Tag Archives: revolution

Global Revolution After Tahrir Square

9 Nov


            This history-making global Occupy Movement with a presence in over 900 cities would not have happened in form and substance without the revolutionary awakening of the world’s youth that resulted from the riveting events culminating in the triumphal achievement of driving Hosni Mubarak from the pinnacles of Egyptian state power. We need also to acknowledge that the courage exhibited by those gathered at Tahrir Square might not have been exhibited to the world if not for the earlier charismatic self-immolating martyrdom of an unlicenced street vendor of vegetables, Mohamed Bouazi, in the interior Tunisian city of  Sidi Bouzid on December 17, 2010. Perhaps, as well, the eruptions would have stopped at the Tunisian border were it not for the readiness of Egyptians to erupt after the Alexandria death of Khaled Said on June 6, 2010. This brutal police murder ignited the moral passion of Egyptians, best expressed and widely disseminated through a Facebook campaign, “We are all Khaled Said.” We also must not overlook the mobilizing talents and social networking of digitally minded younger urban Egyptians without whom the movement might never have taken off in the first place, or the later encouragement provided by TV portrayals of the encounters between gangs of Mubarak hooligans and the demonstrators.

 

            History is always over-determined when transformative events are analyzed in the aftermath of their occurrence and so it is, and will be, with Tahrir Square, which has quickly become a shorthand to signify the hopes, fears, and methodology of the 21st century’s first revolutionary moment, both narrowly conceived as an Egyptian happening or more broadly as the inspirational foundation of this revolutionary impulse that has expanded to be a phenomenon of genuine global scope.  What is beyond doubt is that the world Occupy Movement proudly and credibly claims an affinity with Tahrir Square, although not without celebrating their important particularities.  It is reasonable to believe that these numerous protest movements around the world would either not have occurred, or taken a different form without the overall inspiration provided by the several dramas encompassed beneath the banner of the Arab Spring, and not only by Tahrir Square understood in isolation from its regional setting.

 

            I want to stress the unique South-North character of this inspiration as the core of its originality, and relatedness to a broader realignment of the political firmament that is slowly taking account of the collapse of the Euro-centric imperial order that started happening more than half century ago with the collapse of the British rule in India. This decolonizing process still has a long way to go as recent military operations in Libya, threats to Iran, colonialist defiance of Israel to international law daily reminds us. The interventionary currents of transnational political violence continue to flow only in one direction North-South. After World War II the United States militarily replaced the European colonial powers as the principal global custodian of Western interests. This anachronistic West-centricism continues to dominate most international institutions, especially evident in the UN Security Council that constitutionally endows the Euro-American alliance with a veto power used to block many efforts to promote global justice and prevents such emergent political actors as India, Brazil, and Turkey from playing a role commensurate with their stature and influence.

 

            What is exciting, then, about this resonance of Tahrir Square is that the youth of the North looked Southward found inspiration when engaging in their incipient struggle for revolutionary renewal of the world economic and social order, as well as equity in their immediate circumstances. Not only because of its priority in time, but for its conception of how to practice democratic politics outside of governmental structures, this political learning process was evident in the various Occupy sites. The ethos of revolution in Tahrir Square, and elsewhere in the region, with the partial exception of Libya, was nonviolent, youth-dominated, populist, leaderless, without program, demanding drastic change of a democratizing character. On its surface such a revolutionary orientation seems extremely fragile, subject to fragmentation and dissolution once the negatively unifying hated ruler is induced to leave the stage of state power, and if the challenge from below turns out to be more durable, possibly vulnerable to a violent counter-revolutionary restoration of the old regime. The irony of ironies associated with the Arab Spring is that only in Libya does the old order seem gone forever, and there the uprising was tainted in its infancy by its dependence on thousands of NATO air strikes and its reliance on a leadership that seemed mainly contrived to please the West.  When in Egypt a few months ago, in the still exalted aftermath of what was achieved by the January 25th Movement, there was a self-aware and wide chasm between those optimists who spoke in the language of ‘revolution’ and those more cautious observers who claimed only to have been part of an ‘uprising.’ At this moment, these latter more pessimistic interpretations seem more in line with an Egyptian process that can be best described as ‘regime stabilization,’ at least for now.

