Narrative & Protest

The following short posts were written during the Arab Spring in 2011. 

Revolution in the Middle East | January 28, 2011
Have you been watching the Middle East? Did you know that tens of thousands are protesting in Egypt right now? Did you know that in Egypt, public dissent is usually harshly criticized, and that this level of protest is unprecedented there? Indeed it is. Citizens are also protesting and have protested for political reform in JordanTunisia, and Yemen. Al-Jazeera, the Qatar-based satellite news channel, is helping to string these individual struggles together into one unified struggle across the Arab world. I am impressed with their ability to form a narrative and make use of popular rage. Can the protests be seen collectively as a re-awakening of collective conscience? Perhaps. Will changes in the political structures of these countries be democratic? Hopefully. Is 2011 the new 1989?  Maybe something like it. The following are some interesting articles and op-eds I've read on the situation:

  • Will the Arab Revolutions Spread? Why we shouldn't be skeptical: "The scenes in Cairo yesterday stand as a sharp rebuke to any analytical certainty. The Egyptian regime was fully prepared, its security forces on alert and deployed, the internet disrupted and al-Jazeera largely off the table… and yet tens of thousands of people still poured into the streets and put together one of the largest demonstrations in contemporary Egyptian history. Tunisia has manifestly inspired people across the region and galvanized their willingness to take risks to push for change, even without any clear leadership from political parties, Islamist movements, or even civil society. The Tunisian example has offered the possibility of success, and models for sustained action by a decentralized network, after a long and dispiriting period of authoritarian retrenchment. Al-Jazeera and the new media have played their role in reshaping political opportunities and narratives, but it is people who have seized those opportunities. And the core weaknesses of these Arab states --- fierce but feeble, as Nazih Ayubi might have said -- have been exposed. They have massively failed to meet the needs of their people, with awesome problems of unemployment, inflation, youth frustration and inequality combined with the near-complete absence of viable formal political institutions." 
  • The Arab Crisis: Food, Energy, Water, Justice
  • Egypt Will Never Be The Same -Kareem Amer

Developing in Egypt | January 28, 2011

I find the unfolding events in Egypt fascinating, and have been watching Al Jazeera all day. Hosni Mubarak just gave a speech in which he indicated that he will be dismantling his government but staying in power. President Obama's response has been criticized as equivocal. Here's one more forgiving take:

"Obama's statement was mostly directed towards "the Egyptian people" -- clear code for the protest movement -- and he pledged U.S. partnership for the "Egyptian people," who Obama said will "determine the future." This would seem to be an affirmation that, should protesters succeed in overthrowing the regime as they did in Tunisia just weeks ago, the U.S. will consider them a legitimate government rather than oppose them. In other words, if Mubarak remains in power, the U.S. will push him to "reform" but not to leave office. If the protesters force him out, the U.S. will not interfere. As Obama said, "the future will be determined by the Egyptian people" -- not by the White House" (Max Fisher - you can read his live blogging on Egypt here).

Art and Egypt | February 1, 2011

You should never agree to go to a contemporary art show with "revolution in Egypt" on your mind. Everything is bound to seem even more trivial than it is. Last night I went to the Moma theater for a talk with Laurel Nakadate. I haven't yet seen her exhibition at PS1, but the friend I went with had, and said he was "offended by her trivialization of sadness and exploitation of subjects." He wanted to see how she defended her work, and since I can't pass up sure-to-be-train-wreck talks, I decided to tag along. I suppose I was also slightly hopeful that it would be interesting and informative. It was not.

Nakadate's work focuses on, in her words, "watching and being watched," and themes of "sadness, isolation, and longing." Those are not unique themes, of course, but a talented artist could reinvent them or examine them in a new light. The most I got from Nakadate's work was the following set of observations: likes to showcase herself in bikinis/enjoys telling people she's daring and spontaneous/ forces sexuality and exploits people she clearly sees as 'losers'/thinks artistic means weird and/or non-mainstream/rams your head into a brick wall (absolutely no subtlety). It didn't help that her talk was peppered with "ummmm," "so like...." "I guess," "so this was a really profound feeling," "I thought this portrayal was really important because it touched me in a special way." Every sentence she spoke ended in a question mark (voice raises slightly as to indicate uncertainty).

