Today I had the pleasure of attending a lecture by Rashid Khalidi entitled "Historical Perspectives on the 2011 Arab Revolutions." I've attended a Khalidi lecture before, so I was fairly aware of what I was getting myself into. While his talks are always educational and entertaining, this particular lecture quickly turned sour as it evolved into an anti-American diatribe. Maybe Khalidi is a master orator and he tailors his speeches for his audience because the AUB crowd loved it, while I doubt such vitriol would be blindly accepted in DC, where I last saw him. While entertaining in nature and subject, his lecture shed little light on recent events or provided me with new perspectives on the Arab Revolutions. He briefly mentioned that these movements lack a Za'am or leader and that they weren't hierarchical in nature. This tiny morsel of interpretation sparked something inside me about my own understanding and experience with the revolts.
The American public is generally blissfully unaware of the strife and struggle around the world. I've criticized my peers before for being short sighted and ignorant of world events, but something clicked with the American public when thousands of Egyptians took to the street to demand freedom and change. One can point to the overall themes of democracy and secularism that dominated the protests as proof enough of the media coverage, but those issues only justify and fuel debate amongst talking heads. I heard very little in the American press about the Tunisia Revolution until after the Egyptian Revolution, and then it was only used as a framing mechanism. I believe the coverage in America boomed not only because of Egypt's strategic position in the region but mainly because of the Egyptian people.
There is no question that Arabs have been vilified in American culture, political discourse, and within civil society for years. While this is far from being a post 9/11 phenomenon, it most definitely was amped to new heights after 9/11 and the Iraq War. Arabs had been classified in the American public as "the other" and thus were dehumanized and stripped of their collective humanity. While that last statement may be a bit extreme, I believe the majority of Americans to be kind, good-hearted people; it's not extreme to suggest that Americans were blissfully ignorant of the realities facing "the other." The Egyptian Revolution showed the American people that "Arabs" weren't the murderous, barbarous terrorists that they were made out to be in pop-culture and the dominant political discourse. These revolutions didn't have a figurehead and the hero became the people as one. I strongly believe that images of young people chanting "freedom" and "peaceful" as they faced heavily armored and well-equipped police forces sent a strong message to the American people. As my mom said when she called me days after January 25, "I'm just surprised it's not violent." When I asked her to explain what she meant she inevitably said she thought someone would resort to terrorism "over there."
The lack of a figurehead actually helped the cause of the Egyptian Revolution. Unlike yesteryear, where titans such as Nasser and Arafat frightened and shocked the American public with their "Arabness," the youth of Egypt looked exactly like the youth of America. Dressed in jeans and t-shirts flashing images of Disney characters and rock bands, the youth of Egypt could have been mistaken for the youth of Arkansas, despite maybe a few more Hijabs and leaner bodies on the Egyptian side. While the chants were foreign, the people weren't, and that helped humanize the Egyptian protesters in the eyes of the world. There were no figureheads, and when Mohammad al-Baradi tried to hijack the movement the youth of Egypt kindly thanked him for his support and proceeded to act on their own.
Even the western-approved Google engineer Ghonim became a symbol of not only the revolution but also the brutality of the Mubarak regime. He himself rejected the notion of being the leader of the movement and continued to advocate that the movement was much larger than anyone person including himself. The fact that there was no leader helped the movement survive and thrive as the Egyptian security apparatus had not one head to cut of but millions. The fact that there was an absence of hierarchical structure to the revolt inevitably saved the revolution.