On Arab intellectuals during the revolution


It is hard to miss the tinge of disappointment running through Robert Worth’s piece for the New York Times about the limited role played by Arab intellectuals in the revolutions sweeping the region — never mind that quite a lot of people were inspired by 80-year old writer and long-time activist Nawal el Saadawi’s constant presence in Tahrir Square during the protests that brought down Mubarak.  Worth, who has done some superb reporting from the region this year, writes:

[T]he great wave of insurrection across the Arab world has toppled three autocrats and led last week in Tunisia to an election that many hailed as the dawn of a new era. It has not yielded any clear political or economic project, or any intellectual standard-bearers of the kind who shaped almost every modern revolution from 1776 onward. In those revolts, thinkers or ideologues — from Thomas Paine to Lenin to Mao to Vaclav Havel — helped provide a unifying vision or became symbols of a people’s aspirations.

At least two of those examples — Lenin and Mao — illustrate the perils of following an individual down the path of revolution and you would think Worth would commend Arabs for rallying to a set of political and social values rather than to a charismatic personality.  In a sense, the Arab revolutions ‘crowd-sourced’ their leadership — the Wikipedia model, you could say, rather than the old, single-authority model of the paper of record — and as a result Worth seems to mistake the absence of authoritative figures articulating a specific agenda with the absence of an agenda.  But just about every Arab who has protested in the last year could — and has, in countless on-the-street interviews — articulate what their revolution was about: an end to long-serving dictators, corruption, unaccountable government, and the police repression that kept them in power.  No one needed an intellectual, or anyone else, to tell them about these problems since they’d lived them for decades; what they needed was the hope that, acting in concert, they could do something to change it.

Naturally, people differ on what should replace the old, discredited system but revolutions only ever look unified in purpose long after the fact, when new institutions and laws have been hammered out and the strongest forces within the disparate revolutionary coalition have emerged.  That, in a sense, is what is happening now in Tunisia and Egypt.  Intellectuals may come to play a prominent role in that process but, at least in Egypt, that’s not likely as long as the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces is in charge.


Update: Former Executive Editor of the Times Bill Keller, too, seems perplexed by leaderless protest movements.  Now on the Opinion page, Keller writes from Delhi, where he asked anti-corruption campaigner Anna Hazare and his allies — whom Keller and, supposedly, they themselves insist on calling “Team Anna” — about Occupy Wall Street, which in the last month has gone from a disparate group of disgruntled progressives when I first saw them march up Broadway in September to a bona fide media phenomenon and the left’s answer to the Tea Party.  Keller quotes a Hazare advisor as saying of OWS:

[W]e had a destination. I’m not aware these people — what is their destination? It’s occupy for what?

Keller agrees, ending his piece this way:

I’m prepared to celebrate when the Occupiers — like the lone hunger artist of India — accomplish something more than organizing their own campsite cleanup, demonstrating their tolerance for tear gas, and distracting the conversation a little from the Tea Party. So far, the main achievement of Occupy Wall Street is showing up.

Ouch.  But, among other things, OWS has gotten the former executive editor of the paper of record to write a column about its movement and goals, which is the kind of prominence every protest group dreams of achieving.  Street protests are in large part a media campaign — which Anna Hazare himself well understands, as did Martin Luther King and Gandhi before him — and in that regard OWS has succeeded in dominating the media cycle like no left-wing movement in years.

But maybe there is just something about leaderless movements that befuddles the Times and the rest of the mainstream media, wedded as they are to the authoritative, anti-Wikipedia model.  As it happens, that is precisely what Dahlia Lithwick at Slate admires about OWS.


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