Tag Archives: Tahrir Square

Egypt: Extreme Polarization and Genocidal Politics

24 Aug

Extreme Polarization and Genocidal Politics

In these morbid days, there are some home truths that are worth reflecting upon.

What Happened After Tahrir Square?

In retrospect, ‘the January 25th Revolution’ in Egypt is ‘a revolution’ that never was, which has now been superseded by ‘a counter-revolution’ that was never possible. Why? The dislodging of a Mubarak dynasty in 2011 did not even achieve ‘regime change’ much less initiate a transformative political process. There was no revolution to counter. Even more modest hopes for political reform and humane governance were doomed from the start, or at the latest, when Ahmet Shafik, the overtly fulool candidate of the discredited Mubarak regime polled almost 50% of the vote in the presidential election runoff against Mohamed Morsi in June 2012.

What then was Tahrir Square? Part project (getting rid of Mubarak and sons), part fantasy (hoping that the carnivalistic unity of the moment would evolve into a process of democratic state-building), part delusional experiment (believing that the established order of Mubarak elites and their secular opponents would be willing to rebuild a more legitimate political and economic order even if it meant that they would be transferring significant power and status to the Muslim Brotherhood). The 2011 turn to ‘democracy’ in Egypt always contained a partially hidden condition: the Muslim Brotherhood was welcome to participate in an electoral process so long as its support was not so great as to give it a majoritarian mandate. The liberal secularists and left groups who were at the core of the anti-Mubarak uprising anticipated that MB would win support at the 25-30% level in the forthcoming Egyptian national elections for parliament and the presidency. It was assumed that this would confine the MB to a minority role, although possibly forming the strongest single legislative bloc. This was also understood to mean that the next president of Egypt would not be directly associated with the Brothers or be seen as a representative of political Islam, but would be drawn from the ranks of liberal seculars (that is, anti-Mubarak, but also opposed to Islamic influence in governing circles). From this perspective in the Spring of 2011 it was widely expected that Amr Moussa, former Foreign Minister in Mubarak’s government and later Secretary General of the Arab League, would be elected president by a strong majority, an anticipation supported by leading public opinion polls. Moussa was both part of the Egyptian establishment with national name recognition and yet had established his anti-Mubarak claims to legitimacy in the period of upheaval.

Essentially, the fly in this Egyptian democratic ointment was the unsuspected grassroots popularity and strength of Islam, and specifically, the Muslim Brotherhood, winning control in a sequence of five elections during 2011-12, three for the parliament, two for the presidency. Whether reasonably or not, this revelation of Islamic democratic strength was the death knell of democracy in Egypt. It frightened the anti-seculars into a de facto alliance with the fulool, sealing the fate of the Morsi government. And since the legitimating procedures of the elections had repudiated the old Murbarak order, even in its post-Mubarak liberal, reconstituted self, the anti-MB opposition had to find an alternative strategy. They did: generate crises of governability and legitimacy via a massive populist mobilization, that is, insist on the democracy of the street taking precedence over the democracy of the ballot box.

The armed forces were ‘the joker’ in this political deck. The military leadership seemed at first to go along with the Tahrir Square flow, but also to play its cards in a contradictory way as to have the flexibility to control the transition to whatever would come next in Egypt, always claiming the mantle of being the guarantor of order, and the indispensable alternative to chaos. Sometimes it was perceived as having made a backroom deal with the MB, and was viewed with suspicion by the anti-Morsi forces. It should be recalled that Maj. General Abdel-Fattah el-Sisi, besides being the head of the armed forces, served as the Minister of Defense in the Morsi cabinet up until the day of the coup. As the anti-Morsi momentum gathered steam, the military took over the movement, either enacting its preferred scenario all along or changing horses in the middle of the race so as to be riding on the winner. In June 2012 the military could credibly claim a popular mandate to restore order and economic stability. The bloody destruction of the MB as a rival source of economic and political power implemented the mandate more harshly than anticipated.

Think of it, the group that had prevailed in a series of free elections throughout the nation in 2011-12 was scapegoated overnight into a band of ‘terrorists’ that must be crushed for the sake of Egyptian peace and security. When the word ‘terrorist’ is deployed to designate the enemies of the state, it signals that the rule of the gun will replace the rule of law. It paves the way to the adoption of exterminist and genocidal tactics by the state, and what has followed should have not have occasioned surprise, however shocking. In General el-Ssi’s carefully chosen words: “..citizens invited the armed forces to deal with terrorism, which was a message to the world and the foreign media, who denied millions of Egyptians their free will and their true desire to change..” Decoded, the general is saying the anti-Morsi ‘democratic’ masses called not only for a new leadership in Egypt but for the destruction of the MB, now recast as ‘terrorists.’

Obviously, there is no place for such terrorists in the new order of post-Morsi Egupt. In the period following the fall of Mubarak, it should be recalled that the MB was widely regarded as a moderate and nonviolent political movement with its overtly Islamic orientation respectful of political pluralism. In contrast, it is now portrayed by the coup makers and supporters as the embodiment of exclusivist and fundamentalist Islam led by bloodthirsty extremists, a makeover aided and abetted by a staunchly pro-secular and very influential mainstream media, as well as by the maneuvers of the Mubarak deep state that were never dislodged after the fall of the ruler..

ElBaradei’s disappointing participation in the coup and interim government, followed by his courageous resignation, reflects the ambivalence of true liberals, and their confusion: making nice with the military for the sake of regaining political control and economic privilege, yet not wanting too much innocent blood to be spilled in the process. Note that most of the anit-Mubarak ‘liberals’ are opportunistic at the core, and despite all that has happened, still refuse to break with the el-Sisi interim government. They have made their choice in a situation seemingly defined as either ‘us’ than ‘them,’ having learned their lesson that constitutional democracy does not work in their favor. Given this intensification of polarization there seems to be no space left for those few who retain liberal values and reject extremist political tactics even on their side of the divide. ElBaradei is apparently one of those rare principled liberal secularists who has refused to be complicit in crimes against humanity, and for this surge of conscience he has been savagely attacked as ‘a traitor’ for displaying such a change of heart in the public square, implicitly a moral challenge to those of his general background who continue to cling to el-Sisi’s fraying coattails.

Was the Muslim Brotherhood Responsible?

Could the MB have handled things differently, and avoided the July 3rd scenario? Yes, possibly, if they had kept their pledge to participate as a minority force in the new Egyptian political order, taking self-denying precautions not to dominate the parliament and not seek the presidency. In other words, it is likely that if the MB had bided its time, and allowed a liberal secular candidate to take initial control of the government, and in all probability fail, their overall position today might be quite strong. This assessment presupposes that whoever was chosen to be the first post-Mubarak leader would not be able to satisfy the expectations of the Egyptian public with respect to economic recovery and social justice, and would be rejected ‘democratically,’ in all probability by an electoral process. It is doubtful that the severe social justice problems could be addressed without a break with the neoliberal world economic system, and no secularist on the Egyptian horizon was prepared to mount such a challenge. It is quite probable that if such a challenge had been mounted, the army and the MB would have stepped in to abort such moves. It should be remembered that a left criticism of the MB from the outset were its acceptance of the neoliberal consensus.

