The Song of the Nonaligned Nile

Photo by Naira Antoun

Protest at Egyptian Embassy in London, 29 January 2011

The United States, whose hallowed creation myth styles America as the quintessential child of revolution, has for decades navigated the insupportable irony of denying others their own political parturition through the ideological conflation of freedom with stability. From Nicaragua to Iran, this deployment has served as a discursive validation for a host of violent counterinsurgency tactics ranging from outright political assassination and imperial warfare to the surreptitious funneling of funding and weapons to embedded confederates whose anitrevolutionary agendas serve American geopolitical interests at strategic moments.

It’s an old song, and one to which the Obama administration seems happy to dance. The US Secretary of State – whose feeble attempts to downgrade Egypt’s fiery revolution to a damp reformist squib are beginning to ring with an air of preposterous desperation – has been echoed in her invocation of the supremacy of stability by the tediously omnipresent Tony Blair, commenting from the masters-of-the-universe coven in Davos, as well as familiar bedfellows Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu and Saudi King Abdullah. But if the administration and its partners thought they would waltz glibly through this historical moment, they’ve clearly got another think coming: the stability shuffle looks increasingly like an acute case of St Vitus. It’s been a mere 72 hours between the habitually ham-handed Joe Biden’s candid observation that Mubarak cannot be classified as a dictator in American terms because “he has been an ally of ours in a number of things” to Hillary Clinton’s antipodal call for “real democracy” in Egypt. The Egyptian protesters, in sum, have got Washington and its imperial partners stepping and fetching like their asses are on fire and their heads are catching, to appropriate the immortal words of Charlie Daniels in ways the long-haired country boy might not appreciate.

Obama can’t win this contest: put his right foot in, pull his right foot out; he can shake American platitudes all about, but Washington just isn’t calling this tune. The Egyptian protesters are decidedly unlike the enemy gustily embraced by Ronald Reagan in his Radio Address to the Nation on International Stability in 1985. Neither commies nor terrorists, they obstinately refuse to be slotted into the prevailing taxonomies through which the barbarians at America’s gates are invented and reinvented at predictable intervals. It’s difficult, particularly given the social media blackout, to draw reliable conclusions about sentiment on the ground, but a moment captured on video exemplifies the threat this stubbornly pluralistic Egyptian movement poses to Washington’s set-piece parrying of inconvenient revolutions.

Setting aside the dubious concluding quote by that enthusiastic imperialist John F. Kennedy, this video documents, amidst other scenes of astonishing courage in the face of rank brutality, a moving statement by an unnamed protester, at about 40 seconds in:

“We’ll not be silenced. Whether you are Christian, whether you are Muslim, whether you are an atheist, you will demand your goddamned rights. And we will have our rights, one way or the other.”

Oh dear. Obama may have bit off more than he could chew two years ago in Cairo:

“I do have an unyielding belief that all people yearn for certain things: the ability to speak your mind and have a say in how you are governed; confidence in the rule of law and the equal administration of justice; government that is transparent and doesn’t steal from the people; the freedom to live as you choose. Those are not just American ideas, they are human rights, and that is why we will support them everywhere.”

It is difficult to see how Obama can dance his way around this development, at least discursively. Whatever the Egyptian revolutionaries decide to do with this movement in the long run, their short term demand is clear and basic, and speaks directly to the above aspiration: they want shot of Mubarak, a bloated tick of a tyrant whose proboscis has been sunk deep into the flesh of Egyptian society for three long decades. If Obama, as multiple erstwhile patriots have done before him, would claim democratic principles as primordially American (a dubious proposition in any event; the Haudenosaunee are a fine example of a far more ancient participatory democratic tradition), then he cannot with any logic muster American interests against American values. But logical consistency is beside the point and long has been. No less a personage than Condoleeza Rice declared openly in Egypt a few years back that the United States has “pursued stability at the expense of democracy in this region [and] achieved neither” – a pronouncement which changed nothing in material terms. As the New York Times opined yesterday in a front page (web) blurb no doubt intended to induce righteous incredulity, “In the Arab world, American words may not matter.” It’s dubious that they ever did, except when backed by the gun and the dollar. What matters now is what the US decides to do with the $1.3 billion in annual alimony it sends to its client state in return for the stability of America’s crumbling geopolitical foundation in the Middle East.

