Monday 14 January 2013

A network world? Political protest in the Middle East and the UK

The following article is based on contributions I have made at various British Council External Affairs Unit events focusing on contemporary UK-Middle East cultural relations.

I wonder why exactly it is that Britain thinks the Middle East would want its involvement, interest, advice or assistance – or any other colonial euphemism – when it comes to cultural revolutionary matters, or indeed why Britain thinks it has anything to offer which the rest of the world would be grateful for. Even the mention of British-ME relations has provoked riled reactions when I’ve mentioned some of the events I’m involved in to Arab colleagues. ‘Relations’ is such a neutral word, implying mutuality, equality, freedom, fairness, a level playing field rather than power, appropriation, dominance, control, politicking and inequality.

I have been shown by countless Arab activists how the framing of the Arab revolutions in the Western media has conformed to well-established Orientalist stereotypes, which include un-nuanced, unperceptive and always-negative assumptions about religion, law, sex and gender, class, colour, culture and language. The first and most obviously insulting implication is that the Arab states were somehow asleep and unawakened more than eighteen months ago, then suddenly arose from a political stupor and began brainlessly copying each other. In reality, many countries have a long history of protest and demonstration and many of the most prominent activists are themselves from politically active families. Then there is the West’s avid obsession with Middle Eastern women: that spicy contrast, as they see it, between the strong presence of lots of attractive English-speaking ME laydeez leading popular revolutionary movements and marches; the spectre of the tragic-eyed, veiled figure which haunts and titillates the Western imagination; and the commonness of sexual harassment, sexual assault and other types of gendered attack and oppression as perpetrated and advocated not only by men on the street but police officers and governments. Outsiders do love a high-contrast contradiction, without being able to see that such a juxtaposition is not only common in all countries including Western ones, but is also obvious: where there is the strongest oppression there is the strongest protest, which meets the strongest resistance by the oppressors. The abuse of women is endemic globally, is perpetrated by those of all colours, classes and cultures and is  justified and excused using exactly the same arguments and language everywhere from America to Afghanistan.

Yet, nonetheless, the clichés and culturally bigoted obsessions remain, as does the repetition of images which reinforce the clichés. “Why is it,” a man from Beirut asked me at an event, “that whenever the news covers the Middle East, you’ve got loads of angry men shouting in the streets, a woman in a full veil crying over the dead body of her son? Or a camel.”

My Arab colleagues claim that Britain has never lost its colonial assumption of supremacy and its feeling that the rest of the world, particularly the coloured portions, are simply there to be used. They may be used in various different, interrelated and mutually reinforcing ways: for financial profit by the removal and sale of natural resources, the reinforcement of cultural influence and therefore political power, for amusement and novelty value (the colours! The sights! The sounds! The smells! All those happy smiling helpful faces letting us know that poverty’s not really so hard!), an exotic education, an erotic adventure and other types of bodily exploitation including building work and domestic slavehood. “The only person my grandmother loved was her ayah,” said a posh woman to me at a dinner party once. Lucky ayah. What happened to her? Nobody knows. You can go somewhere, do exactly what you like, smiling in that insipid, arrogant way, saying nothing except to those who are exactly like yourself. And when you have lost interest and wrung everything you want out of the country, people, economy, culture or situation, you can wash your hands and leave without a backward glance.

But are things changing? Is Britain moving closer to the Middle East, not through its strength, but through its own weaknesses, changes, eruptions and faultlines?

Scene: a high profile international summit meeting, plenary session. There are many people in the room, The Suits themselves, white government men in grey suits, the secret rulers of the universe, who claim to be deeply concerned with the Middle East but do not speak Arabic and, but for one or two, are listening to the simultaneous translation through their headphones. The simultaneous translators are themselves extremely high level Arab academics, translating back and forth between English, French and Arabic.

I don’t necessarily agree with all of what’s being said by the high-ups, particularly their fascination with social media. I think people get too excited about the digital revolution and assume that ‘everyone’ is online, is educated and literate, is politicised, interested and willing or able to become an activist about issues they care about. When leaders from rich countries and bourgeois societies talk about the world ‘we’ live in, they too often refer only to the world of cultural, educational and financial elites. They mistake their own privileges for some kind of universal truth rather than an exceptional minority experience produced by their elite circumstances. It’s too easy to celebrate our ‘connected, globalised, international’ world because it sounds pleasant and exciting, but the vision of a world society in constant dialogue overlooks extreme differences of culture, opportunity, wealth, access and privilege. 

