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.