EGYPT: Tahrir and the undying spirit of revolt
by Jerome Roos on January 25, 2013
Another crucial lesson — one the hypocritical liberals of the West had to learn the hard way — is that there is no such thing as a Western or Islamic exceptionalism. There is no fundamental opposition between the dominant Islamic culture of the region and the craving for human dignity and real democracy that has become the hallmark of its revolutionaries. Greek mythology aside, the West did not invent the idea of democracy, and it certainly it did not defend it when our Egyptian comrades went into the line of fire to overthrow Uncle Sam’s little puppet. Now that the forces of fundamentalism have taken control of the state — but not of the revolution — there are those who unduly point their finger, mumbling something stupid like, “Hah! You see! We were right, the Muslims don’t understand democracy!” But it is today, more than ever, that the people of Egypt have proven the depth of their commitment to democracy. It is on days like this that Arab resistance to religious fundamentalism, social injustice and state violence exceeds even the wildest dreams of the West’s woefully deluded “democrats”.
Where were the American “democrats” when George W. Bush gutted democracy in the name of the War on Terror, imposing imperial rule upon the peoples of Afghanistan and Iraq, and openly allowing his puritanical evangelical fundamentalism to become the hallmark ideology of the American state? The only real democrats were in the streets; while those in power gladly lent their assistance to one of the greatest perversions of democratic principles in world history. Similarly, where were the European “democrats” when the Franco-German state-finance nexus abolished liberal democratic procedures in Greece and Italy, imposing inhumane austerity measures across the eurozone periphery and unleashing militarized police forces upon entirely peaceful and harmless citizens who did nothing other than publicly demanding the fulfillment of a political promise they had been made since birth? Again, the real democrats were in the streets; while those in power gladly lent their assistance to the imperial rule of the banker kleptocrats and the dehumanized neoliberal logic of the “marketplace”, where social goods are ferociously privatized and private losses forever socialized.
No. Egypt’s democratically-elected demagogues are not the real democrats. And neither are their allies in the West. No. the fundamentalist puppet regime of Morsi does not represent the revolution. And neither does the Obama administration or the IMF. Bread. Freedom. Social Justice. Those were the reasons. Those were the demands. Two years hence, what the revolutionaries of Tahrir are crying out to the rest of the world is that the need for bread is more urgent today than it was prior to the revolution, and that no amount of IMF-imposed austerity is going to feed the hungry. “Let them eat Structural Adjustment Programs”, the technocrats at the IMF and Finance Ministry can be heard mumbling, before yet another molotov defaces the façade of their democratic pretensions. What about freedom, father Morsi, what about freedom? Again, what the revolutionaries of Tahrir are telling the state’s unpurged security apparatus with their endless hail of stones, is that the love of freedom is stronger than any torture prison. That the sacrifice of the martyrs will not be avenged in death but will be honored in life. What the revolutionaries of Tahrir, burning down the offices of the “democratically-elected” Muslim Brotherhood and the effigies of “representative democracy”, are trying to tell the Morsi government, is that the fiery flames of popular outrage will not be doused until the demand for social justice is met.
And so Egypt’s revolutionaries teach us more than any revolutionary theory ever could. First of all, the revolution is not an Event; it is a process. As Subcomandante Marcos put it, “the struggle is like a circle: you can start anywhere, but it never ends.” The overthrow of Mubarak was an ecstatic moment of revolutionary joy, but it was merely the first step. True revolutionary change is not about the overthrow of a tyrant or his regime; it is about the systematic undoing of the fundamental power relations that sustain the tyrant and his regime in the first place. In the absence of such systemic change, the dark void of state power will inevitably be filled by the next terrorist. Real democracy can — by its very definition — never be secured through the ballot box, where we vote every four or five years on who is to rule us for the next four or five. True revolution and real democracy cannot be guaranteed by representatives because the very idea of representation is inimical to the core idea behind democracy – which is simply the “rule of the people”. How can the people rule when they outsource their very rulership to others? As the Egyptian revolutionaries are pointing out, democracy is not complete even with fair elections or a “democratic” constitution. For real democracy to reign supreme, the people have to give the orders and the “government” has to obey.
