Egypt, Tunisia and the people’s unruly body

Martin O’Shaughnessy 

During the recent events in Tunisia that led to the departure of the dictator, it was striking to hear one of our politicians – was it Hague? – affirm that what the people needed was stability. This seemed a curious thing to say during a revolution when stability, the maintenance of the status quo, was precisely what was being rejected as the sum of woes outweighed habitual self-preservation to produce a tipping point. It was also striking how quickly, during the revolutionary events in Egypt, western political commentators said that what the country needed was a smooth transition from dictatorship to a broad-based government. Anxiety was expressed that those on the streets had no recognised leader, the fear seemingly being that a political vacuum would be filled by radical Islam. At the same time, as Mubarak clung to power, commentators both political and journalistic began to call for his departure: once a relied upon ally, reassuring in his longevity, the tyrant mutated into something ugly when popular discontent became too visible and forced the contradiction between avowed western principles and the usual cynical realpolitik into over flagrant contradiction. Mubarak clearly needed to disappear. But was his ageing body what Western politicians really wanted rid of? Did they not in fact wish his body to disappear in order that another more troublesome body, that of the Egyptian people in revolt, should also vanish? What the West in fact wanted was the type of transition that meant that nothing material changed. The idea of a people actively inventing participatory democracy on the streets was clearly unacceptable. What was wanted was an already pacified people, a people no longer needing to find its voice because it had leaders to speak for it, a people whose desires had to be known in advance and fit established moulds to be acceptable. This, in the end, was why the people needed stability, because only a people who no longer threatened to destabilise was acceptable. The tyrant’s ugly body needed to disappear to make the unmanageable popular body also vanish.

This entry was posted in Protest and mobilisation, The crisis beyond the Hexagon. Bookmark the permalink.

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