Down With Hosni Walker
I had an unexpected surprise when I showed up in Madison, Wisconsin, last week. As a Wisconsin resident, I had gone to join statewide demonstrations against the newly elected Republican governor Scott Walker’s bill proposing to outlaw collective bargaining for most public employees. There, in the capital, I found the seeds of a revolution against Orientalism.
Among the mass-printed AFL-CIO pro-union signs were numerous handmade posters with Egypt as their inspiration. Firefighters, plumbers, teachers, secretaries, librarians, nurses, professors chanted “Kill the Bill” and waved posters with slogans such as “Down with Hosni Walker.” Clearly, for Wisconsin protesters, the Egyptian revolution did more than shatter Mubarak: It helped shatter American stereotypes of Middle Easterners.
As a professor of modern Middle East history in Wisconsin’s state university system, my courses often challenge students to think about the ideas of the great 20th-century intellectual Edward Said. In his book Orientalism, Said says that westerners have, over the centuries, perpetuated images of the Middle East as uncivilized, threatening, and exotic, to justify imperial rule over the region. In the post-9/11 era of fighting terrorism, Orientalism has fuelled the two US-made wars in the Middle East and the relentless US-backed suffocation of Palestinians.
Intentionally or not, the protesters of Wisconsin are slowing down the self-perpetuating system of Orientalism. Their signs convey an unusual humility among Americans, and willingness by some to place their local leader in the same league as the tyrannical Mubarak. Posters equating Mubarak with Walker indicate a refreshing awareness that the United States does not have a monopoly on democracy. One says “Walker = Mubarak. Recall! Resign!” Another shows pictures of Hitler, Walker, Mubarak and Kim Jong-il, each with their hand raised -- the caption: “If you hate democracy, raise your hand.”
Comparing Governor Walker’s actions to those of an emperor echoes the Egyptian protesters’ demands for an end to dictatorship: “Pharaoh Walker, let my people go!” or “Negotiate don’t dictate” or “Walker tramples freedoms.” One woman carried a robot with the slogan “Luke, bring down this imperial walker.”
The decision to critique the Wisconsin governor through the angle of dictatorship sends a message: Americans admit that their country -- which justified the invasion of Iraq on the grounds of bringing democracy -- does not actually have a corner on democracy. On seeing pictures of Mubarak’s face crossed out on the signs of Wisconsin pro-union protesters, an Egyptian friend in Cairo emailed: “We’re happy to export the Egyptian revolution! Americans can come here for training.”
The Egyptian-themed signs used by the Wisconsin protesters reflect a symbolic change in geopolitics. One glance at the sea of posters surrounding the Wisconsin state capital seemed to suggest that Egypt has now joined the United States as the leader of the free world. Side by side with posters lauding Egyptians are posters lauding America’s greatest visionaries of justice. One raised high in the air displayed a quote by Abraham Lincoln:
“All that serves labor, serves the nation. All that harms is treason. If a man tells you he trusts America, yet fears labor, he is a fool. There is no America without labor, and to fleece the one is to rob the other.”
Another read: “Martin Luther King died fighting for union rights.” With signs like these alongside posters affirming “We are Egypt,” we see a break with the usual depiction of the Middle East as a threat to American values. And an attempt to de-exoticize a region so often been shown in the US media as a land of belly-dancers and snake-charmers.
Signs like “Tunis, Cairo, Madison” or “Is this Egypt or Wisconsin?” bring the world together. For the working and middle class folk of the Midwest who are standing up for their rights, the people of the Middle East are an inspiration – now you can “Protest like an Egyptian.”
There need to be warnings too. History tells us that Americans could well fall in to the familiar trap of reproducing Orientalism. They need to be careful not to exploit for their own self-interest Egyptians’ hard-earned international media attention. Americans making blanket statements about a shared sense of oppression between Midwesterners and Egyptians risk trivializing and downplaying the years of pain and suffering endured by Egyptians. There is no one-size-fits-all approach to the problems of the world.
Even so, it was good to see a 17-year-old Egyptian blogger’s picture of himself in Tahrir Square holding a sign reading: “Egypt supports Wisconsin. One world, one pain.” Heidi Morrison is assistant professor of modern Middle East history at the University of Wisconsin, La Crosse. Copyright © 2011 Le Monde diplomatique -- distributed by Agence Global