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Research and Commentary
Commentary: "The Revolution Will Not Be Fetishized"
If the revolutions in the Arab world exposed any one thing, it’s the ease with which social media tools distribute sub-standard levels of commentary on the Middle East to large audiences. Through no medium is this better exemplified than the opinions pages of many news outlets and blogs. Read More
Thursday, November 10,2011 20:43
by Shafik Mandhai IkhwanWeb

If the revolutions in the Arab world exposed any one thing, it’s the ease with which social media tools distribute sub-standard levels of commentary on the Middle East to large audiences. Through no medium is this better exemplified than the opinions pages of many news outlets and blogs. Read More

With its revolution in progress, nearing elections and huge international profile, Egypt after Mubarak has become a big draw for retweet seeking noveau-intellectuelle analysts.  They produce analyses often informed by philosophical (English-speaking) taxi drivers and mild-mannered ‘westernised’ Arab friends, always on hand to affirm the author’s preconceptions.

 Particular effort is saved for attacking the Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamist groups. Battling their post-revolutionary ascent has become a cause celebre for the new breed of ‘experts’, who are convinced of the former’s incompatibility in a democratic order.  While much of this commentary is laden with cynicism and fear of the unknown, it is to be expected in post-revolutionary dialogue. Competing ideas often tend to create exaggerated caricatures of the other; it’s a situation not so different to pre-election verbal sparring in Western democracies where rivals portray each other as devil incarnate. There are, however, occasions when the author completely forgets to make at least some attempt at impartial discourse and strays in to the outrageous.

 Take for example O’Brien Browne’s recent piece in the Huffington Post, with its poorly hidden sexual overtones, inaccurate observations of Egyptian society and incredibly overt cultural chauvinism.

 During his recent visit to Egypt, which included a visit to City Stars, eating a sparrow, visiting the relatively affluent suburb of Maadi and seeing a poor old man on a mule, Browne concludes that there is nothing ‘post’ about post-revolutionary Egypt.

 We can ignore this grandiose and arrogant summary as unintended satire but what is disturbing is the simplistic, two-dimensional and primal portrayal of regular Egyptians, women especially.
On his eye-opening journey to ‘hip’ Nasr City, he observes a woman wearing a veil ‘fondling’ silk underwear. An unusually erotic use of his thesaurus considering all women, (and by all accounts men too), veiled or not, touch their clothes to check quality before buying.

 Browne’s eroticization of Egyptian women takes another disturbing turn at the airport, where he notices the daughters of ‘Salafist’ looking men, describing them in language more suited to an erotic novel than a serious comment on Egyptian women; ‘curvaceous bodies’, ‘wrapped so tightly’ and hiding their hair to ‘please daddy’. Those women fortunate enough to be spared his sexual descriptions are described as being in ‘tow’ of their husbands, an empirical assessment he must have made between analysing the bodies of young women.  At best, application of such base imagery to Muslim women is reminiscent of the worst excesses of Orientalist discourse and is, at worst, perverted and racist.

 With similar vigour Egyptian men are represented through the cardboard cut-out stereotype of the angry Arab Islamist, ‘bushy’ bearded and seething with hatred towards secularists. Browne has an instinctual, perhaps psychic, ability to notice Muslim Brothers; their frowns easily noticeable while he was buying liquor at the airport duty free.  The only Islamist quoted, fresh from conspiring with the army against ‘upper-middle class’ protesters, briefly gnarls “The secularists are provoking us”, an unusually short and unnatural exchange only journalists seem to have. Regardless, Browne managed to ascertain it was a warning directed at democracy itself. Perhaps, he was too busy "fondling" thoughts of “curvaceous” Arab women when he forgot to inform the reader the young man shouts “Don’t make Islamist angry” before exploding in to a green mass of muscle and returning to beat liberal protesters.

 For what it’s worth his only liberal character fares not much better, a gun-wielding, sparrow-eating, supporter of vigilante justice. ‘Let’s eat sparrow’ he shouts before munching down the poor bird, bones and all.

 The unfortunate nature of opinion pieces is that a reader can only notice melodramatic descriptions and exaggerations if they’re living in the places described. Browne assumes a gunshot is the cause of the sound he hears near his friend’s apartment in Maadi. Anyone who has lived in Cairo more than a week will tell you it’s normal for children and bored teens to play with fireworks.

The biggest credit to the article is that it is not insipidly written but that is hardly credit at all, as serious analysis warrants substance and facts and it is in the face of both that this article fails embarrassingly. As a reader you are forced to intrude on the writer’s very personal conjectures and pre-conceptions of the subject, rather than an accurate witness-account of post-revolution Egypt.

 Want of detailed analysis on the Middle East should not relax a reader’s instinctive scepticism, especially if the warning signs of fear mongering, stereotyping and in this case innuendo are present.


*Shafik Mandhai is a British journalist based in Cairo. He studied Middle Eastern Studies at the University of Manchester, and worked as a broadcast journalist for ITV. He can be followed onTwitter @Shafzibit

tags: Revolution / Mubarak / Muslim Brotherhood / MB / Salafist / Islamist / Protesters / Liberal / Democracy / Middle East / Arab World / Elections
Posted in Research and Commentary  
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