In an earlier essay, David Bromwich noted that whereas other presidents’ have been judged for their performance, Obama is unique in so far as his performance is measured mainly in terms of his oratory. Following the shootings in Tucson, Arizona, Obama garnered much praise for peroration at the memorial service. For many it was the return of the yes-we-can, inspirational preacher politician. The same style — what Bromwich calls ‘a mostly fact-free summons to a new era of striving and achievement, and a solemn cheer to raise our spirits as we try to get there’ — also carried over into his 2011 State of the Union speech (video at bottom). In this excellent piece, Bromwich — one of PULSE’s Top 10 Thinkers of 2010, and one of the most astute observers of Washington politics — once again subjects Obama to his extraordinarily perceptive analysis.
Barack Obama’s 2011 State of the Union address was an organized sprawl of good intentions—a mostly fact-free summons to a new era of striving and achievement, and a solemn cheer to raise our spirits as we try to get there. And it did not fail to celebrate the American Dream.
In short, it resembled most State of the Union addresses since Ronald Reagan’s first in 1982. Perhaps its most notable feature was an omission. With applause lines given to shunning the very idea of government spending, and a gratuitous promise to extend a freeze on domestic spending from three years to five, there was only the briefest mention of the American war in Afghanistan and Pakistan. The situation in each country was summarized and dismissed in three sentences, and the sentences took misleading care to name only enemies with familiar names: the Taliban, al-Qaeda. But these wars, too, cost money, and as surely as the lost jobs in de-industrialized cities they carry a cost in human suffering.
Now we watch the people in Tunisia and Egypt demonstrate against their police states while, closer to home, we are witnessing the creation, slowly but surely, of a police state of our own. The irony is that while others may be dismantling theirs, ours is being created even before we have a fully fledged state.
Now the wave is coming. I will venture to say that the Egyptian regime has already fallen: it might take some time, but the fear, the perception that the regime is invincible has gone once and for all. All this is followed quite closely in Palestine; any future intifada will not be directed only against the occupation, but also against any Palestinian entity that co-operates with the occupation. Tunisia sent out the message that client regimes fall – that if we can drive the empires out, we will surely be able to drive out their vassals.
As I write, demonstrations rage in the streets of Cairo: everyone knows that if they stay at home, they will be compromising the safety of those in the streets, as well as their own freedom. Cairo knows and Cairo moves. Ramallah worries that an empowered Cairo means an empowered Gaza, and Tel Aviv and Washington know that instead of just Iran, they will now have to worry about Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Egypt and Palestine all at once.
My past experience talking to Egyptians, in Egypt and around the world, is that 95% of them hate Husni Mubarak and the humiliation he’s brought upon their once great country. When I ask of their hopes for change, they answer with the bitter resignation common to all Arabs: “Nothing will change. His son will come after him. People are more interested in football, or their next meal.” Arabs from other countries also despair of escaping their state of stagnation. Some like to repeat the Arabic phrase al-‘arab jarab, or ‘the Arabs are scabies.’
But that was then. That was until the Tunisian revolution, which has now reached the centre of the Arab world. Egypt’s Friday of Rage was a beautiful revolutionary moment, when individuals, having witnessed the strength of their protesting compatriots over the previous days, suddenly realised they were not alone. After Friday prayers, a nation claimed sovereignty over its streets – young people, the unemployed, professionals, workers, students, families. The people who didn’t demonstrate provided food, drinks and tear gas remedies to those who did (which means that womens’ participation has been much greater than TV pictures show). On at least one occasion, Christians guarded a Muslim mass prayer under assault by police.
And in Suez, Luxor, Alexandria and Cairo they defeated the police. They torched police stations and police vehicles, as well as the headquarters of the ruling (and absurdly named) National Democratic Party. (The Israeli embassy, meanwhile, has helicoptered its entire staff out of Cairo. One slogan being chanted: ya mubarak ya ameel/ ba’at biladak l-isra’il, or ‘Mubarak you Foreign Agent, You Sold your Country to Israel.’ Tonight the only Israeli flag flying in the Arab world is in Amman.)
US television networks and an endless parade of mostly white men pundits (brought out and dusted off with their cobwebs) should take lessons from Al-Jazeera in live reportage, in not having pundits talk over the chants of a mass of humanity, in having Arab reporters covering what they know best, in remarkably evocative and courageous camerawork and in just being able to cover history like no other television network has ever been able to do before. And yes, I also mean that CNN during the first Gulf War was not as good as this.
It is so important to remember that the vast MAJORITY of those on the streets around the country do not have the time, the ability, the resources (including smartphones) and certainly no access to working mobile phone service. This revolution is JUST NOT BEING TWITTERED by the people who are actually protesting.
The only people tweeting are either reporters with huge bureaus and live cameras to back them or people like me reporting from the cyber-frontlines talking to the few friends in Cairo we can reach on their landlines.
To tweet this revolution and Egypt’s complex back-story in 140 characters or less is impossible.
Interestingly Al-Jazeera which is doing a stellar job is also more interested in covering the revolution (amazingly) in what is essentially wide-shots to show the extent of the chaos. Ayman’s camera is focused on the thousands in Tahrir. Not many correspondents are able to get to neighborhoods like Rihab, Mohandasin, Zamalek, Maadi—which cyber-reporters/tweeters like me are able to do by talking only on landlines (mobiles are not working) to our friends—ordinary citizens. Hopefully this below, is an example of that.
The Guardian published this piece on Syria tacked onto the end of this piece on Egypt. Unfortunately they cut my paragraphs on sectarianism, the most important part of my argument. I should add that, after today’s great revolutionary awakening in Egypt, I am no longer certain of anything. Everything has changed.
With its young population, and a bureaucracy run by the same authoritarian party for four decades, Syria is by no means exempt from the pan-Arab crisis of unemployment, low wages and the stifling of civil society, conditions which have now brought revolution to Tunisia. Nevertheless, in the short to medium term it seems highly unlikely that the Syrian regime will face a Tunisia-style challenge.
A state-controlled Syrian newspaper blamed the Tunisian revolution on the Bin Ali regime’s “political approach of relying on ‘friends’ to protect them.” Tunisia’s status as Western client was only a minor motivator for the uprising there, but still al-Watan’s analysis will be shared by many Syrians. Unlike the majority of Arab states, Syria’s foreign policy is broadly in line with public opinion – and in Syria foreign policy, which has the potential to immediately translate into a domestic security issue, matters a great deal. The regime has kept the country in a delicate position of no war with, but also no surrender to, Israel (which occupies the Golan Heights), and has pursued close cooperation with Lebanese and Palestinian resistance movements as well as emerging regional powers such as Turkey and Iran. This is appreciated by ‘the street’, and the president himself is no hate figure in the mould of Ben Ali or Mubarak. Where his father engineered a Stalinist personality cult, mild-mannered Bashaar al-Asad enjoys a reasonable level of genuine popularity. Much is made of his low-security visits to theatres and ice cream parlours.