 

            What happens with the Occupy Movement is of course radically uncertain at present. Is it a bubble that will burst as soon as the first cold wave hits the major cities of the North? Or will it endure long enough to worry the protectors of the established order so that state violence will be unleashed, as always, in the name of ‘law and order’? Are we witnessing the birth pangs of ‘global democracy’ or something else that has yet to be disclosed or lacks a name? We must wait and hope, and maybe pray, above all acting as best we can in solidarity, keeping our gaze fixed on horizons of desire. What is feasible will not do!

What is Winning? The Next Phase for the Revolutionary Uprisings

24 Feb


Early in the Tunisian and Egyptian uprisings it seemed that winning was understood by the massed demonstrators to mean getting rid of the hated leader, of Ben Ali in the Tunisian case, and Mubarak in the Egyptian. But as the process deepened it make clear that more was being demanded and expected, and that this had to do with restoring the material and spiritual dignity of life in all its aspects.

Without any assurance as to what ‘winning’ means in the setting of the extraordinary revolutionary uprisings that are continuing to rock the established order throughout the Arab world, it is likely to mean different things in the various countries currently in turmoil. But at the very least winning has so far meant challenging by determined and incredibly brave nonviolence the oppressive established order. This victory over long reigns of fear-induced pacification is itself a great transformative moment in 21st century history no matter what happens in the months ahead.

As Chandra Muzaffar, the widely respected Malaysian scholar who  religion and justice, compelling argues, the replacement of the old order by electoral democracy, while impressive as an accomplishment given the dictatorial rule of the past in these countries, will not be nearly enough to vindicate the sacrifices of the protestors. It is significantly better than those worst case scenarios that insist that the future will bring dismal varieties of ‘Mubarakism without Mubarak,’ which would change the faces and names of the rulers but leave the oppressive and exploitative regimes essentially in tact. This would definitely be a pyrrhic victory, given the hopes and demands that motivated the courageous political challenges embodied in withstanding without weapons the clubs, rubber bullets, live ammunition, and overall brutality, as well as the uncertainty as to what the soldiers in the streets would do when the order to open fire at the demonstrators came from the beleaguered old guard.

What is needed beyond constitutional democracy is the substantive realization of good and equitable governance: this includes, above all, people-oriented economic policies, an end to corruption, and the protection of human rights, including especially economic and social rights.  Such an indispensable agenda recognizes that the primary motivation of many of the demonstrators was related to their totally alienating entrapment in a jobless future combined with the daily struggle to obtain the bare necessities of a tolerable life.

There is present here both questions of domestic political will and governmental capability to redirect the productive resources and distributive policies of the society. How much political space is available to alter the impositions of neoliberal globalization that was responsible for reinforcing, if not inducing, the grossly inequitable and corrupting impact of the world economy on the structuring of domestic privilege and deprivation? Not far in the background is an extended global recession that may be deepened in coming months due to alarming increases in commodity prices, especially food. According to the UN Food and Agricultural Organization the world Food Price Index reached a record high in December 2010, a level exceeded by another 3% rise in January of this year. Lester Brown, a leading expert on world food and environment, wrote a few days ago that “[t]he world is now one poor harvest away from chaos in world grain markets.” [International Herald Tribune, Feb 23, 2011]

With political turmoil threatening world energy supplies, oil prices are also surging, allegedly further endangering the uneven and fragile economic recovery in the United States and Europe. Global warming adds a further troubling feature to this deteriorating situation, with droughts, floods, fires, and storms making it difficult to maintain crop yields, much increase food production to meet increasing demands of the world’s growing population.

These impinging realities will greatly complicate the already formidable difficulties facing new leaders throughout the Arab world seeking with a sense of urgency to create job opportunities and affordable supplies of food for their citizenries. This challenge is intensified by the widely shared high expectations of improved living circumstances. If the autocratic prior regime was held responsible for mass impoverishment of the many and the scandalously excessive enrichment of the few, is it not reasonable to suppose that the more democratic successor governments should establish without much delay greatly improved living conditions? And further, how could it be claimed that the heroic uprising was worthwhile if the quality of life of ordinary citizens, previously struggling to avert the torments of impoverishment, does not start improving dramatically almost immediately? An understandably impatient public may not give their new leaders the time that need, given these conditions, to make adjustments that will begin to satisfy these long denied hopes and needs. Perhaps, the public will be patient if there are clear signs that the leaders are trying their hardest and even if actual progress is slow, there is some evidence that the material conditions of the populace are, at least, on an ascending slope.

