Watching the Revolution, Eyes Wide Open


By Marek Halter

Published February 16, 2011, issue of February 25, 2011.
  • Print
  • Share Share

A strange debate has sprouted up here in France regarding the events in Tunisia and Egypt — especially in Egypt — which the press calls a “debate between intellectuals.” I would say instead that it is a debate between activists and intellectuals, though of course one can be both at the same time.

As a human rights activist, I am thrilled along with the youth in Cairo’s Tahrir Square. I admire their courage and determination as they demand more freedom, more justice and less corruption, the things that human rights activists stand for all over the world. After all, do Arabs have any less of a right to happiness than the Kosovars or the Latvians in Europe?

But the task of an intellectual is also to understand the forces at work: to analyze ideologies in action, the interests of foreign powers and the possible missteps of a movement that is spontaneous but at whose heart — as in the heart of all human movements — is a clash of contradicting visions.

I imagine the rightful joy of intellectuals at the beginning of the 20th century after news of the first protests in front of the Winter Palace in Petrograd. The subjugated world had just woken up. But today we admire less the speeches of a Lenin than the writings of a Victor Serge who, while supporting change, foresaw the dangers of a dictatorship that was to replace the one whose end filled his heart with joy.

And think about the unease we have today when reading the statements of a great philosopher like Michel Foucault about the 1979 Iranian Revolution and the fall of the Shah. No, we shouldn’t cry for the Shah, but if we had analyzed the ideology of Ayatollah Khomeini, we would have quickly understood that we could have helped the Iranians oppose tyranny without supporting the mullahs.

Today, the virulence of the criticism toward the reflections of another philosopher, Alain Finkielkraut, bothers me. In trying to identify possible missteps of the Egyptian revolt, he is carrying out his task as an intellectual. Others prefer to react to events with reflexive applause.

Faced with these events, this isn’t the only thing that upsets me. There are also the politicians and the media. It took the events of Cairo and Tunis, of young people setting themselves on fire and being killed by police, for us to discover and publicize the mafia-like organization around Tunisia’s now-former president Zine El Abidine Ben Ali and the corruption of the Mubarak clan in Egypt. And yet our media is free — why did they not do their job of investigating and informing before the “Arab street” rose up? Had they unconsciously accepted the prejudice held widely in the West about the “natural corruption” of Arabs?

And the Western leaders, those same ones who supported the Egyptian president for 30 years, who appeared next to him on our TV screens, who were proud have him be a part of their political undertakings and who, suddenly, when the winds changed, asked him to leave?

Here’s a question for intellectuals: Where did this impotence of the Western world come from, and why do we have this pathetic image projected by its leaders during the events in Egypt? Does the West still have something to offer to this world in revolt? Democracy, we say.

But democracy is not an ideology. In the eyes of most people it has been reduced to merely mean the right to vote. They are correct to be skeptical of it. After all, didn’t Hitler become chancellor democratically? Didn’t Hezbollah come to power in Lebanon democratically? Might not the Muslim Brotherhood come to power in Egypt democratically? Yes, I admit that I was happy to see that the youth in Tahrir Square seemed to prefer the word “justice” to the word “democracy.” And yet there is a great danger that intolerance could take the place of injustice.

What do we in the West have to give to the Muslim world on the move? It doesn’t care for our advice. What about our culture? It buys it when it has the means and the desire. Are we capable of showing the hundreds of millions of Muslim men and women that faith, freedom and prosperity can co-exist? We could have, but we weren’t there at the precise moment when history was made. When we woke up, on the other side of the chessboard, the spot was already taken — by China.

Those of us in the West are reduced to the role of what Arthur Koestler called the kibbitzers, those who watch a chess game and give advice to one or other of the players, which they don’t follow. I’m being unfair. We Westerners have indeed played a role in the events we are witnessing and those that will follow. We have persuaded the dictators we have courted to make gestures of liberalization. But as Alexis de Tocqueville so aptly observed, “the most dangerous moment for a bad government is when it begins to reform.”

Let us be present in all places where people fight for freedom in the world. But let us not forgot our intellectual duty: critical thinking. Our very future depends on the direction that will be taken by the crowds in revolt.

Marek Halter, an award-winning French writer, is the author, most recently, of “The Jewish Odyssey: An Illustrated History” (Flammarion, 2010).

The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.

Find us on Facebook!
  • The sign reads: “Dogs are allowed in this establishment but Zionists are not under any circumstances.”
  • Is Twitter Israel's new worst enemy?
  • More than 50 former Israeli soldiers have refused to serve in the current ground operation in #Gaza.
  • "My wife and I are both half-Jewish. Both of us very much felt and feel American first and Jewish second. We are currently debating whether we should send our daughter to a Jewish pre-K and kindergarten program or to a public one. Pros? Give her a Jewish community and identity that she could build on throughout her life. Cons? Costs a lot of money; She will enter school with the idea that being Jewish makes her different somehow instead of something that you do after or in addition to regular school. Maybe a Shabbat sing-along would be enough?"
  • Undeterred by the conflict, 24 Jews participated in the first ever Jewish National Fund— JDate singles trip to Israel. Translation: Jews age 30 to 45 travelled to Israel to get it on in the sun, with a side of hummus.
  • "It pains and shocks me to say this, but here goes: My father was right all along. He always told me, as I spouted liberal talking points at the Shabbos table and challenged his hawkish views on Israel and the Palestinians to his unending chagrin, that I would one day change my tune." Have you had a similar experience?
  • "'What’s this, mommy?' she asked, while pulling at the purple sleeve to unwrap this mysterious little gift mom keeps hidden in the inside pocket of her bag. Oh boy, how do I answer?"
  • "I fear that we are witnessing the end of politics in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. I see no possibility for resolution right now. I look into the future and see only a void." What do you think?
  • Not a gazillionaire? Take the "poor door."
  • "We will do what we must to protect our people. We have that right. We are not less deserving of life and quiet than anyone else. No more apologies."
  • "Woody Allen should have quit while he was ahead." Ezra Glinter's review of "Magic in the Moonlight":
  • Jon Stewart responds to his critics: “Look, obviously there are many strong opinions on this. But just merely mentioning Israel or questioning in any way the effectiveness or humanity of Israel’s policies is not the same thing as being pro-Hamas.”
  • "My bat mitzvah party took place in our living room. There were only a few Jewish kids there, and only one from my Sunday school class. She sat in the corner, wearing the right clothes, asking her mom when they could go." The latest in our Promised Lands series — what state should we visit next?
  • Former Israeli National Security Advisor Yaakov Amidror: “A cease-fire will mean that anytime Hamas wants to fight it can. Occupation of Gaza will bring longer-term quiet, but the price will be very high.” What do you think?
  • Should couples sign a pre-pregnancy contract, outlining how caring for the infant will be equally divided between the two parties involved? Just think of it as a ketubah for expectant parents:
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?

We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.