Podcast • November 17, 2012

Khaled Fahmy: a baseline “biography” of the revolution in Egypt

CAIRO — Khaled Fahmy came home to Egypt just months before the uprising in Tahrir Square. He was leaving a big university career in Oxford and New York, drawn by intuition and maybe destiny to ...

Photo Credit: Mosa’ab Elshamy

CAIRO — Khaled Fahmy came home to Egypt just months before the uprising in Tahrir Square. He was leaving a big university career in Oxford and New York, drawn by intuition and maybe destiny to be the historian of a great event. In an hour’s conversation he will recharge your sense of the Arab Revolution of 2011. It was just what we half-guessed at the time: a watershed more cultural and psycho-social than it was political. It was a young people’s uprising with grand dimensions of gender as well as generation. And it was an irreversible turn in which a vast and confident crowd made a flash decision together that they would no longer be treated as guests in their own land.

This is a very big bump, Khaled Fahmy is saying, in the modern history of the Arabs — an old society living in an odd quilt of mostly made-up nations. Their map and their last century were shaped by World War I, by the erosion of empires, then by Oil, by the Arab-Israeli conflict and the rise of Islam. Their political regimes were tuned more to Paris and London, later Moscow and Washington, than to anything resembling a popular consensus at home.

Modern Egypt, since Napoleon’s short-lived conquest in 1798, has been the story of an “essentially tyrannical state.” It was contrived by the renegade Ottoman officer Mohammed Ali after 1805, and it was extended by his many heirs and into the 20th Century by British force against an unbroken succession of failed popular protests and rebellions. Native strongmen Nasser, Sadat and Mubarak had their turns personifiying the Leviathan. And then suddenly in Tahrir Square “the people,” speaking for themselves, came on stage as a main player.

“Finally in 2011 we cracked it,” Fahmy says. “We managed to bring down an Egyptian ruler and put him on trial and send him to prison. This had never happened in 5000 years of Egyptian history.” In a city without public parks and benches, the yawning emptiness of Tahrir Square, once headquarters of the British army of occupation, became the spot where Egyptians took over their capital city, up-ended a regime and started a conversation with themselves.

In the Fahmy version, Mubarak was the last of a long line of rulers whose Father-Knows-Best game was to hold his people in arrested childhood. Mubarak was 80 years old in a nation that is mostly under-30; he was in fact two generations removed from his people — a brittle grandfather figure, out of touch, out of sync and quickly out of power.

At some level he was suffering the comeuppance that Nasser escaped after the ignominious failure of Egypt’s military in the 1967 war with Israel. “It was not a six-day war,” Fahmy cracks. “It was a 20-minute war,” in the instant destruction of Egypt’s air force. But an infantilized nation was not ready to hold Nasser to account. “We buried Nasser — we finally killed Nasser — in 2011,” in Fahmy’s telling. “We did on January 28 last year what we should have done in June ’67. It took us 40 years. This is what it was all about: doing away with these charismatic leaders, having trust in ourselves — as messy as this can be. And, you know, we are living in a mess…”

We have a long way to go… This is not a revolution that will be over anytime soon… It’s deeper than a political revolution. It’s a cultural revolution, so deep in Egyptian history and Egyptian psyche that I cannot use any other term. It’s a reversal of how Egyptians thought of themselves and thought of their government. It’s not over in the sense that we don’t have a political system that mirrors this new sentiment. We still don’t have it. We don’t have a constitution. We don’t have people in power who reflect this. What we have is an outburst of energies, not all of them creative or positive, but energies that have been bottled up in the country for the past 200 years.

The amazing thing is that this outburst happened in such a huge country, with so many deep problems, in such a peaceful way. That is what I think is most impressive. If I were a journalist that would be the story — the story of what did not happen. What did not happen is a civil war. Egypt could very well have ended up in a civil war. It’s a big country with serious fault-lines and very strong counter-revolutionary forces who don’t want to see the culmination of this effort. And despite this we managed to do away with much of the former regime and to do this in a peaceful way… I still call it a revolution because… it is indigenous, it is authentic, it has deep roots.

