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Tahrir Squared: the discussion continues

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There is no stopping the train, and it is important to do all that is possible to try to get to the right destination, rather than just go faster

Hesham Hellyer

Dr H A Hellyer

In the last two years, a great deal has changed in the way we discuss Arab affairs, and yet, so much has stayed the same. As the revolutions continue to unfold, and the ‘Tahrir Effect’ is multiplied, a great deal more is likely to change, and those who fail to do so will likely find themselves becoming more and more irrelevant. Those initiatives that keep up with the times, however, are likely to be significant for many years to come.

If one was to survey the public discourse on the Arab world in 2010, it would be fairly easy to divide up the arenas of influence and discussion. There would be divisions on the basis of political belonging, geography, and language; all of those still exist. You still have clear distinctions between, for example, the writings of a left-winger in London, and the commentary of a right-wing neoconservative in Washington DC, let alone the analysis of liberals in Tunis writing in Arabic.

In the last two years, however, those distinctions and divisions have become more fluid, and as a result, the discourse itself is changing. Today, there are far more people in the West who access Arabic and/or reside in the region, and that impacts upon their perspective.

In the past, authoritative reportage and analysis could come from Americans and Britons who did not know Arabic at all. This is rarer in 2013, as many Americans and Britons take the time to study Arabic and spend time in the Arab world, and are unwilling to take a back seat to those who don’t.

Moreover, Arab writers and analysts are more and more involved in discussions that go far beyond their own countries; they are directly engaging with media, academia, and policy circles in DC and London. There used to be a small number of “gatekeepers” to understanding the “Arab street”, but that has widened out immensely, affecting the discourse.

Within the Arab world itself, the discussions that take place in English among the elite that know that language are becoming ever more precarious if they do not link directly to what is taking place in Arabic. Throw the impact of social media into the entire mix, and you can imagine the ramifications. A neo-conservative American in Washington DC can carry on a discussion with a liberal Palestinian in London, and both can argue with an Islamist Egyptian in Cairo – all at the same time.

As time goes on, a new set of boundaries are emerging because for many, the old frames are either irrelevant, or unknown. A liberal Egyptian pundit in Cairo, who generally wrote only in Arabic several years ago, might have been at loggerheads with a right-wing American activist in New York over the Iraq invasion.

Those same two individuals, even ignorant of each other’s previous stances, might find common cause over opposition to Assad in Syria today, but when the history of their respective stances becomes apparent, they may be in for a rude awakening. By the same token, within London, for example, political analysts who were deeply at odds over counter-terrorism strategies in 2005 might find themselves critiquing the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood in much the same vein today. Those sorts of bedfellows will have to come to terms with their ideological differences, and that might make for new alliances entirely, based on an entirely new set of premises.

Ironically, other things can also happen where you can easily find policy discussions on the Arab world evolve in Washington DC, but where those discussions have almost nothing to do with what is actually happening in the Arab world. Instead, they have everything to do with old ideological formations in Washington DC.

It is a new world indeed, and new initiatives are coming up to try to make more sense of such varying perspectives in the public domain. One that I’ve been honoured to advise, called “Tahrir Squared”, takes as its starting point the energy of the original 18 days in Tahrir. That energy, what the site calls the “Tahrir Effect” is still sorely needed in the region, as recent weeks and months in Syria, Tunisia and Egypt have shown clearly.

That energy has affected a range of things, including how analysts, commentators and reporters relate to political and social developments in the region. Just as there were those who were considered to be “Cold War Warriors”, whose primary concerns related to the implementation of policies to maintain a strategic advantage during the “Cold War”, there are now a growing number of writers whose primary concerns relate to the complete success of the Arab revolutions. Their concerns are different in different countries, but their over-arching theme is clear: to empower the autonomy of the Arab individual and the Arab citizen in a spirit of respect and co-existence.

That is what many describe as something of a “tectonic shift”, and indeed, it is likely that in years to come, historians will consider 2010s as the decade of the “Arab revolutions”. It is quite probable that due to the speed, intensity and energy that have erupted in this region in this era, entirely new approaches in terms of political analysis, ideology and even political groupings will emerge.

The Arab world is, indeed, different today, as compared to two years ago, and it has never been more important to try to understand, to learn and promote more of the same. There is no stopping the train, and it is important to do all that is possible to try to get to the right destination, rather than just go faster.

About the author

Dr H.A. Hellyer

Dr H.A. Hellyer

Dr H A Hellyer, a non-resident fellow at the Brookings Institution, is a Cairo-based specialist on Arab affairs, and relations between the Muslim world and the west. Fellow at ISPU, he was previously senior practice consultant at Gallup, and senior research fellow at Warwick University. Find him online @hahellyer and www.hahellyer.com .


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