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The Protester: Just who is he? | ASHARQ AL-AWSAT English Archive 2005 -2017
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America’s “Time” magazine chose “the Protester” as the iconic Person of the Year for 2011, in recognition of the impact created by the widespread demonstrations across the Middle East, the US and Russia. The magazine stressed that protesters have redefined the idea of “power to the people” all over the world, and consecrated the idea that individual action is capable of effecting comprehensive, collective change.

Other famous personalities nominated for the Person of the Year title included the “bride of the year” and Duchess of Cambridge, Kate Middleton, as well as the man who created and innovated the world of modern communications, former Apple CEO Steve Jobs. However, the prestigious American magazine with the trademark cover decided to devote this issue to “the Protester”, and particularly the Arab protesters. I am not going to argue here about whether we agree or disagree about the magazine’s selection criteria. Likewise, I am not going to discuss whether others might approve or disapprove of the nature of the changes that have occurred as a result of the mass protests and which have generally been in the interests of the “opposition” groups in these societies, or even neighbouring countries. I am also not going to argue about the assessment of independent observers around the world, as to how beneficial or harmful those protests have been to economic and political interests, or the stability of the countries involved. However, there can be no question that the “protests”, the eruption of the streets with demonstrations and the ouster of several regimes, represent the most important event this year, and deserve to be highlighted on the cover of the most famous American magazine.

A mysterious and anonymous figure whose face is obscured appears on the front cover of Time magazine; an embodiment of the demonstrations and protests that raged across the Middle East. One could speculate that he is Tunisian, Egyptian, Yemeni, Syrian, or even Bahraini.

The front cover is full of symbolism. We are looking at a picture that is open to all possibilities: a person whose facial features are obscured, and whose expression is ambiguous. Nothing is clear about this figure, other than his rejection and denunciation of the current state of affairs. Is he a left-wing revolutionary figure who believes in the leftist economic interpretation of events based on class struggle, and whose focus is on social justice and redistribution of wealth? Or is he an Islamist revolutionary, belonging to the Muslim Brotherhood or the Salafists, seeking to restore “virtue” to society, as well as provide basic services, whilst also calling for the enforcement of Islamic Sharia law and even the establishment of an Islamic caliphate even if on a gradual basis? Or is he perhaps an Arab Nationalist who wants to restore the “dignity” of the Arab world – indeed there is a Nasserist “Dignity” party in Egypt today – and repeal the 1979 Camp David Accords and lead the “resistance” to confront [Israel]? Or is he a revolutionary belonging to a Coptic, Berber or sectarian minority who wants to end the discrimination being practiced against his people and establish a system based on equality? Or is he just an Arab youth nursing a personal grievance against the government or the security forces?

These are not absurd questions, for the answer might be, the “protester” is all of the above.

At first glance, this is a short but eloquent answer, but it is also misleading, for “the protester” does not reflect the positive triumph of the “individual” over the collective and pluralistic demands of the people. For if the revolution were a horse, we must say that it has more than one rider, and these riders are all trying to lead this horse in different directions, which may result in the riders being unseated, or the horse injuring itself, or both.

The Time magazine cover reveals the beauty, and indeed the ambiguity, of the Arab protests and protesters.