Even if the public is patient beyond reason, and understands better than can be prudently expected, the difficulties of achieving economic justice during a period of transition to a new framework of governance, there may be still little or no capacity to fulfill public expectations due to the impact of these worsening global conditions.  It is quite possible that if the worst food/energy scenarios unfold, famines and food riots could occur, casting dark shadows of despair across memories of these historic victories that made the initial phases of each national uprising such a glowing testament to the human spirit, which seemed miraculously undaunted by decades of oppression and abuse.

It needs also to be kept in mind that often the slogans of the demonstrators highlighted a thirst for freedom and rights. Even though there is little experience of democratic practice throughout the region, there will likely be a serious attempt by new governing institutions to distinguish their practices from those of their hated forebears, and allow for the exercise of all forms of oppositional activity, including freedom of expression, assembly, and party formation. Unlike the problems associated with creating jobs and providing for material needs, the establishment of the atmosphere of a free society is within the physical capacities of a new leadership if the political will exists to assume the unfamiliar risks associated with democratic practices. We must wait and see how each new leadership handles these normative challenges of transition. It remains to be seen as to whether the difficulties of transition are intensified by counterrevolutionary efforts to maintain or restore the old deforming structures and privileges. These efforts are likely to be aided and abetted by a range of covert collaborative undertakings joining external actors with those internal forces threatened by impending political change.

And if this overview was not discouraging enough, there is one further consideration. As soon as the unifying force of getting rid of the old leadership is eroded, if not altogether lost, fissures within the oppositions are certain to emerge. There will be fundamental differences as between radical and liberal approaches to transition, and especially whether to respect the property rights and social hierarchies associated with the old regime, or to seek directly to correct the injustices and irregularities of the past. Some critics of the Mandela approach to reconciliation and transition in South Africa believe that his acceptance of the social and economic dimensions of the repudiated apartheid structure have resulted in a widely felt sense of revolutionary disappointment, if not betrayal, in South Africa.

There will also be tactical and strategic differences about how to deal with the world economy, especially with respect to creating stability and attractive conditions for foreign investment. It is here that tensions emerge as between safeguarding labor rights and making investors feel that their operations will remain profitable in the new political environment.

This recitation of difficulties is not meant to detract attention from or to in any way diminish the glorious achievements of the revolutionary uprisings, but to point to the unfinished business that must be addressed if revolutionary aspirations are going to be able to avoid disillusionment. So often revolutionary gains are blunted or even lost shortly after the old oppressors have been dragged from the stage of history. If ever there exists the need for vigilance it at these times when the old order is dying and the new order is struggling to be born. As Gramsci warned long ago this period of inbetweeness is vulnerable to a wide range of predatory tendencies. It is a time when unscrupulous elements can repress anew even while waving a revolutionary banner and shouting slogans about defending the revolution against its enemies. And a difficulty here is that the enemies may well be real as well as darkly imagined. How many revolutions in the past have been lost due to the machinations of their supposed guardians?

Let us fervently hope that the mysteries of the digital age will somehow summon the creative energy to manage the transition to sustainable and substantive democracy as brilliantly as it earlier staged the revolutionary uprisings.

 

Revolutionary Prospects After Mubarak

15 Feb

The Egyptian Revolution has already achieved extraordinary results: after only eighteen intense days of dramatic protests. It brought to an abrupt end Mubarak’s cruelly dictatorial and obscenely corrupt regime that had ruled the country for more than thirty years. It also gained a promise from Egyptian military leaders to run the country for no more than six months of transition, the minimum period needed for the establishment of independent political parties, free elections, and some degree of economic restabilization. It is hoped that this transition would serve as the prelude to and first institutional expression of genuine democracy. Some informed observers, most notably Mohamed ElBaradei worry that this may be too short a time to fill the political vacuum that exists in Egypt after the collapse of the authoritarian structures that had used its suppressive energies to keep civil society weak and to disallow governmental institutions, especially parliament and the judiciary, to function with any degree of independence. It is often overlooked that the flip side of authoritarianism is nominal constitutionalism.

