American revolution were common place, along with the bizarre, in context, idea that Americans were supporting Egyptians in their removal of a “monarch” like dictator, when Americans had done everything they could in the past two decades to prevent just such a reality.

Its not surprising then, that as Americans seek to vicariously live through and replicate the Arab Spring, they did so by completely ignoring their own internal social and political problems. Whereas, the backbone of Egypt’s uprising, was composed of an internal labor revolt against corrupt state-sanctioned unions, the Wisconsin events–which were described by activists and observers alike as the American Tahrir–were aimed at bolstering unions and the Democratic party. Moreover, the only unions involved in the movement were those already aligned with the state–the increasingly non-unionized, unorganized private sector was left out of Wisconsin. US Uncut puts emphasis on  corporatist elements, not on issues of governance, normalizing the state as a legitimate actor, plagued by corporate predation. Occupy Wall Street, a movement/event that admittedly seeks to replicate Tahrir, is likewise aimed strictly at the collusion of banking and government, not at the government structure itself.

By linking our own economic struggles to those in the developing world like Egypt, such activists ignore a gigantic piece of the puzzle. The reality is that our way of life, our economic prosperity–still first world, despite the hype–is only possible through neo-liberal policies, economic and military hegemony. The people that took to Tahrir were fighting for an end to an oppressive government regime. Rightly, their struggle against exploitation and oppression was the only factor in their fight; they did not have to talk about an endless war machine. The military in Egypt does have an inordinate share of power and wealth, it does create policy and governance, but it is not at war. Rather, that military is aimed at its own people, using the hobgoblin of Israel as a pretext for Orwellian emergency laws. In the American context, when activists fight for economic prosperity, they are fighting for a normalization of the US as the world’s policeman and pit boss.  There continue to be two segregated movements in the US: the ghettoized anti-war, anti-imperial, anti-globalization movement; and the native fight for economic. justice.

These contradictions are more readily visible in the Israeli J14 movement that has occupied the streets of Tel Aviv for nearly a month. A movement that seeks to turn back the clock in Israel to a point where it was a modestly socialized state, with a well-developed array of social services, unions and protections for its ostensible citizens [but not for those not so designated]. That economic golden age, was also one for its colonial project in the West Bank and Gaza. Its not surprising then, to see that the call for a return to outright socialism in Israel has nothing to say about colonialism, nor about the costs of maintaining an indefinite occupation. It’s not a coincidence then that much of the ideological momentum of the current batch of Tahrir-inspired movements, in Israel and the US, also seek to turn back the clock to the pre and post WW2 years, where the US was at its height as an imperial social welfare state and Israel was well-regarded social-welfare state. In both countries, the Tahrir inspired movements, not coincidentally, have a regressive character, seeking not a new form of socio-economic state, but an old and venerable one that the mainstream can agree was awesome.

Its obviously not a perfect parallel, but I think that the paradigm of narrative construction that has animated so many of our wars is also at work here, as I mentioned. The economic movement is not violent nor directed at a foreign foe, but it still seeks to imbue its participants with a moral nobility that’s rooted in historical mainstream values and interpretations of the role of the state. That moral underpinning necessitates a rejection of any ideas or rhetoric that reflect poorly on the people being called into the struggle, such as: the popular American support for an economic structure that relies on undermining democracies and undercutting workers rights and environmental safeguards in the developing world; as well as a decade-long-and-counting series of official and informal occupations. Israelis must overlook their fifty year long belligerent occupation, most recently characterized in bloody fashion by overwhelming popular support for Cast Lead. The enemies are clear–corrupt politicians, bankers, “fat cats”. These are “others”, not mainstream citizens, though its the latter who invariably keep voting for war, generation after generation. They keep insisting on a “first world” lifestyle at the expense of the rest of the world’s economic well-being. They keep voting in bubble-mongers and economic short-selling policies.

Some still argue–or perhaps better said, hope [and I count myself as one of these]–that the movements can be amplified and that once out in the street, the mainstream will be willing to accept a wedding of their goals with that of the anti-war, anti-globalization movements. It’s still just a hope. I have serious doubts.

At least that conversation is on-going in the Israeli context, perhaps because the contradictions of their military and economic issues are so easily viewed in context by outsiders, given their geographic proximity.

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Here’s some views on the possibility of that evolution:

Josef Dana, a blogger at +972 in a short interview with Al Jazeera

and a transcribed interview with Noam Sheizaf, also a blogger at +972

and Abir Kopty, a Palestinian Israeli citizen who has been camped out in Tent 1948 in Tel Aviv, which seeks to draw attention to the failure of the protests to address the issue of occupation and militarism.

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Here’s a pretty good example of the dynamic I’m talking about in Israel. The writer of this op ed even calls J14 an “Intifada”, but never mentions policies toward the West Bank, Jerusalem and Gaza.

Here’s a blog that recognizes the US’s role in dominating the populations of the Middle East, yet still harkens back to Tahrir, and fails to add a call for ending our costly wars in the economic critique. Here’s a US Uncut blog also acting as a defacto chronicle of the sister struggle in Cairo; again no mention of ending our wars. Here’s an Occupy Wall Street blog, titled “Occupy Wall Street – Tahrir Style. Though it suggests demands for wider actions across America, and a set of demands, it mentions nothing of our foreign policy nor our wars.

Another example of the blackout on popular responsibility that’s now become an institutional part of the J14 protest movement:

The World Union for Progressive Judaism in a statement Monday said it “stands with all in the streets of Tel Aviv, Jerusalem and every tent city established to say that the Israel for which we have all fought and sacrificed must be an Israel that treats its citizens with dignity and respect, and offers the most basic of needs: housing, food, child-care and education, to all in an affordable way.”

Notice how the word all is first modified by the word citizen. And recall that during Cast Lead, most polling data indicated that at least 90% of non-Arab Israelis supported the operation. Another poll conducted just three months ago, shows that 60% of Israelis support another such operation. If that number were adjusted to exclude Palestinians with Israeli citizenship, it would be similar to polls on Cast Lead. As I wrote, in Israel this dynamic is patently obvious: the movement externalizes its problems as the work of politicians and big business, but takes no responsibility for its own vociferous support for policies that kill others, and impoverish Israelis.