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).