Egypt’s democratic revolt

President John F. Kennedy once said that those who make peaceful revolution impossible make violent revolution inevitable.The Egyptian protest demonstrations, which the protesters call the Days of Anger, may not strike the average American TV viewer as especially peaceful, but compared to what they could be, they really are.  What is going on in Egypt is the opposite of terrorism.

The anti-Mubarak forces are not tearing police and soldiers limb from limb.  They are not setting off bombs in government offices or shopping centers.  There aren’t any suicide bombers. Bodies of policemen and government officials are not hanging from lamp posts. Given the history of revolution, these are not things that can be taken for granted.  For their part, the Egyptian army announced late yesterday that it would not use force against nonviolent demonstrators.

Lenin’s Bolsheviks showed how a determined, murderous minority could seize and hold power through use of unrelenting force and propaganda and suppression of internal dissent.  Various Third World “national liberation fronts” that sprung up after World War Two took the Bolsheviks as a model.  They killed as many people among their own constituents to keep them in line as they did of their enemy.  Nothing like this is going on in Egypt.

Che Guevara and Regis Debray in their books on guerrilla warfare said that a revolutionary struggle could be ignited by a tiny group of terrorists (they didn’t call them that), provoking an over-reaction by government and drawing the masses into the struggle. These were the tactics of Osama bin Laden.  They are not the tactics of the current mass protests in Egypt.

Mass protests, especially nonviolent mass protests, are inherently democratic.  Leaders of mass protests have to gain and keep the confidence of the masses.  Their political power does not grow out of the barrel of a gun.  Rather it depends on stripping rulers of their power to make people obey out of respect for their authority and out of fear of their power.  It does not depend on killing police and troops, but on weaning police and troops from their allegiance.

Alex Madrigal of The Atlantic Monthly last Thursday published excerpts from a pamphlet distributed to Egyptian protesters that illustrates their nonlethal tactics.

The picture of the two women with the policeman is interesting.  One of the women is in modern dress, the other in traditional dress; the implicit message is that women as well as men, and modernists as well as traditionalists, are part of the revolution.

The history of U.S. policy, since our government replaced the British government as the dominant power in the Middle East after World War Two, has been that, all other things being equal, the U.S. government prefers democracy to dictatorship, but that a friendly dictator is better than a democracy that might be anti-American, anti-Israel or anti-capitalist.

In 1953, the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency organized a coup against Mohammad Mosaddegh,  the democratically elected Prime Minister of Iran, because he wanted to nationalize Iran’s oil resources.  This led to the 26-year rule of the Shah, who eventually nationalized the oil anyway and joined OPEC. The Shah was overthrown in 1979 by the Ayatollah Khomenei.  With hindsight, wouldn’t it have been better to allow the Iranians their democracy back in 1953?

In Egypt, the U.S. government has given more than $1 billion a year to President Mubarak’s government to keep him in power.  As in Iran, our government has preferred a friendly dictator to an unpredictable democracy.  Like the Shah, Hosni Mubarak violates human rights, is hated by his people, and is kept in power by U.S. aid.  Now there is a possibility he will be replaced by a democratic government.  If this doesn’t happen, there probably will come a time when he or his successors will be replaced by a more ruthless opposition, and we Americans, with hindsight, will regret we didn’t allow the Egyptians their democracy back in 2011.

The big question mark in Egypt is the role of the Muslim Brotherhood.  They are a grass-roots organization, founded in 1928, whose goal is to establish a government based on Islamic principles.  The group once had a secret internal terrorist wing, but now renounces terrorism.  I would not wish to live under a government controlled by the Muslim Brotherhood, but they are the only group of people that has done anything to better the lot of the average Egyptian.  Their support comes not just from their religious beliefs, but from their work in organizing schools, clinics and neighborhood self-help groups.  Although they are officially banned, the Mubarak government has not dared to make a serious effort to stamp them out.

The Muslim Brotherhood has renounced any claim to a position in a post-Mubarak government.  I guess their leaders figure that all they need is the right to participate in free and fair elections to come to power eventually.

