Three cheers for the second Egyptian uprising
Those confused by the return of the masses in Cairo have failed to learn a key lesson of history: democratic protesters are not easily placated.
It isn’t only Field Marshal Mohamed Hussein Tantawi and the rest of Egypt’s Supreme Council of Armed Forces who threaten to get swept aside by the return of the Egyptian people to the streets. So too do the Western prejudices and paternalistic attitudes towards Egyptians, which frothed to the top of public debate when Tahrir Square Take #1 took place in February.
First there was the idea that in ousting Hosni Mubarak, their much-hated, undemocratic president, the Egyptian people had neatly executed a ‘revolution’ and should now return home, like good little girls and boys. Egyptians were patted on the back by Western officials and op-ed writers, with even Baroness Ashton, the EU oligarchy’s unelected High Representative for Foreign Affairs, saying: ‘We pay tribute to the Egyptian people for the manner in which these events have unfolded.’ That is: well done, you got shot of Mubarak, now calm down. Yet the Egyptian people are clearly aware that what took place in February was a palace coup, not a revolution; it was the reordering of the Mubarak regime by one-time Mubarakans under pressure from the Egyptian masses. The latest uprising confirms that it is the Egyptian people, not baronesses or liberal leader-writers, who will decide when a ‘revolution’ has occurred.
The second delusion shot down by the new democratic surge is the notion that the original uprising would give birth to an Islamic theocracy. No sooner had these brown people in jeans taken to the streets than observers were fretting about the emergence of ‘another Iran’. Proving they’ve never got over the shock of ’79, many worried out loud if Tahrir Square was not so much a ‘cradle of democracy’ as a ‘cradle of theocracy’, overseen by the crazies of the Muslim Brotherhood. Yet the latest uprising is a massive kick in the eye to the Brotherhood, which was expecting to do well in next week’s parliamentary elections. The Brotherhood has condemned the fresh outbreak of democratic agitation, because where it wants simply to win bits of power from the military regime, the protesters are demanding the complete dismantling of the military regime before the elections. The notion that the original Tahrir Squarers were the unwitting dupes of Islamic overlords spoke to the prejudices of Western observers who freak out whenever people ‘over there’ make a stab for mass democracy. The latest uprising proves that Egyptians are as happy to piss off cautious clerics as they are powerful presidents.
And third, there was the idea that Egyptians needed the assistance, even the say-so, of the Twitterati before they dared to launch their original uprising. Back then, amongst radicals and incontinent Wikileakers, it was fashionable to claim that it was thanks to the brave revelations of public figures like Julian Assange, and to the 140-character tweets of Troubled of Tunbridge Wells, that Egyptians got both the info and the cojones they needed to take on Mubarak. As Assange said, Wikileaks helped Egypt by ‘creating an attitude towards freedom of expression’. Yet the new uprising shows that Egyptians don’t need their ‘attitudes’ carved or massaged by caring outsiders, by those London- or New York-based bearers of the White Tweeters’ Burden. Indeed, far from aping their alleged Western patrons, Egyptians are now opting to do something quite different: as Western radicals make themselves voluntarily homeless by camping in public squares, and refusing ‘on principle’ to say what their principles are, Egyptians are taking a more confrontational approach with a pretty clear aim: to get rid of the military council.
So it isn’t only Egypt’s military council which should be trembling in its boots at the reappearance of the Egyptian masses in public life. So should those Westerners who tried either to patronise the Egyptian uprising out of existence, by shouting ‘Well done! Back to normality now!’, or who sought to scaremonger it into submission by saying ‘Islamist hotheads are behind the whole thing! Let’s be careful!’ Indeed, so uncomfortable are many observers with the return of the throng in Cairo and elsewhere that they are now implicitly backing the unelected military council over the democracy-demanding protesters. A Daily Mail commentator argues that although ‘there is no doubt that Egypt’s military regime has behaved, and will continue to behave, with great brutality… as bad as the military regime may be, the most likely alternative of a Muslim Brotherhood regime would be worse’. In short, it would be better to keep the military in place rather than a) give in to the protesters’ insistence that it be swept aside, and b) allow elections in which Islamists would probably win a lot seats. For some desperate Western observers, the military council is a useful check on the Egyptian hordes’ distasteful political desires.
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All these onlookers who are taken aback by Tahrir Square Take #2 – whether it’s EU officials who thought the whole thing was over with the exit of Mubarak or radical leftists who are can’t understand why Egyptians started a new uprising when the word ‘Egypt’ wasn’t even trending on Twitter – have simply failed to learn one of the key lessons of history. Which is that when groups of protesting people get a sense of their own power, of their ability to shape events and make history, they are likely to continue pushing further and harder and to try to go beyond their initially fairly limited demands. Having relatively easily elbowed aside Mubarak, a man who had ruled Egypt for so long (30 years) that many youth had never known anything different, Egyptians now fancy that they can probably get rid of a military council, too. The grovelling apologies issued by the council for the violence it visited upon the second uprising will further convince protesters that this regime is weak and can be done away with. Democratic uprisings are rarely satisfied by being offered ‘a bit of democracy’ (which is a contradiction in terms, anyway). Rather, the protesters will increasingly feel that they want the whole thing, and not next week, with parliamentary elections organised by a military council, but right now.
Yet despite recent events, one Western delusion persists: the idea, amongst more radical commentators, that the reason the original uprising didn’t go very far is because it was ruthlessly squished by Arab authoritarians and external interference. According to one Guardian columnist, the failure of the first Tahrir Square movement can be put down to ‘savage repression, foreign intervention, counter-revolution and the return of the old guard’. Sadly, things are far more complicated than such a simplistic appraisal would have us believe. One of the key – if not the key – reasons that the first uprising fizzled out is because the Egyptian protesters eschewed leadership and ideology in favour of making a public spectacle of their understandable angst. Foreshadowing the Indignados movement in Spain and the even more decrepit Occupy movement in New York and London, the first Egyptian uprising self-consciously disavowed leadership structures and any programme of ideas or demands, so that, in the words of one Egyptian writer, there was ‘a complete absence of ideological rhetoric’ in Tahrir Square in February.
This failure to lead and elucidate, the inability to put forward and pursue clear demands and ideas, needs to be seen within a new global context of an unwillingness to clarify political problems. From Egypt to Greece to New York, protesters now self-consciously refuse to engage in anything resembling a process of political clarification in favour of simply making an emotional statement – whether it’s indignation in Spain or victimhood in NYC. The tragic consequences of disavowing politics in this way can best be seen in the Arab Spring, where the old regimes, despite being rotten, unpopular and illegitimate, have been given great leeway to reorganise themselves courtesy of the failure of the protesters to make a final push for power. That is what happened in Egypt, as elsewhere in the Arab world: the uprisings put questions of power and authority on the table, but were unable to resolve them in any meaningful way. Let’s hope that the second Egyptian uprising will go some way towards clarifying the enormity of what is at stake here, and the importance of the Egyptian people moving from Tahrir Square into the heart of power itself.
Brendan O’Neill is editor of spiked. Visit his personal website here.