Every revolution needs its mythologies, and this may be Egypt’s. But how beautiful, how strong, how clear, how determined, how independent and how human a myth is she!
Where we will go from here, I can’t tell. How many revolutionary movements have stumbled past the euphoria? But nevertheless, past failures cannot be a reason for cynicism and surrender. It is clear that in one powerful act, the Egyptians have erased all the racist, derogatory, reductive, inhuman, arrogant, and ignorant ideas of the Arabs that has pervaded the so-called West.
Here, in this block of streets that has now become immortal, a people have once again reminded the world of Arab history and the Arab determination to make their own history. For what racism, and orientalist tripe takes away from another people is their agency, their ability to define and influence their fate. Reductive ideas of another people imbue them with ‘essences’ and remove from their individuality. It is a reductive representation of a people who has crippled Europe’s ability to hold on to its humanity, its morality, its common sense. As Turkey’s president, Abdullah Gül, said while addressing the Council of Europe’s Parliamentary Assembly:
Racism and xenophobia represent a major cause of concern …they lead governments and political elites to take a tough line on immigration. Roma and travelers, Muslims or Jews, and more generally, those who are different, experience hostility and social exclusion in many [European] societies.
There is a rise in electoral support for political parties which portray immigration as the main cause of insecurity, unemployment, crime, poverty and social problems. The rise in popular fears about immigration and minorities has led to larger popular support for marginal political parties…
European Muslims have perhaps been more affected than others by these tendencies, particularly after the terrorist attacks since September 11 in New York, Madrid, Istanbul and London. Muslims in Europe are very diverse not only in their geographical origins and cultural heritage, but also in their ways of interpreting and practicing their faith.
Yet, there is a misperception to view these diverse communities as a unitary one defined by religion. This is fundamentally at odds with “European values”. It is the time to remember and honor those values.
Gül was reminding the European’s to see past the habit of attaching ‘essences’ to people, and to see them in their complexity, diversity, breath of history and at best, their individuality. All the things that we have refused to give to the Arabs. Just as we have denigrated their women by constantly presenting them as repressed, oppressed, singularly under the jackboot of the Arab man. And yet here they were suddenly on our television screens and our internet pages – on the forefront and as equal participants in the protests in Tahrir Square. The Arab woman – denigrated, repressed and erased by the paranoid obsessions of a Western people who consistently refuse them agency, individuality, complexity and completeness. The Arab woman has become beyond history, transformed into an object of European self-righteousness, and removed from life and from materiality. So maybe we could start here, with one woman, Dr. Aida Seif El-Dawla, and see here as an individual, and then begin to complete the story of the Arab woman
As Yasmine El Rashidi points out in a a piece in The New York Review Of Books:
Women had begun to take on a special importance in the protest movement, and over the weekend I watched hundreds of women circle Tahrir Square chanting for equality—most of them veiled. Men had stood aside, cheering them on. The last time Egypt had witnessed this was probably 1919, when the feminist Huda Sharaawi led a women’s march, also downtown, also by parliament, demanding the same. “It’s incredible,” the novelist Ahdaf Soueif, who was there, had told me. “We are seeing women being treated as citizens. In fact, we are thinking of issuing a statement, as women, asking to end this gender predicament once and for all.”
There have been a number of articles on the fact that women have been at the front line of these protests. You can see a few at Recent coverage of Egyptian women in protest can be found in a number of mainstream sources, including the Huffington Post, NY Times, LA Times and Foreign Policy. Quite a change from what has been said about the Arab woman in the past.
These are activists fighting against a regime the West, and the Americans, have offered unquestioned support and succor for over thirty-five years! Dozens of women were attacked and beaten by pro-Mubarak groups during the protests. The women were there and on the front lines. Arab women, complete with their hijabs and other symbols of their apparent ‘backwardness’ and ‘repression’, fighting the powers of real political backwardness and repression.
An American commentator called this the first Arab revolution. There could not have been stupider, more ignorant comment. The Egyptian’s alone have consistently and repeatedly risen up against repression and occupation, and not just against European occupiers, but their own. They rose up against Napoleon’s army in 1798, fought the monarchy in 1881 and 1882, staged an insurrection against the British in 1919 and 1952, and rebelled against Sadat in the 1977 food riots and against Mubarak in 1986.
And now it is 2011.
The revolution is not just on the streets of Cairo, but also in the minds of so many commentators, pundits, intellectuals, writers, academics, and ordinary citizens, who finally see that history is being written, that the Arabs are going to write their own. Anyone who thinks that this moment in time will not have an impact on the realities on the ground in nations like Iraq where we applied some of our finest Orientalist simplicities and erasures, believing that ‘they’ had to be ‘taught’ civility, government and political manners at the point of a daisy cutter. It was with shame and disdain that we watched and heard the cowardly excuses and vagaries of the likes of Barack Obama, the hideous justifications for repression by Tony Blair and so many others who speak the language of rights, liberty and civility, but live lives of violence, inhumanity and bloodshed. They failed to realize that we have been watching, listening and understanding for hundreds of years. That their words, their carefully woven lies, have not worked for decades. And they will not in the future. The struggle will continue, just as it will here on the streets of Cairo.
The revolution may falter, may be usurped by other powers. But these people will be back. Again and again. We are writing our own history. And many more will remember the Asmaa Mahfouz and her gigantic voice in the annals of history than the pusillanimous niceties of our ‘great’ leaders, the dwarfs to history that they have shown themselves to be.
Today, we celebrate the Asmaa Mahfouz’s of this world. Thank you.