Sunday, February 20, 2011


What is at the centre of our actions? What drives us and defines us as people? Is it religion, a desire for wealth, or something different?

Far from seeing the Middle East suddenly 'bursting into flames', the recent revolutions in Egypt and Tunisia (although obviously incorporating significant violent elements) have been characterised by peoples power.

This column investigates the critical element that caused the change of government in Egypt. From this startpoint the motivations of people can be understood. We are not defined by religion unless we want to be - and that's the dissapointing element of recent statements by members of the Liberal party.


The critical – but largely unacknowledged – factor in the overthrow of Egypt’s President Mubarak has been the army. This is unfortunate because a knowledge of this is vital in understanding what's really happening in the world today, and it impacts directly on Australia and our own domestic political scene.

The temptation we've had ever since the hijacked jet aircraft smashed into the World Trade Centre in 2001 is to view everything through a single paradigm -- the clash of civilisations. All the other possible ways of understanding what's going on in the world have been dismissed. Instead, we've elevated the role of religion, placing it in a central position as we interpret the world events. We've insisted that people are driven by their faith. Other possibilities and guides to people's motivations are pushed to the sidelines by this insistence that only ‘belief’ (and, in particular, our conceptions of Islam) can provide the key to unlocking an understanding of what's happening in the world.

What happened in Egypt explodes those assumptions. Try, if you want, to force the actual events in into some all encompassing template with ‘culture’ at the centre of explaining Hosni Mubarak’s fall and you end up down a dead end. Yes, technologies like twitter and the Internet played a role in mobilising opposition, but this was similar to the role of photocopiers which were once credited as being responsible for bringing down communism in Eastern Europe. The critical day was Friday, 11th February, because this revealed the key player in the dictators fall.

Late on the Thursday night Mubarak had spoken after more than a fortnight of protests which had paralysed the nation. He'd been expected to resign however, urged on by his family, he suddenly repudiated his earlier intention to step down minutes before he spoke. His previously agreed speech was tossed away. Instead he read a new one, drafted by his son Gamal, that incoherently attempted to demonstrate that the constitution wouldn't permit him to step down. Over the next 48 hours, the military decided to intervene. A new group, the "Supreme Council of Egyptian Armed Forces" told the president he had to leave. Now.

The continuation of the protest movement was important, but it was the military’s action that was decisive. They took action and unmade the president. This is key to understanding and interpreting what happened in Cairo.

The flame of protest, first ignited in Tunisia and now fanned in Egypt, continue to rock the Arab world. Nevertheless, expecting culture or religion to provide the key capable of deciphering these events will lead down blind alleyways. It had become obvious to citizens of both countries that their governments had proved utterly incapable of dealing with the new economic (and demographic) challenges they had to face. The real underlying story in both instances is one of managerial failure, accompanied by corruption and self-seeking elites expropriating the countries riches, instead of sharing them around. Per capita GDP in Egypt is something like $6,400; in Tunisia it's over $8,000. In both countries people can expect to live into their early 70s. Life is intrinsically rewarding and worthwhile.

This is vastly different from the situation in, for example, Afghanistan. There, the average life expectancy is merely 43 and GDP less than $1,000 per person. With the hereafter so close, religion plays a far greater role in life. Dogma and ideology rule. There is no intellectual arena for broader discussions and everything is reduced to that most simple formulas -- the "good" and the "bad". There's no attempt to create a space for ideas beyond the prefabricated boxes crammed full of the prejudices of the past.

The facts confront any easy deconstruction that relies upon religion to understand what's occurred in the Middle East. In both Tunisia and Egypt specific local factors resulted in the changes of government. In Iran, the military and police are far more closely identified by an ideological commitment to ruling ideology, rather than defending the nation. As a result, the revolutionary impetus hasn't been sustained. In order to understand what's happening it is necessary to isolate specific factors and make the intellectual attempt to grapple with them. There are causes for the regime changes: some common throughout the region, others specific to individual countries. Generalisations, particularly ones based almost exclusively on religious factors, aren't likely to provide much illumination about what's actually occurring. The point is to understand the detail instead of propagating prejudice.

That's what makes Scott Morrison's comments this week so depressing. Pandering to the lowest common denominator, he's plucked the cardboard cut-outs of intolerance from the bottom of the political barrel and is waving them as part of some desperate political effort to win approval. Likewise Gary Humphries’ decision to lodge a petition advocating discriminatory immigration policies submitted by electors who, significantly, are not even enrolled in his electorate. Obviously, looking after Canberra apparently doesn't fully occupy the Senators time. But, and this is perhaps the worst of all from a political point of view -- the decisions to identify the Liberal party with these positions demonstrates a peculiar stupidity. Not one extremist vote will have been secured as a result of their actions. Nevertheless, both Morrison and Humphries appear determined to alienate the very swinging moderates whose votes they desperately need, while pandering to the bigots.

Thank goodness for Joe Hockey. "No matter what the colour of your skin, no matter what the nature of your faith . . ." he said, as he began repudiating his colleagues actions. The comments were intelligent, thoughtful and most importantly, politically astute. They kept the focus on the government's failure to find a solution to illegal migration and demonstrated an understanding of human emotions, ethnic communities and the broader world.

Hockey's own family history transits the path from Lebanon through to a seat in the Australian parliament. So does Bob Katter’s. Ted Mack was another person of Lebanese heritage who, as an independent, held an electorate that should have been naturally conservative (North Sydney, now held by Hockey). The Liberal Party is free to embrace those who are angry about immigration and the changing face of Australia, but if it does so it cannot expect to appeal to enough voters to win the next election. Finding refuge in symbolically burning effigies of ancient stereotypes and stoking fears about other religions is morally reprehensible. It's also a retreat to an impoverished level of political debate; indelibly part of a past that no longer represents what this country has now become.

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