It was reported (how reliably is unknown) that in February of 2012, that is prior to initial presidential election in May 2012 fielding 13 candidates, Nabil ElAraby, a globally known and respected liberal secularist and at the time Secretary General of the Arab League, had been told that he would have the backing for the presidency of both the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAP) and the MB, if he had agreed to run for the Egyptian presidency. This support would have assured an electoral victory, but ElAraby prudently declined the offer if indeed this story was accurate.

The gross imprudence of the MB failure to keep its pledge of non-competition for the presidency is only now becoming fully apparent. Having waited more than 80 years for a chance to control the destiny of the country, the MB would have been wise to wait a few more to see how things were developing in the country, especially given the societal and bureaucratic forces likely arrayed against them if they took center stage. Of course, such a retrospective appraisal always can be made to sound prescient, and is unlikely to be instructive.

Some have argued that it was the multiple failures of the Morsi leadership that were the proximate cause of the el-Sisi coup. In other words, the fatal mistake of the MB was not their unwillingness to stay in the political background and bide their time, but their inability to follow up on their electoral success when occupying the governmental foreground. This argument reasons, had Morsi been more inclusive, more capable in negotiating international loans and attracting foreign investment, more inspirational in promoting a vision of Egypt’s future, less heavy-handed in dealing with oppositional activists and secularists, more competent in stimulating an economic recovery, more reassuring to the Gulf monarchies, and more patient about promoting an Islamic agenda, things might have turned out differently. True, even an efficient and sensitive Morsi government would likely have lost some of its popularity due to the difficulties any leadership would have faced during this period, but it would not have been overthrown, nor would its political base be criminalized and crushed by a post-coup bloody campaign of merciless state terror.

It is impossible to assess the plausibility of such a counter-factual, but I have my extreme doubts. It is notable that with few exceptions those who claimed to be most outraged by the strong arm tactics and incompetence attributed to the Morsi government have averted their eyes from and even mandated the far bloodier tactics of the el-Sisi regime, shouting such banal slogans as ‘the army and the people are one hand.’

After the Coup: A Genocidal Mentality?

Although much is unknown, the sequence of four massacres when softer alternatives were readily available to restore order, the moves to criminalize the MB
(detaining Morsi, arresting MB leaders, and calling on the public to demonstrate so as to give its authorization for adopting such a strategy of oppression against the Brothers and their supporters), and recourse to the language of ‘terrorism’ to demonize demonstrators peacefully seeking to uphold constitutional rights and demand a return to constitutional government form a toxic pattern. Such behavior confirms the extreme alienation on the part of the coup leaders. In effect, it was more than a coup, less than a counter-revolution (as old governmental order had remained in place forming the Egyptian deep state). If polarization poisoned the well of democratic legitimacy, then its accelerated momentum led to the emergence of a genocidal climate of opinion in Egypt, and the old fulool bureaucracy played its assigned part.

In such an atmosphere it is almost to be expected that many of the coup supporters among the mass of Egyptians find nothing wrong with the tactics of the security forces since July 3rd. They endorse these tactics by an enthusiastic call for el-Sisi to become the next president of the country, and view the followers of the MB as undeserving of being treated as ‘Egyptians,’ belonging outside the pale of humanity deserving no mercy and entitled to no rights. In this murderous atmosphere, anything goes.

I suppose in this evolving Egyptian mêlée we can learn about the way the state-centric world operates by noting which governments are silent, which are approving and supportive, and which ridiculously continue to call on both sides to show ‘maximum restraint.’ We still live in a world where hard power strategic calculations in the inner counsels of government almost always outweigh soft power affirmations associated with democracy, human rights, and nonviolence. It is not a pretty picture, whether one questions the crude pragmatism of such Islamic stalwarts as Saudi Arabia and the Orgnization of the Islamic Conference or the equivocations of such liberal advocates of human rights and democracy as the United States, the European Union, and even the UN Secretary General.

These Egyptian developments also raise awkward questions about whether there exist outer limits to the politics of self-determination, which has authenticated many national movements against European colonialism and oppressive rule. Egypt is in the throes of what might be described as a process of Satanic self-determination, and there is no prospect that humanitarian intervention could restore constitutional normalcy to Egypt even if genuine empathetic motivations were present, which they are not. Which among the governments of the region or the world would have the temerity to seek an application of the norm of http://theconversation.com/egyptians-pay-for-democracy-in-blood-17085
>of the MB? Remember how in 2011 leading NATO countries relied upon R2P at the UN to obscure their primary mission, which was to destroy Qaddafi’s regime in Libya. At this stage, R2P is not an emergent principle of international law, as advocates claim, but an operative principle of geopolitical convenience becomes relevant when it serves the political and economic interests of the West.

The ethos of human solidarity means that none of us dedicated to human rights, to the accountability of leaders for crimes against humanity, and to the quest for humane governance should abandon Egypt in this tragic hour of need. At the same time, we need to admit that there is no politics of human solidarity capable of backing up a protective ethos even in the face of genocidal tremors. Our responsibilities as ‘citizen pilgrims’ extend beyond lamenting the failures of world order to serve the wellbeing of the Egyptian people. At least, we need to raise our voices, engage fully in witnessing, and support whatever soft power initiatives can be mobilized on an emergency basis.

I want to recommend highly, as well, two illuminating articles by my friend Emad Shahin, a faculty member at the highly respect American University in Cairo:

I also recommend highly the series of interpretative articles by Esam Al-Amin on the evolving Egyptian situation that have been published during the last two years, including just prior to and after the coup, in Counterpunch, an excellent progressive online journal.

Whither Turkey After Gezi Park?

30 Jun

The following post is a much revised version of an opinion piece published a few days  ago in Al Jazeera English. It reflect a continuing effort to capture the diverse mood that now prevails in Turkey.

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Whither Turkey: First Thoughts after Gezi Park

Preliminary Disclaimers

As the dramatic Turkish protests subside, or declare an intermission, this is a time to take stock, but cautiously.

Precisely when political reality explodes in unexpected ways, pundits come along suggesting comparisons, offering hastily constructed explanations, and cite influences and antecedents. Surprise is suppressed by most ‘experts’ who do all that they can to hide these awkward exposures of how little they knew about the explosive forces in society, which erupted without any advance notice. After the explosion these wannabe gurus step forth with undiminished confidence to tell us with learned demeanor why and how it happened, why it was almost inevitable to turn out as it did, and the most arrogant and often most influential even dare tell us what to expect next, and why it is good or bad.

While appreciating this fact of public life, let us take note that even the most wily intelligence agencies, with billions at their disposal, total command over mountains of secret data, running roughshod over the privacy and legal rights of even their own citizens and others to get it right on behalf of their government employers, still invariably miss ‘the jumps’ of change that are the real stuff of history. Why are the historians of change so bad at anticipating these jumps of history? Partly, for the same reasons that even the most sophisticated vulcanists cannot predict with any accuracy an earthquake or volcano—as in politics, the tipping points in nature and society are rarely anticipated by interpreting scientific trends or through the analysis of incremental changes, but generally disclose themselves with an unforeseeable abruptness.

In reaction, an appropriate level of humility and tentativeness goes a long way, acknowledging these limits of understanding, suggesting hesitantly and explaining as best we can such charismatic events when they occur, taking due account of their distinctiveness and admitting our inability to access deeper meaning that lie beneath the surface of cascades of events.

