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Echoes from Tunisia and Egypt: Revolutions without self-proclaimed revolutionaries

In Moments of Grace, Revolt, The Politics of Politics on February 3, 2011 at 5:38 pm

by Horace Campbell, Pambazuka

‘It was a victory parade – without the victory. They came in their hundreds of thousands, joyful, singing, praying, a great packed mass of Egypt, suburb by suburb, village by village, waiting patiently to pass through the “people’s security” checkpoints, draped in the Egyptian flag of red, white and black, its governess eagle a bright gold in the sunlight. Were there a million? Perhaps. Across the country there certainly were. It was, we all agreed, the largest political demonstration in the history of Egypt, the latest heave to rid this country of its least-loved dictator. Its only flaw was that by dusk – and who knew what the night would bring – Hosni Mubarak was still calling himself “President” of Egypt.’

This is how Robert Fisk of the Independent of UK captured the mood of optimism of the peoples in Tahrir Square (also called Liberation Square) in Cairo before the veiled fist of counter-revolution unleashed its whip to reverse the initiative of the popular uprising in Cairo. On Tuesday 1 February there were over 2 million people gathered on Liberation Square to demand the removal of Hosni Mubarak, and on Wednesday 2 February plain-clothes police and armed thugs mounted on camels and horses stormed the unarmed citizens, attempting to kill and brutalise those who want to be free. The people stood their ground and beat back the government thugs.

The peoples of Egypt had grabbed the attention of the world as oppressed peoples all over took courage from the new sense of purpose of the Egyptians. Their confidence and freedom from fear has inspired oppressed people in all parts of the world, and there are already popular uprisings and protests in Jordan, Yemen and Sudan. Not far behind are citizens in Algeria, Cameroon and Libya who are slowly stirring and demanding political and social change.

The peoples of Egypt and Tunisia have made their mark on the world stage and they have shifted the balance of power back to ordinary people. They have re-established the essence of popular democratic participation and elevated the issues of the politics of inclusion. This shift is bringing back the sense of power to the exploited all over the world. Oppressed peoples all over the world now take courage from the new sense of purpose of the demonstrators. Their confidence and freedom from fear have been so inspiring that there are already popular uprisings and protests in Jordan, Yemen and Sudan. Not far behind are citizens in Algeria, Cameroon and Libya, who are slowly stirring and demanding political and social change.

Indisputably, youths are rewriting the meaning of revolutionary organisation and at the same time exposing the hollowness and hypocrisy of the liberal ‘democratic’ posture of Western imperialists. It is this same Western liberal force that supported the regime in Egypt as a bulwark of ‘stability and counter-terrorism’ in North Africa and the Middle East. By unleashing thugs and state security personnel to attack the unarmed civilians, the Egyptian revolution now poses a challenge of the fourth stage of the revolution: how to harness the ideas of revolutionary non-violence to be able to stand firm and fight back against internal and external provocations. In this standoff, the army will be put to the test as the external supporters of the moribund Mubarak regime seek to crush the revolutionary spirit of the people. One of the important tasks of the peace and justice movements internationally is to oppose the militarists who will seek to exploit the moment of transition to foment war and military interventions.

MILLIONS IN LIBERATION SQUARE AND ACROSS EGYPT

As millions of people surge on to the streets of Alexandria, Aswan, Cairo, Port Said, Suez and other Egyptian cities, the anti-dictatorship protest in Egypt built on the third stage of the revolutionary process in Tunisia and brought an entirely new force, that of the power of numbers and the test of creative means of self defence. On Tuesday 1 February, there were reports that an estimated 2 million people plus were on the streets of Cairo demanding the removal of the dictatorial regime of Mubarak. Millions more amassed in every city and community in Egypt. In our last piece, we outlined three basic stages of the Tunisian revolution. In our analysis we identified the first stage as the self-immolation and sacrifice of Mohamed Bouzazi. The second stage involved the self-mobilisation of the popular forces of Tunis, leading to the removal of the Ben Ali government. The third stage involved the caravans of liberation, when people from even the most rural parts of Tunisia rode on their caravans to Tunis to hasten the dismantling of the remnants of the Ben Ali regime.

