It seems to me that categories play an important role in explaining the slow response to Egypt’s revolutionary maelstrom. We tend to view the world through simplistic optics, using concepts we know in order to understand that which we don’t. This is, of course, perfectly acceptable in most situations. How else can we make sense of the world if we’re constantly worrying about the exact meaning of the situation without a familiar starting point from which to make sense of it?
But when we transfer this logic to the world of foreign policy, the stakes get a lot higher. George Bush’s 8 years in office provide us with a classic case. After September 11th, the world suddenly seemed like a much scarier place to an administration that had campaigned on little domestic agenda, and had little understanding of the world beyond the politics of American hegemony. Believing themselves under attack from a shadowy Islamist enemy, Bush and Cheney were able to define the situation as one of ‘war’. And thus the ‘Global War on Terror’ was born, a concept that was as simplistic as it was devastating to the lives of those whose homelands that have been subjected to invasions, ‘reconnaissance missions’ and drone attacks.
Which leads me to an astute piece in The New York Times by Rime Allaf. On our post-2001 understanding of the Arab world, she writes:
With the futile habit of categorizing countries according to official U.S. criteria, the Arab world was watched with labels for moderates and radicals, allies and problem makers.
According to Allaf, this is why the Tunisian uprising posed such a challenge an international media. Put simply, the newspapers were too used to conceptualising things simply for their readership:
The Tunisian people wiped out years of ominous predictions in a matter of days, with an amalgam of young, disgruntled, educated, unemployed, urban and rural people from middle classes, whose secular rallying cry related in no way to Islamist agendas. Lost for words, the news media tried to issue a label with a catchy name, but most Tunisians are not thrilled to have their revolution tagged under Jasmine or Facebook: they just call it the Tunisian Revolution.
Likewise, the current Egyptian revolt is not waiting for a special moniker to demonstrate it is not Islamist, not led by a specific party, and not following a particular ideology.
And the same seems to be true of America’s political response to both uprisings. Until now, ‘stability’ has tended to be the defining concept around which US foreign policy was based. In the Middle East, this has tended to mean little more than supporting autocratic leaders who absorb massive amounts of funding in return for ensuring that the status quo is maintained. Egypt, after all, recieves $1.3 billion a year, in return for continued cooperation on the Arab-Israeli peace process and military cooperation elsewhere in the region. Unrest in Egypt, Tunisia and Yemen represents a direct challenge to the meaning of this ambiguous ‘stability’. Yes, Mubarak, Ben Ali and Saleh may keep their countries in order whilst their authority is strong, but when years of simmering desperation boil over into something more revolutionary, is it still prudent to support the men who bear the brunt of their people’s anger? The US continues to wrestle with this dilemma, it seems.