Another type of difficulty associated with these interpretative ventures is the bias associated with the observer’s gaze. We are habitually trained and experienced to look at politics from above, whether our perspective is that of elites or counter-elites, but revolutionary impulses come, if and when they come, almost invariably from pressures generated from below, that is, from the ‘multitude,’ pressures that materialize by suddenly bursting forth as happenings that startle and reverberate (e.g. Nelson Mandela’s release from prison, the collapse of the Berlin Wall, the velvet revolution, the Jasmine Revolution, Tahrir Square, Occupy Wall Street).

 

 

The Gezi Park Protests

Was Gezi Park in Istanbul such a happening, as many here in Turkey hope? Did it reflect the wishful thinking of those among the protesters who were seeking a genuinely inclusive democracy in Turkey respectful not only of the environment and cultural identity, but dedicated to the rights of all, especially such habitually abused minorities as Kurds and Alevis? Professor Asli Bali, a highly regarded young law scholar teaching at UCLA, persuasively encapsulated the core of the struggle as an epic encounter between two models of democracy– the majoritarian entitlement claims of Erdogan (but not necessarily all elements in the AKP) versus the participatory and populist ethos of the younger generation, which is almost as opposed to the republican (anti-democratic) ethos of the secular elders who were mainly aligned with the recently inept and anachronistic CHP as it is to Erdogan’s leadership of the AKP.  Bali pins her own best hopes for the political future of Turkey not on an anti-AKP challenge being mounted by an opposition party, but rather on a split within the AKP that will transfer control from Erdogan to the more inclusive moderate wing, which I presume would be led by the current president of Turkey, Abdullah Gul.

This is a most unusual way to conceptualize the best political alternative for Turkey, and it underscores a situation in which a change in the leadership of the country would be beneficial, but cannot be seen as issuing from either the present  arrangements of governmental authority or as a result of a successful challenge mounted by the organized opposition. The idea of a split within the AKP that produces a more moderate and inclusive leadership is an attractive option for three reasons. First, it validates the positive contributions of AKP governance over the past eleven years, while rejecting the style and some of the majoritarian implications of Erdogan’s leadership. Secondly, it implicitly rejects the prospect of an electoral transfer of governmental authority to the traditional opposition represented by the old Kemalist party, the CHP, as a result of elections, which despite its strong presence in Gezi Square and in the protests throughout the country, was viewed by the core protesters as politically antagonistic to a reshaping the political future of Turkey through redefining an understanding of democracy. In this regard, the republican/CHP conception of democracy so long as the party held the reins of government in its hands was intolerant toward the religiously observant, as well as repressive toward the Kurdish regions of the country.  Thirdly, strong doubts are present as to whether the Gedi protests, with neither party, program, agenda, nor leaders, strong anarchist elements could grow into an inclusive movement along the lines of what Derrida calls ‘democracy to come,’ an aspirational vision of the future that embraces a liberating conception of freedom that far transcends any historical embodiment of ‘democracy,’ anywhere up to this point. If the past teaches us anything, it suggests that such revolutionary impulses, no matter how intense, will quickly dissipate or implode, either because they become institutionalized in stultifying bureaucracies, engage in torrent of revolutionary terror, losing their revolutionary identity authenticity, or they don’t institutionalize and purge enemies from within and without, and simply fade away.  Of course, for reasons suggested at the outset, history is cunning, and may not mimic the past.

What Future for Turkish ‘New Politics’?

The dust in Turkey has not yet settled, although it appears to be settling. At this point it is far too early to discern whether a new political subjectivity has been born that will fill the Turkish political vacuum. This unfortunate vacuum was formed by the absence of a credible and responsible opposition during this elapsed decade of secular displacement and AKP consolidation. It is uncertain whether this recent venting of frustration and resentment can be converted into a sustainable political movement that offers the Turkish polity a post-Kemalist alternative to Erdogan’s AKP, and does so without losing the very substantial achievements that included ending the practice of prison torture, civilianizing the military, paying off the IMF, tripling the Turkish GDP, coming forward with a promising approach to the Kurdish problem, and gaining great influence and respect for Turkey as a success story in the region and world. Symbolizing these eleven years of national ascent was the emergence of Istanbul as a cosmopolitan crossroads for the world, and a favored site for diplomatic meetings and high profile events.

We also should not dismiss the capacity of the AKP, including Erdogan, to learn from the Gezi Park experience. Despite the bluster and the inflammatory tirades about the evils of social networking, foreign provocateurs and domestic ‘looters’ and ‘terrorists’, the excessive police force (hardly a novelty in the region, and even Europe, but no more excusable for being ‘the old normal’), Erdogan did eventually pull back to a significant degree, apparently taking account of the strong objections mounted against the Gezi Park project in its original form. Erdogan seems now to have put the Gezi Project on hold for the indefinite future, awaiting a judicial finding as to the acceptability of the project and possibly organizing a citywide referendum in Istanbul both to consult the municipal citizenry and find out about their attitude. And we should not idealize the protesters, a minority of whom did vandalize and demean Islamic sensibilities with obscene graffiti and allegedly threw beer bottles thrown on the floor of a nearby mosque, although this charge is sharply contested. Unfortunately, and unacceptably, many governments that claim the mantle of democracy use excessive force when dealing with angry protests and demonstrations, but no autocrat worth his name attempts to meet adversaries half way as such temporizing is regarded either as unnecessary or as a display of what such a leader finds most distasteful, namely, weakness.

The government’s new approach to the Gezi controversy may yet prove to be problematic. The referendum may endorse the project as a reassertion of popular support for Erdogan, and he might be tempted to plunge ahead.  A referendum in such situations can often dangerously infringe upon fundamental social values that should be protected regardless of how ‘the people’ vote. The preservation of Gezi Park would seem to qualify for meta-political protective treatment. Gezi Park as a green enclave, along with its proximity to Taksim Square, possesses a vivid resonance for the whole city of Istanbul, including even the revitalized Ottoman heritage that is so dear to Erdogan and the AKP generally. It seems especially precious to a younger generation of urban Turks that often have cherished memories of the park from their childhood. And for the most ardent followers of Kemal Ataturk the Taksim Square milieu has always been hallowed space where patriotic holidays of the Turkish republic are solemnly celebrated.

Of course, except at the very beginning, and maybe not even then, Gezi Park was about far more than Gezi Park. It was, as suggested, a slowly articulated repudiation of the sort of democracy being offered by the Turkish state, and as yet unarticulated series of demands for another kind of governance based on a different understanding of what politics and freedom are about. It was also about, although vaguely and incoherently, the cultural leveling down associated with neoliberal globalization and the rise of a predatory private sector that seemed responsible for littering the city of Istanbul with shopping malls and high rise twin towers.

There were other more conventional grievances that need to be addressed if the AKP wants to build a more legitimate structure of governance in the country, including the release of journalists and other prisoners of conscience presently held prison, greater reassurances about freedom of expression and dissent, and more public accountability of police and government. At the same time, the depth and intractability of the opposition in some sectors of Turkish society makes reconciliation a mission impossible. Polarization seems the destiny of Turkey for the foreseeable future. Most of the protest spawned by Gedi Square focused on calls for the resignation of Erdogan, in effect demanding a repudiation of democratic elections, which seems rather perverse considering the overall success of Turkey while Erdogan was running the country.