The conservative counter-revolutionary forces are very very strong, most important the Muslim Brotherhood… They are a well-greased, well-knit, well-financed political machine. When election time comes they are the first to know how to turn out the vote. Their rhetoric is not that sophisticated. What they have to promise is very meagre. I don’t think they are the solution. But they know how to do things, and they do it. So that is what we now have. And in that sense it looks like the revolution has failed. But I personally think that having a president who was behind bars only 20 months ago is an amazing achievement. To have a president who had been ruling for 30 years behind bars is an amazing achievement. To do this not in a kangaroo trial but in a legal way, without lynching him, without hanging him from a tree, is a significant achievement. To put all heads of the political establishment — many important figures of the former regime — behind bars is very important. And to start, bit by bit, dismantling this apparatus of tyranny will take a long time. The other option would have been blood — with revolutionary trials, with guillotines or gallows in Tahrir. We didn’t see this. But the underlying currents are still there, and they still run deep. There’s a high level of anxiety now because we still don’t know which way the revolution will go, especially with writing the constitution and in the translation of the revolution into new institutional structures. But in the overall scheme of things, this is a huge reversal of the trajectory of Egyptian history.

Khaled Fahmy with Chris Lydon in Cairo, November 14, 2012

Podcast • October 20, 2012

Roger Owen on the Arab Revolution: Year Two… of Ten

Click to listen to Chris’ conversation with Roger Owen(25 min, 15 meg) Roger Owen is giving us a framework for our conversational plunge next month into North Africa and the “Arab Spring,” coming up on ...

Click to listen to Chris’ conversation with
Roger Owen(25 min, 15 meg)

Roger Owen is giving us a framework for our conversational plunge next month into North Africa and the “Arab Spring,” coming up on its second birthday. Better to speak of the “Arab revolution,” he begins. Tahrir Square marked an historic surge of people power led by the young, to transform a whole society “root and branch,” as well as a way of government.

“We’re in Year 2,” he says, with 5 or 10 more to resolve contradictions and colossal tensions between kids who started the revolt and Muslim Brothers who rode it into power. It’s not been a bloody convulsion to compare with 1789 in France, but neither was it mere springtime effervescence like the student revolts in Paris, 1968. Tough tyrants have fallen, but in Egypt notably, it’s history still in the making — a devilishly complicated struggle among the “deep state,” the Army and government bureaucracies, the Islamic tendency and the cosmopolitan elite in a massively poor country.

Roger Owen is the Harvard eminence on Middle East history and politics. He speaks with the Oxford accent of an old British hand in the Arab Mediterranean. His new book details The Rise and Fall of Arab Presidents for Life. Think Ben Ali in Tunisia, Mubarak in Egypt, Qaddafi in Libya and Assad next, presumably, in Syria. And still the new patterns of Arab politics and culture are in formation and in doubt.

I am asking him if we’re looking broadly at a second anti-colonial wave against the West — a revolt in Egypt particularly against U. S. overlordship. “You could say that the Tahrir Revolution (February 2011) is a kind of completion of the 1952 (Nasser) Revolution,” he had remarked earlier. But there’s no simple cycle at work. 1952 was a colonels’ revolt to liberate Egypt from King Farouk and British domination. Tahrir Square was supposed to liberate the Egyptians to choose their own constitution and be involved in their own politics. The wider world has changed meantime. The Soviet Union, which befriended Nasser, is gone — and with it the appeal of Big Projects and heavy industry. Egypt is tuned to other ideas of modernization.

“Egypt is a wonderful place,” Professor Owen is saying, “very confident in its Egyptian-ness. But they’re also aware they’ve never really sat down and worked out their place in the world. They’ve always said ‘no’ to certain kinds of things: ‘we don’t want to be ruled.’ But what is Egypt for? That’s up for grabs.”

We leave in 2 weeks for a listening tour of Egypt, Tunisia and Beirut on a project we’re calling Arab Artists in the Revolution, with thanks to our Kickstarter backers. We’ll be blogging and podcasting as we go, and gathering conversations for material for a broadcast series this winter. If you have leads, comments, suggestions or introductions, please post them here.

