Emanuel Rota, Riz Khan - Tariq Ramadan and Slavoj Zizek on the future of Egyptian politics

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

posted under , , , , by Unit for Criticism

[In this post, Emanuel Rota, a Unit for Criticism affiliate and Assistant Professor of Italian, writes on a recent debate over events in Egypt.]

"Riz Khan - Tariq Ramadan and Slavoj Zizek on the future of Egyptian politics"

Written by Emanuel Rota (Italian)

History is on the move in the Middle East. The elections in Iran, the riots in Algeria, Tunisia, and Egypt: can Libya and Morocco be immune?

Personally, I hope they are not. The dictators of these countries, Abdelaziz Bouteflika, Ben Ali, Mohammed Hosni Moubarak, had names unknown to the vast majority of the inhabitants of the West. Their ferocity, their violence, their corruption was kept invisible in the name of the stability of the region. Now, we are learning their names in the hope that what we learn are the names of past ferocity, past violence and past corruption. Of course, we no longer believe that the future will necessarily be a better place, but we can say, with Georg Christoph Lichtenberg, “I cannot say whether things will get better if we change; what I can say is they must change if they are to get better.”

In the meantime, we can learn from what is happening. All the talk about democracy in the Middle East will come back to haunt those who wanted to use democracy as an ideological weapon to maintain the region in a permanent state of submission. Israel is the only democracy in the region; I hope that Israel will be surrounded by other democracies, so that the peace process can move forward. I also hope that Europe and the United States will be forced to accept that democracy is a universal aspiration, even when those who threaten it are their allies. Today, questioning democracy in the region in the name of cultural relativism would mean choosing an alliance with the coryphées of constituted power. Personally, I am with the rebels, and I hope that they will teach me something new about democracy.

In the embedded video, two intellectuals, Tariq Ramadan and Slavoj Žižek, discuss the events in Egypt. At the center of their discussion, even at this early stage, is the significance that the events have for our understanding of democracy. Not what we can teach, but what we can learn, not as neutral observers, but as partisans of democracy, equality, and freedom. They disagree more than it is apparent in the interview, but they agree on the fact that these events are not staged. It is not the spectacle of politics that is represented, but a revolt that, so far, has no representatives. So far, the multitudes revolting in the Middle East, without pre-constituted leaders and political programs, seem to have only the desire to act in history and to retain this power --in other words, a desire for democracy. Cairo, the largest city in Africa and one of the largest cities in the world, can certainly teach us something for the future.


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Rob Rushing said...

It's not an exact quote, but Zizek: "It is not a question of Western liberal democracy or Muslim fundamentalism. What matters is a strong left. That is all that is needed, both in Egypt and in the West." Sadly, the Obama administration seems to be settling in for the long haul of observation and doing nothing, making sure that fundamentalists and leftists alike in Egypt will be certain that we are not their side and that we don't really have much of an interest in democracy (here in the US, or abroad). What a lost opportunity—Manuel, the Lichtenberg quote is exactly the right one, but the Obama administration seems to be looking at Il gattopardo (The Leopard) instead: "things must change just so they can stay the same."

Patrick said...

Excellent post Manuel, and excellent comment Rob! I'm not sure it is so dire, though, Rob, that the Obama administration (and other governments, notably Israel) are showing their true colors and resisting democracy in the Muslim world for fear of the unknown democratic hordes. Lampedusa's quote works in the reverse, as well: "if things are to change, everything must stay the same." Wikileaks was so powerful because it exposed (even if we already knew it)so much cynicism in diplomacy. Now that a revolution is actually happening, the US's realpolitik can be exposed for what it is, and perhaps countered within and without the US. On another note, this fear or hatred of democracy in so-called Western Democracies has been very well theorized in a recent book by Jacques Ranciere, "La Haine de la democratie": http://www.amazon.fr/haine-d%C3%A9mocratie-Jacques-Ranci%C3%A8re/dp/2913372481 or in English: http://www.cupblog.org/?p=2976

Karim said...

