Wednesday, February 16, 2011

The animating agenda of movements in the Middle East versus the rhetoric of cooperative interest

We are excited about the popular movements in the Middle East. In Tunisia and Egypt autocratic rulers have fled; in Yemen and Bahrain demonstrations continue. Iran is again in the throwes of popular demonstrations. And now in Lybia there are serious demonstrations The leader of the PLO have revised their plans to allow for more popular representation.

These seem to be animated by a quest for popular suffrage: the demonstrators want to have their interests represented in government, and they want government to be held accountable to them. Rousseau has finally arrived in the Middle East.

But the rhetoric of these movements has varied according to the conditions of their projects. The Iranian "green" movement has been savvy in appropriating the rhetorical devices of their own government in order to legitimize their opposition to the Iranian regime. Green has been the color of the Islamic revolutionary movement; the language of public outcry have been the idioms of the 1977-78 revolutionary movement against the Shah, "allah-o akbar", "yah hussain", terms that cannot be associated with the rhetoric of the West. The Egyptians and Tunisians on the other hand never seemed to worry about such scruples, and anyway, at least in Egypt, some of the most active elements were Copts: those folks spoke of popular representation: they wanted "a national unity government"; it is "a revolution of the people," they said.

It is fair to assume that the rhetoric is always a kind of masque, a device by which to characterize the feelings of a collectivity without antagonizing those who might derail the movement. We read that the Lybian loyalists are "defending the leader and the revolution" -- meaning Qaddafi's regime.

We hope the popular movements are indeed what they appear to be: demands for popular suffrage. More to the real issue: We hope they recognize what popular suffrage actually means: open access, free and open elections, protection of minorities, certain rights protected for everyone. These are issues it is hard to put into practice: nowhere better illustrates how hard it is than the United States.

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