Wednesday, March 09, 2005

Freedom in the Middle East?

The master narrative gets written by the media before events have even had time to unfold. "Unexpected Whiff of Freedom Proves Bracing for the Mideast," The Times told us on Sunday. Newsweek's cover this week was even more egregious. "People Power," the magazine declared, as if popular uprisings had never before happened in the Middle East and as if the presence of a few thousand people on the street constituted a meaningful shift towards democracy. One wonders if Newsweek is even slightly embarrassed now that tens of thousands of protesters hit the street in favor of keeping Syrian troops in Lebanon. Undoubtedly, they will just adjust the master narrative accordingly -- it's still people protesting, and that constitutes reform, even if what they are protesting for is a continuation of an oppressive status quo.

Of course, we have no real idea what we are seeing in the Middle East. Egypt may indeed be moving toward democracy or it may be moving to the kind of authoritarianism Mexico had under the PRI. There were always many political parties in that country too, but the PRI's domination of the political system for at least a century was never in doubt. Syria's retreat from Lebanon, if it happens, strikes as less a blow against oppression than something of a strategic realignment of power where Syria figures it can probably have more influence and garner less international condemnation if it controls Lebanon through heavy-handed persuasion rather than military control (Surely, this is the lesson we're learning in Iraq too). As for the reforms going on now in the Palestinian state, yes, it seems hopeful, but let's also no forget that Hamas remains an incredibly potent force. I'm not Middle East expert, but from everything I've read the conflict there seems very far from being settled (and would settling it be a victory for democracy? There were elections under Arafat, no?)

The real problem is that the media has the most simplistic definition of democracy where symbolism means more than substance. An election in Iraq, even with the second largest religious group in the country boycotting, torture being practiced by both the U.S. and Iraqi regime, and violence flaring uncontrollably, is said to constitute a step toward democracy in any case. Protests are also symbols of "reform" irrespective of how many protesters there are or what they are protesting.

Oh for the reporter who knows his history, who has the patience to watch events unfold before declaring prematurely their significance! Highly unlikely. Instead we get a giddy excitement about all the reforms going on in the Middle East and Bush, with a shit-eating grin on his face, taking credit.


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