London Riots

Published in the Express Tribune on August 19th 2011 here.

I had promised myself that I was going to let it be. That I was going to write nothing about the London riots. Because more than enough had been written about a bunch of idiots who’d set a city aflame while opportunistically bagging sneakers and bicycles while gutting neighbourhood businesses. Because Marxist meta-narratives of exclusion are all well and good, but rioting without purpose is still rioting without purpose.

Besides, George Fulton, the outsider-insider, who reconciles worlds diplomatically, had already adroitly written truth to power: in Karachi, they burn tires for paani and atta — not plasmas and Adidas.

But then the news cycle intervened. The constant drumbeat of punditry makes everyone rise up to profess insight. It encourages people to comment, occasionally, blatantly, carelessly. Mona Eltahawy, a prominent commentator on the Arab Spring, recentlywrote a piece for The Guardian that reeks of complacent comparison. She sets about pleading with UK Prime Minister David Cameron to not become like Hosni Mubarak, Egypt’s dictatorial ex-president, in putting his own people to the sword conveniently forgetting that, neither was a single tear gas canister fired to stop the London riots, nor a sole rubber bullet. While in Tahrir Square, people died by tank shell, sprayed bullets and the unerring aim of sniper scopes.

Eltahawy, thankfully, did not equate the Tahrir square protesters to the London yob mob, but other commentators haven’t been as graceful. However, she did insinuate that David Cameron and ilk were similar to Mubarak. Not because they’d sent troops to crush protesters, because obviously they hadn’t. Not because the secret police was viciously beating up the rioters. Not because David Cameron had accused non-state agents and terrorists of orchestrating riots before asking the army to open fire. No, her point of comparison was Cameron complaining that the looters were using social media and suggesting that access perhaps be restricted. And his suggestion of water cannons for crowd control: obviously a complete assault on people’s freedom of gathering and looting in the quest for beer and chips. How very Mubarak of Cameron. How dare he?

Forgetting, of course, that none of these measures have been enacted or are expected to. That Cameron can’t restrict the internet on a whim — the UK is a democracy with checks and balances. Also forgetting that the businesses owners being looted, the families of those killed, and most sane citizens caught up in the mess, were in fact screaming for more assertive action to stop London from burning. That people were expressing displeasure at the lack of hard policing and asking for the rioters to be held accountable. That the rioters had no political motivations and barely any economic ones. They were just being parasitical and capricious. Fight for your rights, Eltahawy exhorts the UK. Yes, indeed. Fight for your stolen HD TVs too, while you’re at it.

Let’s all leave the Arab Spring alone, shall we? It has yet to sort itself out in any meaningful way and needs to reach conclusions about itself. What the Spring doesn’t need are cases of ridiculous equivalence.

So, no, Israel’s recent demonstrations against the cost of living are not a Tahrir moment. They’re simply economic protests and strikes. And no, the London riots don’t indicate the power of the people, and strength of the street. They only indicate how far some would go when law and order begins to break down. And no, Cameron is most certainly not Mubarak; he can’t impose his will on anyone without due process. And no, anti-Nato dharnas in Pakistan are not the same as uprisings in Syria or Libya.

But if the burning desire to compare situations to others remains unquenched, might I suggest comparing the London riots to France’s suburban unrest of 2005, 2009 and 2010 where unemployed men destroyed property out of a sense of anger, disenfranchisement and marginalisation. Their anger was potent, but also misdirected and selfish. In the end, the violence only gutted communities already at risk of becoming ghettos. Sound familiar?