Podcast • May 10, 2011

Juan Cole: Through the Fog of the Arab Spring

Juan Cole‘s Informed Comment on the Iraq war made him, in my view, the Thucydides of our time — and one of the marvels of the age. That a Michigan historian of the Middle East ...

Juan Cole‘s Informed Comment on the Iraq war made him, in my view, the Thucydides of our time — and one of the marvels of the age. That a Michigan historian of the Middle East could become an inescapable, provocatively independent daily commentator and critic of the war policy owes a lot to the freedom and ubiquity of the Web. It reflects still more Cole’s own classical standard and relentless drive to give us, as Thucydides did in The History of the Peloponnesian War, a gritty black-and-white account of events, drawn from a great variety of sources, not “to win the applause of the moment, but as a possession for all time.”

I’m asking him in conversation to take the killing of Osama bin Laden and this mid-Spring in the Arab revolt as a fresh starting point: are we looking at the beginning of the end, or the end of the beginning, as Churchill said; or an intermission in a permanent war?

It surprises me that Professor Cole approves the drone war (and says it’s popular) in the Tribal Areas of Pakistan, even while he believes the US counter-insurgency campaign in Afghanistan is doomed. He sounds troubled that the democratic wave (which he anticipated in Egypt) could be broken, maybe stopped in Syria. He is certain — having advocated the Western intervention and defended even the drones in Lybia — that the Qaddafi family will be brought down, even if it takes a while.

I am wondering how many double standards we Americans can juggle in our heads when the US is too-prudently late to the people’s party in Tunisia and Egypt; uncritical of nasty repression by Saudis, Bahreinis and Israelis; cautiously displeased with variations on the crackdown theme in Yemen and Syria; and committed militarily to the rebels in Libya. Juan Cole is saying it’s allright to admit feeling dizzy in the circumstances; but we should be noticing that Barack Obama has risen to the occasion as a Realist of the traditional foreign-policy school; and that Cole has confirmed his own best instincts as those of a “progressive internationalist,” not simply an anti-imperialist liberal.

I would argue that the Obama administration harkens back to Bush senior’s foreign policy ideals, which were those of the Realist school. I think Obama is not a classical Realist: he does have a sense of morality in a way that I think Henry Kissinger does not. But the Realist school posits that great powers act according to their interests, not according to namby-pamby ideals, and that, moreover, they ought to act according to their interests; if they don’t, it messes up the world. In every instance, the Obama administration stance has been what would be in the interest of the United States. It hasn’t been an idealistic or moralistic stance. I think it’s a reaction against the muscular Wilsonianism of the George W. Bush administration, which was very gung-ho to democratize the Middle East at the point of a gun…

I’m a progressive internationalist. I think one of the things that’s wrong with the world is that we have laws inside nations, but when it comes to international affairs, we have a jungle: the strong kill the weak and eat them. What the United Nations was about, from 1945 forward, was supposed to be the attempt to craft an international order that was founded on law. Qaddafi is not allowed to roll up forty tanks and fire live shells into the midst of a peaceful demonstration. That’s a crime against humanity and there ought to be sanctions for it. When the Arab League asked for a UN resolution, and when the UN Security Council asked that there be an international intervention, I thought that was a great good thing. It is in exact contrast to the Iraq war.

“One sympathizes with the Israelis” in this whirlwind, Professor Cole added. They’re “a floating fortress on the fringes of the Middle East.” Their natural instinct in the storm is to avoid any compromise in a changing neighborhood, but the “it will serve them poorly with the new Middle East democracies.” Juan Cole’s more urgent sympathy is with the Palestinians. “At the moment Israeli settlements on the West Bank are being expanded, and there’s no prospect that the Egyptians will be able to stop that process. I think the new Egypt will support the Palestinians’ bid for recognition as a state at the U.N. General Assembly in September. And once the Palestinians are widely recognized as a state — by the Europeans and Latin America — they’ll begin to have standing to sue” against the usurpation of property and human rights.

