Let’s imagine the following scene: Somewhere in Western Europe in the early 1980s two gentlemen have a lively conversation in a café. One of them is visibly excited talking about a certain trade union (he just can’t recall the name) that could potentially spark a democratic change in Eastern Europe. The second man replies sceptically that, unfortunately, these East European fellows aren’t fit for democracy, and the trade union movement is doomed to fail. The sceptic does not yet realize that his view is shared by a significant portion of Eastern Europeans, particularly by the so-called pro-Western élites.
It is one of the major principles of our political manifesto to oppose such standpoints, which stem from contempt for non-Western or ‚peripheral’ peoples and from misinterpretations of their cultures and histories. In our statement, we criticize the postcolonial features of the Polish public debate, such as the belief that Polish society cannot determine its own fate.
We have been watching the events in the Middle East and North Africa closely over the past few days. The recent demonstrations showed the determination of the people who stood up to demand democratic liberties and to protest against omnipresent corruption, deteriorating standards of living, and rising prices of basic goods and commodities. Much of the world’s press, from the New York Times to Rzeczpospolita, have criticized the idea of democratizing the Maghreb countries by suggesting that it is a one-way ticket to Muslim theocracy. Piotr Zychowicz (Rzeczpospolita ) claims that ‘democratisation = destabilisation’, suggesting that dictatorship is a better solution for the region, considering the vital interests of Israel and even Western security; he concludes: “unfortunately, Maghreb 2011 is not East Europe 1989.”
It is quite astonishing to see a newspaper otherwise so critical about Polish democracy holding it up as a perfect role-model for Arabic countries. Promoting the Polish path of political and economic transition as our export-commodity is as dubious an idea as that of the Western monopoly on democracy.
As the editorial team of Nowe Peryferie, we want to express our solidarity with those who are fighting for democracy in the Middle East and North Africa. As citizens of a state in which attempts at improving democratic representation and social equality were labelled as expressions of ‘socialism’, populism, and even ‘quasi-fascism’, we are full of respect for those who gather today to defend human dignity and basic civil rights in Egypt, Tunisia, Algeria, Yemen and Jordan. We have experienced the plagues of corruption and oligarchic takeover of the state, and we wish, for our own country and for others, that illegitimate actions of the authorities are always met with such active popular resistance as we have witnessed throughout North Africa and the Middle East.
And to those who think opposing the dictatorships in the Arab countries is betraying western civilisation, we have only one question: is democracy in Poland in the interest of the West, or against it?
The very term ‘Polish national interest’ is widely seen as belonging to a radically nationalist rhetoric. We see a striking similarity between the two assertions: that the Arab people are not mature enough to govern themselves and that the Polish backward provincials should be governed by the enlightened, occidentalist élite. There may have been a good reason for the Polish defence minister, Bogdan Klich, saying in 2008 that “Poland plays the same role in Central Europe as Pakistan in Central Asia and Egypt in the Middle East”. The similarity is even more obvious when we hear that Ben Ali and Hosni Mubarak have been, allegedly, carrying the torch of Western values.
We are surprised to learn that corruption, nepotism, limited freedom of speech and constant police control are so proudly proclaimed western values. Some of the defenders of such values will surely call us useful idiots and say that it will be us, the atheists and women, who will be first to suffer from Sharia Laws in Europe. They will also mention the supposedly pro-women’s rights reforms introduced by Ben Ali in Tunisia.
Let us answer by quoting Alhem Belhadz, one of the Tunisian feminist activists:
“Repression is not only prison. The regime has been doing all in its power to make me remember that I do not have equal rights. I could not forget at home, because I knew the secret policemen would be waiting just outside. Sometimes they would shout ‘whore’ at me. I couldn’t forget at university, where I had constant problems. When I took part in a competition for a fellowshipand it turned out that I was the only candidate, the competition was cancelled”
We would like to remind the defenders of the pro-American despotism, that it is no guarantee of a secular state. The Saudi Arabian regime also cooperates with the Americans. While the mainstream media have been suggesting that it was the Muslim Brotherhood that stood behind the Egyptian upheaval, in fact the protests were organized by a wide variety of diverse social groups. Precarious workers, the young, unemployed graduates, even some soldiers and policemen—they all joined forces in resisting the Mubarak regime. We wish this kind of solidarity was still possible in the country where Solidarity—the free trade union and great social movement—emerged.
We do not wish the activists of Tunisia, Egypt or Algeria the fate of the many forsaken Solidarity activists, who did not, or, indeed, chose not to ‘profit’ as businessmen or corrupt politicians (such as Andrzej and Joanna Gwiazda) in post-communist Poland. We support the current protests with a hope that they will prove to be a big step towards a true democratization of the Middle East and Maghreb.
We want the Arabs, East Europeans and other peripheral nations, regions and cultures, to free themselves from the burden of post-colonialism.