There is, to be sure, some peculiar features present in the litany of opposition complaints. For instance, there are frequent allegations that anti-government criticism of Erdogan and the AKP is absent from the media due to intimidation. It is true that Turkish TV seemed at first to ignore embarrassingly the events in Gezi Park while international TV was covering the unfolding protest in real time. Yet the true situation in Turkey, as I have experienced it, is one of widespread and harsh criticism of Erdogan from many angles, in this regard not the slightest evidence of media intimidation or alleged self-censorship, and a greatly exaggerated contention here and abroad that the voices of censure have been silenced by imprisonment. Posting an otherwise illuminating article online, Michael Ferguson, finishing a PhD in history and classics at McGill, writes this incredible phrase, while commenting on the media’s failure to mention of a controversial assertion: “..not surprisingly, however, given the Turkish media’s unwillingness to criticize Erdogan.”  I have been reading numerous opinion pieces attacking Erdogan in the Turkish press during the past two weeks, and so I cannot imagine what prompts such an assertion. True, there are many journalists imprisoned, to be sure, but apparently less for their critical views than for their supposed involvement in anti-government, unlawful activities. These charges should be investigated without any further delays, and those being held either tried or released, but that is a different matter than contending that Erdogan is being treated as a hothouse flower by the Turkish media, which is manifestly untrue.

The puzzle I have encountered after recently arriving in Turkey is why so many people seem honestly to believe that freedom of expression has been so severely encroached upon when it seems at least as robust as what is found in other democracies. What can be more aptly complained about here in Turkey, but less so than in the United States, is the shrillness of the critical media that offers no space for those with moderate views cleaving to ‘the golden mean.’ In the U.S. where talk radio features inflammatory voices of the extreme right such as Rush Limbaugh, Bill O’Reilly, and Glenn Beck. Also present are the Murdoch tabloid mendacities of the Fox Network that are given more intelligent and careful reactionary spins in the editorial and opinion columns of the Wall Street Journal.  Yet there is also present influential middle of the road media, New York Times, Washington Post, PBS, Rachel Maddow, MSNBC, which although far from objective still helps readers understand that there are at least two sides to many contested issues.  Controversially, I find Today’s Zaman the most consistently informed and balanced of the major media sources in Turkey, but interestingly almost unavailable at most newsstands throughout Istanbul that seem to favor the strictly secular media.

A Preliminary Balance Sheet

Up until now the unsettled immediate situation in Turkey has dissuaded me from commenting on what remains a still confused, complicated, and unfinished situation. Despite their marginalization in Gezi Square itself, the mainstream Turkish secular opposition to the AK Party leadership of the country over the past 11 years, welcomed these protests with unreserved enthusiasm misleadingly claiming in the media and throughout the world that these confrontations with the state was a moment of their supreme vindication. It should be remembered that both the Kemalist republicans and the traditional left have feared and hated the AKP from the moment of its suprising initial electoral victory in 2002. They have particularly detested Recip Teyyip Erdogan even before he became prime minister. These political elements of the Old Turkey stubbornly refuse to acknowledge the achievements of his leadership in elevating Turkey’s regional and global stature in dramatic fashion, while managing to do what was thought to be impossible—depoliticizing the Turkish military from political arenas while managing to preside  over an unprecedented period of economic growth and political stability. The embittered opposition angrily explained that these positive results would merely the good luck of the AKP, that they would have occurred under whatever government was in power, and besides, the AKP must be stopped and exposed, as it is deceitfully pursuing a secret agenda was intent on placing the country within an iron cage of Sharia law, the unquestionable goal to make Turkey into ‘a second Iran.’

It seems clear that these essentially partisan and polarizing attitudes do not seem to have animated the original protesters in Gezi Park who were mainly reacting with appropriate anger to a grotesque urban renewal plan that would have destroyed a sentimental park adjoining the richly symbolic center of Istanbul in Taksim Square, replacing it with a vulgar reconstruction of Ottoman Era army barracks, incredibly given an ugly modern face as one more shopping mall.  In some respects, such a future for Gezi Park did strike many of the early protesters as a fitting predatory expression of consumer capitalism gone wild.

The second much enlarged wave of protest was the spontaneous outpouring of youth, appalled more by the brutality of the police response than the environmental agenda, and clearly thirsting for a new form of emancipatory politics, beyond the greed for power of the traditional parties with their hollow promises and interest-driven programs. It was this outlook, difficult to categorize precisely because it was discovering and revealing itself as the events unfolded, exemplifying their distance from traditional politics by relying on humor, satire, inclusiveness, and a political style that seemed to owe more to ‘performance art’ (e.g. ‘standing men’ and other tropes) than to bombastic political speeches enunciating the familiar litany of political demands.  Such a politics of protest, even taking account of the carnivalesque atmosphere and the anarchist turns toward violence, was fully committed in its critical posture to a ‘search and explore’ method of doing politics along with an extreme reflex of disgust whenever political leaders tell their citizens what to do and not do in their lives.  It is this acute sensitivity to government and its leader intruding upon this sacred zone of private autonomy that does make this new protest ethos seemingly join forces with seculars in their denunciation of Erdogan and the AKP. Imprudently, Erdogan has gone down this road. He has backed legislation restricting where and when alcohol can be consumed, aired his opinion as to how many children a mother should produce, and told the public why kissing in public and wearing of lipstick should be discouraged and avoided. There is no doubt that Erdogan does irresponsibly fan the flames of youth and secularist discontent in Turkey by his inability or refusal to keep his conservative personal preferences about social issues to himself, and not undermine his identity as the elected leader of the whole public of a modern nation composed of diverse ethnicities and outlooks. Especially in Turkey’s principal cities many young people, above all, want to live their lives as they please without any guidance from Ankara. As we should all know by 2013, ‘the personal is political.’

These traits of Big Brother also lend some credibility to the deeper fears that Erdogan does harbor dreams, if not ambitions and plans, of becoming an autocratic ruler in the manner of the great Ottoman sultans or that his vision of majoritarian democracy is at odds with substantive democracy, that is, the establishment of a society where the views and identities of minorities and dissenters are respected and protected alongside the preferences of the majority. In effect, Erdogan should not be blamed for the acute polarization of Turkish society of which he is in many ways an unjust and long-term victim. At the same time, his blunt style of communicating with the citizenry and the opposition, is also polarizing. It suggests that Turkey remains an immature political culture, but it is far being alone in this regard.

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The Second Anniversary of Tahrir Square Rising

25 Jan

 

 

            The rising in Tahrir Square two years ago electrified the world and achieved the impossible: forcing the departure of Hosni Mubarak, the harsh and corrupt dictator of Egypt for the prior 30 years. What inspired the world was the spontaneous spirit of unity, a movement guided by exhilarating visions of democracy and freedom and hope, generating a new kind of populism that dispensed with ideology and leaders, a sense that the people of Egypt had acted creatively and bravely to recover their country from the clutches of neoliberal predators and their domestic collaborators. Even the armed forces had seemed mainly to welcome these developments, partly because of their own fears that Mubarak harbored dynastic dreams. Although the Jasmine Revolution in Tunisia preceded Tahrir Square, it was the developments in Egypt that made it plausible back in 2011 to speak about and to dream of the ‘Arab Spring.’