Secondly, the institution of the state, or the political parties which vie for the power at its very apex, cannot — and can never – be trusted to carry out the revolution on behalf of the people. Structurally dependent on capital, the moral arch of the state (unlike that of the universe) forever bends towards injustice. Even if it genuinely wanted to, the systemic dynamics of party politics and capital accumulation structurally constrain the amount of things any revolutionary government could get done, even the most honest, “democratic”, and well-intentioned one. Capital is the lifeblood of any capitalist economy; its circulation is the very precondition for the state’s survival. Replacing the “head” of state and then expecting that head to distance itself from the systemic imperative of capital accumulation is like asking the ruler to voluntarily stop his blood circulation by stabbing himself in the heart, or hacking off his own head. That’s why Morsi publicly talks about defending the revolution while privately catering towards the desires of Washington, Wall Street, and the IMF — not to forget about the domestic military-industrial complex, which retains its privileged position not only in the Egyptian economy, but also in its political apparatus.
Indeed, taking control of the state – which at the end of the day, as Weber pointed out, is nothing but a monopoly on the legitimate use of force; a form of hierarchically institutionalized systemic violence — and expecting it to repress its genetically pre-programmed instinct to use that monopoly in order to squash dissent and oppress those subject to its whim, is like asking a fox to look after the chickens. Let me be clear here: it is not difficult to understand why many Egyptians would happily settle for a representative form of democracy. The right to vote is a luxury to all those who continue to live under the aegis of outright dictatorship; and those who experienced decades of condescension at the hands of a bloody tyrant will naturally derive great satisfaction from being able to occasionally express their opinion on state matters. But here in the West we really have no excuses to continue to fetishize the free vote and buy into the myths of party politics as if it were somehow the be-all-and-end-all of social progress. The sheer naivety of those “radical” Leftists who continue to extol the virtues of state-based and party-led revolutionary action is so mind-boggling as to render their entire project of radical politics stillborn from its very inception.
While armchair socialists like Bhaskar Sunkara — editor of Jacobin Magazine — use the occasion of the second anniversary of the Tahrir uprising to celebrate the ideational legacy of a bearded theorist who died 130 years ago, our Egyptian brothers and sisters continue to fight for their very lives every single day in order to realize the practical necessities of their day-to-day existence. Slavoj Žižek and other “thinkers” may narcissisticly claim that the “failure” of the Egyptian revolution and the decline of the Occupy movement mean that it’s time to sit down and think — that this is no time for action; that we should take a step back and reflect on our next steps before we engage in any meaningful practice — but the Egyptian revolutionaries know better. The enormous danger of Žižek’s intellectual vanguardism and revolutionary abstentionism speaks for itself. “Hold back, hold back,” the new Jacobins seem to claim, “the time is not ripe yet; the masses are not yet conscious; we have to build up the Unions first; we have to craft a powerful Party — only then the conditions will be right for revolution!” Just like fat old Marx himself, who just months before the Paris Commune, with social tensions already brewing, allegedly complained to Engels that the revolutionaries should hold back just a little longer until he finished writing Das Kapital.
Hey Slavoj and friends, here’s a message from Tahrir: no divine retribution is forthcoming! There will be no saviors, no messiahs, no Battle at Armageddon, no final stand at Thermopylae — none of it! No. There will be no purging moment of revolutionary terror to unseat those in power and impose our own dictatorship onto the masses. The revolution eats, breaths, wakes and sleeps through the everyday struggle of ordinary people. Our word is certainly a weapon, but a weapon only. Oftentimes, as the cliché goes, actions speak louder than words. The dramatic actions of the Egyptians, for one, inspired more radical movements in the West than any Marxist Party, Union or theorist ever could. And either way, this is not the time to sit back and wait for the perfect words to dawn on us. The future of humanity is at stake. This is the time to fight. If there is any message the revolutionaries at Tahrir have to tell us, therefore, it is this: burn your books, buy a gas mask, and learn to dance with fire. The forces of the counter-revolution are formidable — supported as they are by military might, Islamic mythology and the seemingly inexhaustible resources of the United States — but the flames of popular outrage will not be doused until the demands of the revolution are met. Bread. Freedom. Social Justice. There is no time to waste. Two years down the line, Tahrir — with its undying spirit of revolt — still leads the way.