In contrast, some of the activist leaders that found their voice in Tahrir Square are concerned that even six months may be too long, giving the military and outside forces sufficient time to restore the essence of the old order, while giving it enough of a new look to satisfy the majority of Egyptians. Such a dismal prospect seems to be reinforced by reported American efforts to offer emergency economic assistance apparently designed to mollify the protesters, encourage popular belief that a rapid return to normalcy will provide this impoverished people (40% living on less than $2 per day; rising food price; high youth unemployment) with material gains.

The bravery, discipline, and creativity of the Egyptian revolutionary movement is nothing short of a political miracle, deserving to be regarded as one of the seven political wonders of the modern world! To have achieved these results without violence, despite a series of bloody provocations, and persisting without an iconic leader, without even the clarifying benefit of a revolutionary manifesto, epitomizes the originality and grandeur of the Egyptian Revolution of 2011. Such accomplishments shall always remain glories of the highest order that can never be taken away from the Egyptian people, regardless of what the future brings. And these glorious moments belong not just to those who gathered at Tahrir Square and at the other protest sites in Cairo, but belong to all those ignored by the world media who demonstrated at risk and often at the cost of their life or physical wellbeing day after day throughout the entire country in every major city. Both the magnitude and intensity of this spontaneous national mobilization was truly remarkable. The flames of an aroused opposition were fanned by brilliantly innovative, yet somewhat obscure, uses of social networking, while the fires were lit by the acutely discontented youth of Egypt and kept ablaze by people of all class and educational backgrounds coming out into the street. The inspirational spark for all that followed in Egypt and elsewhere in the region, let us not forget, was provided by the Tunisian Revolution. What happened in Tunisia was equally astonishing to the amazing happenings in Egypt, not only for being the initiating tremor, but also for reliance on nonviolent militancy to confront a ruthlessly oppressive regime so effectively that the supposed invincible dictator, Ben Ali, escaped quickly to Saudi Arabia for cover.  The significance of the Tunisian unfolding and its further development should not be neglected or eclipsed during the months ahead. Without the Tunisian spark we might still be awaiting the Egyptian blaze!

As is widely understood, after the fireworks and the impressive cleanup of the piles of debris and garbage by the revolutionaries in Tahrir Square, itself a brilliantly creative footnote to their main revolutionary message, there remains the extraordinarily difficult task of generating ex nihil a new governing process based on human rights, the will of the Egyptian people, and a mighty resolve to guard sovereign rights against the undoubted plots of canny external actors scared by and unhappy with the revolution, seeking to rollback the outcome, and seeking above all by any means the restoration of Mubarakism without Mubarak.  The plight of the Egyptian poor must also be placed on the top of the new political agenda, which will require not only control of food and fuel prices, but the construction of an equitable economy that gives as much attention to the distribution of the benefits of growth as to GNP aggregate figures. Unless the people benefit, economic growth is a subsidy for the rich, whether Egyptian or foreign.

