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It is certainly true that politics is theater: Familiar scripts are activated and rehearsed given the assumed audience. And the political actors, despite any espoused or apparent differences, are easily recognizable and tend not to stray too far from established plot lines. These conventions are certainly disturbing and almost always insult our intelligence and imagination. But watching the increasingly unpredictable events unfolding in the Republic of Egypt over the last few of days, I must say that I am stunned that this cry for democratic inclusion in a nation ruled by the same sovereign for more than three decades (one funded by the United States at the tune of $1.5 billion annually) has been greeted by the usual political scramble. Since tens of thousands of Egyptian citizens began taking to the streets last Tuesday, the major players in this unprecedented real-life drama have turned to the usually cautious diplomatic language.
The quest to calibrate the American response is understandable given the dramatic events and their decades-long perception that bolstering Mubarak’s authoritarian regime is necessary to maintain a stable Middle East. But the Egyptian people, frustrated by staggering unemployment, widespread corruption, skyrocketing inflation, a repressive regime and a majority youth population with little prospects, are re-writing the political narrative moment by moment—and are determining the future of the country. With the police in retreat and the army on the ground reportedly with orders to shoot citizens in defiance of the curfew, a heady mix of chaos, jubilation and a great deal of uncertainty and fright, prevails. As I write this, more than 100 people have been killed and thousands reported injured, detained or disappeared. And some have taken to the streets of suburbs outside of urban centers with weapons of all kinds to protect their homes from looters. This powder keg is dangerous, indeed, and it is clear that Mubarak’s sacking of his government and the announcement of Egypt’s first Vice-President in thirty years has not operated to stem the tide of unrest.
No one can say how things will turn. What is clear is that much will depend on the shifting posture adopted by the leaders of this country. President Obama has suggested that he is willing to work with the people of Egypt “in all quarters;” and Secretary of State Clinton has made the Sunday Magazine rounds insisting that the democratic rights of the Egyptian people be respected and democratic reforms enacted. But decisive action is required now before the loss of life increases in this ancient city. Yes, vision and imagination are of pressing moment as helicopters and fighter jets (funded with U.S. taxpayer dollars) fly, at this very moment, lower and lower over Cairo’s Tahiri Square. This we know for sure: Leaders will have to “go off script” in order to ensure that wide-spread bloodshed is not the principal outcome of this populist (and global) call for transformation and democracy.
Rich Blint, writer and cultural critic, is busy completing his dissertation, “Trembling on the Edge of Confession: Racial Figuration and Iconicity in Modern American Culture,” in the Program in American Studies at New York University. His areas of interest include, American capitalism, media studies, and US popular culture; American and African American literature and culture; postcolonialism and diaspora; and urban form and politics in the context of the global. Blint is guest editor of the Winter/Spring 2008 issue of Black Renaissance Noir and co-editor (with Douglas Field) of a special issue of African American Review on James Baldwin forthcoming in 2012. He serves on the Executive Board of Vanderbilt University’s, ‘Issues in Critical Investigation: The African Diaspora,’ and has taught courses at NYU, The Brecht Forum, and Hunter College, The City University of New York. He lives in New York City.