My intentions are not to direct nor predict the future of Egypt. That is the people’s concern. I simply wish to offer a perspective that desires to decentralize power as much as possible and create decision-making structures that are left in the hands of those closest to its consequences. I do not know enough about Egyptian culture, history or politics to assess the viability or desirability of an anarchist society – or its compatibility with Islam in the Middle East (which is a fundamental question in need of further and broader discussion: 1, 2, 3). While anarchist thought and resistance has contributed much to the overthrow of tyranny and the struggle for justice and freedom, anarchism’s theoretical analyses and prolific historical examples of a self-organizing society rooted in voluntary cooperation, mutual aid, and total participation in direct democracy indicate that this perspective may be reaching its heyday as a mature political and social philosophy.
During times of social unrest and uprising, images of black-clad rioters clashing with security forces stoke fears of impending, widespread violence and the undoing of society. Such scaremongering is often attributed to the anarchists – a cult of unruly, rage-filled nihilists who care little for the niceties of civil society. These outcast youth, idealistic and irresponsible, know little of the worldly affairs of politicos and generals. Realpolitik, they are told, still the rules of the day, even in spite of all appearances of the people’s will for democratic rule: Egypt, Tunisia, Yemen, Algeria. Yet it seems the people are prevailing! Mubarak has left. Ben Ali was ousted. Celebrations and the hard but exciting work of re-constructing a country begins.
But the sands will settle. The people will empty out of the squares and return to their homes and jobs. Children will go back to school and the stock markets will open again. The short-attention spans of global media will have been distracted by another monumental event and the exodus of journalists and well-meaning solidarity activists will commence, leaving in their wake a trail of untold stories of liberation and bloodshed. And so it goes. President Mubarak, having ceremoniously stepped down and delegating power to Vice President Omar Suleiman and the Supreme Council of the Egyptian Armed Forces in control, will be little more than a stained memory in Egypt’s glorious history. But, like so many oppressive regimes of the past, there is the very real chance an old regime may be followed by a new tyranny. The iron fist of Egypt’s oligarchy, this time in the velvet glove of democracy, could return to its usual tricks of exploitation and domination. The youth organizers, union leaders, intellectuals, all risk being rounded up and put into jail or disappeared back into the secret prisons. If the people of the Egyptian society re-brand themselves as passive citizens of the Egyptian state rather than direct participants in society, democratic tyranny could ensue. But it does not have to go down this way – there are alternatives.
“Every State is a despotism,” wrote Max Stirner, “be the one or the many.” In the case of Egypt, Mubarak (and his cronies) were despots of the singular sort. As Egypt reflects on itself for the future of its society and government (the state), there is a tremendous opportunity for “the Gift of the Nile” to chart a new course for inclusive democracy and social justice. While Stirner’s personal persuasion is controversial – even among anarchists – would reject the possibility of something like direct democracy, his cautionary edict should be heeded. Consider the recent Orange Revolution in the Ukraine which has slowly seeped back into authoritarian rule; see Yulia Tymoshenko’s penetrating analysis “The Orange Revolution Betrayed” for lessons that may serve Egypt – and all people’s movements – well.
But in Egypt, where the government was effectively shut down for two weeks (excluding the military), it is remarkable the anarchy that emerged – that is rule and organization without a consolidated authority, NOT chaos and disorder. The creation of make-shift clinics, protester-organized security, and the youth leadership networks indicate the real possibility of alternative institutions paving the way forward that do not reflect business as usual, neither as its been done in Egypt nor, for that matter, in many other places. In “The Throwing of Shoes,” a piece I recently wrote about the Egyptian uprisings before Mubarak’s departure, I intimated about the potent possibilities of a new society being formed in Tahrir Square:
The people of Egypt need to stay strong, utilize Mubarak’s anti-climatic announcement to strengthen the democratic movement by evangelizing the broader population by exposing the falsities of Mubarak and Suleiman. The transition of power and a new government only begins once Mubarak, Suleiman, and the rest of his authoritarian cronies leave. Use the time wisely. Conscientize each other. Pray with each other. Continue to organize nonviolence trainings and create the alternative structures (meals, sanitation, security, etc.) needed to continue the occupation of Tahrir Square. Hold meetings to clarify demands and to learn from each other about the direction of a new Egypt.
