Print Friendly and PDF
only search openDemocracy.net

A universal fight

Edward Said should have been alive on February 12, 2011

This is an important moment in world history! Tunisia may have sparked the first flame but the whole world is now or soon will be on fire! And if some dismissively or ignorantly keep on calling what is happening in Egypt ‘unrest’, it is obvious for the more candid of us that this unrest has now taken the whole Arab Street by storm, may have spread to Iran, and is to be expected in every region of the world where youth have a voice!

Now, the reasons behind this all-encompassing ‘unrest’ are numerous. Some say it is the disastrous effect of the economic crisis: high rates of inflation, explosive unemployment figures, and the fact that even the most educated among us, so-called ‘youth of the world’,  simply see no future! Others see this essentially Arab phenomenon (for now) as a call for Democracy in its ‘western’ sense. Still others - either overzealous or legitimately enthusiastic - have called it the revolt for Dignity! An extremely interesting word: dignity. It prompted one of the major breakthroughs of the 1948 Human Rights Declaration. For some, indeed, dignity could have been the basis of an effective universal human rights. “Dignity has a special place in every culture known to historians, anthropologists, sociologists and humanists,” - wrote the great Edward Said in 2003 in Al Ahram, while opening fire on so-called intellectuals such as Thomas Friedman or Bernard Lewis who claimed that the Arab culture left no place for individual rights. Defending the comparative approach, Said reminds us that “No culture or civilization exists by itself” and none has the monopoly on individuality, love, community, enlightenment, and many other values. “Arab and Muslim life” he wrote, “has an inherent value and dignity expressed by Arabs and Muslims in their unique cultural style. Such expressions needn't resemble or be a copy of one approved model suitable for everyone to follow.” The importance of Said’s analysis lies in what he called, “basic human attributes” - those attributes that are expressed differently, depending on the cultural context - as they should be, for as he so rightly affirms, this is: “ the whole point of diversity”

I wish Edward Said was alive today, on February 12, 2011, because that was the day that the sun rose on a Mubarak-free Egypt.  The worst thing about Arab rulers Said once wrote: 

… is that they seem to radically underestimate themselves and their people in ways that close them off, that make them intolerant and fearful of change, frightened… most  of all that they might anger big brother, that is, the United States. Instead of seeing their citizens as the potential wealth of the nation, they regard them all as guilty conspirators vying for the ruler's power. 

“Intolerant, fearful of change…” does it ring a bell? How about patronizing too? Who amongst us Arabs, when Mubarak and his vice president Suleiman called upon the rioters to go back home, was not reminded of one of his/her Dad’s,  “quit whining and go to your room; we’ll see to you later” moments? The Arab street rejected the idea of an all-knowing father; Saudi fatwas did nothing to dampen the Arab youth revolt! Just as Muslims and Christians prayed together in the Liberation Square in Cairo, all called together for an end to the regime, and for freedom, social equality and justice! Yesterday, on Aljazeera a young Egyptian activist of the Muslim Brotherhood said: “Our role now is to implement the fundamental principles of the revolution:  Freedom, social equality, justice!” 

Egyptians claimed these values as universal values! And all those who addressed the angry determined crowds in the ‘Midane’ knew that any overly ideological ‘nuances’ would not be welcome! By the end, Islamist preachers who up until that point in time only ever mentioned women when addressing issues such as the veil, the niqab, and/or obedience to one’s spouse -found themselves in Liberation Square surrounded by women leading many a front in that struggle. They could not but include them in their exhortations, not that those brilliant women needed any encouragement! Everywhere there seemed to be educated and less educated people asking for freedom and justice! Not some so-called ‘western model’, but the universal value!

Arabs do not look to the ‘west’ for guidance, like their overthrown or soon-to-be-overthrown rulers do. In fact, they seem very wise to the American and Israeli agendas for the region! No Egyptian asked for the USA’s help, even though Mr. Obama and Mrs. Clinton were so overeager to take the floor, when really, they did not seem to have a moral leg to stand on!

In fact, those of you who have checked Facebook photos of rioters in Egypt must have noticed that Mubarak was not much more despised than the US-Israeli regimes he so faithfully served! A fake, artificially-implemented democracy “à l’Iraqienne”, is not what Arabs want! Simply because they know that such a democracy is not one really! Simply because they are the only ones who understand the true scope of the word ‘Karama’ - that could be translated into ‘dignity’, but that would lose thereby, the whole scope of the Arab values that it carries, starting from its root, which is Karam (generosity). Now that is a fundamental Arab value!

The theory of the clash of civilizations is daily being proven wrong, in every step of this unrest in every state of the Arab world! This is simply because dignity, freedom, democracy - in the mouth of a veiled young Egyptian protester, carries the same meaning as it does to my friends and colleagues here in Europe. That it carries the values of her culture too, is only a question of degree. These are secondary questions: To what extent – freedom?, or, What kind of democracies? …

‘Cultural relativism’ can no more be used as a convenient excuse to disregard human rights. Cut down to size, it is instead only an incentive to make sure they are authentic and keep on building and accessorizing their corpus as befits cultural entities. Because no matter how many sophistic debates we try to initiate, and how many legal minds we try to enroll in the process, the universality of these rights, the common good they imply, lies in their being natural laws sprouting from Nature itself, but also from the free will and commitment of human beings. Those preternatural laws are relative in the way they are expressed in every culture that expresses them: but they are universal in their essence.

When the Americans invited him to step down, Mubarak said: “You don’t understand Egyptian culture!” They didn’t, but neither did he! 

This has been until now mainly an Arab Revolution, maybe because the faces of our tormenters were easier to identify, or maybe because we were worse off than others…but maybe, just maybe we should not forget 2008’s Paris burning with the anger of youth! Or the riots in Greece! Make no mistake, this is a world revolution, its dynamics ruled by demographics. Change is an action that needs young blood, and the Arab world for now is providing!!!

About the author

Dima El Sayed is a Human Rights Law PhD candidate, Sorbonne Paris 1, having graduated as a DEA ( LLM) in comparative legal studies from the Sorbonne. Until recently she worked as the UNESCO staff union legal and policy consultant. 


We encourage anyone to comment, please consult the
oD commenting guidelines if you have any questions.