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.