Revolution?

by zunguzungu

Vijay Prashad looks to history:

All revolutions are not identical. The colour revolutions in Eastern Europe had a different tempo. They were also of a different class character. They were also along the grain of US imperialism, even though the people were acting not for US but for their own specific class and national interests. I have in mind the Rose Revolution in Georgia and the Orange Revolution in the Ukraine. Otpor in the Ukraine, among others, was well lubricated by George Soros’s Open Society and the US government’s National Democratic Institute. Russian money also swept in on both sides of the ledger. These Eastern European revolutions were mainly political battles in regions of the world still unsettled by the traumatic transition from state socialism to predatory capitalism.

The Arab revolt that we now witness is something akin to a “1968” for the Arab World. Sixty per cent of the Arab population is under 30 (70 per cent in Egypt). Their slogans are about dignity and employment. The resource curse brought wealth to a small population of their societies, but little economic development. Social development came to some parts of the Arab world: Tunisia’s literacy rate is 75 per cent, Egypt’s is just over 70 per cent, Libya almost 90 per cent. The educated lower-middle-class and middle-class youth have not been able to find jobs. The concatenation of humiliations revolts these young people: no job, no respect from an authoritarian state, and then to top it off the general malaise of being a second-class citizen on the world stage – second to the US-Israel and so on – was overwhelming. The chants on the streets are about this combination of dignity, justice and jobs.

Farha Ghannam looks at space:

These last events have been analyzed by social scientists, journalists, and policy makers mainly by looking at their temporal dimensions and exploring the historical forces that promoted the protests. Yet, the past two weeks have shown once again the importance of space in the operation of power, the challenging of political systems, and the constitution and legitimization of specific publics. We have witnessed young men and women pour into city streets and squares and onto bridges to protest unemployment, poverty, corruption, police brutality, election fraud, and political stagnation. They come from different classes and neighborhoods to inhabit the same spaces and to express a collective discontent with the political and economic conditions of their country.

It is illuminating to ponder the recent events in Cairo’s Midan al-Tahrir as we try to understand the relationship between space, power, belonging, and resistance, as well as the productive interplay between physical and virtual space. Communication technologies such as the Internet (especially the websites Facebook and Twitter) and mobile phones aided the organization and publicizing of the protests in Egypt. At the same time, the marches, rallies, and the demonstrations of millions of Egyptians have brought a sense of visibility and immediacy that other means of communication alone would not have been able to secure. As I write this piece, the strong link between virtual and physical space continues to be central to the making of publics that are seen, heard, and legitimized.

…During all of this, the Midan has become the symbolic as well as the physical anchor that represents right vs. wrong, change vs. stability, and the nation (el-Sha’b) vs. the system (nizam). The way in which this space has been managed and regulated by the protesters is becoming central to how they see themselves as a group. They have repeatedly expressed their pride that they were able to fend off the baltagia and protect their Midan. Men and women work together to clean the square, protect the property (stores, buildings, and the Egyptian museum) in and around it, offer medical services to its inhabitants, and support each other. The feeling of solidarity and belonging is so strong among the protesters that many are willing to sacrifice their lives to protect the Midan and its people. In many ways, the square mirrors what is happing in other Egyptian urban neighborhoods, where ordinary citizens have taken charge of their streets, alleys, and housing blocks to offer protection, provide basic services, and secure order.

Since February 2, a strong association has been established between staying in the square and victory, on one hand, and leaving it and defeat, on the other. As one protester put it, “If we leave, they’ll hunt us one by one. We know that…. It is safe inside the square because people are willing to sacrifice their lives at the frontlines.” The protesters have strongly linked the Midan to the future of Egypt by insisting that they will not leave it before Mubarak leaves office. Despite increasing pressure by the political and military institutions, the protesters are still holding to the Midan and are planning more and bigger rallies.

Daniel Little looks to academic models:

What do we mean by “revolution”? Is there a reasonably clear and uncontroversial definition that would allow us to classify various uprisings and changes as governments as “revolution” or not? Let’s look at the way that a number of recent theorists have dealt with the concept of revolution. Here are three, with rather different approaches: Samuel Huntington, Theda Skocpol, and Jack Goldstone. Each of them seems to capture something important about the way we think about the idea of revolution.

And decides that none of these three quite do the necessary work:

Perhaps the most we can say about Tunisia and Egypt is fairly descriptive: these were instances of governmental change forced by a largely spontaneous social movement that erupted into the streets, with very little organization or leadership. Promises of political reform were made in response to the demonstrations, and if these promises are kept, then the movement will have produced some degree of political reform in addition to the successful ouster of the dictator. So popular movements can push the governments of Tunisia and Egypt in the direction of more inclusive democratic political institutions. But this process, and these limited outcomes of political change, seem to fall far short of the idea of “revolution.” And, along with the realism that Huntington often expresses about this sort of process, it is entirely possible that these transformations will be hijacked by other groups as events unfold, so that their progressive political goals will be frustrated.

