L.I.S.A.: Let's have a look at the political demands of the opposition. Do people on the streets refer to any historical example, a national myth or national figure?
Dr. Fromherz: Yes and, surprisingly, sometimes no. Historical memory and nationalism is the central theme of my research project with Gerda Henkel Stiftung. However, the relationship between history and revolution is, by nature, somewhat problematic. As historians we see this in our reliance on state and institutional sources for our work - court records, newspapers, government records. These are the written material through which we think we can understand whole societies. Revolutions make the historian’s job much more difficult by upending these institutional expectations. It is for this reason, perhaps, that historians and scholars have been very bad at predicting revolutions, including this one. Also, history, historical memory and tradition are, in some respects, inherently rejected by the revolutionary process. On Al-Jazeera I saw Egyptians who said “We were ruled by Pharaohs for thousands of years - this is the first time we have overthrown one.” This, of course, was not true. There had been revolutions in Egypt’s past. The Mamluk period saw many a bread riot. However, the point of the revolution right now still seems to be the message of dramatic break from the past and a harnessing of the adrenaline of new possibilities. This phase of celebration and euphoria only lasts so long. If the revolution is successful it must establish institutional permanence and legitimacy. An inevitable ingredient of that legitimacy must be historical memory. I predict that soon there will be a call to revise and re-evaluate the history of Egypt. To search for new examples of social mobilization and civil society from Ancient times to present in the same way American historians have created a narrative of “inevitability” about the American revolution, so too will Egyptians and Tunisians be looking for teleological roots of their revolutions.
One more thing. There is a difference between history and heritage. The symbolic importance of the Egyptian Museum is key to understanding how national heritage as a symbol of collective pride (as opposed to history and its somewhat more complex abstractions) can be used by both sides of a revolution. Defended by the revolutionaries from looters but also manipulated by the Mubarak regime as “threatened” by the “instability” caused by the protests, the Egyptian Museum became a tense scene as both sides tried to show how the other was threatening Egypt’s magnificent, intangible heritage. The resignation the Zahi Hawass, the Minister of State for Antiquities Affairs, who published a list of what he claimed sites looted across Egypt, was a culmination of this use of heritage as a political tool by the old guard (Hawass) and the protestors. Indeed, ancient heritage is often used as a way of justifying authoritarianism. Although as historians we may be horrified by the looting of ancient monuments, to some in the impoverished classes, these lootings may have been an act of protest as much as an act of desperation.
L.I.S.A.: What is the significance of religion, i.e. the islamic heritage, in that context? Or more general: What about Islam, identity and belief in North Africa?
Dr. Fromherz: I think that religion, like appeals tradition and history, will become more important in the medium to long-term aftermath of these revolutions. The Muslim Brotherhood of Sheikh Qaradawi in Egypt and the Nahda party of Gannouchi in Tunisia were not, in fact, the central players in this revolution. However, as the best organized political blocs they may become more central in the long term. It is largely up to both the Military forces and the will of secular, popular sentiment for change and cultural openness to determine how much of the future of Egypt and Tunisia will be found in a more strict interpretation of religion. Of course, there is a wide difference between Islam as a whole and Islam as practiced or promoted by the Muslim Brotherhood. The most compelling image, I believe, was the rows and rows of praying, faithful protestors of all classes and backgrounds in Tahrir Square. Religion was a unifying force in a time of great crisis and upheaval.
L.I.S.A.: What is your expectation? How will the Arabic societies in North Africa change? Is there any way for a new political order?
Dr. Fromherz: Most of the revolutions of 1848 were put down after a few years. I do not think that the revolutionary sentiment of 2010-11 will fold so readily. In the long term I think Saudi Arabia will be key. I think that there are extraordinary internal developments right now in Saudi Arabia where force, intimidation and manipulation of religious sentiment are being used. Indeed, if the Saudi monarchy were to fall the consequences for the Arab and Islamic world may be even greater than the fall of Mubarak. I suspect any such revolt would be urban. The young would propel it. It would reject the alliance between monarchy and extremist Wahhabi clerics. It may take some years, however, for the current generation to finally wane from power. The opening of Saudi Oil and the two holiest Pilgrimage sites of Islam to some sort of democracy would have tremendous and profound reverberations. Al-Qaeda’s main goal has been the overthrow of the Saudi regime. If this was done by Saudis themselves in the name of a more liberal future that would be the final death knell of the traditional dictatorship in the Middle East. Even the richer gulf states (UAE and Qatar and Kuwait) may become vulnerable. Qatar’s Al-Thani monarchy has been supporting Al-Jazeera throughout this crisis; confident in the notion that Qataris are so wealthy they would never revolt. The Al-Thani themselves may soon be forced question their steadfast support for one of the main mouthpieces of revolution.
Dr. Allen Fromherz has answered the questions in writing.