Short of catastrophic imaginings, if interpreted as warnings may forestall their actual occurrence, there are immediate concerns: it seemed necessary to accept the primacy of the Egyptian military with the crucial task of overseeing the transition, but is it a trustworthy custodian of the hopes and aspirations of the revolution? Its leadership was deeply implicated in the corruption and the brutality of the Mubarak regime, kept in line over the decades by being willing accomplices of oppressive rule and major beneficiaries of its corrupting largess. How much of this privileged role is the military elite ready to renounce voluntarily out of its claimed respect for and deference to the popular demand for an end to exploitative governance in a society languishing in mass poverty? Will the Egyptian military act responsibly to avoid the destructive effects of a second uprising against the established order? It should also not be forgotten that the Egyptian officer corps was mainly trained in the United States, and that coordination at the highest level between American military commanders and their Egyptian counterparts has already been resumed at the highest levels, especially with an eye toward maintaining ‘the cold peace’ with Israel.  These nefarious connections help explain why Mubarak was viewed for so long as a loyal ally and friend in Washington, Tel Aviv, and Riyadh, and why the inner counsels of these governments are reacting with concealed panic at the outburst of emancipatory politics throughout the region. I would suppose that these old relationships are being approached with emergency zeal to ensure that however goes the transition to Egyptian democracy it somehow exempts wider controversial regional issues from review and change that would reflect the values that animated the revolutionary risings in Tunisia and Egypt. These values would suggest solidarity with movements throughout the Middle East to end autocratic governance, oppose interventions and the military presence of the United States, solve the Israel/Palestine conflict in accordance with international law rather than ‘facts on the ground,’ and seek to make the region a nuclear free zone (including Israel) reinforced by a treaty framework establishing peaceful relations and procedures of mutual security.  It does not require an expert to realize that such changes consistent with the revolutionary perspectives that prevailed in Egypt and Tunisia would send shivers down the collective spines of autocratic leaderships throughout the region, as well as being deeply threatening to Israel and to the grand strategy of the United States and, to a lesser extent, the European Union, that has been determined to safeguard vital economic and political interests in the region by reliance on the military and paramilitary instruments of hard power.

At stake if the revolutionary process continues, is Western access to Gulf oil reserves at prices and amounts that will not roil global markets, as well as the loss of lucrative markets for arms sales. Also at risk is the security of Israel so long as its government refuses to allow the Palestinians to have an independent and viable state within 1967 borders that accords with the two state solution long favored by the international community, and long opposed by Israel. Such a Palestinian state existing with full sovereign rights on all territories occupied by Israel since the 1967 War would mean an immediate lifting of the Gaza blockade, withdrawal of occupying Israeli forces from the West Bank, dismantling of the settlements (including in East Jerusalem), allowing Palestinian refugees to exercise some right of return, and agreeing to either the joint administration of Jerusalem or a Palestinian capital in East Jerusalem. It should be understood that such a peace was already implicit in Security Council Resolution 242 that was unanimously adopted in 1967, proposed again by Arab governments in 2002 with a side offer to normalize relations with Israel, and already accepted by the Palestinian National Council back in 1988 and reaffirmed a few years ago by Hamas as the basis for long-term peaceful coexistence. It should be understood that this Palestinian state claims only 22% of historic Palestine, and is a minimal redress of justice for an occupation that has lasted almost 44 years (recall that the UN partition plan gave the Palestinians 45% in 1947, and that seemed unfair at the time), and an expulsion that has resulted in an outrageously prolonged refugee status for millions of Palestinians that derives from the nakba of 1948. But until now, even this minimal recognition of the Palestinian right of self-determination has been unacceptable to Israel as most recently evidenced in the Palestine Papers that provide evidence that even when the Palestine Authority agreed to extravagant Israeli demands for retention of most settlements, including in East Jerusalem, and abandonment of any provision for the return of Palestinian refugees, the Israelis were not interested, and walked away. The question now is whether the revolutionary challenges posed by the outcome in Egypt will lead to a new realism in Tel Aviv, or more of the same, which would mean a maximal effort to rollback the revolutionary gains of the Egyptian people, or if that proves impossible, then at least do whatever possible to contain the regional enactment of revolutionary values.

Does this seemingly amateur (in the best sense of the word) movement in Egypt have the sustaining energy, historical knowledge, and political sophistication to ensure that the transition process fulfills revolutionary expectations? So many past revolutions, fulsome with promise, have faltered precisely at this moment of apparent victory. Will the political and moral imagination of Egyptian militancy retain enough energy, perseverance, and vision to fulfill these requirements of exceptional vigilance to keep the circling vultures at bay? In one sense, these revolutions must spread beyond Tunisia and Egypt or these countries will be surrounded and existing in a hostile political neighborhood. Some have spoken of the Turkish domestic model as helpfully providing an image of a democratizing Egypt and Tunisia, but its foreign policy under AKP leadership is equally, if not more so, suggestive of a foreign policy worthy of these revolutions and their aftermath, and essential for a post-colonial Middle East that finally achieves its ‘second liberation.’  The first liberation was to end colonial rule. The second liberation, initiated by the Iranian Revolution in its first phase, seeks the end of geopolitical hegemony, and this struggle has barely begun.

