Youssef Rakha on resistance
Two years before 9/11, the Wachowski brothers’ The Matrix seemed to predict something of cosmic magnitude. Not the levelling of the World Trade Center, exactly, but something like a new and impossibly difficult beginning after the definitive end — of humanity as we know it, of science-based civilisation, of freedom as a value or state of being, confined to a particular set of material practises. Anyway, with the benefit of hindsight, The Matrix made a strong case against Francis Fukuyama’s end-of-history hypothesis. The logical conclusion of liberal democracy was not only the “desert of the real”, as Slavoj Zizek eventually noted, but also the perfect starting point for global insurgency. The fight that could no longer be between capitalism and its mirror image would not be, as the film presented it, between man and machine, nor would it be between the west and Islam (the majority of westerners, after all, have as little empirically to do with George W. Bush as the majority of Muslims with Salafism, even less with its jihadi and takfiri formulations). The fight would rather be between the paradise of Samuel P. Huntington and all that it actually costs — Saddam and Al Qaeda included. To the contemporary human being, even the contemporary Muslim, Neo is of course a far more attractive messiah than Bin Laden — hence the rational world’s greater sympathy for Neo — but consciously or not, both perform the same function of resisting a system designed to cheat people not out of material advantage as such but out of seeing what their existence entails. Without a live mind that directs it, the body of the people is as good as dead.
Under Mubarak in Egypt, under whatever it is that Mubarak stands for — military-based, as opposed to simply military dictatorship — freedom remains at a premium. By freedom I do not mean simply political freedom, the right to “peaceful” protest, to personal safety against state- and (by extension) Washington-endorsed abuse, to participation in public decisions, or to the flow of information and ideas. I do not mean simply economic freedom: quality of education and employment opportunities, work ethics, the relative epistemic and material security required for developing an interest in any rights at all. I do not even necessarily mean social freedom: access to minimally humane public and private space, recreational leeway, or channels for interpersonal contact not based on financial exchange. I mean freedom from the burden of the lie which, while reflecting deprivation from all the above, also involves that idea of resistance — expressed, as it must be under the circumstances, through identity. We are where we are because they are where they are; our edge is that we are different from them. In itself this is perfectly true; the relevant questions however have to do with who they are and how to reposition things sufficiently for us to be elsewhere. Neo, you will remember, could only battle with the machine from within the Matrix, on its own terms, in his virtual as opposed to physical incarnation; and if in the process he virtually dies, then he has died physically too; because, as Morpheus tells him, “The body cannot live without the mind.”
Democracy only goes so far, then — but surely the answer is neither autocracy nor theocracy. It is not because neither of those two alternatives have been able to stand up to democracy in the first place; if anything they lend it credence, they strengthen and glorify the Matrix, they make the machine seem not only the best of all possible worlds but the only world that is possible. And if the body cannot live without the mind, in this sense, then resistance — like communism, like jihad — reduces to a mere aspect of the matrix. It is true enough that Arab and Muslim identity — the driving force of resistance, in our case — has proved incredibly flexible. Identity is flexible enough for the matrix of liberal democracy to run through it whether as is or in altered form. It is flexible enough to provide the machine with a pretext to kill, and to be the instrument of death. It is flexible enough for Mubarak to suggest, in the last address he gives before stepping down (probably on American orders) that he will not step down on American orders — and for a sizable part of the population to be taken in by that — even though Mubarak’s principal job for decades has been to carry out American orders without the least consideration for the feelings or interests of his people. Such flexibility is possible because, unlike the force with which Neo must contend, the substance of the global order is human and discursive. Identity does not prevent the very symbol of Arab-Muslim resistance, Hassan Nasrallah, from expressing unconditional support for a Syrian regime which — never having been chosen by a majority of Syrians — is happy to commit mass murder on the streets. Nasrallah is no messiah after all. The body cannot live without the mind.
And so it becomes possible, by recourse to identity and resistance — the same lie by which Saddam, Al Qaeda and Hassan Nasrallah are smuggled into Arab and Muslim minds as Neo-like figures when in fact they are agents of the Matrix — to see the events of January and February not as a people’s revolution (and it is true that a good 80 percent of the Egyptian people did not have the freedom to participate in a revolution) but as some kind of conspiracy aimed at destabilising the country, destroying the economy, compromising the security of the people. Yet in the absence of a vision for the future, let alone a global movement which, unlike the Soviet Union, unlike Pakistan or Iran, is both ready and able to content with liberal democracy, what is even the most glorious of revolutions if not a bid to take full advantage of the Matrix, to enjoy “the real,” as Morpheus puts it: “what you can feel, smell, taste and see… simply electrical signals interpreted by your brain.”