Last Updated: Sun Jul 17, 2011 23:49 pm (KSA) 20:49 pm (GMT)

Eman El-Shenawi: Following colonial history, because an Egyptian battle scene would be incomplete without camels

A supporter of former president Hosni Mubarak, on camel, fights with anti-Mubarak protesters in Cairo, Egypt. (File Photo)
A supporter of former president Hosni Mubarak, on camel, fights with anti-Mubarak protesters in Cairo, Egypt. (File Photo)

That camel episode. At the time, I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry at what Egypt had been reduced to. It was a silly sketch from history; the scene reverted to images of backwardness and chaotic mutiny traditionally aligned to Orientalist notions of the East. As an Arab onlooker (regardless of whether I supported the revolution or not), it was embarrassing to watch.

Let’s quickly revisit what happened. On February 2, during the bustling Egyptian protests against the then president Hosni Mubarak and his government, there was an attack on the protest camp in Tahrir square. Whip-wielding camel riders tore through the protesting crowds, which led to further street clashes. It was described as one of the bloodiest days in the Egyptian uprising and the incident has now come to be known as the “battle of the camel.”

This week, investigators have concluded that it was the former secretary general of Mr. Mubarak’s National Democratic Party, Safwat Al Sharif, alongside other parliamentarians who were behind the attacks. The investigations revealed that the former government bigwigs had hired thugs to attack crowds and that Mr. Sharif urged them to “kill the protesters if they had to,” the state-run MENA news agency reported.

Now, back to a more theoretical (than political) analysis. For many, the mounted attack went beyond a corrupt government assault on protestors who fought an anti-government cause.

Anyone who has had a chance to look at world history books and briefly travelled back to colonial history would have recognized that binaries that set apart the East from the West were essentially born during this time. They would also know that the projection of the Easterners as a backward, barbaric and undemocratic bunch is not new.

History accounts say this: In the 16th century, the physical expansion of Europe led to the conquest and control of Asia and Africa primarily. But the West had legitimized this process by presenting it as a “civilizing mission,” according to Orientalist theory. Through their contemporary sciences, such as anthropology and biology, the imperialistic West claimed that the colonies would become modernized, advanced and progressive through colonization. The theory behind colonization suggested that the East was not developed enough to do this alone.

Now, the Arab Spring reports say this: The camel episode protruded oddly from the bulk of Egypt’s clashes during the uprising. I have described it as similar to the sight of “Old Arabia,” with men wearing head wraps and aggressively riding in for their performance. It was reminiscent of the Arabian girth you would only see imagined onto oil-painted, sand-swept battle scenes. But this was far less beautiful, and backed by an underhand plot.

The addition of whips and camels reached new depths, dragging the image of Egypt and its people back to an older world. It recreated the image of the East as barbaric, unstable and incapable of change, much like the Orientalist East in the colonial world.

And as these messages still resonate in the region, with images much like Egypt’s camel gig (think back to the snapshots of Yemen’s tribes, Libya’s insurgent fighters and other chaotic Arab Spring moments that indeed included Western “mature” interference, as with Libya) I wonder whether we actually live in the “post-colonial.” After all, we are stuck with the same inferior presentation of a messy Eastern world, with corrupt governments that push toward this even further.

Apart from the fact that these events show the Middle East has taken a few steps back, they are also scenes that promise a few more deaths by nightfall -- and that is what alarms me most. Yes, I wonder too what is next, but I could probably take a look at the next set of history books to find out.

(Eman El-Shenawi, a writer at Al Arabiya English, can be reached at:

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