What are all these references to the ‘peaceful revolution in Egypt’ that I’m hearing in the media? From the images I saw, it was moltovs, sticks and organized resistance beating back the government thugs and plain clothes police officers who were attempting to attack and discredit the protest movement.
The dust hasn’t even landed on the floor yet in Egypt and already the spin masters of the media and political figures are already laying out a revisionist narrative of what happened as somewhat akin to “fluffy peace demonstrations” in the words of one friend. I think this is interesting because in trying to co-opt an uprising against a dictator held in place by the US for decades and which will be a huge blow to US power in the Middle East (especially if it spreads further) I think we are able to glimpse in action how power structures either co-opt or demonize protest movements.
So are the recent protests in Egypt peaceful? They could be termed non-violent if non-armed confrontation and property destructive fit into that definition, but certainly not peaceful. But being one of those folks who during the WTO protests back in 1999 was attacked (and even threatened to be punched in the face believe it or not) for breaking codes of ‘non-violence’ by bringing out newspaper stands into the street when riot police were attacking people with tear gas or forming a line to push back police who were beating on people doing a sit down blockade of an intersection, I have a hard time listening to the rhetoric of a ‘peaceful revolution’ in Egypt.
Basically I think ‘peaceful’ and ‘non-violent’ in the vocabulary of the US political class means approved and non-threatening. Despite that this is a huge blow to US interests, I think the US is between a rock and a hard place on this one and the international media is largely sympathetic because the demands have a strong fit with all the ideals of liberal democracy which is a cornerstone for journalism as a profession.
I think Obama and other authorities saying “Egypt=peaceful” is the flip side of the same discourse that demonizes social movements. I sure didn’t see anybody attacking police or otherwise with sticks or throwing moltovs during the WTO in Seattle or Oscar Grant protests in Oakland. Maybe there were some minor dumpster fires during both and a few moltovs during the Oakland protests, but nothing like in Egypt. And with Oscar Grant protests I’m sure people wished they could have attacked police stations but that didn’t happen, unlike Egypt. But as soon as any confrontation breaks out in the US all the political figures and media can talk about (and they are largely joined by the non-profit establishment I should add) is how things ‘turned violent’ and how terrible and illegitimate the protests are. Then there’s the obligatory stories about how all the poor shop keepers will suffer because no one bought anything and some windows were broken (which their insurance will pay for) and some big corporations got looted.
I’m sure much of the same things are happening in Egypt—stores are closed, police stations, party offices and government building have been burned and sacked, public transit workers are on strike, roads are blockaded and traffic is snarled. Even the Suez Canal is shut down. But the stories that would be written by the media and denunciations by the political leaders if any of this were to happen in the US (“this is terrorism!”) are all absent.
If the movement continues to radicalize and perhaps neighborhood committees refuse to cede control to the military regime or some new regime in its place, or self-organized workers now on strike begin to seize and operate their workplaces under self-management, I think we can expect to quickly see that rhetoric turn. But as the current situation stands I think, in the words of political organization Bring the Ruckus, “it has become a race to see which force can absorb or co-opt the uprising, not oppose it.”
Now onto how to characterize the uprising currently under way in Egypt. Is it an uprising? A revolution? Regime change from below? When a regime is overturned from below I think revolution is an appropriate term. I think the key distinction here though is a political revolution (the current situation in Egypt) vs. a social revolution (an overthrowing of the political, social and economic structures).
Some on the left are hesitant to call this a revolution and perhaps they are right that many are projecting their unfilled hopes to a certain degree in this. It’s a liberal democratic uprising against an autocratic regime and not anything more just yet. But it is a popular uprising from below, fueled in large by workers that have self organized themselves outside of the existing unions that are tied to the state. An outcome of liberal democracy, which seems fairly certain at this point, opens the door to possibilities, but already some of these are emerging with the nascent appearance of worker and neighborhood level self-organization.
This makes me think about the first Russian Revolution in 1905 where the Czar (an autocratic monarch) granted limited powers to a newly elected Duma (an assembly or parliament type body), which was a step towards liberal democracy. Out of that came the first appearances of worker soviets. Taking over the economy wasn’t yet on the table at that political moment, but it was crucial in setting the stage for what happened a decade later in 1917. Not saying that this is what will happen in Egypt. But I think its worth pointing out that more radical revolutions are often preceded by more or less reformist uprisings or mobilizations that help radicalize people and move them in more radical directions later. I think this is already underway in some degree in Egypt.