Category Archives: Schims and Isms In a Box

The Theory Box where debates on structures of governance and civil society, on meanings of freedom, cultural relatavism and orientalism can be soaped down, up and all around.

Cultural Mutancy in The Hot New Middle East

I’ve talked about this concept with friends for years, chatted about it with colleagues who often looked at me with bewilderment, and mulled over it as I read political theories which budded, blossomed and gently faded away into that dark night of confusion over why exactly – precisely, ultimately – the Middle East seems endlessly riddled with spheres of unabated volatility. What is that element that other English-speaking states in the Northern hemisphere of the international political order have, which keeps them within relatively controlled margins of social upheaval? The element we so desperately miss out here.

We’ve discussed post-colonialism, the game theory, balance of power, the fact that those same English-speaking countries have control over Glorious Free Trade, Islamism, local corruption, dictatorship – and all of the above is absolutely true, and crucial to include in the amalgam of reasons behind the Middle East’s web of regression, violence and dependence on other economies and militaries. One more reason I’d like to give a shot at thinking about is something called cultural mutancy.

I have friends from Palestine, Syria, Lebanon, Kuwait, Oman, Bahrain, Egypt, India, Korea, the US, the UK, Canada, and friends from other countries, as well as some of those countries all combined into one individual. We all grew up together in an international high school in the Gulf Arab region, and some of us were raised with a religious upbringing, and others with no religion at all (not one that came be named at least), and others still with a mystical understanding and mixture of several religions all in one. Each and every single one of my friends and larger circle of acquaintances, hands down, has a hard time answering, in a simple straightforward manner, the question: where are you from? what religion do you believe in?

Understandably, the latter question does not generally bequeath a straightforward answer in various places across the world. but generally, the former question might. Many of them have abandoned involvement in the current political affairs of our region simply because its tiring or overwhelming or seemingly loaded with bull crap. But all of us, in one way or another, are politicized by the fact that the countries that flow through our veins are reflected by the wars and tyrannical regimes and foreign domination that takes place in the outer world — even if we don’t read, tweet or FB about it. Or more poignantly, even if we do, we still carry on with our days and our socializing with groups of old friends who hold within them the beauty of mutancy. What if that mutancy were to speak for itself? What if it had a platform? An organized representation in the political order of things? What if Gray mattered? Would a middle ground be reached? A middle ground for the hot new middle east? A middle ground that is very much real, and very much alive, and very much neither Bush or Bin Laden; neither bland, white-washed Democracy nor unabashed orientalist Autocracy.

This lens is the one I primarily use to view the revolutions taking place across our region – most of them at least. They are revolutions for the right to self understanding, and to awareness of the reality on the ground of our countries in the geographical location termed the Middle East, and the identities that are strewn across them. This self understanding is the cornerstone to true autonomy – it needs to take place, and that is perhaps the main reason behind why so much international effort is thrown behind the suffocation of that understanding; despite the appearances of quite the opposite.

Globalization as well must be noted here – an acceleration of the world’s interdependence, and the blending of nationalities and intermingling of people and technology; it all contributes to our mutancy as well. And it seems to me that the trick is to look beyond black and white.

So I cant help but feel that, while Palestine struggles to throw Israel and its US sugar daddy off its back, and while Bahrain fights against economic disparity resulting from religious prejudice, while Egypt shimmies with military rule and stands up for social revolution, while Tunisia demands representation and economic development, while Lebanon calls for a fair government, period, that all of us and all our problems have seeped over boundaries. All of us and all our problems have transcended simple state structures. All of us and all our power have been waiting for a chance to be activated, stated, accepted and put to the test of suffrage. Now if we could only all sit down at a table without Uncle Sam, I wonder, could mutancy be our new sugar daddy?

– Love In A Box


The Big Bad Brotherhood

After watching Alan Derschowitz on CNN wax Zionist about the Big Bad Brotherhood in Egypt and the misguided fears of a mass of veiled and burqa-clad women descending upon the streets of Egypt post-Mubarak like a swarm of locusts, I couldn’t help but wonder in agony about how exactly we have gotten to this point of such blatant institutionalized racism in this current day and age. (You can also imagine my bewilderment then over how Derschowitz can still be a law professor at Harvard Law School.)

Surprisingly, or perhaps not surprisingly at all, during the first few days and weeks of the Egyptian Revolution, leading American politicians, such as House speaker John Boehner, threw their lot behind Hosni Mubarak in fear of the Muslim Brotherhood’s alleged takeover of power. As hundreds of thousands of Egyptians from different walks of life, faith, political affiliations and socioeconomic backgrounds descended upon Cairo’s Tahrir Square to demand their inalienable rights as citizens and human beings, Western politicians and neoliberal political pundits audaciously dismissed the Egyptian people’s fight for freedom by focusing instead on their fears of an Islamist party takeover.

However, as a New York Times (NYT) article detailed, Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood would only muster up a mere 20-30% support base among Egyptians. Since the organization’s founding in 1928, the Brotherhood’s appeal has been its offering of a space wherein grievances – political and otherwise – could be expressed and shared. What this has essentially meant is that, for the most part, the Brotherhood has offered up the only true democratic alternative to Mubarak’s corrupt National Democratic Party (NDP).  For decades, from King Farouk, to Gamal Abdel Nasser, to Anwar Sadat and Mubarak, all opposition groups have been imprisoned, outlawed, or silenced. The Brotherhood’s ideological backbone gave Egyptians, frustrated with their lack of a political voice, an arena and space where they could be heard. As newspaper editor and human rights activist, Hisham Kaseem, stated in the very same NYT article: “If people met in a café and talked about things the regime didn’t like, he would just shut down the café and arrest us […] But you can’t close mosques, so the Brotherhood survived.”