So I think over time international law and order which, again, is my hope for the future, will be deployed in the interest of the Palestinians. The real problem with the Palestinians is that, contrary to the intent of the League of Nations, have been denied statehood — have been denied in many cases citizenship. So they’re Flying Dutchmen. They have no citizenship rights, and a person in the modern world without citizenship in a state is vulnerable, open to predatory practices, and if their property is usurped they have no law court to seek justice in. So the whole Palestinian nation is stateless, therefore without basic rights or basic human dignity. It’s a crime. It’s a blot on humanity for the situation to go on like this.

Juan Cole in Ann Arbor, with Chris Lydon in Providence, May 9, 2011.

Podcast • April 5, 2011

Melani McAlister: For a New Moral Map of the Middle East

Click to listen to Chris’ conversation with Melani McAlister. (36 minutes, 18 mb mp3) Melani McAlister’s book is Epic Encounters Imagine Professor Melani McAlister at home in North Carolina, breaking down this Arab spring for ...

Click to listen to Chris’ conversation with Melani McAlister. (36 minutes, 18 mb mp3)

Melani McAlister’s book is Epic Encounters

Imagine Professor Melani McAlister at home in North Carolina, breaking down this Arab spring for a grandmother who’s not entirely convinced that President Obama is not Muslim.

Professor McAlister, an American studies anthropologist at George Washington University, is talking out Edward Said’s premise that we Westerners are trapped in the old moral map defined by an exotic Orient and a rational Occident. Our understanding of 9.11 and Egypt, Melani McAlister tells us, is filtered through the sexy sheikh films of the 20s and the terrorist hostage flicks of the 80s. Not to mention the theology of race in America – that old liberation crossover between the civil rights movement and decolonization overseas – and the rise of a President whose middle name means a lot of things to a lot of people, from American backwaters to Tahrir Square.

As Said would say, there’s an intertwining of culture and Empire that we cannot shake and we rarely recognize. Professor McAlister does say that movies like The Kingdom, Syriana and Hurt Locker mark a changing cultural topography, but our mis-labeling of the uprising in Egypt as a “Facebook revolution” reveals the persistence of our need to find ourselves at the root of all freedoms. Look instead, McAlister says, to the whole networks of Egyptian civil society that predate the social media age – the women’s groups, the labor unions, and yes, the Islamists.

For Americans, a new moral map of the Middle East would be one that stopped looking for simple notions of friends and enemies, that stopped asking friends to be those people who embrace all of American foreign policy objectives, but instead started supporting and imagining a world in which Arab democracy is standing on its own. It’s looking different, sometimes, than American democracy, but that as long as we are standing firmly on the side of peoples’ right to democratic change, we will find friends that are not based just on political expediency.

We’re going to have to stop seeing people as friends only when they do what we want, and instead to say that the most important thing is to support people taking control of their own destiny, wherever that happens. It doesn’t have to be military support, but it must be moral support.

Melani McAlister with Chris Lydon, March 31, 2011.

Podcast • March 29, 2011

Hamid Dabashi: “A new world giving birth to itself…”

Hamid Dabashi is here to calm our nerves through the dreaded American Decline. “Empires don’t last,” he smiles. “If they did, we’d be speaking Persian.” All the news looks bright to the sometimes gruff and ...

Hamid Dabashi is here to calm our nerves through the dreaded American Decline. “Empires don’t last,” he smiles. “If they did, we’d be speaking Persian.”

All the news looks bright to the sometimes gruff and provocative Iranian historian of culture and colonialism at Columbia University. Even Qaddafi’s last spasms in Libya have the virtue of putting the seal of King Lear’s madness on a half-century, now finished, of post-colonial tyranny. “Qaddafi was the nativist aftertaste of European colonialism — the bastard son of its militarism, charlatanism, barefaced barbarity…” he writes.

Even the cruelty and sickness today in Hamid Dabashi’s native Iran will be seen one day as a bad episode in a long and vivid dream of democracy. It’s a dream sustained in a century of Iranian poetry, fiction and film and in conversation with the globe — a dream that came to life in the Green Movement in 2009 and in the now global raps of Shahin Najafi and the sublime music of Mohsen Namjoo, seen and heard all over the world on YouTube. Young Iran in 2009 helped generate the revolutionary waves of 2011, Dabashi is saying, and Iran’s dream will rise again with the others.

