We, the (Arab) People

By Aarian Marshall

Like many people my age, I watched the Arab Spring on CNN, from my university’s Student Campus Center. Sometimes, someone would change the channel—March Madness was on, and basketball involves a crowd of people screaming plus the satisfaction of a conclusion in 90 minutes. And Egypt felt so far away, its people so different and its struggles so foreign. Though historic, it was difficult to identify with what was happening in a world so far removed from my own.

Underneath all the talking heads’ discussion and analyses, one consistent allusion stood out: “the people” of the region. “The people” of Tunisia and Egypt need to take change into their own hands; “the people” of Egypt and Tunisia need a little bit of help; the wants and needs of the Egyptian military don’t necessarily dovetail with what “the people” want.  New York Times writer Thomas Friedman entitled a recent column “It Has to Start With Them”, arguing that when “the people” of the Middle East own an initiative, they will be push themselves forward.  But who’s “them,” Thomas Friedman? Who’s “they”?

In the United States, “the people” is a clear signifier, something that used to demarcate this country from the rest of the world. Even if you don’t know a word of the Constitution, you’ll know “We the people.” It is no wonder, then, that in an Arab Spring discourse dominated by notions of democracy, “the people”—these shadowy, non-specific people—show up everywhere.

In a lovely column by film director Mohammad Ali Atassi, the former Syrian president’s son writes: “Now this other Syria is appearing before our eyes to remind us that it cannot be forever set aside, that its people did not spend the decades of the Assads’ rule asleep, and that they aspire, like all people, to live with freedom and dignity.” Those words are stirring, and they touch upon those golden keywords—freedom, aspire—that our American souls are drawn to. And yet, without the detail, the preciseness, it’s difficult to conceive of “the people” of the Middle East as actual human beings.

Perhaps my discomfort is synthesized best by author Azar Nafisi (Reading Lolita in Tehran) in an article for The New Republic entitled “They the People.” The piece is outdated, published in March of 2003, before the invasion of Iraq. But it seems as if Nafisi’s words, written to another America in another time, apply today. The problem with America’s attitude towards the people of the Middle East, she writes, is that we

…seldom differentiate between the people of the ‘Muslim world’ and their self-proclaimed representatives. So crimes committed against these people are repeated three times: once when they are forced into submission, once when they are represented through the very forces that oppress them, and once when the world talks about them in the same language and through the same images as their oppressors.

In Tunisia and Egypt, we hope that those oppressors are gone. Still, the problem of orientalism, of believing in the (often false) assumptions that gird the West’s ideas about the East, has not entirely gone away. There is “cultural baggage,” American historian Douglas Little writes, “that Americans carry with them,” even in a post-Arab Spring world. In other words, we insist upon boiling those who live in a Middle East down to a common denominator, albeit a bit differently from the way we boiled them down in the past. The issue, in Nafisi’s words, is differentiation, and I don’t hear that happening in policy discussions nearly as often as I would like.

I recently had the opportunity to watch the debate played out by three experts, who gathered in Washington, DC’s Academy for Educational Development to discuss the post-Arab Spring Middle East.  Helen Clark, the Administrator for the United Nations Development Programme, argued that economic reform is an essential companion to the social change that has already begun in Egypt and Tunisia, and warned that the work needed to become a democracy is “difficult and detailed.” The people of those countries, she argued, need to be ready for the long road ahead. Robert D. Hormats, the Undersecretary of State for Economic, Energy, and Agricultural Affairs at the Department of State, made similar economically based claims. Free markets and free societies, he told the audience, are inextricably linked. But it was Edward Walker, former Ambassador to Israel, the UAE and Egypt, who struck the most foreboding note. He argued that the U.S. is “limited in what [it] can do to shape the Arab summer”—an effective impetus, he said, can only come from the people of the region themselves. And most depressingly, he pointed out that things might not have changed that much in Egypt and Tunisia—perhaps the revolution is not so revolutionary after all.

As Clark pointed out during her talk, if the Arab Spring has confirmed anything, it’s that “the people of the Middle East are as interested in human rights and freedom as anyone else in the world.” We are one step closer, then, to understanding that those in that region are perhaps more similar to us than we ever could have thought.

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