Having followed the uprisings across the Middle East and North Africa for over a year now, one theme that has been strong in all of them is the emphasis on the ideal of peacefulness. Whether they were peaceful or not, a “peaceful revolution” has consistently been seen as the best type of revolution. In Egypt, there has been much hype about the fact that the revolution was (to some extent) peaceful. This hype has come from both Egyptians and from abroad.
While there is no doubt that a peaceful revolution is a good thing to aspire to, I wonder if it can simultaneously be effective? Can brute power be removed peacefully? Can an entrenched regime that doesn’t have second thoughts about using violence be brought down through peaceful demonstrations and organizing? On the other hand, could it be the case that we are taught that peaceful people power is pointless and ineffective? Are we somehow bringing ourselves down to their level of inhumanness by engaging in violence?
When asked about the Palestinian conflict, Edward Said said:
It is important to attack the occupation forces… I am asking people to attack occupation forces. I am not a pacifist. I am simply saying occupation and apartheid have to be resisted by whatever means bring about their end.
He (of course) got criticized for “advocating violence” but in the face of an overwhelming military occupying force backed by global superpowers, isn’t violence the only solution?
This led to me think about how the West has framed the various uprisings in the Middle East. It seems that as long as they are “peaceful” then they are acceptable. As long as protesters are not trying to kill/torture/destroy “unnecessarily” then it’s fine and the revolution has the full support of non-Arabs. What’s interesting about this, however, is that two of the major revolutions that have shaped the modern West were both extremely violent – the French revolution and the American revolution. Both can in no way be seen as peaceful, nor were they trying to be. As a friend of mine noted last week, it is even understood that without all that violence, these revolutions would not have succeeded. In other words, violence was seen as integral to these revolutions.
But of course when it comes to the Middle East, violence is never okay. It is seen as a relapse back into the backwards violent intrinsic nature of Arabs. It is seen as never justifiable. Dictators and systems must be removed peacefully, even though the West themselves could not remove their own exploitative systems peacefully. As usual, there is a double standard. In “legitimate struggles” violence is okay – as in apartheid South Africa. In struggles that are illegitimate, such as the Palestinian struggle, or the Zimbabwean struggle, violence is always a problem and is always something that disqualifies the struggle from any kind of empathy. What is interesting is that although the Egyptian uprising was seen as a “legitimate struggle,” there was still an expectation of non-violence. Yet again, the Western media and commentators set the bar on what kind of a revolution we should have, on how we should behave – on what was acceptable and what wasn’t.
I don’t know exactly where I stand on the issue of violence. On the one hand, the peaceful nature of Egyptian protesters chanting “Selmeyya” and reaching out to policemen who were sent there to kill them is an extremely powerful image. On the other hand, has this strategy worked? If protesters had been more violent, would the regime have been able to make such a strong comeback?
Fanon once wrote that decolonization HAS to be a violent process. To completely remove a system, to become new human beings within a new humanity, there must be a process of violence. But what does this violence do to those trying to be free? How does it affect and change us?