Shiva Balaghi: Egypt in the Spotlight; the US on the Spot

Shiva Barghouti Watson Institute Photo

Shiva Barghouti
Watson Institute Photo

Shiva Balaghi is relaying cellphone news from her friends in Tahrir Square in Cairo. Between calls, so to speak, she is weighing the warnings, heard in Israel and the States, that it could be Iran all over again, Egypt on a road to mullocracy. It’s the sort of suspicion, she’s saying, that could create the scenario that it fears the most. An Iranian-American, born in Nashville, grown up in Tehran, Shiva Balaghi trained as a Middle East historian at the University of Michigan. She’s now a post-doc fellow at Brown, and was one of several stars at the Egypt teach-in on the Brown campus last night.

Except that the people have risen as one against another cruel US-blessed autocracy, there’s very little we’re seeing in Cairo today to remind Shiva Balaghi of Iran in the Seventies. Islamist slogans, and religious leaders of any stripe are conspicuous by their absense in all the news and pictures from Egypt. Strikingly articulate are the longing for constitutional political freedoms and the economic despair of a young, half-starved majority of Egypt’s population. It is as easy to see Egypt and Iran as contradictions and opposites: Iran a half-modern, substantially secular society under a fanatical government; Egypt a palpably reverent and prayerful Muslim society long accustomed to secular government, going back to Nasser and before.

Let’s take them at their word: they’re saying we want a constitutional, fair, elected, democratic government, like the United States has… If the United States doesn’t support this freedom movement in Egypt, it might actually help create that scenario which it fears the most. If the United States is seen as privileging Israel’s security over the free-will of the Egyptian people, then all those people on the streets of Egypt are going to be mad at Israel, and are going to be mad at the United States. Today, they’re not chanting anti-Israel slogans… they’re not burning American flags. But if we stand in their way, what do you thing is going to happen? I think it’s okay for us as Americans to take a leap of faith and bring to life that promise that President Obama gave in June 2009, that if the Arab people would rise up and act like good responsible, democratic citizens, the United States would help them. 

Shiva Balaghi in conversation with Chris Lydon at Brown, February 1, 2011.

See also, among the many educated guesses about Islamism (and the non-threat of it) in Egypt, Slavoj Zizek in The Guardian and Rob Eshman in

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  • nother

    It was not any specific utterance spoken from that podium in Cairo in 2009 that resonates and ripples through the Muslim world and streets as we speak, it was simply that they WERE spoken and by whom. The Muslim people are all too familiar with drunken power and it’s tyrannical hangover, so it was easy for them to size up G.W. Bush and consequently put our idealistic U.S presumptions into just another power hungry box.

    BUT then there stands before them a black man with a Muslim name – The President of the United States! The revelation is like lightning in their minds, they say to themselves: the difference between us and the U.S. is not G.W. – we have had our tyrants lead as well – the difference is that the U.S. has the capacity to change their tyrant. Through checks and balances. And it’s within that capacity that one and all tap into an ever-burgeoning hope. That’s what those Egyptian people are screaming for on the streets, it’s not a shared miracle they have in mind, it’s a shared determination to be given the capacity to hope.

    As President Obama said in his speech: “I do have an unyielding belief that all people yearn for certain things: the ability to speak your mind and have a say in how you are governed; confidence in the rule of law and the equal administration of justice; government that is transparent and doesn’t steal from the people; the freedom to live as you choose.”

  • Prof. Balaghi’s commentary is superb. As she said, it is hard for a historian to predict the future, but her analysis is rooted in a deep and cogent understanding of the region.

  • America will either lead the world into a post-Zionist era or the world will lead itself into a post-American one.

    Thus, America’s imperial crisis continues.


    • That my friend, is a brilliant, concise surmisal of what stands in front of the US in terms of policy decisions..

  • Glen S.

