Knock, knock: History calling

My Word: Sometimes history is not so much knocking on the door as beating it down.

Tahrir square traffic 311 AP (photo credit: Associated Press)
Tahrir square traffic 311 AP
(photo credit: Associated Press)
This is big. How big, no one knows, but clearly we are witnessing history in the making. As a student of international relations at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem many years ago, I was bothered by the determination of social science departments to turn their subject into, well, science. Lecturers in international relations, political science and similar disciplines seem compelled to create models – diagrams with neat lines connecting points A and B, when, as we have seen, this is not how world affairs necessarily work.
One November night in 1983, I suffered a crisis.
Actually, it was Cyprus that suffered the crisis, but I took it very personally.
I had, uncharacteristically, left to the last moment writing a paper I was meant to hand in about NATO’s Mediterranean flank.
I sat through the night scribbling away – fueled by coffee, adrenaline and probably the accidental whiff of Tippex as I edited myself in that pre-personal computer era. Finally, it was done. I poured away the dregs of the coffee and, as dawn was breaking, turned on the radio – only to hear that Turkey had declared a republic in Northern Cyprus.
The lecturer who had set the paper a few days before had obviously not seen this coming. I began to doubt not only the validity of what I had just written, but also much of what I had been taught.
(And every time Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan blasts Israel, I think back to that night.)
IT IS, of course, partly a matter of perspective. Some things can only be seen with hindsight, offering the historian a better view and the international relations student that multipurpose excuse: “There are exceptions to every rule.”
I bet my high-school history teacher, the incomparable Miss Morant, could have predicted the revolutionary wave now sweeping the Middle East, even though it caught the intelligence services of the countries most affected by surprise.
Way back then – in a period which itself now counts as history – she taught my class that revolutions need a frustrated middle class to develop. Political scientists, of course, refer to this as a model: The J Curve is meant to demonstrate that frustrated expectations can override the problem of collective action leading to revolt.
Now that it has started, we don’t know where it will end. That is also partly due to the fact that we tend to get our information from the middle class, too.
Many of the foreign journalists flown in to cover events in Egypt, for example, can’t even pronounce the name Tahrir Square properly, let alone converse in Arabic with the protesters gathered there. They either use middle-class interpreters or find welleducated people who can talk to them in English or French. Some overly rely on the much-discussed new social media to gather information, ignoring the fact that users of Facebook and Twitter are, as a matter of course, the educated middle class.
Incidentally, I have discovered that the latest joke doing the Egyptian rounds in the wake of the government’s anti-Internet clampdown claims that unless electronic contact with the outside world is properly restored, they will drop the letter “E” from the name Egypt.
What is really happening in Egypt – and Tunisia, Iran, Yemen, Bahrain, Libya and a whole host of other countries – is unknown. Certainly sitting in Jerusalem, I can feel something’s going on rather than know what’s happening. Personal contacts developed over the years tend to be with other journalists of a certain social standing.
Middle-class Iranians, all living in Tehran, have assured me that their fight is not with Israel, but with the ayatollahs’ regime – but can they speak for the poor, the religious or the residents of remote villages? A Pakistani journalist, using the understatement that reflects his British upbringing, occasionally lets me know that “these are worrying times, Liat.” But his lifestyle still includes visits to the health club and dining out. It’s his way of relaxing. He is well aware that his social life is not the only thing under threat.
Imagine what it would mean were Islamic radicals to take control of the country’s nuclear arsenal. Let’s just say it could put a very permanent end to all regular middle-class worries about health, employment, money and the kids.
I was intrigued to learn that the sultanate of Oman last week raised the minimum wage for Omanis working in the private sector. According to the official Ministry of Information website, Manpower Minister Sheikh Abdullah bin Nasser al-Bakri said in a statement that “the step to raise private-sector national manpower’s wages stems from the attention accorded by the government of His Majesty Sultan Qaboos to secure a decent life for citizens in the backdrop of rapid global economic developments which entail a rise in the cost of living.”
That can be translated as: We don’t want to give anyone reason to riot. Not now. Not here.
Times must be hard. When I visited the country in the mid-1990s, it was immediately apparent that nearly all the “working class” were temporary migrants from the Indian subcontinent. In fact, “Omanization” was the buzzword used to describe the official program of replacing the Pakistani and Indian workers with the sultanate’s own citizens.
Even then, by the way, Oman was keeping its eyes on events in Iran, just across the Persian Gulf, and officials admitted they did not want Palestinian workers or visitors because of the precedent in Kuwait, where these had largely sided with Saddam Hussein during the Iraqi invasion.
An Omani I met last year confirmed that the country is still concerned by events in Iran and neighboring states such as Saudi Arabia and Bahrain, where the Shi’ite-Sunni divide threatens to widen from rift to chasm. (Although an Egyptian journalist once tried to convince me that “the Shi’ite-Sunni divide doesn’t exist. It’s simply an American invention.” I wonder which side of Tahrir Square she’s standing in today?) US President Barack Obama needs something more than a powerful turn of phrase if he wants to ensure that Iran doesn’t enter the vacuum.
It is too early to say what will be. Is this, like Natan Sharansky suggested in an interview with the Post’s editor-in-chief, David Horovitz, similar to the fall of the former Soviet Union? Political observers are describing the latest chain of events as a domino effect, but as we watch each block fall we could be missing the greater picture.
For example, among the more recent significant events – vastly overshadowed – is the split between North and South Sudan. Could this presage similar breaks between Muslim and Christian communities in places like Nigeria? And could this not lead to a revival of nationalism, or tribalism, throughout Africa? In the global village, it doesn’t take much for the domestic fighting in one home(land) to affect another. Already, Italy has declared an emergency due to the rise in the number of migrants escaping the unrest in North Africa. Israel is bracing for a wave of illegal migrants as law and order dissolves in Egypt (and the Beduin consolidate their virtual independence in Sinai).
Sometimes history is not so much knocking on the door as beating it down.

The writer is editor of The International Jerusalem Post. [email protected]