“The world after Tahrir Square is like Christopher Columbus approaching the new continent. A new world is giving birth to itself… We are looking at a seismic change, not informed by miracles or ideology but by demography and economics” — that is, by the young majority in the world and by the mobility of labor and capital. Egypt in 2011 is “the first post-modern revolution,” not led by a designated or charismatic figure, but with a built-in distrust of grand narratives, Islamic or Marxist, and of grand illusions. The shape of the new map is still unimaginable. “We don’t know what the future is, but, boy, is it good to be alive and witnessing it.”

We seek out Hamid Dabashi — and we read his books like The Green Movement and the USA: The Fox and the Paradox — to catch an unequivocally enthusiastic long and cosmopolitan view of events that still seem to baffle, maybe unsettle, most of us Americans.

Not the least of Hamid Dabashi’s reassurances comes in his view that Americans are ready in fact to “return to the fold of the world,” to see themselves as “a microcosm of the world,” not master of it. We experience every day “the globality of our condition,” even though officialdom and media resist the idea. He says we have changed more than we realize in 30 years since he immigrated, first to Philadelphia — before feta cheese and pita bread, for example, were American staples. “We are emerging from a provincialism which was ideologically manufactured, against the grain of our everyday experience of successive waves of immigrants. The world kept coming here, but entering this delusional ideology that we are exceptional. I am convinced we are overcoming that split — between the republic in our hearts and this imperial hubris that we flex. Look: CNN fires Lou Dobbs and asks me to write columns for them. Who could have imagined that?”

Podcast • March 24, 2011

Mark Blyth (3): The Black Swan of Cairo

Mark Blyth, the know-it-all professor with the Sean Connery delivery, is back in the pub tonight, and not a moment to soon. When the political economy of energy is screaming red-alert, from Japan melting to ...

Mark Blyth, the know-it-all professor with the Sean Connery delivery, is back in the pub tonight, and not a moment to soon. When the political economy of energy is screaming red-alert, from Japan melting to Libya’s oilfield civil war, cheerful chatter from a certified political economist can sound like music. Let’s just forget that Mark Blyth, on our last round, told us that austerity would be our nightmare in 2011. And let’s remember it was Mark Blyth’s friend Nassim Nicholas Taleb who cautioned us almost a year ago that we seem to have entered the Age of the Black Swan — a black swan (think: BP oil blowout in the Gulf of Mexico) being an unimaginable event with big consequences and its own impervious mythology of cause and effect. The social service of black swans is to remind us that fragility is a main mark of global systems. In conversation at the Watson Institute, Mark Blyth is generously scooping himself from an article he and Mr. Taleb have co-authored for the magazine Foreign Affairs.

Let’s not get too bent out of shape about it, because complex systems, when they’re tightly coupled, are Black-Swan prone. And if all the volatility in the mix gets packed and shoved under the carpet, so to speak, then they become prone to these explosions. We also have a remarkable capacity to bounce back. Let’s think about what happened with Japan. You had the Trifecta from hell: first you have an earthquake at 9.0, so let’s follow up with a tsunami, and then a nuclear accident. What happens? Global stock markets fall off a cliff. A week later, they’re back. And the Japanese look like they might actually just pull this off. Why? Because they are a very technologically advanced society. Because they’ve got more experience with nuclear energy than anyone else. And because we got lucky. Let’s face facts, it could have been a lot worse. Now what is the lesson that we’re going to take from that? Being humans we’ll probably learn too much, which is to say, “Well, that shows that nuclear power is safe.” No it’s not. We got a sixty year track record. We’ve been lucky so far, but that doesn’t mean we’re not turkeys looking for Thanksgiving once again.

So we become more tightly coupled, there will be more Black Swan events, but our capacity to bounce back is always there… But you don’t want to get in a position whereby what you’re saying is don’t touch anything ever, don’t try anything ever, because it will end up creating some kind of downstream consequence you can’t calculate. Some of those consequences might be good.

