Today is the first birth centenary of Faiz Ahmed Faiz: one of South Asia’s most beloved radical Urdu poets. Today is also, just two days after Mubarak’s resignation as a result of the inspiring revolution in Umm al-Duniya, Mother of the World, Egypt; and almost a month after Tunisia’s courageous revolution. How ecstatic would Faiz have been today?!
by Huma Dar
Today is the first birth centenary of Faiz Ahmed Faiz: one of South Asia’s most beloved radical Urdu poets. Today is also, just two days after Mubarak’s resignation as a result of the inspiring revolution in Umm al-Duniya, Mother of the World, Egypt; and almost a month after Tunisia’s courageous revolution. How ecstatic would Faiz have been today?! Faiz, who had lived in Beirut, in exile from Pakistan — when ruled by the US-bolstered military dictator, General Zia-ul Haq. Faiz, who wrote a beautiful lullaby for a Palestinian child, and a poem for those who were martyred outside their beloved Palestine. Faiz, whose poem commonly mis-titled, “Ham Dekhenge,” is a battle-song for people fighting for social justice from Sindh, Pakistan to Kashmir to Chhattisgarh, India.
The title of this particular poem of Faiz is in Arabic: “Wa Yabqaa Wajhu Rabbika.” It is most often brushed aside as it does not fit the simplistic profile of the “avowed atheist” assigned to Faiz. Being a socialist does not preclude belief in Islam, but this nuance is lost on many who cannot easily imagine Faiz being a Muslim, leave alone leading a prayer in the mosque of his ancestral village, especially given the subtle Islamophobia that pervades élite political and literary discourses, both within and without South Asia. For some, even more difficult “to reconcile [is] the glowing tribute [that Faiz wrote] to Muhammad Ali Jinnah,” but this has to do with the rigorous demonology of Jinnah, the founder of Pakistan, in Indian historiography, and the hegemonic status of India and Indian academics, even those who vigorously critique nationalisms of all kinds, within South Asian Studies.
From his weekly perch at CNN, Fareed Zakaria, speculated last Sunday (or the Sunday before) whether George Bush could take credit for the events that were unfolding in Tunisia, whether this was the late fruit of the neoconservative project to bring ‘democracy’ to the Middle East.
It is quite extraordinary watching Zakaria – a Muslim born and raised in India, and scion of a leading political family – mimic with such facility the language of America’s ruling classes, and show scarce a trace of empathy for the world’s oppressed, despite his propinquity to them by reason of history and geography. He does have a bias for India, but here too he only shows a concern for India’s strategic interests, not the interests of its subjugated classes, minorities and ethnicities. This I offer only as an aside about how easy it is for members of the upper classes in countries like India, Pakistan or Egypt to slip into an American skin whenever that dissimulation offers greater personal advantages.
As a cover for deepening US control over the Middle East – here is the latest civilizing mission for you – the neoconservatives in the Bush administration argued that the Islamic world produces ‘terrorists’ because it lives under autocracies. To solve the ‘terrorist’ problem, therefore, the US would have to bring democracy to the Middle East. This demagoguery only reveals the bankruptcy of America’s political class. It is a shame when the President of the United States and his neoconservative puppet-masters peddle such absurdities without being greeted by squeals of laughter – and shouted down as hypocritical, as farcical.
Who has been the leading ally and sponsor these past decades of nearly all the despotisms in the Middle East – those of royal pedigree and others seeking to become royalties?
Regardless, the real plan of United States failed miserably. It was dispatched to its grave by a people’s resistance in Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan.
At the start of the twenty-first century we were promised that the internet would liberate the world. We could come together as never before, and from Iran’s ‘twitter revolution’ to Facebook ‘activism’, technological innovation would spread democracy to oppressed peoples everywhere. We couldn’t have been more wrong. Morozov destroys this myth, arguing that ‘internet freedom’ is an illusion, and that technology has failed to help protect people’s rights. Not only that – in many cases the internet is actually helping authoritarian regimes. From China to Russia to Iran, oppressive governments are using cyberspace to stifle dissent: planting clandestine propaganda, employing sophisticated digital censorship and using online surveillance. We are all being manipulated in more subtle ways too – becoming pacified by the net, instead of truly engaging. This event marks the publication of Evgeny Morozov’s new book The Net Delusion: How Not to Liberate The World.
Zein al-Abdine Ben Ali is in Abha, Saudi Arabia. France wouldn’t have him. (Despots, note the speed with which a sponsor drops a client who has outlived his usefulness.) Arab activists are calling for protests outside Saudi embassies.
In Tunisia, the extent of the people’s sacrifice over the last month is becoming clearer. Reports describe Ben Ali’s police terrorising rural areas with punitive rapes and random murders.
And the terror continues. Since Ben Ali’s fall, Tunis and other cities have been plagued by violence. Some of it, such as attacks on Ben Ali family businesses, can be classed as revolutionary. Some more of it is the natural result of taking the lid off after so long; a mix of exuberance, criminality, and what Gazmend Kapplani calls an ‘orphan complex’:
Tyrants are merciless beasts, precisely because they leave behind distorted societies worn down by oppression and above all suffering from an orphan complex. Those who give themselves over to indiscriminate looting and destruction the minute the statues come down are like orphaned children robbing the corpse of a false and terrifying father.