 

            A year later in 2012 there was still some afterglow from the drama of Tahrir Square, but there were also growing signs of disunity. It was becoming clear that Muslim Brotherhood, as well as the Salafis, enjoyed the benefits of grassroots organizing and support, which translated into electoral dominance. It was also evident that the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) that was providing governmental authority was not clearly committed to the values and practices of constitutional democracy and human rights. For many Egyptians, SCAF was becoming a threat of new structure of governance describable as ‘Mubarakism without Mubarak.’ Labor unions, minorities, and special interest groups were all seeking to put forward their grievances. There was a growing concern in some economic sectors that the new situation was unable to revive confidence and trust, creating a kind of backlash, ‘nothing has changed,’ and ‘we are worse off than when the Mubarak regime was in power.’ At least, before the rising of 2011, tourists came, and shop owners in the cities flourished. After one year, the excitement had died down, and there were severe worries about political leadership, human rights, and economic revival, and many of those that had been in the front lines of the challenge to Mubarak were no longer politically active and visible, or were now confronting the Morsi government.

 

            On this second anniversary the situation has definitely deteriorated. Tahrir Square and other city centers around the country are increasingly sites of struggle between the governing Islamic Brotherhood and discontented liberal, secular, and minority forces. On this day of anniversary early reports indicate that there were clashes in many cities throughout the country, which resulted in at least one death and 186 reported injuries. Mohammed Morsi has pleaded for unity, but his leadership has been widely perceived by his adversaries as pushing the country in the direction of Islamism, which is serving as the ideological vehicle for the hegemony of the Muslim Brotherhood.  There is also a growing atmosphere of polarization in which it has become express policy that for the anti-Morsi opposition nothing less than the removal of Morsi from the presidency of Egypt will quiet their opposition. There are also a variety of hostile claims that the proposed new Egyptian Constitution embodies a deal with the armed forces, which jeopardizes democracy by ensuring SCAF’s economic private sector interests and gives it wide ranging powers to interfere in the political life of the country without even providing mechanisms to guard accountability to the constitution.

 

            Not all Egyptians buy into the politics of polarization. There are a few, too few, who stand above the fray, pointing to the exaggerations on both the Morsi and the opposition side. Their contention is that Morsi is implementing a generally inclusive constitutional scheme under difficult economic circumstances and that the secularists have reason for concern about Islamic influence and ambitions, but not for seeking to produce chaos in the country by challenging after the fact outcomes of democratic elections. The damage done by this polarization is to strengthen extremists on both sides, and to render problematic prospects for either humane governance or economic recovery.  Unfortunately, the intensification of polarization in recent months is approaching a point of no return, which inevitably casts a dark cloud over the future of Egypt.

 

            There are some younger activists who are more hopeful, partly because they are looking away from Tahrir Square, and find encouraging a variety of local developments throughout the country. These developments take the form of labor and environmental activism, the organization of local markets, and a lowering of expectations with respect to the central government in Cairo. In effect, this perspective sees a trend toward the invention of democratization-from-below that is working toward a just and fair society outside the conventional framings of political parties and elections. Such populism in one sense keeps the flame of Tahrir Square burning, but not on the square itself, which has been taken over by secular/Islamist ugly encounters.

 

            At this point in Egypt’s evolution, there are plenty of reasons for concern, but also for patience. It may be that the opposition forces will tire of confrontation and that the governing authorities will moderate their policies in ways that credibly heed the promise of inclusivity. Let us hope that some of these reasons for worry will no longer be present a year hence when the third anniversary of the 2011 rising will be celebrated. It is already clear that this rising did not produce a ‘revolution,’ but it is not yet evident whether what is emerging in Egypt can be welcomed as fundamental ‘reform’ of state/society, civilian/military, and public sector/private sector relations, a program of reform that protects and promotes human rights, including economic, social, and cultural, as well as political and civil rights. For now, it is best for people of good will to withhold judgment, and wish the people of Egypt success in their ongoing struggle for justice, freedom, dignity, and substantive democracy (that is, rights and justice, as well as the procedures of elections and institutions). 

Egypt: Between a Rock and a Hard Place

10 Dec

          

 

            I have had the opportunity to be in Cairo three times for brief visits in the last 20 months, the first a few weeks after the departure of Hosni Mubarak on February 11, 2011, the second in February of 2012 when the revolutionary process was treading water, and this third one over the course of the previous ten days. What is striking is how drastically the prevailing mood and expectations have changed from visit to visit, how fears, hopes, and perceptions have altered over time, and why they are likely to continue to do so.

 

I. The Overthrow of Mubarak

 

            On the first visit, shortly after the extraordinary exploits in Tahrir Square that started on January 18, 2011, there was a spirit of stunned amazement that made it seem as though the ‘Arab Spring’ was a genuine historical phenomenon of epic proportions and that Egypt had become the core site of a new post-Marxist radical politics that relied on militant nonviolence and a radical ethos of transformation, but avoided ideology and hard power tactics. Gandhi and Gene Sharp were most often invoked as the inspirational influences, not Lenin, Mao, Castro. It was being widely celebrated as a remarkable expression of democratic populism, especially the empowerment of youth, women, with social networking via the Internet being accorded a special prominence during the popular mobilization process. The sentiment could be summarized in different ways: ‘the impossible happened,’ ‘I never expected to experience this rising up of the people of Egypt,’ ‘We have our country back,’ ‘I have never been so proud to be an Egyptian.’ It was an upheaval with transformative potential, magnified and catalyzed by the immediately prior Tunisian rising, which exhibited what seemed to be an innovative form of largely nonviolent radical politics that almost miraculously wrote the script on the set of its unfolding while occupying Tahrir Square along with other less media exposed arenas of protest and opposition. (And not so incidentally, inspired the occupy movements that  spread around the world in the following months, with Occupy Wall Street being the appropriate epicenter.) It was treated as an amazing instance of ‘spontaneous empowerment’ at the time, although more knowledgeable observers and participants tended to stress a cumulative process with distinct roots in reactions to prior abuses by the Mubarak police apparatus and in important labor protest strikes.

 

            Of course, even during this period of afterglow, there were deep concerns in Egypt just below this surface of enthusiasm. There were a wide variety of cautionary reactions relating to the lasting significance of what had taken place, and skeptical viewpoints as to whether the deeper challenges of Egyptian poverty and class inequalities could be effectively addressed without a more ambitious political process that challenged and dismantled the institutional infrastructure of the old regime. On the one side were a variety of sentiments that expressed doubts about whether it was enough to be rid of Mubarak, and gave a range of opinions about what was not done and still needed to be done if Egypt would be able to find a path to sustainable and equitable social, economic, and political progress. This outlook was reinforced by the understanding that if forward momentum of this sort was not achieved post-Mubarak, the likely sequel would be regression. There was also widespread skepticism as to whether Egypt could both solve the problems of democratic transition and at the same time address the inequities and failures of the inherited neoliberal economy. Such a challenge could only be met through constituting a new economic order that was far more responsive to the needs of the Egyptian people and less hospitable to capitalist style investment, a process that would certainly undermine investor confidence, at least in the short-run.