Let me give you an example of this. A long time ago, back in the nineteenth century–before they had a fully formed notion of how diseases were transmitted through bacteria and viruses, etc.–there was a theory of disease that said it traveled on the wind, it was smell. And it was the stench that really made you sick. Hence why the Victorians were always running out to get “good air” and go out into the countryside and all that sort of stuff. Now, they were completely wrong. But one of the things that they did, because they were obsessed with smell, was to build sewers. Now that was exactly the right thing to do, had you had the proper theory of disease. So on the wrong theory, they got the smell and literally got the shit off the streets and put it all underground. And in doing so, they made the biggest advance in public health ever, for all the wrong reasons. Sometimes, nonlinearities work out in a really good way.

Mark Blyth in conversation with Chris Lydon at Brown University, March 22, 2011.

Podcast • February 23, 2011

Philip Weiss: A Jewish Argument around the Arab Revolt

Click to listen to Chris’ conversation with Philip Weiss. (65 minutes, 30 mb mp3) Photo from bigthink.com Philip Weiss, exulting in the glorious news from Egypt, says: “the handwriting on the wall is Arabic.” The ...

Click to listen to Chris’ conversation with Philip Weiss. (65 minutes, 30 mb mp3)

Photo from bigthink.com

Philip Weiss, exulting in the glorious news from Egypt, says: “the handwriting on the wall is Arabic.” The 55-year-old meta-journalist dedicates his website MondoWeiss to “the war of ideas in the Middle East.” His project is more daring and difficult than that sounds. Really it’s to start something between a moral argument and a civil war over the big book of Jewish tradition and “spiritual wholeness” — over US national interests, the Palestinian condition, Israel and the whole modern idea of Zionism, by which he means the judgment from 19th and 20th Century European experience that Jews cannot be safe as a tiny minority in non-Jewish countries.

On the page and in conversation Philip Weiss is celebrating the revolution in Egypt for the bold non-violent genius of the Arab street. It moves him to tears that youngsters are using the social Web — Western technologies of gossip and hooking up — to liberate a great people. He also writes bitingly that the revolution is a gift for us Americans, too, to help us purge decades of disinformation and denial about what our policies have accomplished.

Not the least of many ironies in the story is Philip Weiss’s acknowledgment of “another feature writer,” the Austrian journalist Theodore Herzl (1860 – 1904), usually cited as the father of Zionism. Herzl grew up, as Weiss did, a “Christmas tree Jew,” but he was alert to the reality of his day in Vienna and Paris in the late 19th Century — personal threats to Herzl and shouts of “Death to Jews” on the streets of Europe’s capitals. “Anti-Semitism made me Jewish again,” was Herzl’s line. Philip Weiss’s analog is “Neo-conservatism made me Jewish again.” The reality of Philip Weiss’s day in America is that “I went to Harvard-fucking-College. I lead a really privileged life. I’ve never had an obstacle placed in my way, career wise, that I didn’t put there myself. And that is true of my whole generation, and the next generation… So what does that say — what does that real experience say — about the central tenet of Zionism which is that a minority is unsafe in a Western country? It’s bullshit — that’s what it says. And the type of society that we treasure in which a minority is safe and free is one that we as a community are destroying in the Middle East! destroying that idea! … The denial of the real conditions of Palestinian life by Jews is shocking to me… that my people would be so blind to the suffering.”

We are sitting in Philip Weiss’ living room in a snow-bound house high above the Hudson River, an hour north of Manhattan. Iraq was “a war of ideas,” he’s arguing — many of them out of the Jewish-American right wing. It’s not enough to hate “that bastard Bush,” as his mother does, because George Bush wouldn’t know an idea if one bit him. The Best and the Brightest, Phil Weiss reminds you, was not about JFK but about his brains-trust. Iraq “came out of a Jewish neo-con fantasy… We haven’t dealt with it, but we’re starting. In five years it will be debated at centers for Jewish history. It will take a while.”