But the most terrifying violence appears to be organised by Ben Ali’s militiamen. Tunisians report battles between army forces on the one hand and ‘police’ and other highly-trained, well-armed gangs on the other. Some of these gangs have been driving through residential areas shooting randomly at people and buildings.
The dictator, thief and Western client Zein al-Abdine Ben Ali, beloved until a few hours ago in Paris and Washington, has been driven from Tunisia. His reign was ended not by a military or palace coup but by an extraordinarily broad-based popular movement which has brought together trades unions and professional associations, students and schoolchildren, the unemployed and farmers, leftists, liberals and intelligent Islamists, men and women. One of the people’s most prominent slogans will resonate throughout the Arab world and beyond: la khowf ba’ad al-yowm, or No Fear From Now On.
It is to be hoped that Tunisia will now develop a participatory system based on respect for citizens’ rights, that it will reclaim and develop its economy, implement social justice, and move out of the Western-Israeli embrace. The revolution, however, is beset by dangers. Although the head of the snake has been sacrificed, the conglomerate of interests behind the Ben Ali regime is largely still in place, and will be working furiously to restrict and roll back popular participation. For this reason it is of crucial importance that Tunisians are tonight raising the slogan ‘al-intifada mustamura,’ or ‘the intifada continues.’
The protests in Tunisia are growing and spreading. What began with Mohamed Bouazizi’s suicide in Sidi Bouzid at first declared itself a rebellion against unemployment, then became a revolt against corruption. Today ‘freedom’ is one of the words most vigorously chanted. Almost all sectors of society have joined demonstrations and strikes against the Bin Ali regime, a World Bank favourite. Tunisia’s intifada is far more broadly-based than the Green Movement in Iran. In this case, however, Hillary Clinton says the United States is “not taking sides.” Meanwhile the regime has closed schools and universities indefinitely. Human rights groups say over 50 protesters have been murdered by American and perhaps Israeli munitions. The regime claims the figure is 21. Particularly in this lamentable period we must salute the bravery and sacrifice of the Tunisian revolutionaries, and thank them for bringing us hope.
The first film is to a soundtrack of revolutionary Tunisian pop music. The sign the man waves at 0.40 says ‘No Fear After Today’ or ‘No Fear From Now On.’ The second features the symbolic burning of a Bin Ali artwork. The third shows a hospital dealing with the dead and injured, and is not for the faint-hearted. I put it up to remind us of Neda Sultan, and because the BBC doesn’t (although it does have this report).
The anti-regime protests spread across Tunisia involve trades unionists, the unemployed, lawyers, journalists and students. The people chant against “the killers of the people, the flayers of the people.” Their slogans include “Tunisia is the people, not the government,” “We’ll solve the police crisis, we’ll solve the Tunisian crisis,” and (I think – the sound isn’t clear) “Work, Freedom, National solidarity.” The first film shows a Tunisian town continuing to fearlessly demonstrate despite tear gas and truncheon attacks. (A maths teacher has been shot dead by police during the protests). The second (over the fold) shows a demonstration in the capital. Arabic speakers can follow this link to al-Jazeera’s round-up of the most recent developments.
The dictatorship of Zine el-Abdine Ben Ali, a Western client, is in serious trouble. A full-scale intifada is raging. It began in Sidi Bouzid as a protest against unemployment, corruption and police brutality. Then it spread to Sousse, Sfax, Meknassi, and the capital, inflated by long-simmering resentment at Tunisia’s lack of civil liberties. Because Ben Ali is a client, and because Tunisia is a mass tourism destination, the Western mainstream is leaving this largely alone. But here’s Nesrine Malik in the Guardian, and al-Jazeera (see below) is doing well. In the context of a horrific upsurge of nihilistic sectarianism in the Arab world, it is to be hoped that the Tunisian revolution will grow and develop, and teach a lesson to the Arabs in real, not illusory, action towards change.
It currently seems there is a real danger of the Middle East losing its millenia-old diversity. Iraq’s post-invasion civil war separated the country’s Shia and Sunni communities, driving millions into exile. Pro-Western Arab regimes continue to spew vicious anti-Shia propaganda, which is heard by important sections of society. Now Wahhabi-nihilists have declared open season on Iraq’s ancient Christian community. Palestine was cleansed of its natives in 1947/48 and transformed into a Jewish ethno-state. Zionism and a new Muslim chauvinism have reduced the Christian proportion of the West Bank from 15% in 1950 to 2% today. And the New Year brought news of an appalling attack on Egyptian Copts, an increasingly oppressed and alienated community.
Informed observers will know that there is nothing essential or ‘ages-old’ about the emerging sectarian chaos. Sectarianism had receded almost to irrelevance amongst the generations of Arabs that believed they were on their way to true independence. Foreign partitions and occupations did a large part to crush that dream. Totalitarianism and economic and educational failures (often the policies of foreign-backed regimes) did the rest. In Egypt’s case, the Mubarak regime has dealt with its Islamist challenge in two ways: politically, it has rigged elections ever more blatantly and persecuted its visible opponents; socially, it has given way to the most retrograde desires of Islamism (forbidding the construction of churches, banning books) and done its best to whip up petty chauvinism over the most ridiculous of pretexes (for instance the mutual football hooliganism of Egyptian and Algerian fans).