 

            Egyptian friends expressed other concerns to me, as well, including worries about what the United States, and Israel, might be doing or plotting behind the scenes to embolden the armed forces to move in counter-revolutionary directions and reverse an emancipatory process that might threaten the regional status quo. There was an anxiety that these outside forces that had exerted such a strong influence in the former configurations of state power in Egypt would not give up their former leverage without trying to restore the substance, if not the form, of the old reliable order. It did seem at the time that democratizing forces were almost certain to become hostile in the future to the geopolitical arrangements favored for the region by Washington and Tel Aviv, and that the political self-determination of Egypt was threatened by the likely machinations of these external forces. At this stage, there was broad agreement that American support was one of the props of the discarded Mubarak leadership, and that Egyptian democracy depended on curbing Washington’s future influence.

 

            There was also debate in early 2011 about three elements of the domestic political scene: (1) whether the armed forces would facilitate or obstruct the establishment of a constitutional democracy in the country; (2) how to allow the Muslim Brotherhood to participate in political life while retaining the belief that it would be disastrous if it end up dominating the democratizing process; and (3) intense speculation about who would carry the presidential torch across the finish line.

 

            With respect to the MB there was uncertainty and controversy as to the orientation of its leadership, some suggestions of inter-generational conflict between the traditionally conservative older generation and a more modernity oriented and moderate younger generation. There was also disagreement as to whether its Islamic orientation was rather insignificant because its real goals were to promote private business interests and to gain access to the commanding heights of governmental authority. There were estimates at the time of MB strength as being somewhere between 25-30%, almost no mention of the Salafis as a political force to be reckoned with, and a liberal secular consensus that it was fine for the MB to take part in the political process, assuming that MB strength did not turn out to exceed those estimates. Some anti-Mubarak secularists did say that if it turned out that the true strength of the MB was 40% or more then Egypt would be in deep trouble of a not clearly specified nature. In effect, the secular consensus implicitly believed a year and a half ago that a political process dominated by the MB, even if it came about by democratic procedures, was unacceptable. But such a prospect was widely dismissed as so unlikely as not to be worth discussing. Implicitly, there were some prophetic fears even before the MB grassroots nationwide strength was disclosed in a series of electoral moments, that majoritarian democracy was not a legitimate outcome for Egypt. In a way, the MB seemed, at first, to acquiesce in this understanding, signaling their agreement by pledging not to compete for the presidency, presumably to avoid threatening the kind of ecumenical unity that was so powerfully displayed at Tahrir Square a few weeks earlier.

 

            The balance of opinion that I encountered in late February 2011 seemed to feel that an active role for the armed forces was a necessary feature for any successful transition to constitutional democracy. The alternative was assumed to be a descent into societal chaos, followed by economic collapse. On the role of the armed forces in the upheaval, there were differing assessments, some thinking that the military leadership had itself been eager to avoid a Mubarak dynasty, abhorring the prospect of power shifting to his younger son, and thus initially allowed, even welcomed the popular rising, so as to let the movement get rid the country of the Mubarak factor rather than to stage a coup on its own. Yet, the armed forces were certainly not willing to loosen their grip on the reins of power and privilege that included a major stake in the private sector economy, and thus favored a rapid return to societal normalcy. The surviving military leadership remained tied to an authoritarian style of politics, which was in effect, meant business as usual from the perspective of Tahrir activists. Others in Egyptian civilian society were more hopeful about the intentions of the armed forces believing that the upper echelons of the military, while not revolutionary, shared the reformist goals of the uprising, favored constitutional reforms, and sought to withdraw as quickly as possible from the political arena, limiting its role to facilitating order during a transition to a law-based political democracy.

 

            There were opposite worries, as well, in the afterglow of the Tahrir Square victories. Above all, a sense among those who understood politics in a conventional Western liberal manner that this movement that was so exciting during the days of struggle that culminated on January 25th lacked leadership, cohesion, program, and vision. As such, it would not be able to the challenges of the next phases–managing the practical procedures of governance or competing effectively in electoral arenas for a major role in policymaking circles. This innovative political revolutionary process had the short-term effect of allowing the battle for the future of the country to be waged by two essentially anti-democratic forces with hierarchical structures of organization that were at odds with kind of disorganized unity exhibited during the days of struggle in Tahrir Square: the MB and assorted remnants of the old order, an unholy alliance between the Mubarak beneficiaries, the old bureaucracy that had not been deconstructed, big business interests, economic sectors such as tourism and small shopkeepers, and Copts deeply worried about moves toward Islamism. This eventuality culminated in the presidential runoff between Mohamed Morsi and Ahmed Shafik.

 

            Many of those that had flooded the streets a year earlier never cohered sufficiently to envision ‘next steps,’ and seemed either to retreat from political arenas altogether or leave the field to those who were more traditionally organized to compete for power. On a more radical side were those who were outside the mainstream of the earlier uprising, but remained engaged on the basis of believing that the movement that took shape in Tahrir Square could only reach its necessary transformative goals if it persisted in a populist mode that kept the poor masses in Egyptian society fully mobilized. Among such activists there existed a shared conviction that the revolutionary process needed to be deepened in a spirit of urgency or else the system would quickly slip back to its old ways. This radical element while affirming the originality of the Tahrir style and outcomes rejected all efforts to achieve revolutionary goals by means of party politics and elections, including traditional leftist approaches. At the same time, without being willing to endorse a blueprint for transformation, radicals identified their preferred movement with the realization of a just and independent future for the country, especially for those Egyptians so long disempowered and barely subsisting. This Egyptian radicalism remained committed to the Tahrir politics based on maintaining popular unity across the typical divisions of class, religion, and ethnicity, without advocating its own program or promoting particular leader, affirming the continuing need for confrontational tactics, and comfortable with the idea that chaos might ensue and persist for some years. Chaos was accepted as the price that must be paid if the movement that overthrew Mubarak was to grow into a genuine ‘revolution,’ and not degenerate into either a ‘counter-revolution’ or a species of ‘liberal reform’ that left the majority of Egyptians in as miserable a shape as during the Mubarak era.  In the end this radical vision was based on beliefs in local empowerment and emancipation, the creativity of people, a robust labor movement, and a bottom up view of political reconstruction, rejecting both MB and liberal secular views of top down political order. This radicalism drew its inspiration from a sense that a new kind of transformative politics had been revealed in Tahrir Square, but that it was a flowering that would wilt if not nurtured by an uncompromising insistence that the wellbeing and dignity of the Egyptian masses was the core challenge, and could not be achieved by elections, parties, and government.

 

            As for the impending electoral process, there was an emphasis on speculation about the presidency. Who? When? Among Cairo liberals who had been uncomfortable with the Mubarak past, but had long coexisted with it, there was a widespread sense that Amr Moussa would prevail. Moussa was not fully trusted even among secular liberals to advance the democratic values that were affirmed by all who had gathered in Tahrir Square and other city public spaces throughout the country. Although long prominent in the Mubarak regime, Moussa had jumped ship early enough to have mainstream credibility, and was thought to be on good terms with the military, moderate in relation to the MB, and widely known inside and outside of Egypt having serverd both as Foreign Minister and Secretary General of the Arab League. There was also some enthusiasm for the candidacy of Mohamed ElBoradai, former head of the International Atomic Energy Agency and Nobel Peace Prize laureate. More than Moussa, ElBoradei had clean hands, having been outspoken in his rejection of the Mubarak past and appearing along side the Egyptian activists in the square. At the same time, his prospects were discounted because he lacked a national political base, was not an effective speaker or experienced as a politician, and was perceived as an outsider who had lived too long in foreign countries. The more radical voices were dismissive of this preoccupation with who would emerge as the leading candidate or how political parties would fare, believing that their kind of politics would need to discover how to govern without a government of central institutions, an inchoate vision of the need for a ‘new politics’ and a distinct lack of confidence, even interest, in the vagaries of ‘old politics’ (parties, elections, bureaucratic institutions, governmental leadership), in effect, what was being sought was a ‘human security regime’ that had never been established anywhere, ever. At the time, such dedication was at once moving and troublesome, an embrace of what Derrida called ‘democracy to come’ with a kind of trust that the modalities of enactment would be discovered in the process of struggle.

