Wednesday, May 11, 2011

The Nose-Bleeds in Tahrir Square

Jeffrey Goldberg has an interesting piece in the Atlantic on the Arab Spring. It is rich for the on-the-ground reporting and high-level interviews he brings to the table. I especially like Goldberg's argument that the U.S. foreign policy must show "analytical humility, doctrinal plasticity, and tolerance for contradiction" in the wake of the Arab Spring. But the analysis likely exaggerates the tension between democracy and Islamism, between American values and American interests.

He uses the issue of the veil to explain the tensions underlying the Arab revolutions. For example, he recounts how he felt the "thrilling" exhilaration to personally join a protest in Tunisia, only to be disappointed and confused when he noticed "that a number of the young men in the crowd were bearded, and that many, though certainly not all, of the women kept their hair covered." A portion of the crowd then began to harass a famous secular academic.

Goldberg goes on to describe Secretary Clinton's insistence that wearing the veil must be a choice and not a practice of compulsion. He then cites the New Beginning Cairo speech, in which President Obama affirmed the right to wear the veil as part of the "freedom to practice one's religion." According to Goldberg, this line "was not met with joy by some Middle Eastern women's-rights activists."

Certainly, the line was controversial for some of the activists Goldberg spoke with - and even more so for women's rights groups here at home. But the reaction of the audience listening to the President live at Cairo University tells a different story.

The auditorium was split between the big-wigs sitting on the ground floor and the youth up in the nose-bleeds. The big-wigs were regime members, business leaders, religious figures, and celebrities. They were almost all entirely men. The nose-bleeds (myself included) were all young students, split equally amongst the sexes. Whereas the big-wigs gave polite golf claps when the President greeted the crowd with Assalamu Aleykum, the nose-bleeds roared enthusiastically and even shouted "We love you Obama."

Not surprisingly, it was the nose-bleeds that cheered loudly for the President's line on religious freedom, women's rights and the veil. They did not share any of the concerns of the activists Goldberg cites. Nor is it surprising that veiled women - and Islam more generally - have played a central role in the January 25th revolution. After all, it was those very nose-bleeds who descended upon Tahrir Square to remove from power the men who sat below them golf-clapping in June 2009.

There is no question that Islam - and Islamism - will play a more important role in post-revolutionary Egypt. It is therefore important to probe, as Goldberg does, how far this new trend will reach. But the article falls short for not asking some other equally important questions about Islamism.

To what extent can strong democratic institutions channel and harness religious activity for the greater national good? Does political and economic opportunity limit the appeal to an Islamist agenda in the long-term? Are all Islamists equally distressing to American values and interests? Will Islamists be satisfied by focusing on an internal agenda or will they seek to upset the balance of international relations? Do non-Islamist actors who have also been recently empowered seek an international agenda any less disruptive? Is the disruption of the international status quo actually such a bad thing? Can the U.S. influence and even change the trajectory of Arab revolutions?

All of the answers to these questions are not only contested but they actually contest the often assumed dichotomy between democracy and Islamism, American values and American interests. Until we have clarified these questions, it's difficult to definitively accept or reject the premise of the article's title: "Danger: Falling Tyrants." But let there be no doubt: the youths sitting in the nose-bleeds have made their answer clear.

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