The role of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt is not something for me to decide, nor is it something for President Obama to decide.  It should be up to the people of Egypt.  If we Americans want to influence Egyptians in the direction of democracy, we could begin by showing more respect for democratic principles ourselves.

Click on Al Jazeera English and its Anger in Egypt page for coverage of the current situation in Egypt.  Al Jazeera provides excellent coverage and ought to be available on U.S. cable TV systems.

Click on Informed Comment for commentary by Juan Cole, professor of Middle Eastern history at the University of Michigan.  Professor Cole knows more about Egypt than I ever will.

Click on Muslim Brotherhood Wiki for a Wikipedia article on the Muslim Brotherhood and its history, which seems to have good information presented impartially.

Click on Ikhwanweb for the Muslim Brotherhood official English web site.

Click on Weighing the Unknowns in Egypt for speculation by Ross Douthat in the New York Times about the origins of al Qaeda and the 9/11 attacks as a backlash against the Mubarak regime and its torturers.  His argument is that Mubarak regime radicalized the advocates of Islamic government and vindicated al Qaeda’s view about the role of the United States in the Muslim world.

Click on Mubarak’s Last Breath for a background article in the London Review of Books from last year about U.S. support for President Mubarak.

When I started to write this post, my first thought was to say that my opinion is irrelevant and that the only choice for Americans is to recognize that what happens in Egypt is up to the people of Egypt and not to us.  That ought to be true, but it isn’t.  As long as the United States government spends billions of dollars to keep the Mubarak regime in power, it matters what we Americans think.

[2/2/11]  Click on From the Grave for quotes by Bertrand Russell about the nature of people like Hosni Mubarak.  (Hat tip to Ken Blackwell)

[2/6/11]  President Obama has decided that tyranny is a lesser risk than democracy.

The Obama administration has told the Egyptian people to accept a “transition to democracy” controlled by Omar Suleiman, vice president of Egypt and director of the Egyptian General Intelligence Directorate.

That is asking a lot.  Suleiman is part of a government responsible for arrests, abuse, assaults and killing of the pro-democracy demonstrators.

Suleiman cooperated with the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency in its “extraordinary rendition” program. He arranged the torture of people the CIA designated as terror suspects.  Among them was Ibn al-Shaykh al-Libi, an al-Qaeda who after torture gave false information about al-Qaeda’s cooperation with Saddam Hussein – information cited by the Bush administration to justify the 2003 invasion of Iraq.   So it is understandable that the U.S. military-intelligence establishment would want somebody like him in power.

Click on West Backs Gradual Egyptian Transition for a New York Times report on the decision to back Suleiman.

Click on Omar Suleiman profile for the Wikipedia report on Suleiman.

Click on Ibn al-Shaykh al-Libi profile for the Wikipedia report on al-Libi.

[Added 10/27/11]  The following Solidarity Statement from Cairo, sent to Occupy Wall Street on Oct. 25, 2011, discusses the limits of nonviolent action.

We faced such direct and indirect violence, and continue to face it. Those who said that the Egyptian revolution was peaceful did not see the horrors that police visited upon us, nor did they see the resistance and even force that revolutionaries used against the police to defend their tentative occupations and spaces.  By the government’s own admission; 99 police stations were put to the torch, thousands of police cars were destroyed, and all of the ruling party’s offices around Egypt were burned down.  Barricades were erected, officers were beaten back and pelted with rocks even as they fired tear gas and live ammunition on us.  But at the end of the day on the 28 th of January they retreated, and we had won our cities.

It is not our desire to participate in violence, but it is even less our desire to lose.  If we do not resist, actively, when they come to take what we have won back, then we will surely lose.  Do not confuse the tactics that we used when we shouted “peaceful” with fetishizing nonviolence; if the state had given up immediately we would have been overjoyed, but as they sought to abuse us, beat us, kill us, we knew that there was no other option than to fight back.  Had we laid down and allowed ourselves to be arrested, tortured, and martyred to “make a point”, we would be no less bloodied, beaten and dead.  Be prepared to defend these things you have occupied, that you are building, because, after everything else has been taken from us, these reclaimed spaces are so very precious.

via Solidarity Statement From Cairo.

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