While Westerners talk about themselves, Arabs make their own history.
Most of us don’t know much about the internal politics of Libya, Tunisia, Egypt or Bahrain. Most of us haven’t spent a lifetime studying the history of revolutions.
But we do seem certain of one thing: the storm of rebellions across North Africa and in the Gulf is really about us. We, the loose civilization called the ‘West’, must be at center stage. Whether as heroes, villains, or creators, we regard ourselves as the indispensable actors in the story.
Thus we obsess in the press about our political response, our moral duty to spread liberal values. Some even claim that it is the technology we pioneered – the internet, Twitter, Facebook, mobile phones – that is the decisive new force making these revolutions possible.
The world must be counting on us, surely? Without us, progress and liberation is just not possible. Beneath the howls of outrage that our governments are not embracing the revolutions enthusiastically enough, there is often an assumption that the ‘Arab street’ just couldn’t do it without us. In this egocentric moment, we see combined the self-exaltation of the Atlantic world, and the self-regard of the Facebook generation.
It is hard to deny that we live in a world where ideas and materials and goods flow across borders, where dextrous players borrow and adapt, and where the politics of one country are instantly broadcast around the world. Cultures are not hermetically sealed forces.
New media may accelerate and facilitate revolution, though if history is anything to go by, technology can also help forces of reaction. The Counter-Reformation used the printing press too. And the internet is not just a vehicle of liberation but a place of state surveillance, espionage and exploitation.
More importantly, we seem determined not to acknowledge that for better or worse, Arabs are making their own history. We don’t consider whether revolutionaries might stand a fighting chance without the miracles of our technology. Iranians overthrew their Shah without a Tweet in sight. Romanians toppled Caucescu not by networking online, but by standing outside his palace and shouting him down. To admit this would be to concede our own marginality. And in our narrow celeb-culture, that would never do.
It may be that our own obsession with slick gadgets leads us to overlook the real sinew of these revolutions, the older and lower-tech business of brave political will. Whatever happens in Cairo or Tripoli, its main engine not be our rhetoric or inventions. It may be the belief that change is possible, that others will join in, and that it’s worth dying for. We did not create their will to stand unflinching before tanks.
But doesn’t this revolutionary moment demonstrate that democracy is for everyone? Possibly. We know that from Indonesia and Turkey that Islam and democracy can co-exist. Libyans or Egyptians may be finally discrediting the extraordinary condescension of some chauvinists that democracy is only for white, rich Westerners. But crucially, it is they who make their democracy, not us. Our efforts to arrange democracy for others as it suits us, whether in Palestine or Iraq, have not been unqualified triumphs. We also know that Western backing of democratic rebellion can damage and discredit it, by tainting it with the accusation that dissidents are Western fifth columnists. We can embody democracy proudly, but the effort to spread it as muscular interventionists has proven to be a hazardous and lethal endeavour.
Just like East Europeans and South Americans, Arabs may well embrace democracy: at their timetable, in their way, and at their own initiative. So enough of the babble about ‘us’, and the exceptionalism and technological determinism that comes with it. We should watch with more humility. We might even learn something.