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From Cairo to Madison: the New Internationalism and the Re-Mystification of the Middle East

[Image Source: Unknown] [Image Source: Unknown]

After being glued to Al-Jazeera for what seemed like decades, I returned to semi-normal life and found that there was breaking news in the academic circles as well. In the last three weeks, the popular overthrow of Ben Ali and Mubarak seems to have brought about the demise of another oppressive foe of the Arabs: Islam. Once fixated on Muslim psychology and Qu’ranic exegisis, commentators now have no choice but to emerge from their essentialist slumber to return to the Clintonian adage (not Hillary, the other one): it’s the economy stupid. It struck me that finally Marxists and liberals, literary critics and political scientists, beltway pundits and Russian revolutionaries, can agree on something. This time, ironically, it’s the non-role of Islam in the region and the unitary struggle for justice unfolding across the Middle East.  This unholy alliance both agrees on the root causes of unrest (rising food prices and unemployment), and is able to view similar phenomena wherever an Egyptian flag is raised in solidarity. Indeed, one can play a game of “Where’s Waldo” with the Egyptian tri-color, in which he last appeared in Madison, Wisconsin. On Thursday, when public employees protested in the face of an anti-union bill aimed at reducing their benefits and collective bargaining rights, they were armed with the Egyptian flag. The “domino effect” has ensured that people all around the world can finally “walk like an Egyptian.”

Far from the streets of Madison, commentators are celebrating the end of Middle East exceptionalism, which has often appeared as a narrow concern with the role of Islam in the region. I recently attended a workshop at which a major academic proclaimed that what is “really” going on is not identity, or difference, or religion, but the resurgence of labor unrest resulting from the global crisis of capitalism. What used to be studied through the narrow lens of Islam and regional difference has finally been made legible to the universal dictates of capitalism (or, to more liberal writers, democracy).

Two things in this statement should make any careful observer of the Middle East uncomfortable. Firstly, how, exactly should we speak of these recent events? Do we call them riots? Or, should we give the “pro-democracy” demonstrators more credit, and call the ensuing changes a Revolution? Unfortunately, the struggle for rights in Egypt does not fit neatly into either category. It was neither an irrational outbursts of anger (a la the portrayal of the LA race “riots”), nor has it led (yet) to the uprooting of a deeply corrupt system of rule. The protests were not instances of socio-economic frustration turned vandalism (a la the banlieues of Paris), as evidenced by the extraordinary diversity and discipline of the participants. And they have not indicated a revolution in Skocpol’s classic sense of "rapid, basic transformations of society's state and class structures.”

The second aspect that cannot be ignored in discussions on the “new Middle East” is the role of labor. When protestors in Wisconsin wave the Egyptian flag, the dominant story becomes one of secularism and global capitalism that is able to domesticate Egypt’s grassroots movement against a fundamentally unjust political and economic system. For the new internationalists of 2011, the workers of the world can (and will) unite. Yet the role of unions and labor is much more ambiguous than the Marxist party line would have us believe. Indeed, one of the major effects of neo-liberalism in the region has been the emergence of Islamist groups that are able to channel collective frustrations over the distribution of resources into a political movement. The jump from pervasive anti-Arab racism and Islamophobia in the United States to a knee-jerk solidarity with people fighting for democracy (even if they did not learn through a US military invasion), should give us reason to pause.

While there is no doubt that we are witnessing a historic psychological and political watershed in the region, the pesky question of comparison remains. While Tunisia, Egypt, Algeria, Iran, Bahrain and Libya are all, in different ways, impacted by the march of neo-liberalism (including an assault on social welfare and the devaluation of local currency), they are by no means experiencing a unitary movement. Nor does this extraordinary moment negate the role of Islam as a political force in the region that, contra Marx’s dismissal of religion, has often been at the forefront of demanding radical economic change. While I neither defend the ideological dictates of Islamism, nor dismiss the systemic dynamics of capital accumulation, we should be more careful when giving one (or the other) full explanatory power.

