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Why These Protests, And Not Others?

Why, for example, aren’t Americans and the Twitterverse abuzz about the Egyptian democratic reform movement? Is it because Egypt is under a secular autocracy rather than a religious one? Or something else? ~Aziz Poonawalla [1]

I know Aziz is genuinely curious when he asks this question, but I think the answer is staring us in the face. It’s not just that Egyptian reformers and democrats are much weaker politically and the Egyptian election system (at least prior to the past week) is much less competitive. For one thing, most Americans are not interested in the fortunes of Egypt’s political opposition, because so much of it is still made up by al-Ikhwan, and Washington isn’t interested in undermining a more or less reliable allied dictator. To be very blunt, another key reason is that Ayman Nour and friends haven’t been put on television, so that whereas Mousavi has become much more of a familiar name most people outside of wonks and political junkies have no clue who Nour is.

Putting a face to a name, and putting faces to an entire movement, is extremely important for generating sympathy for foreign political movements. Would the West have been half as animated about the crackdown in Burma two years ago if Aung San Suu Kyi’s picture had not been so widely distributed and her story covered fairly extensively for years and years before that? Probably not. Also, lacking some easily digestible, oversimplified narrative about “pro-Western democrats” struggling against authoritarianism, these movements will often never come to the public’s attention. Good luck selling the Muslim Brotherhood as the vanguard of democracy. (Then again, if Mousavi can be lauded as some sort of champion of liberalism, who knows?) Practically no one paid much attention when Karimov butchered those Islamist protesters in Andijan a few years ago, because the protesters were the wrong kind of people, and the anti-Saakashvili protests earlier this year prompted a collective yawn from most people. Those protests were too complicated in any case, and the Georgian protests might conflict with the earlier story of the virtuous Rose Revolution. The more complicated the story, the harder it is to work oneself up into an enthusiastic lather.

P.S. On that last line, I should also add that all of these stories are complicated, but they are not always perceived as such.

8 Comments (Open | Close)

8 Comments To "Why These Protests, And Not Others?"

#1 Comment By salaciouscrumb On June 19, 2009 @ 11:38 am

I am almost beginning to wonder, now that you mentioned the Rose Revolution (and along with that, all those color coded revolutions in the former Soviet breakaways) if, perhaps, these protests in Tehran are being prolonged and amplified partly due to interference from outside powers. I dont wanna sound like a conspiracy theorist, but why should Khamenei not believe that the West is perhaps instigating these protests in some ways. I mean after all, these color coded revolutions in Ukraine, Georgia and Kyrgyzstan were partly successful because of funding from the West clandestine services via non profits based in the former Soviet States.

Maybe I should clarify, Im not saying the West started this protests we have been seeing since last week, but I wonder if those Gucci revolutionaries on the street of Tehran have the stamina and the will to really makes sacrifices. hence if these protests are going on as long as they have, I am suspecting some foreign interference.

#2 Comment By sidereal On June 19, 2009 @ 11:46 am

I don’t think you’re getting to the crux of the difference.

First, some nitpicking:

For one thing, most Americans are not interested in the fortunes of Egypt’s political opposition, because so much of it is still made up by al-Ikhwan

I hope that’s just poorly worded. 99.995% of Americans couldn’t tell you what the Muslim Brotherhood is and even if they could, they’d just be regurgitating something they read in Newsweek. Your ‘because’ just isn’t plausible.

But more substantively, the reason Iran is resonating is that we have been dealing with significant belligerent rhetoric vis a vis Iran from the US ruling class for almost a decade. The possibility of a peaceful (for us) transition to a regime that would be less likely to result in a US land war is of significant interest to politically minded Americans.

If we had been suffering from war agitation, mushroom cloud rhetoric, etc vs Egypt for a decade, Americans would be much more interested in the plausibility of an Egyptian regime change.