How dangerous is the prospect of intervention by the United States, Gulf countries, and Israel, probably not in visible forms, but in all likelihood in the form of maneuvers carried out from beneath the surface? The foreign policy interests of these governments and allied corporate and financial forces are definitely at serious risk. If the Egyptian revolutionary process unfolds successfully in Egypt during the months ahead it will have profound regional effects that will certainly shake the foundations of the old post-colonial regional setup, not necessarily producing revolutions elsewhere but changing the balance in ways that enhance the wellbeing of the peoples and diminish the role of outsiders. These effects are foreseeable by the adversely affected old elites, creating a strong, if not desperate, array of external incentives to derail the Egyptian Revolution by relying on many varieties of counterrevolutionary obstructionism. It is already evident that these elites with help from their many friends in the mainstream media are already spreading falsehoods about the supposed extremism and ambitions of the Muslim Brotherhood that seem intended to distract public attention, discredit the revolution, and build the basis for future interventionary moves, undertaken in the name of combating extremism, if not  justified as counter-terrorism.

It is correct that historically revolutions have swerved off course by succumbing to extremist takeovers. In different ways this happened to both the French and Russian Revolutions, and more recently to the Iranian Revolution. Extremism won out, disappointing the democratic hopes of the people, leading to either the restoration of the old elites or to new forms of violence, oppression, and exploitation. Why? Each situation is unique and original, but there are recurrent patterns. During the revolutionary struggle opposition to the old regime is deceptively unifying, obscuring real and hidden tensions that emerge later to fracture the spirit and substance of solidarity. Soon after the old order collapses, or as here partially collapses, the spirit of unity is increasingly difficult to maintain. Some fear a betrayal of revolutionary goals by the untrustworthy managers of transition. Others fear that reactionary and unscrupulous elements from within the ranks of the revolution will come to dominate the democratizing process. Still others fear that all will be lost unless an all out struggle against internal and external counterrevolutionary plots, real and imagined, is launched immediately. And often in the confusing and contradictory aftermath of revolution, some or all of these concerns have a foundation in fact.

The revolution does need to be defended against its real enemies, which as here, definitely exist, as well to avoid imagined enemies that produce tragic implosions of revolutionary processes. It is in this atmosphere of seeking to consolidate revolutionary gains that the purity of the movement is at risk, and is tested in a different manner than when masses of people were in the streets defying a violent crackdown. The danger in Egypt is that the inspirational nonviolence that mobilized the opposition can in the months ahead either be superseded by a violent mentality or succumb to outside and inside pressures by being too passive or overly trusting in misleading reassurances. Perhaps, this post-revolutionary interval between collapse of the old and consolidation of the new poses the greatest challenge that has yet faced this exciting movement led by young leaders who are just now beginning to emerge from the shadows of anonymity. All persons of good will should bless their efforts to safeguard all that has been so far gained, and to move forward in solidarity toward a sustainably humane and just future for their society, their region, and their world.

 

The Toxic Residue of Colonialism: Protecting Interests, Disregarding Rights

8 Feb


At least, overtly, there has been no talk from either Washington or Tel Aviv, the governments with most to lose as the Egyptian Revolution unfolds, of military intervention. Such restraint is more expressive of geopolitical sanity than postcolonial morality, but still it enables some measure of change to take place that unsettles, temporarily at least, the established political order. And yet, by means seen and unseen, external actors, especially the United States, with a distinct American blend of presumed imperial and paternal prerogatives are seeking to shape and limits the outcome of this extraordinary uprising  of the Egyptian people long held in subsidized bondage by the cruel and corrupt Mubarak dictatorship. What is the most defining feature of this American-led diplomacy-from-without is the seeming propriety of managing the turmoil so that the regime survives and the demonstrators return to what is perversely being called ‘normalcy.’ I find most astonishing that President Obama so openly claims the authority to instruct the Mubarak regime about how it is supposed to respond to the revolutionary uprising. I am not surprised at the effort, and would be surprised by its absence, but merely by the lack of any signs of imperial shyness in a world order that is supposedly built around the legitimacy of self-determination, national sovereignty, and democracy. And almost as surprising, is the failure of Mubarak to pretend in public that such interference in the guise of guidance is unacceptable, even if behind closed doors he listens submissively and acts accordingly. This geopolitical theater performance of master and servant suggests the persistence of the colonial mentality on the part of both colonizer and their national collaborators.