You say that Israel is the only democracy in the region, and that you hope it would be surrounded by other democracies. In fact, just societies in the Arab world cannot materialize before people (in the Arab world and in the West) change their typical ideas about what makes a country truly democratic. The holding of elections (which happened regularly under authoritarian regimes) doesn't necessarily mean political or social justice. One can be a true rebel only when one gets rid of ideological stances that allows him/her to claim that Israel is a democracy, despite all the facts that prove the contrary. I totally agree with Zizek's point about chaos representing an "opening" for true change. I hope that this proves true in Egypt, and that it creates yet another "opening" that allows people to see Israel as it really is, a country that is completely opposed to democracies emerging in this part of the world.

John said...

I agree with Rob, the Obama administration seems to be settling in for the long haul of observation and doing nothing

John Randolph said...

I suspect that Rob or Manuel or both or someone else might be able to comment on the degree to which current Italian political ferment, as detailed in the NY Times story below, might be additionally stimulated by the Egyptian revolution. Have the anti-Berlusconi protests (which obviously predate the past few weeks) been recently shifted, in any way, by Egyptian precedent? Might the "Arab Revolt" become a Mediterranean one?

Apologies for the ignorance involved in the question, but it seemed like a natural extension.


Rob Rushing said...

John that's a very interesting question, and I'll let Manuel address it more rigorously; I can only report anecdotally that a friend in Italy just messaged me about participating in anti-Berlusconi protests. She expressed her real pleasure at seeing the women of Italy "finalmente" indignant—it certainly suggested to me that there was some recent inspiration that provided the extra impetus to go out and shout in the piazza, and I can only imagine that Egypt was a contributing factor.

Jan Palach said...

Well, if we include Greece, this is already a Mediterranean revolt. On the other hand, the Italian situation is not really comparable if we focus on Berlusconi. Berlusconi is a funny old man whose major quality is, for most Italians, precisely his disinterest in governing Italy. The Obama administration probably doesn't like his businesses with Putin and Russia. Many Italians don't like his Vampire passion for teens (not necessarily virgin.) But torturing is more common in Egypt and the US than in Italy. In the west, one has to be a little more radical than just targeting this or that political figure, as if substituting Bush with Obama could be a radical change. To dismantle the American military system, for instance, requires much more than a change in the administration and if one doesn't want to dismantle it, there is no legitimate claim to side with democracy.
In Saudi Arabia, Cuba, Algeria, Morocco etc. instead, targeting the dictator means the collapse of a whole system of power.
Now, if the revolts in North Africa create, as they will, a massive new wave of migration, Southern Europe could indeed be destabilized. The good thing about the future is that is unpredictable and free. Egypt and Italy are not similar yet, or the US for that matter,, but perhaps there is indeed a coming revolt.

John Randolph said...

Jan: To respond to your comment and also to fend off misunderstanding, I understand that Italy is not analogous to pre-revolt Egypt, nor is Berlusconi Mubarak, nor indeed would swapping out Berlusconi necessarily make the same difference. I guess my question is whether the democratic ferment we see in Egypt is capable of "jumping the tracks" to move into different contexts, e.g. places that are already putatively democracies, but that have seen a great decay in democratic spirit and institutions, and the rise of oligarchs. I think of the US as a great example on that list, but in as much as our last burst of civic passion was spent electing Obama, who has turned out to be either unwilling or unable to resist the general corporatization of civic life, I look to Italy as a possible case.

I cut my remarks on our situation short just because I don't want to get into a long conversation about it. Obviously, there's a lot more to say. But it would seem Italy is a place where, on the one hand, you have a civic movement stirring before Tunisia, but that, on the other hand, might be inspired / somehow inflected by events so close in time and space, if different (of course) in many ways.

I'm not sure I understand your remark about migration, but I think the democratic implications of events in Egypt could be large, without migration. Could be.