#3 Comment By Daniel Larison On June 19, 2009 @ 11:52 am

Okay, yes, that was poorly worded. Most people don’t know who belongs to the Egyptian opposition. I should have said separately that even those who do know anything about it are not very interested in supporting it, “because so much of it is still made up by al-Ikhwan.”

#4 Comment By Aziz Poonawalla On June 19, 2009 @ 11:52 am

my theory, maybe it’s just purely about the sex appeal. Iranians are young and attractive (in the mean and median). What do you think of, even for a positive stereotype, when you think of Egypt? The sourpuss visage of Mahfouz? Dusty stone monuments? Tehran has the cafes, Damascus the clubs and Dubai the skyscrapers – Cairo has… carpet shops? Souks?

#5 Comment By salaciouscrumb On June 19, 2009 @ 12:16 pm

Aziz,

there may be a point to what you say…I have been following the protests on some of the blogs and I have to say, much of the pictures they post are of young sexy good looking well manicured young men (with biceps may I add) and women (designer, maybe fake, sunglasses) protesters.The same was true even during those color coded revolutions in the former Soviet countries. I have yet to see some of the older bearded Mousavi supporters getting some picture time here on the blogs and news. Some of the US news channels have even gone as far as to say that these protesting kids might as well be Americans (of course, that doesnt include the fat and unattractive looking Americans)

Is it any wonder the more conservative Iranians don’t like us then, with our obsessive focus on youth and beauty?

#6 Comment By gsmart On June 19, 2009 @ 12:53 pm

sidereal: Exactly. Iran/Ahmadinejad has been built up as the great existential threat to the U.S. – axis of evil and all that – so of course there is first going to be greater natural interest in these protests, but that interest is also going to be magnified by a media which also has bought into the narrative of the existential threat.

The idea being that if the soft green glow wins, somehow America has won a victory of Ahmadinejad, and all he represents.

#7 Comment By shoebill On June 20, 2009 @ 1:10 am

I don’t get this at all–you’re saying that Americans care more about Iran than about Egypt, etc. in part because Mousavi is on TV and Americans know who he is? This is just begging the question of why Mousavi is on TV. The main reason people have heard of Mousavi is that he has a big, photogenic, inspiring, protest movement behind him, not that he’s photogenic or inspiring himself. As Aziz basically suggests above, the protestors themselves, not Mousavi, are the face of the movement. Six months ago there were probably more Americans who had heard of Nour than who had heard of Mousavi, and even today no one cares about Mousavi, they care about the protestors.

This is kind of a convenient error since some of the protestors actually are liberals even though Mousavi isn’t, so the “pro-Western democrats” narrative (or at least the second part) seems less stupid if you admit that this isn’t really about Mousavi.

#8 Comment By nrmurra On June 20, 2009 @ 4:59 am

Aziz,

Sex appeal definately influences how middle-eastern movements are interpreted. Although I think Edward Said and others were a bit too obsessed with this point, it is nonetheless true that western countries have been enthralled by the exoticism and sexuality of the east, which has sometimes tended to color their judgement of the region. The main reason Lebanon is seen – unjustly, imo – as such a beacon of civilization is because of the popularity of western clothing. No one seems to care, apparently, that Lebanon has insane politics and is at perpetual risk for another round of civil war, because look over there – an Arab wearing a skirt!

We caught a glimpse of this back during the “Cedar Revolution”, when the March 14 Movement – which is, as Larison helpfully notes, backed by those famous secularists, the Saudis – was celebrated as a throng of ravishing freedom babes, while Hizbullah was stocked with frumpy old ladies in black bee-keeper suits. This was, of course, something of a generalization. [2]

Just as an aside, let me say Im not exactly.against rooting for the side with the hottest chicks in principle, if only for the sake of some harmless frivolity, but its misleading to pretend this is based on a neutral and dispassionate concern for democracy everywhere, rather than a biased and often quite superficial cheerleading for allegedly “pro-western” forces.