Tag Archives: Egyptians

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). 

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!

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.