I want a civil war in Jewish life. My dream is to have a Jewish family on stage, arguing about this in front of everyone. Remember what it did for gay rights that Lance Loud was coming out on television in the early 70s. That family — whatever price they paid in their privacy, and certainly they entertained us — also helped liberate a lot of suffering homosexuals… I want the Jewish family on stage to be having that reality show around this issue. So that people get to see my surrogate in that family — there are many of them out there, the young Jews. I want to see the tears. I want to see the rage. I want to see the charges of betrayal. I want this all out on the stage. I want “you’re a traitor,” “you’re a self-hating Jew,” I want the whole fuckin’ thing. I want everybody to watch, because it’s vital. It’s just like the gay people. In the Jewish family, these people have been closeted. You know, I never thought about this before: they are just like the gay people, when they were closeted. A lot of them are afraid to come out, and a lot of people who help me on the website are not public. A lot of the Arabs aren’t, and a lot of the academic and government officials aren’t because their careers would suffer. One guy says: “you can’t use my name because my father will have a heart attack.” But this should be done publicly. Right now I want to tap into reality, and I’m actually trying to find a Jewish family that will do it. Because the Neo Cons believe what they believe. But I think as soon as they start offering their bullshit on stage, and start talking about Anti-Semitism on stage, I want Americans to understand what price we’re paying for the belief that Anti-Semitism is a persistent factor in Western society, and that Jews need a refuge. Americans have a right to judge the reality of that statement.

Philip Weiss in conversation with Chris Lydon in Cold Spring, New York, February 16, 2011.

Podcast • February 15, 2011

Elliott Colla: “The Poetry of Revolt” in the New Egypt

Click to listen to Chris’ conversation with Elliott Colla. (50 minutes, 23 mb mp3) Elliott Colla is sharing the soundtrack in his head of Egyptian revolts, today and yesterday, going back to the 1880s. Poets ...

Click to listen to Chris’ conversation with Elliott Colla. (50 minutes, 23 mb mp3)

Elliott Colla is sharing the soundtrack in his head of Egyptian revolts, today and yesterday, going back to the 1880s.

Poets were invariably major players — in heady, optimistic, galvanizing roles as popular risings took off. Novelists (including the great Naguib Mafouz) got the darker job afterward of detailing regrets and reversals. Most of Egypt’s ten popular rebellions before the epochal events of this winter were against the British, and most of them were sorry failures.

We’re talking about the “the poetry of revolt,” street songs, chanting for courage, the tradition more than a century old of satire, ridicule and invective that has finally toppled a US-chummy police state and, for now, beaten the odds against a people’s rebellion.

Memo for the next explosion: tune in on the poets and the jam bands; tune out the newspapers. So much of what we’re told about places like Egypt — and so little of the story now unfolding — gets centered on the geopolitics of the place, and its holy books. It’s the novels and the pop culture, as Elliot Colla’s reminding us, that suggest how people live and love, aspire and mourn. Astonishing, isn’t it, how little we hear from the earth-shakers in Tahrir Square about the U.S. or Israel. Or the Koran. Or, for example, about the Arab nationalist giant of the 1950s, Gamal Abdel Nasser, who seems as remote from today’s proceedings as the Sphinx.

I am asking Elliott Colla why the rebels who busted Mubarak have been so tender about his great backer, Uncle Sam. Are they playing to President Obama, who could still be their partner? Or to their young Facebook Friends in America? Or are they just ignoring us? Or maybe unaware of us?

This is a new generation, a generation of activists who are not ideological. In other words, they have looked at the struggles of their parents and even grandparents against imperialism, against capitalism, against all the “isms.” By and large, they are saying that’s not how they want to understand the world, and that’s not how they’re going to organize their response to the problems that they face. In this sense, many in the leadership have no ideological platform; they are starting their analysis and their project from how they live their daily life, what they see, what they experience, what they would rather have. …

Look at their demands, these aren’t specific to Egypt, these are simple, straightforward civil and human rights that they started with. They’re confident in this: if they can have those things, they can have a government that actually represents their interest, and not the interests of a ruling elite, and then they can handle these other things that might be called ideology. It’s a completely new way of doing revolution. We usually think you get your ideology straight first, and then you do your program; this is doing it the other way around.

Elliott Colla of Georgetown University in conversation with Chris Lydon at Brown, February 15, 2011.

Podcast • February 1, 2011

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

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 ...
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 JewishJournal.com.