Modern and even contemporary art can be interesting, at times even profound (although I've found that to be very rare), but after last night's talk I'm convinced there should be better mechanisms to filter out the really bad stuff. If you're in New York and have a chance to go to PS1, I'd love to hear your opinion on her exhibit.

Speaking briefly of revolution again, I was heartened today by the turnout across Egypt. I woke up around 5am so as not to miss out on the "million man march," and once again, my living room has sounded a lot like Tahrir Square via Al Jazeera all day. One of my friends suggested I turn it off for awhile, but I'm totally mesmerized by it all, and in part because it's the first big political upheaval I've witnessed. For people that saw the fall of the Berlin Wall, the break-up of the Soviet Union, or the Iranian Revolution, maybe it's just another thing that's happening over there on that side of the world, but for me it's this huge event, a people's revolution, a dynamic, well, work of art. Last night my friend told me to separate art and politics from my crusade for human rights, but if Laurel can call her stuff art, I think this well qualifies.

Everybody Loved Hosni | February 2, 2011

Why do American leaders continue to back dictators who have flouted their people's interests for centuries and continue to do so? I guess there are obvious reasons. As I watch the situation in Egypt break down today, I continue to hope that the people will prevail, and also that Americans will begin thinking about the military/defense/foreign policy establishment they support. If you'd like, see more American leaders with Hosni here.

Viva la Revolución | February 11, 2011

I was sitting on the couch this morning, intermittently watching Al Jazeera with the sound off, when "MUBARAK STEPS DOWN" flashed across the screen around 11am. I hit the volume button and the cheers from Tahrir Square erupted into my living room. I was stunned by the announcement because I was skeptical about it ever coming. Having watched this revolution happen for the past eighteen days, I thought Mubarak was going to hang on and out-maneuver the people. We don't know what happened behind the scenes (was it a military coup? was there U.S. pressure?), but the people were the catalyst. I am not Egyptian but I'm so proud of the Egyptian people. This is step one; now keep fighting.

Politics' Revenge | February 15, 2011

Interesting article on the Arab world. See a few excerpts below and read the whole thing here.

"The breakdown of the Arab order has upended natural power relations. Traditional powers punch below their weight, and emerging ones, such as Qatar, punch above theirs. Al-Jazeera has emerged as a full-fledged political actor because it reflects and articulates popular sentiment. It has become the new Nasser. The leader of the Arab world is a television network. 
Popular uprisings are the latest step in this process. They have been facilitated by a newfound fearlessness and feeling of empowerment - watching the U.S. military's struggles in Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as Israel's inability to subdue Hezbollah and Hamas, Arab peoples are no longer afraid to confront their own regimes... 
The Arab world's transition from old to new is rife with uncertainty about its pace and endpoint. When and where transitions take place, they will express a yearning for more assertiveness. Governments will have to change their spots; their publics will wish them to be more like Turkey and less like Egypt. 
For decades, the Arab world has been drained of its sovereignty, its freedom, its pride. It has been drained of politics. Today marks politics' revenge."

Our Responsibility | March 1, 2011

In an interview on Libyan state television last Friday, Muammar Gaddafi stated, “those who do not love me do not deserve to live”. In those terms, the situation in Libya is a love affair gone terribly wrong. As the streets run red, and a megalomaniac insists that the bloodshed is the doing of either Al Qaeda, drug induced and illegally armed citizens, the bias of foreign media, or all three, who, if anyone, has the responsibility to protect? Are United Nations-initiated arms embargoes, travel and asset freezes, and referrals to the International Criminal Court for crimes against humanity enough? Though they are steps in the right direction, I think the answer is decidedly no. Might the international community be interested in actually stopping the violence visited upon innocent citizens by a tyrannical leader now? It seems an affirmative answer requires much deliberation, and this despite the nearly forty years world leaders have had to judge the Gaddafi regime’s crimes and incendiary practices.

