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      Befriend the Risen People

      A version of this article appeared at The Nation on February 14, 2011.

      This is a great revolutionary moment in the long history of social movements.  At stake for many in the US establishment, apparently, are keeping the alliance with a pro-Western military, containing the Muslim Brotherhood, preserving the status quo with Israel, and propping up the privatization policies which have widened the huge gap between the haves and have-nots. Now a counter-movement may be galvanizing to contain, manage and redirect the street energy into traditional pro-Western channels.

      A tall order indeed. Whatever ups and downs in the short run, a fair Egyptian election can only result in the most progressive, nationalist and independent Egyptian government in thirty years. This is what worries the proponents of the Long Wars, American neo-conservatives, Arab establishments, and of course the Israeli government. But the new revolution also represents an alternative to the armed and clandestine strategy of al Qaeda, and an astonishing triumph for the young Al Jazeera generation.

      A shift from supporting dictators to democracy will not be easy for the American government. But if the Obama administration wants any positive influence in Middle East politics, it should support the rising generation in Egypt and rapidly disengage from the military campaigns in Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan and Yemen. It is time to rethink the Long War – the so-called Global War on Terror – symbolized, for now, by the lurking presence in Cairo of Omar Suleiman, who ran the rendition-and-torture programs under Mubarak.

      For anyone interested in social movements, the rising in Egypt follows a familiar pattern, one of sudden popular revolutionary upsurges after long years of apparent mass powerlessness. The author George Katsiaficas, now living in South Korea, calls this the “Eros effect”, a chain reaction of idealism, or “moments in history when universal interests become simultaneously generalized, as the dominant values of society are negated and long-entrenched rulers are forced from office.” Globalized social networks spread the effect immediately.

      Call it people power or the Eros effect, what is fascinating about the process is the sudden emergence of the uprising from the margins, rarely if ever predicted by the right or left, its bottom-up dynamic, and its bypassing of existing organizational forms. There is a contagious synchronicity too, as shown in the non-coordinated spread of the uprising from Tunisia to Egypt, Yemen, Jordan and perhaps Algeria in the near future.  

      A similar process forced the disintegration of the Soviet Union and its satellites in the late 1980s. Anti-globalization street protests began the process in Venezuela and Latin American dictatorships in the Eighties and Nineties. The wildfire spread across Asian countries beginning with the 1980 Kwangju Uprising in South Korea, the Philippines, Burma, Tibet, and China, with dictators forced out in Manila, Seoul, Dhaka and Bangkok.

      These uprisings were quite different than those revolutions led by organizations such as clandestine communist parties in the 1940s-1980s period, which were based on guerrilla warfare, popular front organizing, and eventual seizures of power, often in the midst of civil wars.

      When the utopian ecstasy of the present moment subsides, the problem for the revolutionaries becomes one of forming new organizational forms suitable to participation in a landscape already filled with traditional interests, factions and parties. The Facebook can facilitate grass-roots participation, but in what new context? The scenario the new revolutionaries surely will demand is one that allows the birth of a civic society with hundreds of community organizations, and a political process that allows them to demand the steady growth of democratization in all spheres. Such a process will lead to progressive and pluralistic nationalism.

      The danger is that the US, pushed by some Israeli elements, will misread the situation all over again, and begin worrying that an open democratic process, including the presence of the Egyptian Brotherhood, is a threat to strategic interests. This thinking cannot be more wrong-headed. There is no doubt that authentic Egyptian opinion is pro-Palestinian and anti-Israeli, and those sentiments will be heard in the country’s future politics. But a pro-Palestinian public and political consciousness is sharply different than an attitude favoring another war with Israel. This revolution is about recovering Egyptian dignity, Egyptian democracy, and Egyptian economic opportunity after thirty years of disaster and suffering. It is not about resuming armed struggle with Israel. The real problem, from the viewpoint of American and Israeli strategists, is the loss of control over a dependable Arab dictatorship. Ahead lies greater Egyptian political insistence that there be a viable Palestinian state, created without delay, a demand which the Americans and Israelis should accept as inevitable – and preferable to war. As Israel’s former Prime Minister advised Benjamin Netanyahu, this crisis is an opportunity for a two-state solution: “Don’t wait,” he said, “Move, lead and make history. This is the time. There will not be a better one.”

      Instead of wallowing in damage control and futile efforts to repair the War on Terrorism, it is a time for the United States to Google up the new revolution and initiate a diplomatic, political and economic alternative. 

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      Reader Comments (5)

      I've been blogging about the democratic uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt for some time at a fairly obscure blog on "law, politics, and philosophy" called Ratio Juris. Some of your readers might find my latest post of particular interest as it has to do with the question of "what's next" for the transition to democracy in the all-important post-revolutionary period:

      Best wishes,

      February 11, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterPatrick S. O'Donnell

      I should have mentioned a piece I have more directly on point with regard to your post: "The Impetuous Folly and Perils of Pax Americana: The MENA Variation.