    The constant comparison to Iran in 79 is stale, and not valid. What we are seeing here is more like India in 46, and unfortunately turning into something more like Wounded Knee 1890…or 1973 for that matter. Obama is, and has been, on the wrong side of this struggle. He would rather the tyrant, clearly operating at the pleasure of foreign powers, be allowed to remain in power and control the situation on his own terms than allow the unprecedented, largely peaceful and stunningly well organized revolution to occur. Obama’s weak and ineffective leadership style does not work in a revolution, this is a time for bold and immediate action, something our president has never shown.

  • Potter

    Listening to and watching Al Jazeera live yesterday, the turn of events.. Mubarak is showing the world who he is. We can see who this man is and feel shame to have supported his repressive government all these years.. We watch Mubarak causing the very chaos he says his people should fear without him. The old trick to stay in power. We see and hear the Egyptian people’s courage. It’s very affecting.

    We saw a peaceful protest/revolution before the Mubarak people came out yesterday, en masse, some on horse or camel, with their printed signs and gold framed pictures of the young Mubarak. Some, we learn, are police in civilian clothing.

    Anthony Shadid is doing wonderful reporting.
    Arab World Faces It’s Uncertain Future

    The Cooper/Landler/Mazetti report today also in the NYT on the Obama administration’s distancing itself from Mubarak, siding with the people, gives hope that this is not business as usual anymore Sudden Split Recasts U.S.Policy.

    But I think It will take more meaningful outside pressure, concerted, if this crackdown is to fail. There is just so long the people can hold out in the streets and Mubarak may yet win by attrition. We should look at the Iranian Green Revolution of 2009, not only the 1979 one, when it was not at all clear that Ahmadinejad won the election and then we watched as he stole his way back to power; we watched his brutal crackdown.

    Most disappointing is Israeli right wing leadership’s negative reaction, pumping more fear of Islamism, more existential threat talk. They have too long depend on the so called status quo (which wasn’t and isn’t) to remain, not giving a damn about the people on the ground around them, yet at the same time critical of how they live (and without democracy). Above all it is always necessary to keep the fear up about dreaded Islamists; to keep them at bay. it seems a cultivated Islamophobia. Why don’t they get it that it is the occupation, the unending injustice, their big foot and chokehold on the people that is a cause of anti-Israeli sentiment, the “existential threat,” the insecurity ?

    It seems to me that contrary to those who say now forget about the peace process, that the occupation and an end of conflict agreement must be nearer.

  • Potter

    Most disappointing to also be hearing now from some qyarters that the peace process in on hold indefinitely… a recipe for uprising and/or unilateral action.

  • chris

    Shiva Balaghi writes by email this morning, Thursday Febuary 4:

    I know that my overly optimistic interview we taped on Feb 1 probably sounded silly to some listening as Tahrir became a battle zone the very next day. This morning, Cairo tends to its wounds. Friends are taking food and medical supplies to Tahrir. Neighbors are checking on one another. The protestors will not leave until Mubarak does. The opposition leader Ayman Nour called this the “camel intifada” because it would take a long time. Having been in Mubarak’s prisons, I guess Nour understood that Mubarak would not go softly into the night. But neither will the people of Egypt. Today, my friend Amr Shalakany told me, I saw ordinary Egyptians become heroes….

  • Potter

    Someone said (with pride) that if the Americans had as much courage as we Egyptians have, the world would be a very different place.

    Mubarak and his so called new improved government are showing the world who they are…. and this focusses us now here on Obama’s , the US foreign policy. What are we going to do?

  • nother

    This from Juan Cole:
    “Just as Netanyahu takes Washington’s billions but then pisses all over American policy objectives with regard to erecting a Palestinian State Lite, so Mubarak has stuffed tens of billions of dollars from Washington into his government’s pockets but has humiliated and endangered the United States.”

    I believe Richard Haass had it right in his conversation with Maureen Dowd:
    “What are we going to do — support dictators for the rest of eternity because we don’t want Islamists taking their share of some political system in the Middle East? We’ve got to put our money where our mouth is.”

