I’m still mulling over the Openforum 2012 conference, which took place a few weeks ago in Cape Town. The meeting’s theme was ‘Money, Power and Sex: the paradox of unequal growth’. The meeting brought together an interesting collection of artists, activists, academics and technocrats for a pretty open-ended conversation. One of the panels was titled ‘The Arab Uprisings: Spring revolution or a summer of discontent?’ Panelists were Nobel Laureate Dr Shirin Ebadi, Professor Asef Bayat of the University of Illinois, Egyptian writer Mona Eltahawy, and Dr Khaled Hroub of the Cambridge Arab Media Project.
Bayat has talked and written a lot about the ‘Arab street’ as a space of deliberate political action, a space of everyday life, and a space of artistic intervention. The ‘street’ was the theatre where revolutions were enacted in the Middle East and North Africa, but the panelists were asked how they viewed the role of the ‘Arab street’ in the post-revolution period.
Bayat’s response was that while Tahrir square played a crucial role in the revolution, it is a mistake to still bank on the street after the dictator has stepped down. A different venue is needed for the post-revolution struggle.
“The street is the immediate representation of public opinion,” said Hroub. “This is then materialized in political institutions – elections, the democratic process. The post-Arab spring societies are in the process. There are many difficulties but the transformation of the Arab street from a chaotic state of affairs into institutionalized public opinion structures is taking place.”
Hroub also addressed the argument that Arabs do not want democracy. “Arab exceptionalism, the idea that specific cultural and religious structures that do not go hand in hand with democracy, this argument has now been completely dismantled. They have the same longing for freedom and emancipation as everyone else.”
I should note there that during discussions on this issue, the concept of ‘Arab Spring’ was contested – with participants pointing out that societies are diverse – ‘not everyone is an Arab’ – and many asserting an African identity.
Writer and blogger Mona Eltahawy emphasized that in any narrative it is important to remember who told the story. “The Arab street – which street was it? There was this ludicrous narrative – ‘the Nile is a slow-running river, therefore Egyptians are laid back people who like their pharaoh.’ Who likes the pharaoh? American presidents, European leaders. We never told our own story.”
“The presidential elections in 2005 were the first time we had people competing against Mubarak,” said Eltahawy. “But then the street was totally ignored, as it didn’t fit into the narrative, which was invented by old white men in think tanks in DC. On the real street we’re running so far ahead of them that we’re now saying – when you’re ready to catch up, we’ll talk to you.”
Eltahawy and Ebadi talked a lot about the role of women in the revolutions, and the fact that although women played a key role in the uprisings, they are again being sidelined in the post-revolution arrangements. “The time has arrived for women to come up with their own interpretation of Islam,” said Ebadi. “I’m sure that any interpretation given by educated Muslim women will be very different to what we have at present.”
Eltahawy told of having both her arms broken during the uprising, of being detained for 12 hours and being sexually assaulted during this time. She feels she now faces another assault on the Egyptian streets from a patriarchal Egyptian society. “We started the political revolution. We now need to remove the Mubarak in our head and in our bedroom. Unless we do that, the social, sexual and cultural revolution, the political revolution, will not be completed. The revolution was started by a man in Tunisia, but will be completed by a woman.”
Asked about the role of social media, Hroub said “the youth were far ahead of everyone else, including in their use of technology. There was a huge gap that the youth exploited heavily.” But he emphasized that now the security apparatus in every country is fast catching up, with the huge assistance from Western companies. “There’s huge investment in surveillance and control of the internet,” he warned.
Hroub talked of the media as one of three interrelated powers that worked from bottom-up. “Media power, youth power and the Islamists’ power – could not be contained by regimes from the top.” In his conceptualization, social media is the ‘zoom’ in media, while mainstream media provides the wide angle view. He feels they are most powerful when married together – mobile phones and cameras feeding into the broadcast media.
Hroub also warned against too much focus on media as a cause of change rather than a tool, and emphasized that revolutions only happen if the social and political root causes exist. “This is not a Facebook revolution. Media is just a facilitator. In 1978 people used audio cassettes.”