Tuesday, March 15, 2011

“Preliminary Historical Observations on the Arab Revolutions of 2011”

Historian Rashid Khalidi spoke on “Preliminary Historical Observations on the Arab Revolutions of 2011,” and there was something refreshing in his perspective. He has studied and followed the history and politics of the Arab world for decades and to hear him thanking the Egyptian people for what they have accomplished was, frankly, touching. It was similar to what I felt when I heard Robert Fisk saying this is the happiest story he has covered in 35 years in the region. Analysts of the region who I read and admire, and who have been staunch critics of its authoritarian regimes, seem genuinely happy, at times almost giddy. A kind of “this is it” moment that even the most cynical and critical among us must recognize.

This was particularly valuable at this precise moment, following last week when serious attacks on demonstrators raised serious questions about the direction in which things are moving. And still, we are no closer to being able to answer those questions this week. And while the response should not be one of self-satisfaction, it does seem useful to keep this wide-angle view within our sights at all times.

There are a few additional notes from the talk I wanted to share.

  • One of his main arguments was that throughout the past two centuries of non-violent and democratic revolutions in this region, those taking place mark the end of the old anti-colonialist nationalism in that they are not mainly against foreign occupation.
  • He believes that US public opinion—overwhelming support for the Egyptian demonstrators—forced the US government to moderate its own positions driven by economic interest.
  • He sees a revolution in US media coverage, where the standard talking heads no longer have anything to say, and forcing an entirely new approach to the region from outlets like CNN.

And a couple of pieces of information—not news, but new to me.

  • In the past ten years, the poverty rate in Egypt (those making less than $200 per month) has increased from 39% to 43%.
  • Egypt and Tunisia both have 70% literacy rates.
  • The tear gas that was used against peaceful protesters in Tahrir Square in from Pennsylvania. It had been widely discussed as coming from the US, which I knew. But I had not realized, until his talk and a followup google search, they were manufactured by Combined Systems Inc. in Jamestown, Pennsylvania. This was widely reported, including on CNN, but I somehow missed the Pennsylvania part of the story. (Maybe because there was no internet here for the week.)

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