The only genuine post-colonial message would be one of deference: ‘stand aside, and applaud.’ The great transformative struggles of the last century involved a series of challenges throughout the global south to get rid of the European colonial empires. But political independence did not bring an end to the more indirect, but still insidious, methods of indirect control designed to protect economic and strategic interests. Such a dynamic meant reliance on political leaders that would sacrifice the wellbeing of their own people to serve the wishes of their unacknowledged former colonial masters, or their Western successors (the United States largely displacing France and the United Kingdom in the Middle East after the Suez Crisis of 1956). And these post-colonial servants of the West would be well-paid autocrats vested with virtual ownership rights in relation to the indigenous wealth of their country provided they remained receptive to foreign capital.  In this regard the Mubarak regime was (and remains) a poster child of post-colonial success. Western liberal eyes were long accustomed not to notice the internal patterns of abuse that were integral to this foreign policy success, and if occasionally noticed by some intrepid journalist, who would then be ignored or if necessary discredited as some sort of ‘leftist,’ and if this failed to deflect criticism than point out, usually with an accompanying condescending smile, that torture and the like came with Arab cultural territory, a reality that savvy outsiders adapted to without any discomfort. Actually, in this instance, such practices were quite convenient, Egypt serving as one of the interrogation sites for the insidious practice of ‘extreme rendition,’ by which the CIA transports terrorist suspects to accommodating foreign countries that willingly provide torture tools and facilities. Is this what is meant by ‘a human rights presidency’? The irony should not be overlooked that President Obama’s special envoy to the Mubarak government in the crisis was none other than Frank Wisner, an American with a most notable CIA lineage.

There should be clarity about the relationship between this kind of post-colonial state, serving American regional interests (oil, Israel, containment of Islam, avoidance of unwanted proliferation of nuclear weapons) in exchange for power, privilege, and wealth vested in a tiny corrupt national elite that sacrifices the wellbeing and dignity of the national populace in the process. Such a structure in the post-colonial era where national sovereignty and human rights infuse popular consciousness can only be maintained by erecting high barriers of fear reinforced by state terror that are designed to intimidate the populace from pursuing their goals and values. When these barriers are breached, as recently in Tunisia and Egypt, then the fragility of the oppressive regime glows in the dark. The dictator either runs for the nearest exit, as did Tunisia’s Ben Ali, or is dumped by his entourage and foreign friends so that the revolutionary challenge can be tricked into a premature accommodation. This latter process seems to represent the latest maneuvering of the palace elite in Cairo and their backers in the White House. Only time will tell whether the furies of counterrevolution will win the day, possibly by gunfire and whip, and possibly through mollifying gestures of reform that become unfulfillable promises in due course if the old regime is not totally reconstructed. Unfulfillable because corruption and gross disparities of wealth amid mass impoverishment can only be sustained, post-Tahrir Square, through the reimposition of oppressive rule. And if it is not oppressive, then it will not be able for very long to withstand demands for rights, for social and economic justice, and due course for solidarity with the Palestinian struggle.

Here is the crux of the ethical irony. Washington is respectful of the logic of self-determination so long as it converges with American grand strategy, and oblivious to the will of the people whenever its expression is seen as posing a threat to the neoliberal overlords of the globalized world economy or to strategic alignments that seem so dear to State Department or Pentagon planners. As a result there is an inevitable to-ing and fro-ing as the United States tries to bob and weave, celebrating the advent of democracy in Egypt, complaining about the violence and torture of the tottering regime, while doing what it can to manage the process from outside, which means preventing genuine change, much less a democratic transformation of the Egyptian state. Anointing the main CIA contact person and a Mubarak loyalist, Omar Suleiman, to preside over the transition process on behalf of Egypt seems a thinly disguised plan to throw Mubarak to the crowd while stabilizing the regime he presided over for more than 30 years.  I would expected more subtlety on the part of the geopolitical managers, but perhaps its absence is one more sign of imperial myopia that so often accompanies the decline of great empires.