Anyway, here’s the party line from the world leaders of today. Following Chatham House rules I can't tell you who voiced it but put it like this, he's a pretty big deal:
We live in a fundamentally changing world. The old form of political blocs has ended and is not going to come back. Even America cannot now act and expect no-one to speak out. In the new world, you no longer need to be strong to be heard. You need to be clever and honest. The world we live in today is a networked world made of interactive, nuanced relationships and networked influences.

The leadership challenge is a common one. When you look back, the model was simple: top down. The leader spoke, everyone else did. Now, the vertical model is gone. We talk business to business, people to people, and this allows us instantaneously to enter into the lives of others. Leadership necessarily must be much more fragmented and localised. Leaders need to learn the art of dialogue. We know how to negotiate, we know how to send diplomatic telegrams to each other, but what we’ve forgotten how to do is sit down, listen and learn. We live in a world of multiple threats – terrorism, extremism, economic meltdown – and if we don’t get our act together, they, rather than us, will be the winners.

A Middle Eastern politician adds that the challenge is to “renew leadership in the face of mutating change. There are a number of stakeholders who are coming out from underneath the iron curtain and fighting for legitimacy. Not just political stakeholders but social stakeholders: women, children and marginalised people.”

I love how women and children are always lumped together, as though a woman is some child-connected type of incomplete, weak and minor sub-adult rather than an independent part of more than half the adult population. I also hear a great euphemism from a British politician: We have “undergone change through non-ballot-box means” – in reference to the riots and the rise in UK activism.

As one of the UK cultural diplomatic people I contribute to summing up the ‘revolutionary times’ we’re all getting excited about. I want to show that instead of thinking in terms of a generalised revolutionary fervour, we must recognise that in the last several years, protests have been spurred by several specific issues, although many politicised people participated across several of those issues.

The latest era of protest has come about through a combination of people’s reaction to specific recent policy changes made by the government and a longstanding anger at certain issues that haven’t changed in decades despite long-term campaigning. The government’s cuts to social and public services, charities, community services, public bodies, the health system, the benefits system and crisis help providers (including those treating rape, abuse and intimate partner violence survivors) all disproportionately affect women, single parents (the overwhelming majority of whom are women) and the poor (the majority of whom are women). The effect of these cuts has radicalised a large proportion of the population, many of whom may not have considered themselves to be political before. The steep increase in university tuition fees has increased anger and the fear that the young are being condemned to debt even before they begin their independent working lives, which may take some years to establish – in combination with the ever-rising age for first-time single home ownership, the difficulty of attaining a mortgage and the unaffordability of living in London, where a significant proportion of desired jobs are.

There is an increasing cynicism about government and leadership which first showed itself (in recent history) in the protests against the Iraq war, which the Labour government ignored; the expectation that the coalition government wouldn’t work and that since New Labour strong differences between the values of Left and Right had been eroded and that all politicians are essentially the same; the aggression of George Osborne in pushing through the cuts without doing any kind of audit to see who would be hit the hardest; and the revelations following the Leveson enquiry about the interconnectedness of politics, finance, policing, the media and other influential sectors of society.

The riots were triggered by the police shooting a young black British man without reason, but they were fuelled by longstanding frustration at discriminatory police practices, the unjust over-representation of young black men in the criminal justice system, the treatment of black British suspects in police custody and the lack of police attention and due care when young black Britons are victims of crime. They were also, underneath that, prompted by anger about persistent inequality of opportunity, poverty of expectation, marginalisation, racism and disadvantage through prejudice.

At the same time, there has been an incredible resurgence in feminist activism, spurred by a multiplicity of issues both old and new: the endemic nature of sexual assault, street sex harassment, sexual abuse and other types of sex attack; persisting low rape conviction rates, ubiquitous rape myths which blame the victim not the perpetrator, inadequate police and judicial treatment of rape survivors; women’s experience of everyday sexism and casual misogyny at university and at every level in the workplace; the way the media ignores, under-reports or misleadingly reports sex attacks and subtly blames the victim; the extreme under-representation of women as influencers, leaders and experts in the media, the arts, politics, big business, finance and at all higher levels of all major professions; the unequal division of labour within the home; the pay gap; the pornification of mainstream cultural imagery and the normalisation of the sex industry; rising rates of body anxiety, eating disorders and body dysmorphia; the normalisation of abusiveness in teenage relationships; and the fact that two women a week are killed by their current or ex partner.

