In light of current discussions regarding 'liberal' intervention in Libya, I thought I might post an essay on this topic that I originally published in July 2009 in The Toronto Star...
In his May speech to Canadian troops in Kandahar, Prime Minister Stephen Harper reflected on our military's impact on Afghanistan.
"Before you came here," Harper said, "the Taliban ran Afghanistan like a medieval gulag." Yet, during our seven years of involvement in the country, "the foundations of democracy have been laid; basic human rights and freedoms are being restored; private enterprise is growing; millions of children are going to school; basic medical care has improved; and the infrastructure of a viable economy is emerging."
Now it was up to Afghanistan to take advantage of the opportunity given to it by Canadians. To quote the Prime Minister's speech again: "Our mission is to leave Afghanistan to its people, as a viable country, a more peaceful country, a country in control of its own destiny."
This is, in essence, the refrain of nation builders everywhere. If only the locals could appreciate our example as (in Harper's words) a "civilized" country, then they too might enjoy the stability and prosperity that we enjoy.
Not a terrible slogan for a foreign military occupation. The only problem is that there is nothing new about this purportedly liberal strain of thought. And when we begin to examine those places in history where it has been invoked before, we suddenly realize that it is utterly hollow. Liberal interventionism is a contradiction in terms. No nation has ever succeeded in building (or rebuilding) another.
Before we hit the history books in search of the liberal intervention that "went right," we may want to consider for a moment the logic that necessarily underpins this idea. Liberal intervention is almost always predicated upon knowledge – or rather, the absence of it. "We" who see fit to intervene have knowledge that "they," the locals, lack. And this lack of knowledge has led the locals into their current miserable predicament, whether of political instability, social unrest or economic destitution.
Here we begin to bump up against one of the many problems of the interventionist idea. First, this logic would seem to suggest there is one road to "proper" political, social and economic development, namely, ours. Second, it suggests that any nation, regardless of its circumstances, could be coaxed down this road to "proper" development.
Both of these assumptions are problematic in the extreme. Even if we were to assume that there exists a "model" for democracy that could and should be universally applied, every path to this democracy has had its own twists and turns, whether in the English, the French, the American, or indeed the Canadian historical experience.
There never existed a mastermind sitting behind a democracy machine. There have been ideals and benchmarks to be sure, whether Rousseau's social contract or Paine's common sense, but these were never a guarantee of success. Democratic development has always been an accidental process. One need only look at the Terror in France to see the consequences of attempts to impose freedom.
Even if we accept that our political systems are worthy of emulation – despite the countless shortcomings and injustices that persist within them – we would be hard-pressed to explain their emergence to others, let alone set forth a blueprint for their recreation in Afghanistan.
The beauty of our democracies is that they were not the product of a foreign cookie cutter, but rather of decades, indeed centuries of struggle among ourselves. How would we even begin to replicate this process in a context foreign to us when the complexities of the process still elude us as historians, economists and political scientists?
The idea of nation building is, thus, pure hubris on a whole range of levels. Does this then mean that we abandon our efforts to promote development elsewhere in the world? That we throw up our hands and declare defeat in the face of complex historical processes that we grasp only imperfectly?
No, not at all. But it does mean that we should lay down our arms and withdraw from military engagements predicated so heavily on this interventionist idea. Surely the most important lesson we can draw from the monstrous military history of the 20th century, with so many millions of lives lost to ideas, liberal or otherwise, is that no apparently good idea ever justified the taking of a single human life.
Saturday, 26 February 2011
I was delighted to attend an Arab solidarity demonstration during a visit to my hometown today. There were large Libyan and Iraqi contingents, but I was particularly delighted about the presence of a small but determined Bahrain contingent of 5-10 protesters (who had by far the best signs). Here is a taste of the scene:
Among the most powerful images to come out of the protest encampment at Tahrir Square in the days between the January 25th uprising and Hosni Mubarak’s resignation were those of Egyptian Muslims and Coptic Christians protecting fellow Egyptians in prayer. The sight of Copts encircling Muslims with a human chain while the latter performed their devotions, to shield them from distraction or harassment by the police – and vice versa – was an emotive signal of national solidarity that was not lost either on Egyptians or on Western observers of the protests.