Take, for example, the cases of Egypt and Algeria. The Egyptian regime was confronted with the central role played by labor movement as well as the tepid participation of the Muslim Brotherhood. Unrest at textile mills, the Suez Canal, and in other industries, have been powerful factors in continuing the momentum of the Egyptian uprising. Yet much to the chagrin of the new internationalists, last week’s protest in Algeria was not backed by the main trade unions. In fact, while many of the Islamist parties enjoy considerable grass-roots support in Algeria, most of then abstained from the demonstrations (FIS’ Ali Belhaj being one major exception). Moreover, the Muslim Brotherhood, in contrast to Algeria’s FIS (Islamic Salvation Front) historically enjoys close ties with labor. In contrast, FIS has criticized Algeria’s planned economy and emphasized the need to protect the private sector. 

In Algeria, the protests were quickly put down by a massive police force as an authoritarian state, which has been emboldened by a decade of civil war, flexed its military muscles. Quite a different scenario from Mubarak’s rag-tag militia of thugs and a military that seemed largely sympathetic to protesters.  Furthermore, Algeria’s ruling party, the FLN (the National Liberation Front), purports to be socialist as well as Islamic, emerging after a vicious war of independence in which the FLN vanquished not only the French, but any other viable political organizations in Algeria itself. Despite its oppressive policies, the Algerian state still feeds off of its revolutionary credentials (and oil rents) in order to discredit the opposition. As exposed by Wikileaks, Algeria has been an ally of the war on terror, but has done so surreptitiously, taking care to protect its fading revolutionary image. 

Yet while Algeria has been able to cash in on revolutionary rhetoric to tame the opposition, Mubarak holds no such trump cards, suffering from a lack of legitimacy (as well as oil). Instead, he is widely recognized as a friend of American imperialism due to his role in Middle East “peace process,” stance during the Israeli attacks on Gaza in December 2008, and the enormous amount of military aid that continues to pour in from the US.

Clearly neither the role of Islam, nor the singular logic of capital can explain the divergent trajectories of unrest in Algeria and Egypt. And yet, while the far right continues to fear-monger about the specter of an Islamic takeover in the region, liberals have fallen into a breezy populist-lite “we are the people” rhetoric that seems oblivious to the geographical and historical miles between Algeria and Bahrain. There is not one modular form of revolution, any more than there is one set of Islamic behaviors. In other words, we should not dismiss the injunction for cultural specificity, but revisit it in light of the current global conjecture. Just as an older internationalism failed the Third World on the eve of decolonization, when it deemed that international revolution was more important than struggles for national sovereignty, so the new internationalism of 2011 threatens to re-mystify the local voices it claims to support.

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11 comments for "From Cairo to Madison: the New Internationalism and the Re-Mystification of the Middle East"

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I agree that to reduce what is going on across the region right now to social and economic unrest, is as inaccurate as it was in the past to attribute everything to a mystical essence of Islam, or Islamism. But at the same time, your argument seems to me also to threaten to mystify the nature of the nature of the solidarity and emulation we can see emerging now in the US or Europe, and which hopefully will continue and grow, even as it becomes more self-conscious, and thus more complex, and more accurate in its references.

After all, Europeans and Americans' demands for justice and for dignity are as complex and as difficult for the mainstream media and academics to hear as those coming from the peoples of North Africa and the Gulf. But that diversity and difference, both within us and between us, and which includes in both cases a heavy dose of shame both at the way out rulers claim to represent us, and the limited vocabulary of opposition that has been left to us by official forms of propaganda and censorship, is precisely what we may, uniquely, at this point of time, have in common. The need to respect and cultivate those differences should not discourage us from those wild acts of spontaneity, solidarity, and creative, inexact imitation, which any movement which hopes to bring about radical change needs in order to survive and thrive.

Anyone who followed the proto-revolutionary protests that swept through France at the end of last year cannot help but be struck by how that climate anticipated, without in any way predicting or limiting, what is happening now in Tunisia and Egypt, just as it was in its turn informed by news from countless, previous elsewheres, from Argentina to Algeria. Each of these insurrections is different. And each of them echoes and rhymes with the others in ways that are totally unexpected, and totally unrepeatable.