The massive outpouring of popular energy for social justice not only moved the ideas of liberation from town to town but across borders. This week, we seek to grasp how the Tunisian revolution intersects with the Egyptian uprising, and what this means for 21st century revolutions. In Egypt, the people have sounded it very clearly that theirs is a popular revolt of a revolutionary character. In both places, the potential revolutionary character could mature to the extent that winning the rank and file of the military and police to create a new society could be the foundation for a quantum leap in the changes away from dictatorship and brutal repression.

One thing that stands out in both revolutions is the search by ordinary people and people from all walks of life to end a system that represses their human dignity and generates fear and submission. The Egyptian and Tunisian revolts are also uprisings against neoliberal capitalism and the medicines of the IMF (International Monetary Fund) and Bretton Woods institutions that pushed the trickle-down prescription for the economic health of society. Not only did implementing a neoliberal economic programme supported by the IMF and World Bank in 2004–05 directly foster the income inequality and conditions which the Tunisians and Egyptians are seeking to change, but during this period, these same institutions ‘applauded’ the governments for the success of these programmes because they achieved higher rates of GDP (gross domestic product) growth and increased foreign investment. Just as Ireland was applauded for its ‘successful’ economic model before imploding, it is evident that the ‘success’ being achieved occurred as impoverishment and unemployment for the majority of citizens were increasing.

Both Tunisians and Egyptians have witnessed massive unemployment, poor living conditions, a lack of decent housing, exploitation and low wages, state corruption, police repression and brutality, inflation and other forms of state terrorism. These conditions persisted in societies of billionaires, massive expenditure on state security apparatus and a general climate for providing the conditions for capitalists to accumulate vast amounts of wealth.

The dehumanisation of Egyptian youths has been consistent with the dehumanisation of the people of the region. This dehumanisation is most advanced in the Palestinian territory. And it was not by accident that the same Egyptian government that dehumanised these people assisted Israel in blockading Gaza in an effort to starve and subdue the Palestinians.

The massive gap between the rich and the poor in Egypt is now in the open, taking this rebellion beyond the narrative of the Western media about rage, anger, chaos and Islamic extremism. The transformation of the consciousness of the Egyptian and Tunisian peoples places the issues of social transformation at the centre of politics. Thus for the people of Egypt, it is not simply about the removal of Mubarak, it is also about the removal of the local and international apparatus that kept Mubarak in power for 30 years. This understanding is important because one narrative being told is that people are rebelling for greater political and economic freedom, as if poverty and unemployment were caused by the political dictators ‘controlling’ the economy. This is false. Under the neoliberal programmes in Tunisia and Egypt, the economies were ‘liberalised’ and state-owned enterprises were ‘privatised’ in the name of promoting economic freedom. In such environments, political and economic elites (foreign and local) were able to capture the majority of whatever gains the greater economic freedoms produced by neoliberal policies.

From the murder of Khaled Said in Alexandria last summer to the self-immolation of the Tunisian Mohammed Bouazizi, there is a new generation of youths who were able to mobilise social-networking tools to light up the imagination of other youths that they had to take a stand against police brutality. We now know that the police beating of Khaled Said in June 2010 had ‘ignited protests in Cairo and Alexandria and demands for justice spread like wildfire on blogs and social networking sites’. With the deployment of new social media tools of organising by the youths and the collective security efforts of the people to defend their communities in Egypt, there is a pattern of self-organisation that contains the seeds of a new strategy for 21st century revolutions. How the seeds will germinate will depend on the extent to which the organisation for revolutionary non-violence and self-defence can take root to the point of beating back the organised state violence that has been unleashed to destabilise the popular revolt.