 

II. Treading Water

 

            A year later in early 2012 these divisions persisted but hardened, and anxieties seemed far more intense, and the aura of excitement that followed  the victory of the January 25th Movement had definitely receded. There was, first of all, a new sense of impatience, especially among those who needed economic normalcy if their livelihoods were to be sustained. I met tourist guides at the pyramids and storekeepers in Cairo who expressed disappointment about the results of the upheaval of a year ago, acknowledging that while they had originally been glad to see the end of the Mubarak regime, they had fared personally better back then, and seemed ready to support whatever leadership that could restore stability. Even a

 

            On a different level of perception, the far greater than expected strength of the MB in the intervening parliamentary elections, as well as the abandonment of the early MB pledge not to field a presidential candidate and the surprisingly strong showing of the Salafis, changed the electoral landscape considerably. It was evident that the folks in Cairo were out of touch with the grassroots sentiments of a conservative society imbued with an Islamic identity. This assessment was discounted by liberal critics who explained MB dominance as misleading, representing an underestimation of its organizational strength. The Salafi emergence was similarly discounted by secularists as being mainly a product of Qatari and Saudi Arabian massive infusion of funds, but also as a consequence of the fact that in the past Salafi groups had shunned conventional party politics. All in all there were widespread and growing worries about the Islamization of Egyptian political life, with threats to civic freedoms, constitutional democracy, and the labor movement.

 

            The biggest development was the definite undertaking of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) to undertake the task of establishing order in Egypt, and assuring a measure of continuity with the past. Although the SCAF leadership insisted that it was only managing the transition, its autocratic style, the recurrence of state violence and torture, and its reluctance to hold Mubarak operative accountable for past crimes intensified suspicions that SCAF ambition was to control the political future of the country. The SCAF also seemed to constrain democratic choice by disqualifying on highly technical grounds several presidential candidates.

The process had gone so far that ElBoradai withdrew as a candidate, and Moussa no longer seemed a favorite to win.  Among the negative scenarios that were being discussed during this period in various forms was the idea that the MB and the armed forces had struck a deal that doomed the future of the country to an unacceptable political future.

 

III. Late November, Early December 2012

 

            Of course, lots had happened. The presidential race had run its course in two rounds. The runoff was between Mohammed Morsi of the MB and Ahmed Shafik a former air force commanding general and outspoken advocate of a ‘law and order’ presidency, the two leading Egyptian institutions with least in common with the spirit of Tahrir Square. The SCAF seemed to hesitate before finally declaring Morsi the winner in a closely contested final vote, and even then appeared determined to constrain presidential power, but Morsi struck back, retiring the top generals, and effectively asserting presidential authority. Morsi also moved to entrust the drafting of the constitution to a commission of the Parliament dominated by Islamists, and now subject to a national referendum scheduled for December 15th. Then came Morsi’s November 22nd bombshell that claimed presidential authority to issue decrees that could not be judicially reviewed, but in response to the protests, has been substantially rescinded, although sweeping powers have been asserted by Morsi to control future demonstrations and protect the polling process relating to the referendum on the draft constitution. As matters now stand, the opposition is not pacified, and repudiates the process by which the draft constitution was prepared and the substance of several provisions that give the text an Islamic slant, as well as the failure to affirm the equality of women, labor rights, and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and other international human rights treaties.

 

 

            The anti-Morsi forces have returned en masse to Tahrir Square with an agenda that seems to demand a reversal of these recent developments, which would plunge the country into a deep crisis or an insistence on following through with the adoption of a constitution that was seen as flawed in its endorsement of Sharia law as the basis of state/society relations and by its deference to the anti-democratic demands of the armed forces (including a non-reviewable defense budget, the right to try civilians in military courts, protection of vested interests in the economy).

 

            So far there have been almost daily clashes, some deadly, in Tahrir Square and throughout the city of Cairo, and in other cities around the country. There are several lines of response to these developments: the dominant one applauds the return to the streets to renew the struggle for democracy and economic equity based on its claim that the MB has an undisclosed plan to impose an authoritarian form of Sharia on Egypt with backroom alliance with the armed forces and neoliberal business and finance interests; the opposition claims to be fighting for an inclusive and pluralistic form of democratic political order, which recognizes as stakeholders in constitution-making, the several distinct communities that together make up Egyptian society, including seculars, Copts, and liberals. Another more radical assessment is that the fundamental issue involves the utter bankruptcy of conventional state-centered politics coupled with the complaint that ‘nothing has changed, absolutely nothing.’ What seems to be happening, expressed in the fighting and the mass protests, is a new subjectivity associated with local empowerment in specific communities and among societal sectors, especially women and labor. It is striking that pictures of the confrontation give prominence to women as a major presence among opposition forces, while those that seem to be all male are taken from visual representations of the ranks of MB militants.

 

IV. A Few Tentative Conclusions

 

            In the end, there are several issues, which have come to the surface in this unfolding Egyptian drama:

 

            –a deep division as to the nature of political legitimacy in the Egyptian context, with Islamists resting their claims on the will of the majority, what in

the American 18th century context was derided as ‘the tyranny of the majority’,  while the opposition insists on stakeholder democracy that is protective of distinct constituencies that are fearful of each other and of a Sharia Egypt; in this light, both sides seem uncompromising, and resting their encounter on contradictory views of democratic legitimacy;

            –a new fear that the rise of the MB is leading to the hijacking of the Egyptian Revolution by the forces of Islam in a manner that took place in Iran in 1979; in effect, that it is unacceptable to have Egypt governed by the MB no matter what the outcome of a series of elections. This unacceptability is accentuated by accusations that the MB has made deals with the armed forces and neoliberalism, the two most resented features of the Mubarak past. In this regard, no compromise is possible so long as Morsi remains president, and the unrest will continue. This rejectionist position has been expressed by the announced boycott of the December 15th referendum, which has been interpreted as a recognition that it would in any event prevail. In this respect, the opposition is staking its future on resistance rather than democratic procedures, although a less extreme reading would stress the refusal of Morsi to delay the referendum as demanded. The opposition believes that Egyptians have lost their fear of state power, learned to say ‘no,’ and that while repression may turn to harsh measures, it will not be able to achieve legitimacy or even stability;

 

            –a few brave souls in Egypt are sharply critical of and disturbed by this polarization, insisting that common ground exists among the contending forces, and must be found to avoid national disaster. The claim is that Morsi is far more sensitive to the pluralist claims than the opposition contends, although he has made serious ‘mistakes’ by pushing the panic button that have alarmed opposition elements. In practical terms, the draft constitution is not as flawed as claimed, and that the Morsi leadership has indicated a willingness to be receptive to accommodating amendment in the likely event that the referendum is approved. Similarly, that the opposition has over-reacted, rejected the democratic mandate of the electoral process, and risks pushing the country into a civil war.

