Be careful when you hear of the new vs old distinction.
The mass demonstrations in Egypt earlier this year now famous by the name of “the Arab Spring” overthrew Hosni Mubarak and apparently heralded Egypt into a “new age” of democracy, freedom and prosperity. While the revolution was being tweeted, I was not sure whether to feel happy or sad for the Egyptians as they were going through what we in Nepal have already been through. We were told that the “old” was ugly, bad and evil and had to be uprooted at any cost and replaced with the “new”- a dream that was not only successfully sold, but also nicely executed. This dream was so dear and hypnotic, it led to a decade long bloody war and even years after its formal end, continues to have many ardent supporters.
During the previous years, Egypt had maintained its identity as a fast progressing economy in the middle of a very difficult region. Although the whole region was plagued by religious extremism, Egypt’s secular regime still provided educated women the opportunity to wear the dresses they liked. Like all countries following the 80-90s path of economic liberalization and capitalism, inequality was on the rise in Egypt, but it’s economy was growing substantially. Egypt had good relations with Europe and America and the collaboration provided great opportunities for Egyptians in science, research, education and trade. Outside their country, the Egyptians also enjoyed the positive image of their country- contrast that with the kind of treatment the people of many other countries in the Arab region receive.
How better will the new be than the old?
What happened in Tahir square, although said to a spontaneous revolution influenced by the use of social media, had the involvement of a strong political force which wanted to overthrow Mubarak. The Islamic Brotherhood (Ikhwan), said to be a key force behind the protests, is trying to fill the void left by the fall of Mubarak. The Ikhwan succeeded in keeping a low profile during the protests, but it is difficult to see how Egyptians will escape the transition towards a more extreme Islamic form of governance. Working under the shadow of a powerful ruler in the form of Mubarak, the Brotherhood had taken some liberal moves, but there’s very little confusion about it’s core and stated agendas, one being the creation of a state ruled by Sharia, the Islamic law.
Another perception in the post Arab Spring Egypt is that the Egyptian revolution now increasingly looks like a clever military coup.
Recently, Libya liberated itself. Many of the eulogies for Gaddafi circulating on Facebook might be myths, made-up stuffs and unsubstantial facts, but it is clear that he was a strong leader who made some key contributions to whatever good is left in Libya today (eg: the highest living standards in Africa, see Gaddafi’s wikipedia entry for more). Like Mubarak, he was a dictator and Libyans are probably better off without him for they have the chance to realize their aspirations of being citizens of a free, prosperous and democratic society. We’ll have to wait for some more time to see the turn of events in Libya, but I feel safe to predict that a few years from now, Libyans and Egyptians will have to live with some regret about the aftermath of this year’s revolutions, irrespective of the amount of rejoicing it might bring. Everything else remaining constant, the presence of a new group of new people or institutions will not make too much of a difference in a complex system.
Syria, another country which is doing good compared to the diverse and conflicting problems it has to deal with, is also facing violent mass protests these days. From a secular and liberal society of today, it is hard to predict at this point what the “new” Syria will look like.
Dreams and Realities
Secularism, being defined more in terms of the standards set by the Western Christian missionaries might look like a good thing for some Arabs to reject. But we should not forget that the rulers of those countries have been preserving Islamic history and identity (most religious and charity activities are allowed) while trying to find a balance with modernity. I think being a country or a ruler in a region whose already complex historic, demographic, social and geopolitical situations complicated by the presence of various Israel and American concerns is really a tightrope walk.
Every discussion you observe in the radio, TV or the papers of Nepal these days is incomplete without a venomous attack of the “old Nepal.” The ones who usually do this are those ardent supporters I talked of in the beginning paragraph. But since the phrases (see this for some examples of these phrases) have been repeated so many times in so many forms, it is starting to become the habit of the rest too. Didn’t somebody say that if you repeat a lie often enough, people will believe it?
I think it is a very very difficult task to try to challenge this especially because of the unquestioning, unwavering support the proponents of the “newness” have succeeded in building for their ideas (and a similar attack mechanism they have built for opposing viewpoints). Many factors responsible for this include the silence of some, mediocrity of others, the gullibility of many and the inadequacy of the old.
The most important factors remaining constant, the new cannot be reached by merely destroying the old. Next time you hear someone talking about a “new,” be careful. A friend from a former Soviet country recently asked me, “is Nepal already a communist country or are you still allowed to say No?”
Endnote: I’m interested in writing more about this new vs old discussion and how the lies can be busted. If you are interested in this discussion, please participate.