The Responsibility to Protect doctrine (RtoP) was endorsed by the United Nations General Assembly in 2005 and reaffirmed by the Security Council in 2006. It has become part of the working language regarding international humanitarian crises, but a controversial concept that many have called “a Trojan horse for the legitimization of unilateral intervention”(1). In summary, RtoP is the idea that a government has the responsibility of protecting its people -- “sovereignty as responsibility” -- and that sovereignty is forfeited when intervention is necessary to protect populations from crimes against humanity (2).

One need only glimpse into the nearly forty year relationship between the authoritarian Gaddafi regime and the Libyan people to recognize that it has always been a dysfunctional one, and that the break was a long time coming. “The world was certainly aware of the vast litany of domestic and international crimes committed by the Gaddhafi regime. Even in the corridors of the UN there was occasional talk and concern about Libya’s human rights practices, such as extrajudicial and summary executions, systematic use of torture, and the imposition of the death penalty for political and economic offences” (3). To add insult to injury, Libya received 155 votes and joined the Human Rights Council in May of 2010, and the UN is set to adopt a report that praises Libya's human rights improvements. This long-standing record of human rights abuses makes it difficult to accept verbal condemnation as enough, especially from international actors who have sanctioned such behavior with their silence for so long.

While many have looked to the United States to react to the situation in Libya, the most common theme over the past few weeks has been that the U.S. doesn’t have close ties to the military and to the Gaddafi regime as it did in Egypt, and that thus there is not much the U.S. can or should do as the crisis continues. As has been stated elsewhere, this assumption is a weak one (4).

Deliberative processes are slow, understandably, and the international community cannot be accused of doing nothing. However, it is clear that the sovereignty norm is still a real barrier to action in 2011. As stated in the ICISS report, “Millions of human beings remain at the mercy of civil wars, insurgencies, state repression and state collapse. This is a stark and undeniable reality, and it is at the heart of all the issues with which this Commission has been wrestling. What is at stake here is not making the world safe for big powers, or trampling over the sovereign rights of small ones, but delivering practical protection from ordinary people, at risk of their lives, because their states are unwilling or unable to protect them”(5). While the United Nations is inching toward more aggressive action, and also encouraging concerned onlookers by using the language of RtoP, it’s nevertheless difficult to watch report after report of government-sponsored violence and not ask why the process is so slow and the response to the situation so tepid. Those afraid of setting a precedent for intervention should ask: faced with a regime that all but brags about its intentions to commit crimes against humanity against its own people, why not? In these situations, sovereignty is merely a principle that has seen its day.

Some suggestions for action:


(1.) "The Responsibility to Protect and The Problem of Military Intervention", Alex Bellamy. International Affairs, 84.

(2.) UN Security Resolution 1674 (2007):

  138. Each individual state has the responsibility to protect its populations from genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity. This responsibility entails the prevention of such crimes, including their incitement, through appropriate and necessary means. We accept that responsibility  and will act in accordance with it. The international community should, as appropriate, encourage and help States to exercise this responsibility and support the United Nations in establishing an early warning capability.

  139. The international community, through the United Nations, also has the responsibility to use appropriate diplomatic, humanitarian and other peaceful means, in accordance with Chapters VI and VII of the Charter of the United Nations, to help protect populations from war crimes, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity. In this context, we are prepared to take collective action, in a timely and decisive manner, through the Security Council, in accordance with the Charter, including Chapter VII, on a case-by-case basis and in cooperation with relevant regional organizations as appropriate, should peaceful means be inadequate and national authorities fail to protect their populations from genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing, and crimes against humanity.

(3) Humans Rights Council Burnished Libya's Image (The Star)

(4) Too Little Too Late (Foreign Policy Mag)

(5) Report on the International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty