Chaos. Anarchy. Looting. Violence.
These are words you associate with any political activity that you want to discredit in the eyes of mainstream America. That is why it is essential to challenge any attempt by the media or politicians to frame the political protests in Egypt using such terms.
We must understand why this language is particularly loaded. It connects sweeping generalizations of the Muslim world with racist fears that many Americans associate with the urban “riots” of the 1960s, as well as the 1992 Los Angeles uprising and the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.
In places like Detroit, as with cities across America, thousands of suburbanites still wrongly believe that everything was fine in the city until violent, extremist, and hate-filled blacks forced them to flee during the 1960s. The reality is that a situation that the white middle class viewed as normal, stable, prosperous was premised on job discrimination, housing segregation, political disenfranchisement, and police abuse against people of color.
While not a solution, the uprisings drew overdue attention to a dehumanizing and often violent system that millions of American overtly or tacitly supported. That is why political activists called them “rebellions” rather than “riots.” But Nixon’s conservative call for “law and order” fed on anxiety and prejudice.
In Egypt, a popular protest movement that has been widely supported by diverse and peaceful sectors of society is seeking the downfall of the three-decade long Mubarak dictatorship, which has quashed democratic opposition while reaping billions of dollars in American aid.
Yet, with millions of Americans paying at best cursory attention to these events and the history leading up to them, many will view Egypt primarily through the lens of fear and misguided self-interest. Scenes of looting and burning will be easily taken out of context unless we act quickly to counter these trends.
In one of his trademark mash-ups of Islamophobia, McCarthyism, and xenophobia, Glenn Beck has been warning listeners that revolution in Egypt “sets the entire Middle East on fire.” This will trigger “the communists and the Muslim radicals” taking over all of Europe. He then implies that sleeper cells will awaken to destroy America from within.
Egyptian blogger Mona Eltahawy chastised CNN, among many less extreme but still complicit outlets portraying “chaos” and “anarchy” using narratives and footage provided by Mubarak’s state-run media. Indeed, many Egyptians are convinced that the Murbarak regime is instigating violence in a desperate hope that Egyptians will welcome a return to his authoritarian control.
Meanwhile, the Obama administration is frantically trying to change course after first defining the Mubarak regime as stable and then issuing equivocating statements calling for restraint on “both sides”—one, the largely unarmed protestors, and the other, the heavily armed state police with a pattern of jailing, beating, and sometimes torturing dissidents.
No matter the outcome, the uprising in Egpyt, following the revolution against the U.S.-backed dictatorship in Tunisia, has upended a pillar of American foreign policy and caught our government flat-footed. While steering clear of Bush’s neoconservative hubris, President Obama has yet to enact new policies to match his lofty rhetoric about partnership and understanding.
As my colleague Juan Cole has pointed out, American foreign policy in the Middle East has been stained by “domino theory” logic—the fear that Islamic terrorists might take over one country and expand their control one-by-one to other countries in the region. Just as during the Cold War (Philippines, Haiti, Nicaragua, etc.), this has meant supporting autocratic and repressive regimes while squandering opportunities to build democratic alternatives.
This crisis provides an opportunity for all Americans to wake up and accept responsibility for transcending the failures of the past. We need to reject racist images that depict legitimate protestors as savages that must be corralled.
Instead of fearing democracy, we must recall JFK’s famous words: “Those who make peaceful revolution impossible, make violent revolution inevitable.” More than any previous generation, those coming of age in the Obama era can now witness the cost and consequences of a strategy predicated on support for friendly dictators.