It is notable that most protesters when asked by the media about their reasons for risking death and violence by being in the Egyptian streets respond with variations on the phrases “We want our rights” or “We want freedom and dignity.”  Of course, joblessness, poverty, food security, anger at the corruption, abuses, and dynastic pretensions of the Mubarak regime offer an understandable infrastructure of rage that undoubtedly fuels the revolutionary fires, but it is rights and dignity that seems to float on the surface of this awakened political consciousness. These ideas, to a large extent nurtured in the hothouse of Western consciousness and then innocently exported as a sign of good will, like ‘nationalism’ a century earlier, might originally be intended only as public relations moves, but over time such ideas gave rise to the dreams of the oppressed and victimized, and when the unexpected historical moment finally arrived, burst into flame. I remember talking a decade or so ago to Indonesian radicals in Jakarta who talked of the extent to which their initial involvement in anti-colonial struggle was stimulated to what they had learned from their Dutch colonial teachers about the rise of nationalism as a political ideology in the West.

Ideas may be disseminated with conservative intent, but if they later become appropriated on behalf of the struggles of oppressed peoples such ideas are reborn, and serve as the underpinnings of a new emancipatory politics. Nothing better illustrates this Hegelian journey than the idea of ‘self-determination,’ initially proclaimed by Woodrow Wilson after World War I. Wilson was a leader who sought above all to maintain order, believed in satisfying the aims of foreign investors and corporations,  and had no complaints about the European colonial empires. For him, self-determination was merely a convenient means to arrange the permanent breakup of the Ottoman Empire through the formation of a series of ethnic states. Little did Wilson imagine, despite warnings from his Secretary of State, that self-determination could serve other gods, and become a powerful mobilizing tool to overthrow colonial rule. In our time, human rights has followed a similarly winding path, sometimes being no more than a propaganda banner used to taunt enemies during the Cold War, sometimes as a convenient hedge against imperial identity, and sometimes as the foundations of revolutionary zeal as seems to be the case in the unfinished and ongoing struggles for rights and dignity taking place throughout the Arab world in a variety of forms.

It is impossible to predict how this future will play out. There are too many forces at play in circumstances of radical uncertainty. In Egypt, for instance, it is widely believed that the army holds most of the cards, and that where it finally decides to put its weight will determine the outcome. But is such conventional wisdom not just one more sign that hard power realism dominates our imagination, and that historical agency belongs in the end to the generals and their weapons, and not to the people in the streets. Of course, there is blurring of pressures as the army could be merely trying to go with the flow, siding with the winner once the outcome seems clear. Is there any reason to rely on the wisdom, judgment, and good will of armies, not just in Egypt whose commanders owe their positions to Mubarak, but throughout the world? In Iran the army did stand aside, and a revolutionary process transformed the Shah’s edifice of corrupt and brutal governance, the people momentarily prevailed, only to have their extraordinary nonviolent victory snatch away in a subsequent counterrevolutionary move that substituted theocracy for democracy.  There are few instances of revolutionary victory, and in those few instances, it is rarer still to carry forward the revolutionary mission without disruption. The challenge is to sustain the revolution in the face of almost inevitable counterrevolutionary projects, some launched by those who were part of the earlier movement unified against the old order but now determined to hijack the victory for its own ends. The complexities of the revolutionary moment require utmost vigilance on the part of those who view emancipation, justice, and democracy as their animating ideals because there will be enemies who seek to seize power at the expense of humane politics. One of the most impressive features of the Egyptian Revolution up to this point has been the extraordinary ethos of nonviolence and solidarity exhibited by the massed demonstrators even in the face of repeated bloody provocations of the baltagiyya dispatched by the regime. This ethos has so far refused to be diverted by these provocations, and we can only hope against hope that the provocations will cease, and that counterrevolutionary tides will subside, sensing either the futility of assaulting history or imploding at long last from the build up of corrosive effects from a long embrace of an encompassing illegitimacy.

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