Monday, February 7, 2011

Egypt's Two Sets of Books

by Tuvia Tenenbom

You must admit that Western journalists are smart. Just read what they write, or watch them on TV. They explain everything: It was only due to the ever increasing cost of ink, and the ever shrinking space of airtime, forever taken up by the life-saving commercials, that not a single of one them ever mentioned that a spontaneous uprising, locally known as an Intifada, was about to start up in late January, 2011.

The same applies to our Western leaders. Take our own "Let me be clear" President. He knows exactly what should be done, and this is why he constantly changes his mind. He presides over a country that gives billions to Egypt, because it is such a great country, but he wants this same country to change at once because it is such a bad country. Let me be clear: there is no contradiction at all here between the two. He also says he believes that America should not get involved in anybody else's business, and this is why he does not stop getting involved. No contradiction here either.

Other Western leaders agree with him. They say they believe that Egypt can be transformed into a democracy in just about 24 hours. How do they know? They read it in the papers. Yes, if you happened to read the Washington Post or The New York Times recently, you would have noticed that our government followed what the papers recommended within hours. The papers said to be tougher on Mubarak, the White House immediately followed – Great! Shows the power of democracy. It takes less than one day after an opinion is published for it to become government policy. We must export this wisdom overseas. Egypt should become democratic -- Today.

No, do not fear that the Muslim Brotherhood, or some other extremists, would take hold in Egypt. It will never happen. How do we know? The papers say so. Well, perhaps it did happen to the Palestinians and the Algerians: they held elections and the extremists won. But perhaps that is not really not happened; perhaps it just looked as if it did. Look at Turkey, what great democrat we have there: Erdogan. Soon women in Turkey will be allowed to wear the Burkah. Everywhere. Isn't this proof of democracy? You bet. How do you know? You read it in the papers -- Western papers and Western websites, by Western journalists; some of the best of them. How do they know? They wrote it.

If I write that Islamic societies are at the core completely secular, and that The Muslim Brotherhood, contrary to what people think, is a secular institution, this makes it true. How do I know? I just wrote it. Isn't Democracy great?

But imagine the day this brand of Democracy comes to Egypt, and the writers they follow are those of Al-Jazeera.

Here is what was in Al-Jazeera in Arabic yesterday:

One picture: two old Egyptian women, grandmas, are on their knees on a prayer mat laid on a dirty ground next to a row of tough, young Egyptian security men. Both women are praying, and seem to be crying as well. The title above: "Ya Egypt, You Mother of My Soul." Next picture: Hosni Mubarak and Benjamin Netanyahu, Both are well dressed, sit in a gorgeously decorated room, smile and shake hands: great friends. Taken "last month," the caption says. The choice between the two pictures is clear: You are either with the crying grandmas on the dirty floor or with the smiling Zionist in the rich room. Nothing in between. Choose.

The day before, Al-Jazeera's website in Arabic ran an article about why Israel prefers to have Omar Suleiman, Mubarak's choice, as the head of the Egyptian government. The day before that, it showed a picture of a demonstrator holding an image of Mubarak with a Star-of-David on his forehead.

There are no leaders in Egypt to follow Al-Jazeera, just plenty of demonstrators. And they do. They see these images and they know what they should do: Mubarak is a Jew-lover; he must go.

Two weeks ago, nobody knew what these demonstrations would become, but a Qatari knew – and made sure what they would become. This Qatari is Al-Jazeera. It pushed and pushed, and everybody fell into the pit -- including our best journalists. They watch Al-Jazeera in English; the demonstrators watch Al-Jazeera in Arabic. The English Al-Jazeera fights for freedom; the Arabic Al-Jazeera fights against the Jew-lover. This is how a world might change.

The West thinks that what it reads or watches exists. But the East is a land of magical stories: what you see is not what exists. Never.

The biggest story the Western can come up with is this: A country of 85 million -- mostly very religious people -- will be able to transform itself into a secular democracy at once. This is not imagination; this is naiveté. Well intentioned, perhaps, but still "let me be clear" naiveté.

The East, on the other hand, is different. It always has two sets of books, at least. Al-Jazeera is no different: it has one set for the naïve Westerners, and another for the brothers and sisters.

We think that our society is better, that we are smarter. What we fail to understand is that a story is more powerful than an argument, and imagination works more magic than logic. And an image is stronger than a word.

Unless we make a real effort to learn the ways of the East, we had better not get involved. A little humility might help, too. None of us knows where this story will end; no matter what takes place in the next few days in Cairo, the story of Egypt is far from over – let alone the story of the Arab world.

Al-Jazeera has more photos up its sleeves.

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Tuvia Tenenbom

Copyright - Original materials copyright (c) by the authors.

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