Tuesday, February 15, 2011

10 myths busted by the Egyptian revolution

The Egyptian revolution has busted 10 key myths about society, the “war on terror”, and social transformation. We’re told that ordinary people can’t run society, that we need a police force to maintain order and that change comes from above. We’re told that Muslims and Christians can’t get along, that Muslim women are passive victims in need of liberation, and that the “war on terror” is necessary to spread democracy to the Middle East. When the revolution erupted it was presented as a spontaneous event, in which the people and the army were one and notions of class were a thing of the past, and as an event that unique to Egypt. The ongoing Egyptian revolution is busting all these myths.


For a decade the world has suffered through a “war on terror” based on a “clash of fundamentalisms” that presents Muslims as inherently violent and incapable of unity with Christians. But what beautiful photos have emerged from Tahrir Square to challenge this myth, photos of Christian protesters protecting Muslim protesters while they pray on Friday—an act of solidarity reciprocated on Sunday during Christian prayer.

    The “war on terror” has resurrected the White Man’s Burden, seeing Muslims as “half devil and half child”. The infantilizing half of this equation is especially applied to Muslim women, who are presented as passive victims incapable of their own emancipation, who must be liberated by force. The near decade-long occupation of Afghanistan was first launched and recently extended based on this racist and sexist notion. But it has been abundantly clear—from photos of women leading the demonstrations or youtube clips of women in hijabs shaming the riot police—that Muslim women are leading the fight for their own liberation, and for their country.

    Another justification for the “war on terror” is that West governments want to spread democracy to the region. Besides the massive arms deals to dictators in the region—from $282 million to Tunisia, to more than a billion annually to Egypt, to a recent $60 billion arms deal to Saudi Arabia—this notion was called into question five years ago when Western leaders responded to democratic elections in Gaza by cutting humanitarian aid.
     In the past month, Western governments were caught openly supporting dictators—from the French foreign minister offering to help Ben Ali "appease the situaion through law enforcement techniques", to former British Prime Minister Tony Blair defending Mubarak as "immensely courageous and a force for good", to Obama’s refusal to cut military aid to the dictatorship. Even when the US was forced to concede that Mubarak had to go, the Canadian and Israeli governments continued to support him.

    We’re told that change comes from above—from Parliament in social democratic countries, or through military intervention in dictatorships—both based on the idea that ordinary people can’t fun society, and that specialists in suits or uniforms must change society for them. Eight to ten years of occupation in Iraq and Afghanistan—costing a million lives and billions of dollars while undermining living standards—show the success of this strategy of dealing with tyrants. The people of Egypt have shown in 18 days how mass movements from below can deal far more peaceful and powerful change.

    During the uprising there was a direct correlation between police presence and violence: people were shot when police tried to crack down on the initial uprising, then there was peace and calm when the police forces melted away, then violence returned when plain-clothed police attacked Tahrir Square, then violence stopped after they were repelled.
    That doesn’t mean it was a completely nonviolent revolution. Protesters burnt down police vehicles and the NDP party headquarters, and defended themselves with rocks and molatov cocktails. But whereas police violence lashed out at demonstrators to squash the pro-democracy movement, protester force was strategically directed at the repressive regime, playing an important role in defending the revolution.

    The most inspiring lesson of Tahrir Square is that ordinary people can run society. Egyptians self-organized to provide medicine, security, food, childcare, sanitation, literacy, and communication—without bosses, the police, the courts, or parliament—offering a glimpse of what a better world could look like.
    The media portrayed the Egyptian revolution as a spontaneous event without organization. Spontaneity certainly played a role, but it didn’t happen in a vacuum. As Mona El-Ghobashy  explained,
“There’s a pre-history to this revolt. Egyptian politics didn’t begin on January 25th… we have to link it to the fabric of Egyptian politics starting in 2000, for simplicity’s sake, but protests actually occurred in the 1990s, as well. One of the largest protests was a quarry workers’ strike in 1996 that really shook the country at the time.”
     After that there were mass protests in 2003, as part of the global movement against the Iraq War, including tens of thousands of people who occupied Tahrir Square; the following year the Kifayah (“enough”) movement against Mubarak was born; these political movements fed into economic battles, producing strike waves triggered by women textile workers in Mahalla in 2006 (for an account of the strike wave, watch this video), which connected economic demands with solidarity with Palestine and freedom of assembly. These years of organizing created the experience and networks that combined with the spark of the Tunisian revolution to detonate mass resistance across Egyptian society.