      February 11, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterPatrick S. O'Donnell

      I agree with you analysis of the evolution in Egypt for freedom, democracy and a better life. But i would like to suggest that the comments by the current ultra-right wing Netanyahu government in Israel should not be confused with the hearts and minds of the majority of Israelis nor with the Israeli state. I think that the majority of israelis do have some understandable caution about the continuation of the Camp David Peace accords especially after three terrible wars with their neighbor but admire and support tis democratic revolution and aspiration fora freer, better life. I would point to the particular problem of extremism and extremists and how they seem to rule the agenda in the Middle East time and time again and thwart efforts by non-violent peace camps in both Israel and Palestine. Today it is yes, the theocratic and autocratic Hamas in Gaza, and the ultra-nationalists and religious extremist settlers. But the of everyday citizens majority in Israel, and, i believe in Palestine, still support a just, secure and durable two state solution with the Palestinian people. I fact there is a strong, venerable and long-standing peace movement in both Israel and Palestine. I also think that the Obama administration gets the neo-con folly and crime of trying to bring democracy at the point of a gun to Iraq and that the best defense against violent Islamist recruitment is just the kind of non-violent revolution and awakening that is happening in Egypt. I also think that President Obama gets that this revolution was in no small part about corruption and crony capitalism of a repressive dictatorship. I do believe that he, his administration and the State Department could play a positive role in furthering the wonderful civil society we saw in Tahrir square and across Egypt by diverting part of the funds that go to the Egyptian military to all levels of education and assistance to the poor in Egypt.

      February 12, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterDavid


      I disagree with your attempt to distance the political rhetoric and policies of the Netanyahu government from what many if not most Jewish-Israeli citizens think and believe. Your rather roseate characterization here is simply belied by the evidence on the ground, documented in numerous works, but see in particular the account provided by Sylvain Cypel in Walled: Israeli Society at an Impasse (New York: Other Press, 2006). And while it is true that there is a “venerable and long-standing peace movement” in Israel, it is not equivalent to what has existed among the Palestinians, the former being rather weak, fragmented, and not above succumbing to neo-Zionist and ultra-nationalist fantasies on occasion, while the latter is quite small and not much of a “movement” as such, although Palestinians have periodically tried, often unsuccessfully (at least gauged by short term standards) an array of nonviolent methods in their struggle for collective self-determination. As to Palestinian nonviolent methods of civil resistance, Mary Elizabeth King has written about such things in here book, A Quiet Revolution: The First Palestinian Intifada and Nonviolent Resistance (New York: Nation Books, 2007). But again, that peace movement is not, as yet, very strong, as David Shulman makes plain in his recent article in the New York Review of Books (Feb. 24, 2011) discussing the laudable efforts of the philosopher Sari Nusseibeh, the president of al-Quds University in Jerusalem, efforts traced back to “organized Palestinian civil disobedience in the popular struggle of the first intifada in 1988 and 1989, in which he had a significant part.” As Shulman writes,

      “In the more recent past, nonviolent resistance in the form of weekly demonstrations and marches has been a mostly local phenomenon, limited to a few villages between Jerusalem and the coastal plain such as Budrus and then more famously Bil’in, and to some extent to a cluster of villages in the Bethlehem area to the south. These demonstrations are invariably violently suppressed by the army with tear gas, rubber-coated bullets, and, quite often, live ammunition. Sometimes they degenerate into clashes, with stone-throwing from the Palestinian side; at other times, as on the day I was in al-Nabi Salih, the demonstrators manage to maintain discipline in the face of the guns. The army has so far kept these protests from spreading beyond the villages in question—in keeping with the general policy of fragmenting, isolating, and fencing in all Palestinian communities in the territories controlled by Israel.”

      Leaving the peace movements aside for now, let us attempt to outline a few important facts about Hamas, which you dismiss as “theocratic and autocratic,” although I admit I’m heartened you didn’t add “terrorist:”

      Respected researchers in and outside Israel have thoroughly documented and explained how “Hamas is neither anti-modern or anti-democratic, nor inherently anti-Western.” Hamas recognizes the significance and relative authority of popular mandates. Like other rational collective actors, Hamas has historically been open and responsive to contractualist or quid pro quo bargaining and negotiations with the state of Israel, to which Israel has repeatedly responded with disdain and dismissal, topped off with on ongoing assassination campaign of its key leaders.

      Hamas’ ability to inflict violence is an important source of its political authority (recall that States are frequently defined by their de jure or de facto monopoly on the means of violence and that Hamas is fighting for recognition of a right to collective self determination which, in our time and place, takes the form of a State). “While this capacity for violence provides important symbolic capital for Hamas as a whole, the majority of its political leaders derive the bulk of their authority from other sources increasing the possibility of a transformation away form violence if Hamas members believe their basic security will be guaranteed through different means.”