I agree, we may not yet have a certified revolution on our hands anywhere. But we have clearly in the case of Egypt entered not only a revolutionary time, but a revolutionary temporality, in which a people once again have the sense of living in the present, of reinventing their life anew each day. And other people, in Madison, or in Corbeil-Essonnes, or in Aden, can clearly identify with that, and be inspired by that connection, without having to deploy a theory of capital, or of religion, in order to get them out into the streets.

We may not have a revolution yet. But the very fact that people are now once again using the word "revolution" as a term of hope and aspiration testifies both to the unimaginable import of what is happening, and the inability of anyone - academic, politician, professional 'revolutionary' - to limit it to one meaning, and one place.

Fred Bowie wrote on February 19, 2011 at 02:19 PM
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There may be those who are collapse these movements, blindly blurring distinctions under the banner of what Davis calls the "new internationalism of 2011". These movements are hardly coming from the same place, not even from an economic or workers' rights standpoint. But I think she's missing the point: The United States has its own cause for revolt. And people in Wisconsin are finding inspiration in the recent efforts of Tunisians, Egyptians, Libyans, Iranians, Jordanians, Lebanese, Palestinians, and on it goes.... This is a very good thing. Guarding distinction against dilution has its place - so does locating points of commonality. That is all Wisconsin protesters were doing when they held up those signs. Perhaps it was a matter of giving a bit of credit where credit was due....

Rebecca Manski wrote on February 19, 2011 at 03:27 PM
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I just wanted to say that I very much agree with this statement (from Rebecca M. above):

"But I think she's missing the point: The United States has its own cause for revolt. And people in Wisconsin are finding inspiration in the recent efforts of Tunisians, Egyptians, Libyans, Iranians, Jordanians, Lebanese, Palestinians, and on it goes.... This is a very good thing."

Indeed!

Moreover, pointing to a shared source of inspiration is NOT the same thing as attributing a shared causal mechanism. Similarly, just because the tactics being deployed in these differing sites look increasingly alike does not mean that their end goal is the same.

Lastly, while some commentators might be simplistically reducing these differing revolts to one single common denominator (e.g. the economy), most of the analyses I've seen have been far more sophisticated. In that sense, it feels like the author is arguing with a straw man.

Private wrote on February 19, 2011 at 04:03 PM
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The issue here is the return of Egypt to a country of influence on the world scene. When protesters in Arab countries, Iran, and even the USA are inspired by the fortitude and bravery of the Egyptian people, that means that Egypt is now a country which again, influences and inspires. Hopefully, this trend will continue..

ARTH wrote on February 19, 2011 at 04:21 PM
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I recognize and would want to support the basic point that it is too easy for Western people to choose what they like about the Middle East uprisings and identify with only that--and that that thing may be secular "democracy" for academics. But I agree with the other comments that the post fails to analyze protest outside the Middle East with the same specificity that it discusses protest across the Middle East. How can it be said that there was nothing "rational" about the L.A. "riots," or as some within that community prefer to call it, UPRISING? How can it be said that protest in Madison is simply about unemployment and work benefits, and not also about a fundamental political system and the absence of democracy? To deny these legitimating qualities to Western unrest is neither to further the discussion nor to consider the grounds for comparison or not.

Asya wrote on February 19, 2011 at 04:49 PM
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Excellent piece in that this is very thought provoking stuff. Here's the point of the article:

"Clearly neither the role of Islam, nor the singular logic of capital can explain the divergent trajectories of unrest in Algeria and Egypt. And yet, while the far right continues to fear-monger about the specter of an Islamic takeover in the region, liberals have fallen into a breezy populist-lite “we are the people” rhetoric that seems oblivious to the geographical and historical miles between Algeria and Bahrain. There is not one modular form of revolution, any more than there is one set of Islamic behaviors."

In other words, it's never just one thing in all circumstances, or even in the same circumstances at different times. It's never 'either/or' but rather a combination of dynamics contributing to popular uprisings, as well as the dynamics in the outcomes of such popular displays of rejection of the status quo; in this case – authoritarian regimes. The outcome in Egypt (at least in terms of forcing Mubarak out, and the dismantling of the ruling political party associated…the rest is yet to come) has obviously far more ‘successful’ than the outcome in Algeria, which quickly used the customary and brutal show of force to shut them down. Different sets of circumstances in the environments of these two historically authoritarian states with an Islamic component, has so far led to vastly different outcomes in terms of these social movements/uprisings.