     In Tunisia, protests began with an unemployed student self-immolating and spread to involve all sectors from peasants to lawyers. While the organized working class was not the first to take action, it was the most decisive: it was the general strike that finally drove Ben Ali from the country. The same process unfolded in Egypt, where all classes took part in the Tahrir Square protests but workers played a key role in ousting Mubarak. According to Hossam El-Hamalawy,
“All classes in Egypt took part in the uprising. Mubarak managed to alienate all social classes in society. In Tahrir Square, you found sons and daughters of the Egyptian elite, together with the workers, middle-class citizens and the urban poor. But remember that it's only when the mass strikes started on Wednesday that the regime started crumbling and the army had to force Mubarak to resign because the system was about to collapse.”
The mass strike unites economic and political demands and propels revolutions forward, a dynamic identified 95 years ago by the German revolutionary Rosa Luxemburg:
“Every new onset and every fresh victory of the political struggle is transformed into a powerful impetus for the economic struggle, extending at the same time its external possibilities and intensifying the inner urge of the workers to better their position and their desire to struggle. After every foaming wave of political action a fructifying deposit remains behind from which a thousand stalks of economic struggle shoot forth. And conversely. The workers’ condition of ceaseless economic struggle with the capitalists keeps their fighting energy alive in every political interval; it forms, so to speak, the permanent fresh reservoir of the strength of the proletarian classes, from which the political fight ever renews its strength, and at the same time leads the indefatigable economic sappers of the proletariat at all times, now here and now there, to isolated sharp conflicts, out of which public conflicts on a large scale unexpectedly explode. In a word: the economic struggle is the transmitter from one political centre to another; the political struggle is the periodic fertilisation of the soil for the economic struggle.”
    It is for this reason that the military high command, reflecting the ruling elites in Egypt, have so quickly called for strikes to end, which would stop the beating heart of the revolution. While rank and file soldiers have identified and joined with the demonstrators, the high command is intent on restricting the revolution, reflecting a class divide in Egypt that will become more apparent at time goes on. As El-Hamalawy explains,
“Thousands of public transport workers were staging protests in el-Gabal el-Ahmar. The temporary workers at Helwan Steel Mills are also protesting. The railway technicians continue to bring trains to a halt. Thousands of workers at the el-Hawamdiya sugar factory are protesting and oil workers announced a strike on Sunday over work conditions. Nearly every single sector in the Egyptian economy has witnessed either strikes or mass protests. Even sections of the police have joined in. At this point, the Tahrir Square occupation is to be suspended. We have to take Tahrir to the factories now. As the revolution proceeds, an inevitable class polarisation will take place. We have to be vigilant. We hold the keys to the liberation of the entire region, not just Egypt. Onwards we must go, with a permanent revolution that will empower the people of this country with direct democracy from below.”
    The Egyptian revolution is part of resistance movements sweeping the globe in response to the economic crisis. Each new outburst catches governments and media off guard, and is quickly explained away as an isolated incident, only to erupt somewhere new. Protests and strikes have spread across Europe (from Greece and Ireland to France and Britain), South Africa, India, and Thailand. Now we're seeing how economic crisis can trigger political crisis, with resistance against austerity combining with longstanding anger against repression and corruption. The Tunisian spark has ignited the Egyptian detonator, triggering revolt across Jordan, Yemen, Algeria, Bahrain, Iran, and Djibouti.
    How far and how deep this resistance spreads is an open question, and that’s what’s so exciting.


  1. Wonderful! Thanks for this inspiring reminder!

  2. picture in myth#1 amost made me burst in tears,
    let's hope this continues and spreads...

  3. Brilliant! Thank you. I wonder, did you put the myths in any specific order?

  4. Right on!! Thank you so much for this!

  5. Great article, everyone needs to read this.

  6. Meet the new boss, same as the old boss

  7. Your links to Orientalism and Marxism were most interesting. Like your idea of medicine and society for efficacy. Keep at it!