REVOLUTIONS WITHOUT SELF-PROCLAIMED REVOLUTIONARIES

Khaled Said had been killed because he dared to expose the depth of the corruption of the police and the operatives of the ruling political party, the National Democratic Party (NDP). Originally founded by Anwar Sadat to provide legitimacy for a military dictatorship, the NDP has dominated politics, pushing out other social forces from the centre of the legal political stage. Mubarak dominated this party and treated it as his personal fiefdom, promising to place his son as the heir, as if Egypt had become a monarchy. This example of a leader usurping the role of the party in society undermined the meaning and essence of political parties as vehicles of popular organisation.

A prominent feature of the revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt so far has been the absence of vanguard parties or personalities as leaders for the revolts. Throughout the 20th century, there was the conception that revolutions required vanguard party or groups comprised of the most advanced sections of the working class and intelligentsia in the society. This vanguard in the past had to be prepared to wage armed struggles to capture state power. The basic thesis on the need for advanced elements of the working class to lead revolution were spelt out by Lenin in two important documents, ‘What is to be done’ and ‘The state and revolution’. These documents provided a guide for revolutionaries, and there were successful revolutions in China, Cuba and Vietnam. These revolutions were different from the deformities of vanguardism that had developed in the Soviet Union under Joseph Stalin and copied by Mubarak. The negative experiences of vanguardism were not confined to despots such as Mubarak and Stalin. Non-socialists and non-communists in societies such as Zaire under Mobutu and Iran practiced vanguardism. The case of Iran is of special importance because the Mullahs adopted some of the tactics of vanguardism with disastrous results for the people of Iran after the overthrow of the Shah, thus undermining the emancipatory goals of the revolutionary process. As though the experiences of vanguardism had been studied by the young people of Egypt and Tunisia, they were careful not to elevate any one individual or party that could hijack or personalise their struggle for freedom. These youths worked to build trust and cooperation among the networks of the social forces who were fighting for freedom.

As the momentum of the Egyptian revolution gathered strength, Nobel laureate Mohamed ElBaradei left Vienna and joined the movement, offering himself up as a leader of the popular revolt. By the seventh day of the popular uprising, the coalescence of the opposition forces around ElBaradei was a defensive act because the Western media had been insistent on placing the stamp of Islamic extremism on this peaceful opposition to dictatorship.

These experiences make it essential to spell out the importance of revolutions carried out without self-proclaimed revolutionaries and leaders. In Egypt, youths and women from the April 6 movement emerged to organise and connect the networks of networks. It could be argued that they were aware of the positive and negative lessons of vanguardism, whether in the former Soviet Union or in Iran. It is for this reason that we hear the slogan in the streets of Egypt, ‘this is the revolution of all the people.’

We now know that this uprising in Egypt came after years of patient and consistent work by young men and women who have been organising in what is now called the April 6 Movement. This is a group of young persons who had used the social-networking instrument of Facebook to call on the youths of Egypt to support the workers in their struggles. From 6 April 2008 these youths have been meeting and organising to build a movement linking their work to communities all across Egypt and linking up with grassroots activists in other parts of the world. By establishing the principles of sharing and cooperation instead of competition, these youths of the April 6 worked to be more effective in building a new kind of campaign for political change.

In my book, ‘Barack Obama and 21st Century Politics’, I offered the principles of Ubuntu – the philosophy of shared humanity – as a basic revolutionary ideal for the 21st century. At the core of this idea is the struggle to be human, and to rise above human hierarchies, divisions and xenophobia, and compartmentalisations. The echoes of Ubuntu reverberated from the actions of and words of the ordinary people at the forefront of the Tunisian and Egyptian revolutions. At some points during the protests when Islamist sections of the protesters shouted ‘Allah Akbar!’, a louder chant came, echoing ‘Muslims, Christians, atheists, we are all Egyptians.’ Behind these chants laid concrete acts of Christians who offered to guard Muslims as they prayed during the demonstrations. These small acts of Ubuntu and recognition of each other’s humanity have to be celebrated, elevated and cascaded across Africa and the Middle East for transformation in the 21st century.