Although a seeming thorn in the regime’s side, the Muslim Brotherhood was in fact Mubarak’s saving grace as it gave him just another pathetic excuse to offer up to the people: “Stick with me, the other guys are radical extremists who will cover up your women and take away your freedoms.” Likewise, the more corrupt and oppressive the regime became, the more the Brotherhood gained in strength and support. They almost seem like the best of friends, or unwilling collaborators…

Recently, during a phone conversation with an Egyptian friend of mine who lives in Cairo, he expressed these same fears that have been propagated by Mubarak’s regime for decades about the scary extremist Brotherhood taking over.

My only response was, “So what are you going to do about it?”

My friend’s misplaced fears were exasperating at worst, and ironically reassuring at best. Exasperating in its lack of a realistic and logical grounding, and reassuring in the spaces it left for some much needed facts filling.  His expressed concerns only confirmed what I have been thinking, and trying to relay, for some time now. It is not the Brotherhood, who only got an approval rating of 15% after the fall of Mubarak, that people like my friend should be worried about, it is the remaining sector of Egyptian society that has lain dormant for 30+ years.

It isn’t the Big Bad Brotherhood we should be worried about; it’s the silence and inaction of the remaining 80% majority or so that should have us shaking in our boots.

There are no more excuses and no more chances. Now is the time for active engagement, civic participation, and informed decision-making. The only question remains: Is the 80% up for the challenge?

– Change in a Box

A Lesson in Democracy

Man’s capacity for justice makes democracy possible, but man’s inclination to injustice makes democracy necessary.

Ever since an educated fruit seller from a small town in Tunisia set himself on fire in protest over unemployment, poverty and corruption, the embers of that singular act have fanned revolutionary flames of protest and civic action like no other time in our recent history. Tunisia, Egypt and now Algeria, Bahrain and Libya are feeling the popular heat and collective fervor for freedom, equality, the pursuit of opportunity and happiness, and the unequivocal demand for self-determination.

Amidst the jubilation and awe at the current shows of popular civic activism, there has been underlying cynicism and skepticism from the usual lineup of nay-saying suspects. These polemicists spout the same negativity that has been recited time and again to delay reform and democratic self-actualization. Only now, after years of oppression and mindless obedience, has the Arab population come to the realization that it is the individual that makes up the collective. And that it is through singular actions of individuals that movements and revolutions are made.

Recently, while stuck in traffic in a taxi in downtown Amman, Jordan, my driver turned around and asked me:

“Do you believe in democracy?”

I stopped for a minute, and then resoundingly answered, “Yes, I do.”

He then asked, “But doesn’t freedom have its limits? Doesn’t the West constantly try to implement its version of democracy on us? All they want is for us to be like them, to give women more rights so that they can start to rule and control us men”.

I stopped for a minute to absorb what he was saying, although every fiber of my being was screaming to throw his words back in his face with some well-worded Western-constructed argument about gender equality and human rights – courtesy of my years spent in schools and universities in the West. Instead, I looked at him and very calmly and with almost equal conviction replied:

“You know, you are right. You are absolutely right.”

What this outspoken taxi driver in downtown Amman made me realize, or rather confirm, is that yes, democracy is not the answer – at least not in its current mutated form. Democracy, as we have come to know and understand it, is a Western imposed system that spouts seemingly foreign and hypocritical concepts. There is no need to mention the scores of democratic elections that have taken place around the world, only to be made obsolete and void because of Western dissatisfaction with the people’s choice – insert here Hamas in Gaza 2006, Salvador Allende in Chile 1973, Mohammed Mossadegh in Iran 1953… The list goes on and on…

What my short taxi ride didn’t allow, however, was a chance for me to explain to this wise, cynical, yet understandably misguided old man, was that the democratic ideal has in fact been hijacked and held hostage by the West. It has been snatched away from the very constituency – us the people – that it is meant to protect, by those who purport to uphold it. What I didn’t have a chance to explain is that real and true democracy does not come from lands far away, from presidents and prime ministers who spew words of freedom on the one hand, and scheme and support local dictators on the other. Democracy is an action, a practice, something that you do rather than something that you are. Democracy is a mutable structure made up of smaller vital, popularly supported components: civic participation, civic action, open dialogue, informed choice, and equal opportunity… What I didn’t get a chance to tell the taxi driver was that democracy was in fact just practiced in the very taxi we were sitting in!

– Change in a Box


Looking Into Egypt’s Constitutional Changes

I’ve been reading about how democracy would actually translate in Egypt, and whether the structure would suffice in the alleviation of socioeconomic disparity, which has largely characterized the brunt of problems leading to the revolution. Corruption definitely stands out as … Continue reading


De-Americanizing Democracy: Can Egypt Bring Its Majority Voice to Light, Uninterrupted?

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Who said a pro-democracy movement in Egypt, or any Arab country for that matter, meant that an American element permeated the vibe of the Egyptian revolution? How deeply can the American government’s affinity for the neoliberal economic order seep into … Continue reading