 

            

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!

Two Occupations

6 Nov

Two Occupations

 

            As someone who has witnessed the humiliations daily endured by Palestinians living decade after decade under ‘occupation’ the word occupation was for me an inalterably dirty word. I was especially conscious of occupation, especially prolonged occupation of the sort that Israel has imposed on Palestine as synonymous with ‘abuse’ and ‘oppression,’ having just completed intense discussions between leading Israeli and Palestinian voices for peace at an LSE workshop presided over by Mary Kaldor and Lakhdar Brahimi that seemed to have a single Archimedean point of consensus: ‘End the Occupation.’ Personally, I was not so content with such an outcome as it tended to narrow the Palestinian agenda to a kind of ‘land for peace’ formula, ignoring the plight of five million or so territorially dispossessed Palestinians living as refugees or exile, often enduring intolerable situations of vulnerability and deprivation that has continued for generations.

 

And then yesterday I visited ‘OCCUPY LONDON’ at the monumentally beautiful St. Paul’s Cathedral (#OccupyLSX) with some of the extraordinary young people who are making it happen, and quite possibly inventing a better future that seemed to be being enacted before my eyes. Ten days earlier I had a similar experience of exhilaration and hope after visiting Zuccotti Park (#OccupyWallSt) in New York City, witnessing a seemingly chaotic array of innovative synergies finding their common ground in nonviolently opposing what seems wrong in our society, economy, and state and envisioning and insisting upon what might be better, indeed much better. And what I took away is different from what I came with: I left these convivial spaces with an experience of joyful occupation. Of course, the joyful does not cancel out the dismal with respect to occupations, but it shows us that language is alive, grows with experience, and that parallel meanings can coexist even if the realities evoke contradictory ethical and political responses.

 

But also I had the further awakening through a conversation in one of the hospitality tents just outside St. Paul’s with a radiant young Indian woman. She was excited by what was happening around her, but was also worried that the goals of emancipation could not be achieved without new words clearly expressive of the vision of those gathered at these occupation sites. She was particularly concerned about the use of ‘democracy,’ which she felt had been spoiled by the shallowness and unrepresentative nature of her lived experience in democratic societies, and her disillusionment with political parties, campaigns, and elections, which remain the pillars of ‘democratic’ legitimacy. Even though the activists in the tents and on the steps of the cathedral tried to make clear their commitment to revolutionary change by speaking of ‘real democracy’ as gauged by accountability, transparency, participation, equality, justice, and human security in public arenas of decisions. As we spoke I wondered to myself, ‘was she asking too much?’ And then I thought, ‘without asking for the impossible there is no prospect of achieving the possible.’

 

During the conversation I tried my best to be responsive, although the assignment she gave me far exceeded my capabilities. To keep the conversation moving I asked timidly at one point ‘would you be more comfortable with livable politics?’ She smiled softly, obviously unconvinced, and so I tried again, ‘what about convivial politics?’ She liked this suggestion a bit better, or so it seemed, maybe appreciating my effort, but these words still did not capture for her the originality of what she was experiencing and desiring. Even though I disappointed her, I felt that we parted as friends for life. Such is the convivial atmosphere of magnetic energy that fills these occupied spaces with a contagious immediacy of hope.

 

My friend, Shimri, a core participant of the London movement, a vibrant personality of proven commitment, having spent two years in Israeli jails because he refused to serve in the Israeli Defense Forces, is totally preoccupied with what he labels as ‘global democracy,’ and was both my guide at London Occupy site, but also one of three lead organizers of the LSE workshops. He hopes to democratize the United Nations, while helping to light bonfires of expectation in all 900 tent cities around the world, and with his infectious energy he imparts a sense of plausibility to even the most distant horizons of desire. Shimri explains to me the process at work at St. Paul’s as total democracy: daily assembly meetings, no leaders, everyone present can veto any decision, volunteer for any task that is to done, all are entitled to speak, and a Wikipedia spirit of taking a variety of steps without any central guidance that give those participants food to eat, books to read (there is a donated lending library in one of the tents), lectures to attend. There is no hierarchy, no ego, no blueprint. It is a radical atmosphere that suggests what the inner reality of the Paris Commune might have been like, or differently, the optimism of the early counterculture in America during the 1960s. But things are different in 2011: above all, these occupations borrow extensively from the heroics of Tahrir Square, and more generally are a sequel to the Arab Spring, and there is more sense of unmanageable challenge associated with the failures of existing crisis managers (it happened that the disastrous G-20 meeting in Cannes was happening over this very weekend). This debt to Egypt is overtly acknowledged in different ways in London. For instance, Shimri has a big sign in front of his tent with the words ‘Global Mubarak,’ and across from the cathedral is a London street sign that looks like the real thing,

with the words ‘Tahrir Square.’ And in its way, it was the real thing. This was Tahrir Square! At least for now! In important respects Occupy London LSK also spreace across the ocean from #OccupyWallSt, and in substance resembles the greater preoccupation of the EuroAmerican protests with the failures of the economy rather than the oppressive burdens on the populace associated with autocratic rule. In this regard it is helpful not to think too literally about the Global Mubarak metaphor. Whatever else it makes the transnational link, and defers to a flow of influence from South to North, which is itself evidence of a decolonizaing of the colonial mind, a process that still has a long way to go!  

 

I came away with many reflections, but above all the fervent conviction that almost all of us would be far better off if these young people filling the squares around the world were put in charge of our collective future. I for one would rather live in their world than in the current G-20 world. For sure, there would be an end to war and militarism, the human footprint on the planet would be lightened, consumerism repudiated and defetishized, poverty would be overcome, voting would be done without taking national boundaries too seriously, accountability would be determined by a rule of law that treated equals equally. I also realized that this brave confrontation with the established order might yet be ruthlessly crushed if our current angels of entropy become threatened, and decide to turned loose their hooligan legions., recalling the bloody end of the Paris Commune or the sad fate of the idealistic Soviets that ironically were among the first victims of the Russian Revolution. But this look back at dashed hopes in the past was my momentary daytime nightmare that vanished from consciousness as soon as I awoke and looked around me at the bright eyes of those standing close by.

 

I will save some other commentary for a later time, and only write now that part of what was happening in these civic zones of engagement was the revalidation of the utopian imagination, a necessary ingredient of any transformative politics. If we are to find ‘solutions’ we all need quickly to liberate our imaginations from the tyranny of ‘the feasible.’ The ‘realists’ presently holding the reins of power are unknowingly inhabiting realms of fantasy while the train of history approaches the station named DOOM. The young people are coming to admit this grim realization, and for this the rest of us can be thankful, enough so to allow ourselves the momentary privilege of hope.

 

Also, it is important that this first global dispersed expression did not start in the West. Even after the collapse of colonialism, the West has run the world. This is beginning to change with America’s decline and Europe’s muddle. That the Arab popular movements should awaken the underclasses, the 99%, in the West is one of the strangest geopolitical occurrences of the last hundred years.

Almost anywhere else on the planet would have seemed a more plausible staging ground for the reinvention of transformative politics in a global setting. It also illustrated the irrelevance of 9/11 and Islamophobia to the priorities and tactics of globalization-from-below, or what might be called ‘moral globalization.’

 

 



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