By Carl Raschke
The Egyptian "revolution", which was not really a revolution in the Western historical sense, is now a fait accompli. But what was it, really? What does it mean in the long haul?
The events of the last two weeks strike me as a post-modern, perhaps even "post-Muslim" version of the events of May 1968, which French intellectuals today still recall as l'eventement, the "event", or events, that supposedly changed everything.
At the time they did, but socially and politically they had very little short-term or long-term effect. The events of May 1968, which included both the "Prague Spring" as a very early herald of the collapse of Communism two decades later and the peak fury of anti-Vietnam protests that led to the resignation of then-President Lydon Johnson.
There was one common, undeniable factor in both the Western uprisings of the late Sixties and the sudden in the Muslim world in 2011 - an enormous, maturing, disaffected youth population.
The common, almost stale refrain in the Western media these days has been that the events in Egypt were almost exclusively about "freedom", "democracy", and the lack of economic opportunity. In a large sense that observation is true, but trivially true.
The so-called "youthquake" in America and Western Europe more than 40 years ago shared many of the same slogans, and the same kind of explanations from the punditerati. To a lesser extent similar forces and factors propelled the final push to bring down the post-war Marxist states of the post-War Europe in the fateful years 1989-91.
But in all three cases what struck observers was the sudden propogation of a "wave" phenomenon started by a seemingly random incident (as when an earthquake on the ocean floor triggers a tsunami) that quickly caught global attention and inspired mass mobilizations of those who were fed up with whatever it was that was onerous and long-standing.
Hence, there is not much difference on that score between Rosa Parks who set off the civil rights protests and Mohamed Bouazizi, the so-called "street vendor who sparked the revolution."
But these now historically inscribed phenomena only compare with each other superficially. History, as we remember it, always happens suddenly and unexpected - and often is over quickly. Organized youthful disaffection can conjure up thrilling global theater, but what makes real revolutions, as historians constantly remind us, are well-thought-out transformative and quasi-utopian ideologies that have enough appeal within a select circle to inspire long-term, absolutely dedicated and often ruthless, commitment that more often than not produce the opposite of what they promise.
Whether we're talking about the Jacobins in 1789, the Bolsheviks in 1917, or Ayatollah Khomeini's Shiite Islamist circle in 1978 - the prototypical "revolutions" described and analyzed in the history books - the historical impact ultimately has come from the unflagging efforts of determined "vanguard." Just as an exceptionally warm day in January does not an early spring make, a dramatic tumbling of a long-standing social, political, or economic system does not a revolution make.
For example, if it had not been for the visionary and dogged strategic leadership of Martin Luther King and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference starting in the early 1950s, there would not have been a civil rights "revolution".
Conversely, there are essentially "democratic" but leaderless "revolutions" short on ideology that flare up, then largely fade into memory and quickly forgotten. Prominent examples are the temporary overthrow of the war-weakend French state by the Paris Commune in 1871, or the so-called "Orange Revolution" in Ukraine from 2004-05 that within five years dissolve back into the kind of oligarchical control which has been the dominant theme in Eastern Europe for centuries and with which quite Egyptians are familiar.
The Egyptian revolution is seriously in danger of succumbing to this latter pattern.
But what does seem significant in the long run about the events in Egypt (and North Africa for that matter) is the marginalization of the Islamist voice, which so many academic experts have almost herd-like extolled (often in fulsome terms) as a slow-rolling, inexorable wave rolling over the Middle East in the last ten years. Despite their long-proven conspiratorial prowess when it comes to leveraging chaos to impose semi-totalitarian "Islamic" principles on the populace since the late Seventies, such interests and factions were almost inconsequential.
There is fear that if the situation is not stablized soon, they will fill the vacuum once again. But something else "unthought" (as Martin Heidegger would call it) seems to be happening below the klieg lights. What is happening seems almost to be a sudden reversal of trends that began and gradually gathered momentum in both the West and the Middle East from the late 1970s onward.
What has reversed is the slow takeover of the political process by religious ideologies and utopian schemes of using stripped down, highly modernized, "fundamentalist" world views to overhaul society. The sudden and mass defection of youth in America from the religous right toward the close of the Bush era was one local indicator. The uselessness of imams and mullahs in the new Middle Eastern youthquake is an even more telling illustration.
That does not mean that the Middle East is finally "going secular." Nor are we witnessing anything like an implantation of classical ideas of European liberal democracy. Ironically, Slavoy Žižek's pronouncement on Al Jazeera recently that what the Egyptian jacquerie really symbolizes is a new sense of revolutionary "universalism" in the Muslim word driven by a pushback against tyranny may be the most trenchant observation so far. Even though the current reactionary Islamist regime in Iran cited the events along the Nile as a vindication of their own "revolution", the renewed mobilization in recent days of that nation's "green movement" based on the example of what happened in Iran has far more weight to it.
This new "universalism", to cite the phrase first invented by Kant at the time of the French Revolution, is probably, at least in the Muslim context, a "religion without religion." But all religions without religion are driving forces that share ethical and political affinities with their historical precedessors and cannot be divorced from them.
Egypt thus probably will cut significantly into the commercial relevance of today's generations of Islamic and religous studies scholars (many of whom have secret Islamist sympathies) who have become accustomed to telling us how Muslims are really "different" from us, and that in good multi-culturalist genuflexion we need to acknowledge our sins of insensitivity to that fact.
But it will probably also undercut the authority of the "secular theologians," who have held on since the 1960s and constantly remind us that it all comes down to our own autonomous and liberal political (or perhaps genteel neo-neo-Marxist) responsibility to change the world somehow (or in some form), even though Gott ist tot.
What we may be witnessing intellectually, even if Egypt goes the way of Ukraine, is a new, universalist, syn-religious but not necessarily "religionless", faithfulness to the force of the future - torchborn by youth, as always happens - that focuses on some kind of concrete vision of a globalized, cosmopolitan passion for justice.
Kant may have been more prophetic than we realize. And it is no coincidence that Derrida picked up this theme twenty years ago in his own meditations on the "return of religion."
The return of religion was never intended by Derrida to mean the "return of religiosity", or the return of the forms of historical religion. If we follow Derrida back ten years earlier, it was meant as a return of the universalized force of faithfulness to what he himself called the "impossible."
But the impossible has happened.
Carl Raschke is senior editor of the JCRT and Professor of Religious Studies at the University of Denver.