Unfortunately, though, we don’t have a convenient umbrella term for this kind of political transition. The closest I can come is something like this: these are people-powered processes of forced political reform, intended to lead to institutions that are more inclusive and more accountable than the dictatorships they replace. They are “people-power” political transformations, not revolutions.

Peter Hallward puts the focus where, I think, it belongs: the fact that “for the first time in decades, the decision to determine and then realise such possibilities depends first and foremost on the people themselves.”

Of course, it is too early to say what the immediate outcome of Egypt’s ongoing mobilisation will be. Anti-government protestors have so far retained the initiative and determined the course and pace of political change. At this point, after a couple of exhausting weeks, Egypt’s rulers (both at home and abroad) clearly hope that belated recourse to a familiar mix of divide-and-rule manoeuvrings – minor concessions, secret negotiations, delayed investigations, selective intimidation – may yet manage to distract some of the participants in a mobilisation thus far remarkable for its discipline, unity and resolve. Some observers, who are perhaps themselves exhausted, have begun to wonder whether the spectacle of Egypt’s protests might now start to fade away.

Judging from the response in and around Tahrir Square, this seems very unlikely. In a sense, though, what happens in the immediate future may prove less important than what has already happened in the immediate past. Hosni Mubarak and Omar Suleiman already belong to a decidedlyancien régime. The fate of Egypt’s revolution is already independent of the next twist in negotiations with the old dictatorship, or the next fumbled response from its American backers.

For whatever happens next, Egypt’s mobilisation will remain a revolution of world-historical significance because its actors have repeatedly demonstrated an extraordinary capacity to defy the bounds of political possibility, and to do this on the basis of their own enthusiasm and commitment. They have arranged mass protests in the absence of any formal organisation, and have sustained them in the face of murderous intimidation. In a single, decisive afternoon they overcame Mubarak’s riot police and have since held their ground against his informers and thugs. They have resisted all attempts to misrepresent or criminalise their mobilisation. They have expanded their ranks to include millions of people from almost every sector of society. They have invented unprecedented forms of mass association and assembly, in which they can debate far-reaching questions about popular sovereignty, class polarisation and social justice.

Amina Elbendary sees history being made more concretely:

It is important to keep in mind the targets of any protest because they reveal much about the nature of discontent. The main targets of attack on Friday 28 January, the first day of “anger,” were police stations and offices of the ruling NDP. Like other protests elsewhere, these were not sporadic targets, but ones replete with symbolism. The significance of targeting the police establishment cannot go unnoticed. On the other hand, the NDP had grown in membership over the past decade (3.5 million in a country of 84.6 million, by some accounts), recalling the one-party systems of totalitarian regimes. Members joined usually as a means to get more opportunities from within the system, or to avoid the ire of the system. In the last parliamentary elections NDP members alienated many sectors of society, both players in the political system and the overwhelming silent majority left out of it, by monopolizing the election process from nomination to election, resorting to any and all means necessary to keep non-NDP candidates out of parliament house; gerrymandering, intimidation, detention of opponents (especially Muslim Brotherhood members), old-fashioned rigging, physical violence — any and all means possible. In fact, the former party officials were boastful of their achievements which they took as testament of the popularity and weight of the NDP on the street. It was just too much. It alienated many people even more.

Thus there was much anger on the streets, especially among the young, the educated, the semi-educated, the semi-globalized citizens of Egypt, when on 25 January 2011 they decided to celebrate Police Day by protesting against the system.

Nuvar Hovsepian argues that what is at stake is a re-definition of citizenship:

Egypt like other post-colonial states, established a form of populist authoritarianism predicated on the need to safeguard the unity of the nation. In this paradigm the state acts on behalf of the people and incorporates them into the state as subjects who can enjoy only national but not individual rights. In this capacity the state guarantees the welfare of its subjects through various economistic modernization programs. For the subjects to receive this state largesse, they must postpone their rights as citizens. This paradigm thus defines any form of protest and dissent as a threat to the nation, and its perpetrators are dubbed as enemies of the people.

In the past, the people’s acquiescence to such a trade-off  prevented the formation of a viable pro-democracy movement. But the Arab revolt today (Egypt, Tunisia and elsewhere) is clear evidence of the emergence of a counter paradigm. Simply put, Arab youth are leading a profound revolt whose central objective is the transformation of former subjects into citizens with agency and voice to make demands of their rulers. The rulers are expected to be servants of their citizens—nothing less is acceptable.

The streets of Egypt, in Cairo, Alexandria, Suez, and all the other municipalities, are demanding the end of the authoritarian paradigm, and the construction of a democratic order predicated on the consent of the people as vibrant and active citizens. Yes, this is revolutionary, which is precisely why the Mubarak regime is adamant on remaining in control. They will use violence to prevent the spread of the Arab democracy movement.