Yesterday, ten thousand workers and students marched through central London, echoing a sister rally in Manchester in a protraction of the fightback against the revanchist assault perpetrated by the British government against its own people. The ether was a-bubble with chatter on demo’s eve about where we might head after Westminster, but there was little contention about the march’s real conclusion. Stomping past a clever feint at Millbank, where students may or may not have intentionally staged a temporary reoccupation to divert the police, the main phalanx swung toward the Egyptian embassy, tucked away in a posh corner of Mayfair. We were helpfully pointed in the right direction by a young girl holding an Egyptian flag on the high street corner. The mood was fierce and joyful, but anticipative. Further London solidarity actions are already in the making (at both the embassy and the upscale edifice on Wilton Place currently harbouring Mubarak’s sons – who, exhibiting more sense than their father, made tracks out of Dodge before the flames of revolution began licking under their own feet). But here, as across the world of resistance, we are looking to the Egyptians to define the terms of their own struggle, not only the better to provide the support they need, but to take inspiration in breaking the tired old redistributive mould which has largely defined the parameters of the British alternative – tax the rich, defend the welfare state, hold fast to the status quo, because it’s got to be better than the neoliberal nightmare to come. The Egyptians, whose status quo is far worse than ours for all its touted stability, have rejected that option. If they can write their own revolutionary song, then so can we all.

9 thoughts on “The Song of the Nonaligned Nile

  1. John Allison

    Very deeply moving, to read your post and then to watch that video.
    This is what we could NOT accomplish in the USA in the 60s.
    Lennon line: “the more pain, the more God”. Egypt’s pain has long been terrible. Now, it seems that God is on their side.
    Let us pray that we can now find some way to rise to the occasion and meet our responsibilities in the USA.

  2. Maximilian Forte

    Special thanks to all of my co-bloggers at ZA for all of their posts on Egypt. I also loved that video, wonderful, beautiful, and moving. Thanks also to John Allison, one of my favourite contributors and commentators on this site.

  3. Pingback: Tweets that mention The Song of the Nonaligned Nile « ZERO ANTHROPOLOGY --

  4. M. Jamil Hanifi

    During 1955 I had the honor of shaking hands with President Gamal ‘Abd al-Nasser on the campus of Kabul University near the tomb of Jamal al-Din al-Afghani. He had stopped in Kabul on his return from the Bandung conference. I remember thinking how lucky the people of Egypt were for having a son like Nasser. Unfortunately, his successors betrayed his aspirations for a democratic Egypt. I am sure Nasser’s spirit is currently hovering over the noble people of Egypt in their revolutionary struggle to liberate their lives from manipulation by fascist Israel and Zionist America. O people of Egypt! Rise and resist the evil Zionist American imperium. Expel their running dog Hosni Mobarak. May you succeed in realizing President Gamal ‘Abd al-Nasser’s dreams for Egypt.

    1. Eliza Jane Darling

      I was hesitant about using this title, which is of course a play on Akhil Gupta’s article “The Song of the Nonaligned World,” which appeared in the journal Cultural Anthropology in 1992; he in turn took the title from a 1987 album by that name as I recall. I didn’t mean to draw a simple historical line between what’s happening now in Egypt and Nasserism, though recent events have brought to mind (well, my mind at least) Egypt’s role in the NAM – especially in terms of Gupta’s analysis of the simultaneous deterritorialisation and reterritorialisation of space it entailed, which seems to be echoed in the present day by the weird concomitance of a revolution being fought out on Facebook as well as in Tahrir Square, by the concerted nonalignment of the uprising itself (not only to tediously predictable imperial categories, but to any categories) and by the uncertain relationship between what has happened (and might happen) in Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen and elsewhere.

      In another development, this rather appalling pronouncement has been making the anthropological rounds – comments on the Egyptian protests by anthropologist Unni Wikan, who echoes Joe Biden in insisting that Mubarak is no despot:

  5. Pingback: The Song of the Nonaligned Nile (via ZERO ANTHROPOLOGY) | First Praxis

  6. Pingback: The Song of the Nonaligned Nile (via ZERO ANTHROPOLOGY) | Rolandrjs's Blog

  7. Gaston Gordillo

    Great post Eliza. And congrats for such a great, inspiring blog. The parrallels with Latin America are indeed incredibly transparent, especially with Obama’s support of the 2009 coup in Honduras while claiming to support “democracy”. The imperial strategy of spatial containment is the same.

    I’ve written an essay on my blog on Resonance and the Egyptian Revolution, which may interest other anthropologists keen to understanding the revolution by following its bodily pulsations on the streets.

Comments are closed