Egyptian anarchist Nidal Tahrir, from the anarcho-communist Black Flag group, sheds some light on the work ahead, particularly for the Egyptian Left:
The main task now, speaking about street demands, is new constitution and a provisional government, and then new elections. There’s much planning about these issues from many political trends here, especially the Muslim brotherhood. Anti-capitalist revolutionaries are not very big in Cairo – the communists, the democratic left and Trotskyites are calling for the same demands about a constitution and new elections. But for us, as anarchists, we are anti-capital and anti-state too – we will try to strengthen the committees that have been formed to protect and secure the streets, and try to turn them into real councils.
The council work, a hallmark of social anarchism, Nidal Tahrir refers to are a realistic way of ensuring that direct democracy occurs. There are at least two important things to note about the council’s vivacity and power. First, on 6 February 2011, when Suleiman met with opposition figures before Mubarak’s departure, the talk collapsed because the youth, having not been invited refused the terms of the negotiations and the protests continued. The youth leadership reveals tremendous power to denounce or legitimize whatever negotiations take place. On the day of Mubarak’s departure, Suleiman instructed “Prime Minister Ahmed Shafiq to appoint a deputy prime minister who would take responsibility for ‘a national dialogue’ with opposition forces and independent figures.” It appears these talks will also collapse because of their failure to include all the opposition – such as the more mainstream although politically-Left Tagammu Party and the youth. Second, the youth coalition in Tahrir Square represents diverse voices:
The youth coalition officially includes six groups: April 6, Justice and Freedom, and the ElBaradei affiliates, as well as the Muslim Brotherhood, the Democratic Front party, and independents. Though it’s not always a businesslike affair – since the coalition was announced, some members have left and the leadership has expanded from 10 members to 14 – the diverse alliance exhibits admirable message discipline. Their demands and preconditions are uniform, and nobody suggests relaxing their line.
Suleiman and the traditional opposition parties have their work cut out for them as the youth who organized this revolution and have the ability to call off the protests seem to want everyone at the table. This sort of political resistance holding out for more direct forms of democracy represent a monumental shift in strategic thinking for substantive social change. Resistance and direct democracy require many things, but both share in common one essential element for the process and, therefore, outcome to be rooted in truth and the will of the people: patience. To imagine a society without the bureaucratic apparatus of the state is a difficult task. It takes time for that sort of creativity to creep into the consciousness of a people. A stubborn patience – the virtue of steadfastness – is required to assert the dignity and rights (i.e. the freedom) of each individual. This cannot be underestimated and Todd May, in his article “Anarchism from Foucault to Rancière” offers an insightful perspective that reflects the power of Egyptian people and their insistence about equality:
First and foremost, [equality] is not a demand, but rather a presupposition. There may well be demands associated with a democratic politics; indeed, there usually are. However, what characterizes a political movement as democratic is no the demands it makes but the presupposition out of which it arises.
This is the starting point for society – something, historically, every state has had difficulty realizing even in spite of the high-minded ideals and rhetoric of constitutions and charters. Egypt has had many incarnations of the state, but its society has continued to flourish even amid decades of state repression. The outpouring of support for the popular revolution reveals the strength of civil society and the individuals who make it up as the slogan “We are all Khaled Said” epitomizes the solidarity that presupposes equality. Todd May continues:
Simply to demand equality is to place the bulk of political power in the hands of those who are the recipients of those demands. Correlatively, it is to place oneself in a position that is ultimately a passive one. To demand equality is to be a victim, even if an angry and organized one. Alternatively, to presuppose equality is to be active. It is to see oneself as primarily a peer of those who oppress another or who are beneficiaries of that oppression, And then, only secondarily, do demands arise. But they arise not out of a lack possessed by the oppressed that others are required to fulfill. Instead, they arise out of a recognition of one’s own equality that demands others stop inhibiting it. It is strong rather than weak, active rather than passive.
It is the Egyptian uprising’s presupposition of equality that made it a powerful, and thus far, successful movement. Only time will tell what the people of Egypt will decide for their collective future. As it begins to make its demands, including further regime change, the movement must continue to be mindful of its place in the dynamic tension that is neither victim nor executioner. A militant patience, with the steadfast resolve that each Egyptian is a part of society and all can participate in articulating its direction, may be the key to creating a lasting peace and equality in the New Egypt as well as a vibrant model for a more just social/political arrangement for societies. Keep the youth councils strong, the dialogue going, and the imagination open.
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