The youths had carried forth a long tradition of struggle that had come from the working people of Egypt. Egypt has one of the strongest social movements for peace and justice in Africa. Umm Kulthum is still revered in her nationalistic songs of self-determination and dignity. Leading African thinkers and activists from Egypt such as Samir Amin and Nawal El Saadawi are household names among progressives in all parts of the world. Eighty years old, Nawal El Saadawi, in particular, spoke for millions of women, narrating how she had been incarcerated twice – once in the cells of the regime and then in the prison that is Egyptian society. Her book, ‘Woman at Point Zero’ had a statement on the call for women in all parts of Africa and the Middle East ‘to mobilise against gender oppression.’

The youths and women who have been organising day and night are the inheritors of organising traditions that had been undertaken by trade unionists, writer, journalists, farmers, artists, progressive intellectuals, women, religious forces and patriotic business-persons. The strength of these social forces is so remarkable that the ruling elements resorted to violence. The closing-down of the internet and shutting down of cell phone services and non-government media were only the more modern manifestations of a long tradition of repression that had placed conservative militarists at the top of the political ladder in Egypt. Anwar Sadat had been explicit in his efforts to reverse the populist efforts of Gamal Abdel Nasser, one of the foremost nationalists in the independence period in Africa. When Sadat was gunned down in cold blood by elements from within the military itself, Hosni Mubarak became president in 1981.

The Mubarak dictatorship was an alliance between local oppressors with US and Israel to beat back the legitimate demands of the peoples of Egypt. There was never a moment in the history of the peoples of Egypt in the past century when they were not organising and protesting for better conditions. With the entrenchment of militaristic rule, political parties were banned, leaders were arrested, killed or sent into exile and genuine political expression stifled. The youths were studying the positive and negative lessons of political organising in order to fashion new tools for political struggle.

REVOLUTIONARY SELF-ORGANISATION AND REVOLUTIONARY NON-VIOLENCE

All of the evidence of young men and women, rich and poor organising in communities point to the level of social and political consciousness that has motivated the people to mobilise themselves to defend their interests. These millions of Egyptians are not afraid to stand up for their rights. These people have provided crucial revolutionary leadership and developed tactics that have now won over the majority of the Egyptian people to the cause of revolution. In the process, they have broken the cohesion of the Egyptian political and economic ruling class that had been built up with the help of the military–industrial complex and the Wall Street elements of the USA. It is not by accident that as the revolution was unfolding, army chiefs from Egypt were in Washington DC consulting with the joint chiefs of staff of the US military. The billions of dollars that have gone from the US citizens to support the dictatorship of Hosni Mubarak had supported divisions in the Egyptian military so that there was a class of officers whose interests were allied with those of the US and Israel against the interests of the Egyptian people. It is to this group that the sections of US and European leaders are turning in order to break the cohesion of the revolutionary forces in the streets. With the Western media presenting the popular revolt as scenes of chaos and anger, the Mubarak regime unleashed armed elements in the streets to fit into the template of the Western image while seeking to destroy the popular power that had occupied Tahrir Square. When the forces of the state stormed the people on Liberation Square the people stood their ground, defending themselves. Hundreds were wounded but this test brought out the fourth major stage of the revolution: the reconsolidation of the popular forces to sharpen the tools of revolutionary non-violence and self-defence.

These revolutionary forces in the streets have understood the social divisions in the military and have made direct appeals to the rank and file of the armed forces. These appeals have been consistent with not only the tools of organising, but the manner of organising. Having conceptualised the manner of self-organisation in advance, the revolutionaries have been ahead of the government so that even when the internet was shut down, the tactics of self-organisation gave way to sophisticated and creative means of communication. It is this sophisticated organisation that defeated the attempts of the government to crush the mass movement. This sophisticated organisation will also be needed if the counter-revolutionary forces consider war as the weapon of choice to reverse the revolution.

