The popular uprising in Egypt has once more laid bare the blatant hypocrisy of those Westerners who preach the gospel of freedom and democracy.
Ever since the Egyptian revolution began almost two weeks ago, two voices have been painfully present only in their ‘conspicuous absence’. The first, as Slavoj Žižek pointedly observed in the Guardian, is that of the Islamic fundamentalists. The second is that of the liberal fundamentalists – the Western crusaders of the Enlightenment.
Irony has it that whenever the representatives of the latter do speak out, they invoke the imaginary presence of the former as a justification for the betrayal of their own principles. As soon as the defenders of freedom and democracy fear that the free might democratically elect someone they don’t like, liberal principles will simply have to take a backseat. After all, we don’t want the immature Arabs to democratically vote against freedom, now do we?
Of course this is not a new story. In many ways, today’s defenders of liberal democracy are just as hypocritical as those who came up with the idea in the first place. The white, male, property-owning bourgeoisie of 17th century Paris may have preached the gospel of liberty and justice for all, but these progressive liberals were always very careful to exclude from the universality of their mission all the ‘irrational’ creatures; those ‘subject to the passions’ – women, Jews, slaves, the paupers.
Similarly, we are made to believe today, as we have been for the past three decades, that the Arab people are simply ‘not ready’ for democracy yet. That if Mubarak were to step down and democratic elections were to be held in Egypt, this would almost certainly lead to a victory for the Muslim Brotherhood – allegedly an evil organization of Islamic fundamentalists who connive with Al Qaeda to destroy our great liberal traditions and impose Sharia.
The most brazen instance of such liberal contrivance was uttered by none other than Tony Blair, that great lapdog crusader who condemned over 100,000 Iraqi civilians to death in order to spread some liberal love to the deserts of the Middle East. Eight years after bringing ‘democracy’ to the region by the sword, ‘liberating’ the Iraqi people from the hands of their secular dictator (who had, just like Mubarak, been armed by the U.S.), all Blair had to say in response to the Egyptian democratic revolution was that “of course we don’t want Egypt to be run by extremists.”
In fact, Blair went on to defend Hosni Mubarak as an “immensely courageous man,” and a “force for good” in the region. Never mind his extensive resumé in political oppression, torture renditions and kleptocratic exploitation of Egypt’s 30 million poor: as long as Mubarak stayed friendly towards Israel, suppressed the Muslim Brotherhood at home, and kept offering his Sharm El-Sheikh residence to the Blair family for their annual holidays, the implicit agreement was that no one would mention the ‘D’ word.
So now, in order to placate the ‘legitimate grievances‘ of the Egyptian people without visibly nudging Mubarak out of office, the Obama administration has subtly thrown its weight behind Vice President Suleiman, a CIA point man with an extensive torture record to his name, entrusting him with the delicate task of heading the gradual transition towards ‘democracy.’ The painful irony of Obama’s approach certainly can’t be lost on anyone.
But similar double standards emerge even among those Enlightenment crusaders who are not subject to diplomatic protocol. In an article in the New York Times, Ayaan Hirsi Ali, a former member of Dutch parliament and an infamous anti-Islamic fundamentalist, made an appallingly misguided indictment of the secular Egyptian protest movement:
What the secular groups fail to do is to come up with a message of opposition that says “yes” to Islam, but “no” to Shariah — in other words, a campaign that emphasizes a separation of religion from politics.
Such is the betrayal of the ‘pro-democratic West’. While it’s plain for everyone to see that this has been an entirely Allahu Akbar-free revolution, the specter of religious fundamentalism is invoked to justify continued support for Mubarak’s secular tyranny. In other words, we all want democracy, unless it actually leads to democracy – to public choices we enlightened liberals happen to disagree with.
In reality, however, the Egyptian protesters wield Blackberries, not Qur’ans. Their organizing platform has been Facebook, not the musallah. The square they liberated has boasted rebellious rock music, not the religious chanting of the minarets. Prayer, whenever it was performed, was always used as a ‘weapon’ of peace and a symbol of pacifism. The only time cries of Allahu Akbar were to be heard, was when religious men risked their lives in an attempt to break up the violent clashes between pro and anti-Mubarak protesters.
By all accounts, the young revolutionaries of Egypt are the people the West has been waiting for – those who could fulfill Fukuyama’s fairytale fantasy of liberal democracy as the Never Never Land of modern progress. But neither liberals nor neo-conservatives seem to be very keen to stand up for their own democratic principles. Much more than loving the virtues of liberalism, the modern crusaders of the West seem to fear its ‘irrational’ antithesis, embodied by the specter of Islamic fundamentalism.
My wise mother once taught me that we only fear in the Other what we most abhor in ourselves. Perhaps the time has come for the West to turn the mirror on itself and reflect upon the oppressive hypocrisy that has always been buried underneath the surface of its liberal Enlightenment project. Only by facing our own irrational demons can we start to make peace with the new reality of an Egypt run by Egyptians.