I am said to be a revolutionist in my sympathies, by birth, by breeding and by principle. I am always on the side of the revolutionists, because there never was a revolution unless there were some oppressive and intolerable conditions against which to revolute.
– Mark Twain, 1906
When I fell asleep on the last night of December, 2010 I’d no idea that I would awake to a year where, before the first month was out, new references points in the great revolutionary tradition, the one born the moment there was something to revolute against, would be written, and written across an entire region. Regardless of the rest of the year’s events (of those I’m increasingly curious), tonight and tomorrow yet new chapters are bursting forth from the actions of the defenders of the Tahrir, the militants in the Suez, the workers of Alexandria and a hundred more places I don’t know the name of in a thousand different struggles I am not aware of.
2011, a year of revolutions? Not when I went to bed New Years Eve. And today?
There are so many things to say on this situation. I never would have guessed that this year Egypt, of all places, would be a workshop of revolution. We’ll have much to learn from them and their experiences. We can start learning now.
In the midst of these historic events it is difficult to comment; it is hard to take in all that is happening…and things are happening at a furious pace. The illusions of the first days; the invincibility of the police, the capacity of the masses, these were dispelled and shattered gloriously on that bridge across the Nile where on the Day of Rage, and at great cost, the hated police were routed and with them went the people’s fear. Illusions in the unity of the opposition, the possibility of positive foreign intervention and a quick, decisive win have been lost in the last week, by some more than others. Illusions in the Army as neutral arbitrator remain, and that is a dangerous illusion. Between the ranks of conscripts and the high officer corp, for all intents and purposes paid contractors of the United States Defense Department, a chasm of class and interest lie. It is in the opening of that chasm that this revolution will live or die. The illusion in the Army reflects a wider illusion in the unity of ‘nation’. It is through appeals to this national lie that the Army, now directly, will assume national leadership. A revolution for democracy that ends, positively, in a military government. This is the perfidious price of “national unity”.
If I could indulge a broad comment without sounding like an asshole for doing so as folks every bit the moral equivalent of the Communards are battling mukhabarat thugs for their lives and the future of their revolution, I would say it is that division, between officers and conscripts, that must be appealed to if the army is to be split. To do that the class demands of the demonstrators themselves have to be boldly articulated. In doing so, seeking to split an Army that stands between victory or compromise, a new departure or cooptation. The opposition to Mubarek is united by Mubarek, but for different reasons and with different interests. If unity is essential in overthrowing the figure of Mubarek , or even his NDP regime (without the Army?), such unity is deadly to the aspirations of the millions of poor and working class Egyptians who have broken with fear and chose to intervene, in their masses, in their own destiny in the making of a post-Mubarek Egypt.
A unity of all the ‘popular’ forces is in reality unity under ruling forces; and there is no doubt that a good deal of the economic élite and eager middle class want to see the back of Mubarek; he has become bad for business. No, any future for Egypt must confront the class conflict raging in that country head on. Most importantly for the workers. Are they to throw out a Ferdinand Marcos and get a (at best!) Corozan Aquino…massive austerity to pay back creditors (read US banks) and achieve a wealth disparity (and a healthy growth rate) worse than under Marcos? Any unity on deciding the fate of the nation after Mubarek is a unity based on a ‘national’ lie and should be resisted if ‘democracy’ (whatever that is) is going to mean anything for working class people.
Getting rid of this regime is a lifetime opportunity to remake Egyptian society. Freedom for Egypt means things like freedom from the imperialist system; the IMF, the World Bank, the logic of the market and the curse of capital. Freedom from the Empire means freedom from the United States and its imposed order; from the Camp David Accords to MacDonalds, from the daily humiliations a dependent nation suffers at the hand of its ‘ally’. What is a democracy when the most defining relationship a citizen has is through their role in the economy and yet it is precisely there that ‘democracy’ is off limits? The quest for democracy need not stop at the voting booth, but in all manner of institutions and organization. The neighborhood committees and strike networks offer ground gained already with which to experiment. And most central to the possibility of a radical new departure: a democratic control over the economy. Democracy is no empty vessel in a society riven by antagonism and class conflict, but one determined by the class in whose interest it is exercised.
We are living in exciting times, momentous ones. Every bit of me wants to be on that square tonight, facing down reaction and preparing to march on the Palace tomorrow. The actions this last week have an enormous emotional impact, as I am sure readers who’ve been watching know. I feel guilty for not being there and jealous too. Genuine revolutions, and I believe that is just what we are witnessing, come around on time scales that count by generations. Let’s not take them or their tasks lightly. As a risen people make history this week, they are prying open possibilities that were supposed to be impossible. Revolution, a utopian impracticality (to say the least) in most times becomes the only practical thing to do at certain times. The overthrow of the Mubarek regime, and with him the policies which discredited him, is now a practical necessity in the life of the Egyptian, dare I say Arab, Nation.
This slogan was wheat pasted all over the Left Bank in those heady days of Paris, May 68. Those moments with millions on the street, a revolution in the air and when everything seemed possible. That slogan was:
Ceux qui font les révolutions à moitié ne font que se creuser un tombeau.
Those who make revolutions half way only dig their own graves.
The revolution in ’68 touched the halfway mark, perhaps. But no further. There are many kinds of graves in life, and in the life of politics even more. The graves waiting for the Cairo communards are much different from the ones faced by France’s failed 68ers. Another generation in the darkness. Or compromises, made in the midst of great possibility, that damn the task of another revolution to another generation.
Long Live The Egyptian Revolution! Forward!