Indeed, the pattern of revolutionary organisation and revolutionary leadership in the Tunisian and Egyptian revolutions have so far neutralised the scheming of counter-revolutionary elements in Egypt and the USA, who were bent on using anti-Islamist and counter-terrorism propaganda to beat back the popular revolts. The centrality of the Egyptian military to regime legitimacy in Egypt has been consistent for the past 50 years. However, in the height of the Cold War, the US moved to support the most conservative fundamentalists in Egypt in order to bolster the US Cold War goals. Younger readers may not remember that it was in Egypt that the US recruited many of its Mujahideen fighters to fight the Soviet Union in Afghanistan. The Mujahideen fighters were also deployed against trade unionists, socialists, women and other social justice networks in Egypt. Sectarianism and fundamentalism served both the dictators and their imperial backers.

It is imperative to note that one of the positive lessons from both Egypt and Tunisia is the unity of the people across regional lines. In this process, the women of Tunisia and Egypt have emerged among the foremost and clearest section of the revolution. For decades, Egyptian women have been struggling against a government that suppresses Islamic fundamentalism, but mobilized the ideas of Islamic fundamentalism to dominate women. The images of forthright women outlining the goals of the mass movement sweeping Egypt and Tunisia remain an inspiration to women across Africa and the Middle East. We want to repeat that the struggles for reproductive rights, bodily integrity and opposition to sexual oppression elevated the democratic struggle beyond the rights to freedom of speech, to assemble and for workers to organise.

ITERATIONS OF 21ST CENTURY REVOLUTIONS IN AFRICA AND THE MIDDLE EAST

The Egyptian and Tunisian revolutions have now changed the political calculus and the discourse on politics and revolution. Not only have these revolutions transformed the consciousness of the people, they have also given rise to a new burst of creative energies and become a school for new revolutionary techniques for the 21st century. These energies could be translated into numerous actions geared toward revolutionary transformations across Africa and the Middle East. Clearly, the changes in economic conditions which the people are calling for will not be achieved by the types of reforms financed by foreign donors to promote ‘more’ economic freedom. They will only be achieved by the peoples electing new leaders and governments with the courage to implement alternative economic policies which focus on addressing the conditions of life as opposed to the interests of foreign investors and local elites.

The uprising in Egypt reached a tipping point where the counter-revolutionary forces are in disarray and cannot keep up with the pace of change. There is a pattern of popular outpouring which is cascading from Tunisia and Egypt to all societies under dictatorial rule in Africa and the Middle East. The task of the progressives is to celebrate the positive lessons of self-organization and the wind of self-emancipation blowing across Africa. Progressives cannot be on the sideline and have to find their own method of showing solidarity with the people who are now being mowed down in the streets.

We have spelt out what we are learning from some of the characteristics of these 21st revolutions. The important characteristics that we have highlighted so far are:

1) The revolutions are made by ordinary people independent of vanguard parties and self-proclaimed revolutionaries
2) The nature of independent networks of networks and the sophistication of the tools of the revolution
3) The leadership of ordinary people who displayed self-mobilisation for the revolution
4) The building of revolutionary non-violence for self-defence
5) The revolutionary ideas of the people whose ultimate goal is to be dignified human beings and not to be dictators’ robots or zealots.

It is now up to us progressives to embrace and support this pattern of revolution to initiate a quantum leap beyond neoliberalism, capitalism, militarism and dictatorship in Africa and the Middle East.

BROUGHT TO YOU BY PAMBAZUKA NEWS

* Horace Campbell is a teacher and writer. Professor Campbell’s website is www.horacecampbell.net. His latest book is ‘Barack Obama and 21st Century Politics: A Revolutionary Moment in the USA‘, published by Pluto Press.

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