The ‘national unity’ discourse that informs today’s ‘revolutionary spirit’ in Egypt has a long history. For Egyptians in particular, the human chains at Tahrir could not but have called to mind the 1919 Revolution, during which Copts and Muslims stood together while Saad Zaghlul, the Wafd Party’s leader, unleashed his rallying cry: “Egypt belongs to Copts as well as Muslims. All have a right to the same freedom and the same privileges.”
Yet, as I write these lines, there are images emerging from Egypt that are no less striking but a great deal more disturbing as far as relations between Copts and Muslims are concerned. Today, there is YouTube video circulating of the violent removal by the Egyptian military of a wall erected at an Egyptian monastery in Wadi al-Natrun: While the military claims that the wall was built upon state land and without the necessary permission of the authorities, Copts point to the incident as an unnecessary provocation, not least given that six monastery staff were injured during the army’s demolition. Further, Copts have voiced concern about the recent murder of a Coptic priest in the governorate of Asyut: Neighbors have alleged that Islamist slogans were chanted while the victim was killed. Such incidents have prompted a divide among Egyptians that is now visible in the streets: Two thousand Copts gathered in Tahrir Square on February 23rd in protest, while the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces warned that there are sectarian ‘plots’ afoot to divide Copts and Muslims, and has called upon Egyptians to confront this threat to ‘national unity.’
While the military’s invocation of ‘plots’ is bound to generate skepticism among Western observers of Egypt, it is important to keep in mind that the military’s response is entirely in line with the prevailing ‘spirit’ of the revolution, as powerfully symbolized by the human chains I described above. This is to say that, in the days since January 25th, sectarianism has taken on the guise of an aberrant distraction from the solidarity of the Egyptian people. This sense of sectarianism as ‘foreign’ to Egypt has become strikingly apparent through allegations recently launched against Habib el Adly, the old regime’s Minister of the Interior. El Adly stands accused, in particular quarters of the Egyptian press, of having collaborated in the New Year’s bombing of the Church of Saint Mark and Saint Peter in Alexandria, which took the lives of twenty-four Copts.
One would be hard-pressed to launch an accusation more loathsome than that the Egyptian Minister of the Interior, ostensibly responsible for protecting Egyptians from attacks like the Alexandria church bombing, actually participated therein. The cynical logic attributed to el Adly and, by extension, the old regime as a whole, is that of ‘divide and rule’ – that the Mubarak regime could divert attention away from corruption, police brutality, and social injustice by inciting sectarian violence behind the scenes.
I would not, for a moment, doubt the capacity of the Mubarak regime to deploy so cynical and loathsome a strategy against Egyptians. Nor would I seek to detract from the revolutionary spirit of national unity which made the overthrow of that cynical and loathsome regime possible.
Yet, to my mind, it is no less important to acknowledge that the ‘Coptic question’ Egypt faces is not a conspiracy against the country fomented by enemies at home and abroad. Much as one would like to immerse oneself in the images of cross and crescent side by side, or of Copts and Muslims as Egyptians above all, ‘through and through,’ there must come a time when the Egyptian state begins to reckon, in a serious and sustained way, with the existence of Coptic and Muslim communal bonds that carry social and political weight for Egyptians.
What I am referring to here is the deeply rooted social transformation Egypt has experienced, particularly since the 1970s – a transformation in morals and mores often captured by the term ‘Islamic trend’ (at-tayyar al-islami), but which has a Coptic analogue centered around the Sunday school movement, social welfare projects, and community centers. Holding the diverse members of these ‘trends’ together is the desire to transform Egypt not politically, but socially, in line with their interpretations of Islam and Christianity respectively.
Now that Egyptians are moving beyond the fervor of their revolutionary moment into the negotiation of their country’s future, I would suggest that it is time to set aside the tired national unity discourse of the past. The ‘Coptic question’ is not a figment of a malevolent leader’s or a foreign power’s imagination. It is a product of years of history that cannot be reversed overnight. The sooner Egypt’s revolutionaries acknowledge that their country has not suddenly reverted back to 1919, the better prepared they will be to advocate for a liberal social and political order for all Egyptians.