      With regard to democratic and especially electoral politics (e.g., the municipal and legislative elections of 2004-2006), Hamas has made cross-ideological alliances and the bulk of its “election manifesto reads like that of any ‘secular’ political party.” As part of their decision to participate in electoral politics Hamas fielded “candidates with political and administrative, rather than paramilitary experience, [which] suggests that it recognizes that political capital in the domestic arena is derived from having non-violent, administrative skills and professional expertise than from a career in the resistance.”

      Hamas has repeatedly demonstrated a “readiness to make alliances, even with those who support a two-state solution and co-existence with Israel,” a fact that “further underlines that Hamas is not fanatical and incapable of compromise, but pragmatic.” Hamas leaders, notably Khalid Misha’al, have repeatedly stated they would not object to a two-state solution were the terms favorable to the “will of the people” (‘During the 2006 election campaign, senior Hamas legislative candidates Hasan Yousef and Muhammad Abu Tair categorized negotiations with Israel concerning a two-state solution as legitimate if they were both “in the interest of the people” and “presented to the new parliament,” the embodiment of the popular will.’) and their willingness to abide by a long-term hudna or truce (several decades, the terms of which would be renewable), evidences a de facto recognition of the state of Israel. Hamas is hardly prepared to pronounce a de-jure like or principled recognition until such time as Israel is willing to grant the collective right of self-determination to Palestinians in the Occupied Territories (note again the logic of reciprocity).

      Again, nothing said here prevents us from affirming our categorical moral, political, and legal rejection of terrorist acts, yet it should enable us to see why focusing exclusively on such acts inhibits our ability to contribute to the conditions that will enable Hamas to see the futility and folly of terrorism. Dismissals and condemnations come all too easy when unaccompanied by any meaningful acts by powerful outside parties to help alter the dynamics of the conflict in way that would put Hamas and other Palestinian groups on equal footing with the state of Israel so as to help create the propitious conditions of a meaningful negotiated resolution to the conflict, one that minimally entails full and formal recognition of the collective rights of self-determination for the Palestinians.

      Hamas has abided by a number of ceasefires, both declared and de facto. And how did Israel, the U.S. and even the European states respond? How did these parties respond to Hamas’ considerable investment in democratic principles and procedures? And so forth and so on. As recent historical narratives will attest, acts of political terrorism are clearly acts of desperation and when otherwise rational collective political actors resort to same it’s possible if not probable that changing socio-political conditions can move these actors to abandon such immoral and illegal tactics and rely on more conventional means of resolving political conflict. Islamist groups, like the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, don’t exist in a socio-political vacuum and thus are often sensitive and responsive to surrounding events. In the case of the Brotherhood, this has meant willingness to abide by democratic rules and procedures of political participation and “moderation” of their avowed ideological goals and political behavior.

      As to the two-state solution, Shulman rightly notes in his review that “one can easily understand how [Nusseibeh], like so many on both sides, has more or less given up on the notion of two states,” largely owing to “facts on the ground” created by the Israeli state (through the IDF, ‘the Wall,’ etc.) and the settler movement, which makes a viable state daily more remote and implausible, in other words, “the extent of Israeli colonization and appropriation of land makes the notion of partition impracticable”

      Shulman himself has not given up on the two-state solution, but it is telling that he thinks the reason others are increasingly reaching such a conclusion is “entirely clear. It lies in the steadfast reluctance of the Israeli establishment to make a real peace, under any circumstances. What the present government and the Israeli security services clearly want is to continue the occupation under one form or another, maintaining near-total control over the entire Palestinian population. (Whether the Israeli public at large really wants this or not is an open question.)”

      While I’ve composed a fairly extensive reading list for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict I can send along on request, there is a more manageable compilation should anyone be interested available at my post on “Hamas and Terrorism” at the blog here:

      February 12, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterPatrick S. O'Donnell


      Good analysis. Now more so than in many decades, the world is full of places where revolution awaits only a spark to ignite. Of course, foretelling precisely where and when is more difficult. Yet, anyone making a list of the top three or four probable locations would logically include most countries in the middle east. Now the question you raise and attempt to answer comes center stage - how should the world (individual people and whole countries) react? We can be optimistic that this uprising will signal the emergence of more humane governance in Egypt. But Egypt has experienced a long line of military backed coups in my lifetime and each has resulted in a strong dictator emerging to take control. So it would be wise to temper optimism with pragmatic caution. This is particularly true in the middle east, where the convergence of sovereign wealth, the politics of oil and the Suez make for powerful and desperate entrenched global interests. I agree with you about what the Obama administration "should" do, but I doubt that will happen. Obama is first and foremost a politician. Everything he and his team do is done through the prism of how it will impact his re-election in 2012. He has shown that his concern is positioning himself as a moderate centrist in contrast to the extremism of republican neo-conservatism. Therefore his most likely path is to publicly embrace "reform" but continue to execute the strategy of the long war and thus attempt to placate liberal reformers while disarming right wing attacks that he is "soft on terrorist and abandoning Israel." I hope I am proven wrong.....

      February 14, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterPeter McNamee

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