I’m clearly baffled by the suggestion from Rebecca that the ‘movements’ in Wisconsin are not even coming from the same place: “These movements are hardly coming from the same place, not even from an economic or workers' rights standpoint. “

WTF? Of course they are! At least at the very foundational (read systemic) level. They are fighting for their basic rights as humans to survive both economically and without a tyrannical state institution directing their fates. The Mediaeval times of too long ago for anyone to remember are long gone, and we’re not about to go back to the Lords and the Peasants operation. So that is for sure a similarity in all of these movements. In that, they are universal. It is the difference in the responses to these uprisings that the author is noting, along with the more simplistic version, which is that different circumstances such as geographic location, culture, properties of the local set-up, (who’s in charge?) and most importantly perhaps, the will of the specific population, are what dictate the results of these types of uprisings.

Then there’s this from the piece: “And yet, while the far right continues to fear-monger about the specter of an Islamic takeover in the region, liberals have fallen into a breezy populist-lite “we are the people” rhetoric that seems oblivious to the geographical and historical miles between Algeria and Bahrain.”

Yep, tragically, at least a couple of these comments put truth to this prevailing sense of oblivion, particularly from the US.

Carla Coco wrote on February 19, 2011 at 07:43 PM
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The premise of the article is excellent. The hook is what falters. Carla, I may have overstated my point when I said these movements are "hardly" coming from the same place. My language could have been more nuanced. However, I was responding to this statement, agreeing somewhat with the writer's objection: 'I recently attended a workshop at which a major academic proclaimed that what is “really” going on is not identity, or difference, or religion, but the resurgence of labor unrest resulting from the global crisis of capitalism.'

Rebecca Manski wrote on February 20, 2011 at 02:04 AM
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apart from your analysis of the drives of the crowds, i would like to point to a, to me, new pressing phenomenon playing out: awareness, mostly over the internet, away from the one way public communiqes of mainstream media and the national and international spoke-channels. my 'legitimate' worry is how the same channels feeding crowds all over the world will not stop short from organizing globally away from the establishment. how this will force or not worldwide consensuses among governments and corporations to balance out world economies and resources, while the essence of capitalism is enormous differences in wealth and life quality, both territorially and within confined systems.

these last weeks the world has finally entered the 21st century, or at least a new time area, it seems there is no going back.

m. wrote on February 20, 2011 at 12:09 PM
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we need to remember the mutuality of appropriation and identification. The revolutions, some more than others, are already in contact with movements outside the region. This changes the implications in some cases and it takes the Middle Eastern/N. African revolutions out of the role of just being the appropriated object. 2nd - it's hard to analyze "commentators" without naming or citing any. We need to be specific, if we want to talk about the return of academic vested interests. Different things are going on within the general area and with different motives. Here http://www.lemonde.fr/idees/article/2011/02/18/tunisie-egypte-quand-un-vent-d-est-balaie-l-arrogance-de-l-occident_1481712_3232.html there is a Marxist rhetoric of universal right. Here http://workwithoutdread.blogspot.com/2011/02/naive-melody.html and here http://www.foreignpolicy.com/articles/2011/02/16/revolution_u?page=full instead the events don't belong to anybody, via post-Marxist inflections. Finally, even if there is misunderstanding now we cannot just assume that it is only a destructive force.

D.B. Choi wrote on February 21, 2011 at 02:21 AM
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"Firstly, how, exactly should we speak of these recent events? Do we call them riots? Or, should we give the “pro-democracy” demonstrators more credit, and call the ensuing changes a Revolution?"

You can't possibly be serious in asking this question. Of course it is a revolution. No one is calling it anything but, even our current ruling military council here in Egypt calls it that. Have you not watched the news for weeks?

Nicole Hansen wrote on February 21, 2011 at 11:48 PM
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No one would call them riots except for the far right.

Alex Deley wrote on March 15, 2011 at 04:55 PM

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