I also believe that the political cycle is too short term, that politicians need to look ahead at least twenty years into the future but are restricted by election cycles and cannot establish long term change when the electorate and political peers alike have short term interests. Interestingly, when one UK speaker at a conference on this issue is talking about the importance of social entrepreneurship and giving the usual stuff about “the digital revolution is a game-changer... it’s made the world incredibly fast”, he is interrupted by an incredibly impressive international economist who points out that these are not necessarily the sectors, though they're culturally sexy (my phrase, not hers), that lead to concrete economic growth. She points out in the Middle East North Africa Region a strong source of employment is agriculture – in addition to the science, engineering, technology and communications jobs we’ve already discussed at the meeting – and reminds us that 100 million jobs are currently required in the region simply for it to stand still. Social media creates buzz, not serious employment.

It would be easy to be too keen to map the UK revolutions onto the Middle Eastern ones. There are however many strong differences which Arab specialists highlight as requiring particular focus.

First, demography led, in part, to the recent Arab revolutions. They were led by young people and supported by the means of communication, organisation, co-ordination and documenting enabled by social media.These young people now need to be involved in the political process and reassured that politicians and governments are trustworthy and will not just use 'democracy' and its slogans to come to power.

The Middle East must recognise and support the role of education in preparing citizens for social development, political involvement and social change in a very stable way so that they are trained to handle their own future by developing critical and analytical thinking. This type of education must broaden the mind and include all ages and both genders. All Arab speakers, of both sexes, have stressed gender and sexual equality at all levels of society as a major issue and a vital component in creating a “coexistent culture of tolerance and civil engagement.”

Many of the Arab specialists I've spoken to cautiously undercut the Western commentators’ excitement about the Arab revolutions, pointing out the unpredictability of the protests and the inefficacy of protestors to produce concrete proposals and future predictions of specific need. They expressed a desire for the ‘new’ generation of politically active players to get used to working with short, medium and long term future projects. They also stressed the development of a strong civil society to fill the gap between politicians and the people – “the best speakers for people are members of civil society who can challenge politicians, who after all do not know the will of the people.” But the politicians, for their part, must also value and take heed of citizens’ initiatives and additionally give young people a chance to contribute instead of relying only on senior politicians.

In the move to democracy in the Middle East there must be a rectification of the loss of faith and confidence in institutions of power, an encouragement of people to participate in elections and put faith in political leaders so that civil society becomes a real actor in social change. Locally owned, locally grown and locally run models are needed to create institutions which fit the context of their societies.

Something welcomed by my Arab colleagues was the proliferation of social media, as against some of the UK speakers who lamented the fact that “there has been a shattering of media into a pervasive chatter, catchphrases and non-news that leads people to skip from topic to topic, creating a culture in which everyone feels they need to say something, leading to an exhausting and continual creation of the self – the development of an online identity which itself ultimately leads to exhaustion and apathy.” The Arab speakers were happy about the development of social media as “leaders can no longer promote an overarching image.” However, “when everyone becomes a commentator and makes statements which are unfounded, trust breaks down.”

The challenge of post-conflict societies is in the opening up of society, the discussion of values and an engagement with the discomfort of change. Bedding down into transitional democracies is a long process in mid- and post-conflict societies. We must be on guard against potential disappointment in mass-led movements when the rate of change doesn’t keep pace with the intensity of desire for change; when expectations are unfulfilled, take a long time, encounter resistance or are bogged down in process and practicalities, there is a weakening of resistance and a loss of faith. There must be, at the same time, a simplification of the bureaucracy which stifles and undermines so many aspects of the political process.

There are also certain specifics that my Arab colleagues mention, which are not such stark issues in the UK: the importance of the rule of law (to which one British wag said, “which laws, specifically?”), women’s rights, combating corruption and the funding of politicians and media outlets by business interests, regaining people’s trust in judiciary mechanisms, equality under the law, a constitution which is freely chosen by the people, free speech without the threat of reprimand or persecution, strong infrastructures including quality universal education. They were also cynical about the extreme reaction of the West to the post 9/11 threat of fundamentalism, extremism, political Islam and terrorism, which the West often elides together – yet these issues were something North African and other Middle Eastern states had already been dealing with for a long time.

While the MENA region shares with the UK certain concerns about the economy, employment, the quality and nature of leadership in a multi-pole world, the new relationship between citizens and those in power and the requirement that politicians regain the trust of the people, there are some differences and tensions. For a start: what exactly is Britain’s motive in wanting to paternalistically ‘get involved’ or somehow ‘help out’ in the Middle East revolutions?