Monday, February 07, 2011

Why did the Egyptian intifada become a revolution?

This title is not a rhetorical question, not one of those devices where I set up a problem to which I already know the answer. It's not the usual trickery, in other words. I literally am not in a position to know. But perhaps the best way to get to the answer is to phrase the question properly in the first place. Asa Winstanley has an interesting article on New Left Project on the contours of the Egyptian uprising, which he argues has already acquired the dimensions of a genuine social revolution. He writes:

Despite many obstacles, there are reasons for optimism. Every time events seem to be slowing down, and the pundits predict a loss of momentum, Egyptians prove them all wrong and the revolution escalates. Indeed, for so many people, their lives literally depend on it.

The revolt is showing many early signs of popular social revolution, reminiscent of the wave of factory occupations, strikes and mass-uprisings that took place in Latin America in the late 1990s and 2000s. Youth, women, children and the working classes are leading this revolution. New independent trade unions have sprung up and there have been multiple calls for a general strike.

Given the mysterious New Year’s Eve bombing of a Coptic church in Alexandria, the extent to which the revolution has been consistently anti-sectarian is heartening. There have been widespread reports of Christian Egyptians protecting praying Muslims, frequent use of the cross-and-crescent symbol and even participation of Coptic religious leaders (despite the fact that the church hierarchy, like the Muslim clerics of al-Azhar, has long been co-opted by the regime). On Sunday there was a Coptic mass in Liberation Square, protected by Muslims, and joint Christian-Muslim prayers for the martyrs of the revolution.

The level of spontaneous self-organisation is striking and highly impressive. Charles Levinson of the Wall Street Journal describes a scene in Liberation Square:

“Hundreds of young men guarded the square’s perimeter. Some frisked new arrivals and checked identification… By Thursday afternoon, several dozen protesters were wearing badges made of masking tape that specified their role in their hastily assembled administration. Doctors with medical coats wore pieces of tape bearing their names and specialities.”

Democracy Now! senior producer (and Egyptian-American) Sharif Abdel Kouddous has been reporting from Cairo (his work has been essential, as has that of the Electronic Intifada’s Matthew Cassel). Abdel Kouddous described how protesters in Liberation Square began to clean up for themselves: “not only are they gathering the trash, but they are actually separating plastic, doing recycling”.

What can explain this level of self-organisation? Why have the people been able to withstand wave after wave of repression, beating back an enemy with immensely superior resources? It, say some, lacked leadership and organisation. Indeed, the factions which have made up Egypt's mainstream opposition were largely late to the revolution and have been racing to catch up. For all the scaremongering about the Muslim Brothers, they have rarely been interested in power, much less an Islamic state, and they have been on the most conservative, slow-moving end of the protests since they began. Mohammed El Baradei, for all that he was feted on Al Jazeera, has no clear base in this struggle. As for techno-fixes, fuggedaboutit. The Egyptian state shut down the internet and the mobile 'phone networks, and it still didn't stop the revolution. Malcolm Gladwell is right, in this sense. The social media which is championed by those revolving door apparatchiks moving between the State Department and silicon valley (eg) is not organisation itself, but merely a means to it and, as it turns out, a dispensable means. Yet the logistics of revolution have been handled with aplomb. People who were assumed by journalists to be passive, certainly never capable of such a monumental task as revolution, have proven to be the most advanced and adept social organisers on the planet. They have disproved, in mere weeks, the filthy aristocratic prejudice, still undergirding ruling class thought today, that ordinary working class people cannot govern themselves.

Of course, the premise that this revolution arose ex nihilo, with no leadership and no prior history of struggle, may precisely be one of the assumptions inhibiting a proper understanding. Some of the most militant areas in this revolution have been zones of intense class struggle in the last few years - Mahalla, Alexandria and Suez, for example. And out of these struggles, leadership has emerged sufficient to plan days of action well in advance, consult on and elaborate very detailed and intelligent tactics, and disseminate invaluable information. The truth is, this didn't come out of nowhere. Well before the Tunisian revolt, Hossam was predicting that something was about to go up in Egypt. But the question remains. Why didn't this intifada surge, break against the rocks of state repression, and fall back in disarray and defeat? What made the difference between, say, Iran and Egypt? Ordinarily, one would expect there to be a point where people struggling against a regime that is willing to murder people in their dozens, or hundreds, and injure thousands more, start to melt away. The core of committed activists who keep things running when everything falls to pieces go into hiding, or are captured, locked up and tortured. But no - this time people said: "we can't go home after all this, if we do leave the streets, they'll come after us individually, raid our homes in the middle of the night, and take us away to secret jails." And so the question, again, is - why?