    • nother

      Juan Cole also said:

      “Mubarak is taking his cues for impudence from the far rightwing government of Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu…”

      Which makes me wonder: will America takes it’s cues from Israel and thus implicitly back Mubarak? Or lay it’s hands off the region for a nanosecond so a democratic process can come from the ground up. If we implicitly back Mubarak then the whole region will know we are full of sh*t when talk about Democracy – what we really want they will surmise is oil under a $100 a barrel.

  • Shiva Balaghi

    Anthony Shadid is indeed doing some great writing for the NYT. I find following Ben Wedeman’s twitter feed from Cairo helpful; Ben is fluent in Arabic and has lived in Cairo for years. Today, Egyptian human rights workers are being rounded up and arrested by Mubarak regime. Intimidation and threat of violence against protestors continues. Everyone wonders what tomorrow will bring as big rallies are planned around Friday prayers. The feminist writer Nawal Al-Saadawi has joined the demonstrators in Tahrir. Debate continues, apparently, in US government about whether to exert influence to get Mubarak to leave or not… The longer the delay, the greater the possibility for bad outcomes we most fear…My colleague Amr Shalakany published this powerful piece in the NYT today:

  • Robert Glick

    We villified Bush for coming to the aid of the Iraqi people, by removing anothe tyrant – Sadam Husein, (remember?) who tortured, maimed and killed millions of his own people. But we have to give credit where credit is due. We can give Bush credit for setting the wheels in motion for the spread of Democracy in the Arab world. It is not relevant if we did not find weapons of mass destructions. With what do you think he gassed the millions of Kurds? Maybe we are just hypocrites and use whatever argument serves our purpose.

  • Potter

    Thank you Shiva.

    We heard today that Mubarak has amassed some 40 billion dollars fortune and that his son has another fortune (I think) half that amount. This is incredible ! especially when we see the poverty and unemployment in Egypt. This man has made himself rich, one of the richest in the world! with our help!!! and at that as he uses our weapons to crack down on his people!! Then he claims he has exhausted his life for Egypt. It may have been that the US administrations have been able to look the other way all these years, but no more. And it is really all about the whole world being able to see and hear what is cooking inside that country… and to feel the people, what they yearn for, their courage. They have had enough.

    And now there is this shut down of the media and reporting but we are still watching and listening, witnessing…

  • Potter

    What a disappointment you are, Obama! We are still in imperial mode of course, but I had hoped a force for good and real change at least… not this risk averse weakness. You are going along with a temporary chancy “stability” which is to be brought on by those ancients in Egypt (Mubarak at the helm still!) whose ways we know.

    Roger Cohen in today’s NYT. A Republic Called Tahrir.. Les Miserables has been mentioned (as in this is not) and I had been thinking that it was.

  • Jeech

    Today’s Egypt is another example of America’s failed even falling foriegn policy. You can see Anti-Americanism from Morocco to Malaysia and Indonesia. The more America imposes it’s policies through power the more it fires back. I think it’s time to stop this stupidity. Poor Americans did it all for Israel, to keep imposed the states on the region, state of Israel and the state of power. It’s time to set rather “state” of justice round the world.

  • Jeech

    No wonder why the “corporate driven nations” fear from democracy in the Muslim world. In today’s world democracy in a Muslim dominated coutry is even much more unacceptable to the “real” policy makers, the corporate elites.

  • nother

    The camels carrying thugs wielding clubs running over Blackberry wielding protesters in Tahrir Square are a ballyhooed symbol of this clash of civilizations, but it’s the elephant in the square that has sparked the kindling. Kindling (made up of small sticks and twigs) would be the massive multitude of instances in Egypt where women are oppressed. It’s the mothers, daughters, sisters, wives, who are giving these young men the hutzpah to poke a hole in their damned dam.

    The only stat we need is the following: According to the World Health Organization in 2008, an estimated 91.1% of Egypt’s girls and women have suffered female genital mutilation.

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