Monday,16 July, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1135, 14 - 20 February
Monday,16 July, 2018
Issue 1135, 14 - 20 February

Ahram Weekly

Revolution dialogues

Crisis can be an opportunity for revision and deep adjustment, but only if one’s sights are elevated beyond the immediate and the mundane, writes Gamil Matar

Al-Ahram Weekly

I followed the talks in Davos where leaders of the capitalist world congregate and after whom trail politicians from other parts of the world seeking to gain their good graces. I have to confess that as someone constantly on the search for new and innovative ideas, I was disappointed by this year’s Davos session. Nothing that I read about it “wowed” me, as the Americans say, or made me momentarily set aside my newspaper or magazine to contemplate a passage or let my mind run with a notion that might help me discern what great good or evil the future held in store for us.

There was another reason I persisted in following the Davos talks. I had grown bored with the discussions that were revolving in endless circles in Egypt’s squares, salons, clubs and research centres. After months of watching ourselves move from one futile dialogue to the next I began to develop a sneaky suspicion that we had fallen in with some US/European instruction or desire to keep us, with all due affection, immersed in pointless and issueless dialogue. Therefore, for the sake of some peace of mind, I decided to take a short excursion to dialogues elsewhere in the world. Perhaps there I would find some substance that would quench my thirst for knowledge and renew my faith in the future.

Yes, I cannot deny that I had lost hope in the dialogues in Egypt and the countries of the Arab Spring in general, and in the Gulf and other Arab countries that did not experience spring as we had. A revolution had erupted against the present, and against the past that had shaped the present. The future was the aim. However, within a short time our discussions over the future ground to a halt and homed in on the past and all the names, ideas and practices associated with that past. Various questions and issues arose from that cosy bed of the past, but little new emerged, or little that was not related to the seats of power.

For two years, the question that drove our dialogue was: who is governing us? At one point I hoped that speakers would move on to another question, namely: why do we govern? That hope was never fulfilled. Now, two years after the revolution, I am certain that they will not move onto the other question as to why we govern or why we seek to govern, because the attempts to answer it would reveal that few know how to answer. I would also say that of those whose erudition and sophistication in matters ideological and philosophical enabled them formulate a reasonable answer, most would find it very difficult to grapple with the question that would inevitably follow, which is: how do we govern?

I came across an article in The Financial Times in which the well-known commentator Gideon Rachman referred to the speech that Prime Minister Hisham Kandil delivered in Davos. He described Kandil’s exposition of his plans in education and infrastructure as earnest, interesting and well-formulated. Then he added that as perfectly suited as this presentation was to Davos and its participants, it certainly did not reflect current realities in the country that the prime minister hailed from. In sharp contrast to the calm “reasonableness” in Davos, Egyptian streets were being swept by riots and a state of emergency was about to be declared.

Otherwise put, what takes place in Davos and similar economic and political summits in the West is detached from realities on the ground in many parts of the world. Every year Davos hosts a conference whose guest lists may change but whose worldview is constant. The chief aim is to determine how to retain the keys to power in the world and to frustrate and undermine “unreasonable” notions that fall under the headings of Islamist fundamentalism, nationalism and anti-capitalism, which are all conspiring to snatch those keys away. Ironically, all the governments that attend Davos select their representatives from among individuals who are “presentable” to the Davos organisers and who believe that the real keys to power in their own countries are held elsewhere, however adamantly they tell their people otherwise.

Accordingly, Egypt dispatched Kandil. He obtained a doctorate in the US and sports Western suits. He can speak the Western tongue and subscribes to all their ideas or, at least, acts ready to grasp them so as to clone or emulate them. Rachman observes that guests at Davos are always amazed when they encounter such representatives who display their commitment to the universal values espoused in the West in international forums but do not apply them at home. How can people like Ehud Barak, Salam Fayyad and Shimon Peres behave so sensibly in front of us, while at home they remain unable to reach a settlement to the Arab-Israeli conflict? In Davos those representatives appear sure and unshakeable in their commitment to such universal values as democracy, capitalism and human rights. But once back at home they become “provincial” again and steep themselves in an environment awash with ideas and attitudes from the Middle Ages: superstitions, tribalism, bigotry, and enslavement of men, children and women.

In all events, in spite of its relative recentness, Davos like other such venerable institutions appears on the verge of collapse, perhaps precisely because it failed to achieve a kind of harmony between the proceedings in its sedate conference halls and what is actually happening outside those halls. The first cracks in the Davos edifice came with the debilitating blow to the capitalist order in 2007 and then broadened with the Euro crisis and the social “revolution” in response that began to threaten parts of the capitalist West.

In the West, a violent economic quake rattled the stability of the economic and social systems there. The effects ricocheted through global economic summits such as that of the G20 and international financial organisations, and they cast a pall over the future of the EU. This year, they were felt in the Davos summit.

In China, in 2008, a powerful earthquake struck Sichuan Province and wrought massive destruction and killed more than 80,000 people. Ten days later, once the aftershocks of the earthquake subsided, the “Southern Weekend,” a weekly published in Guangdong Province, featured an editorial thanking local officials in Sichuan and praising their “respect for their people and for the entire world through their commitment to universal principles and values.”

Many observers of the progress of democracy and human rights in China felt that this article marked the real beginning of the dialogue in China on universal values. The dialogue moved forward with great difficulty, because the state party and government regarded this concept as a conspiracy against the ruling Communist regime and the socialist order. They also held that to embrace this concept was to embrace the notion of the superiority of the West, which would open the floodgates to the moral, political and economic subjugation of the Chinese people to Western thought and culture.

Yet, the dialogue in China did move forward and steadily gained ground. It did not flounder on the shoals of such questions as “Who is governing us?” and “Why are they governing, and how?” Nor did they get bogged down in such questions as, “Who are we? Where did we come from? What did our Chinese ancestors wear, eat and do 3,000 years ago?” Rather, they are discussing a national dream. They are asking themselves, “Do we deserve to take the lead among the ranks of developed nations, or should we remain content with developing nation status?”

Crisis in the West drove the countries in Europe and North America to reorder their priorities and reimagine their future. An earthquake in China propelled the people of China to move from provincialism to internationalism in their worldview and their thinking on how to attain a dream. Meanwhile, revolution in the Arab world is still trapped in dialogues revolving on inward-looking topics, most of which are petty by the standards of history, some of which are conducive to extremism, incitement to hatred, and strife, and precious few of which touch the core.


The writer is a political analyst and director of the Arab Centre for Development and Futuristic Research.

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