FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail

Egypt in Discouraging Times

by MICHAEL NEUMANN

In those great days of January and February, Egyptians taught the world what courage is. Before then, it was thought obvious that if you were up against live fire, you ran like hell. No one so much as conceived the possibility that you should stand and fight, let alone win. In this alone, the Egyptian revolution has changed not only Egypt but the world, and no one can take that away.

What Egyptians did not do was confront the military. It’s not at all clear that this was a mistake; maybe the confrontation would have been a defeat. But now, as the military doubles down on insolent usurpation, Egyptians have rediscovered what they do so well – despair, self-reproach, and melodrama. The certainty with which some condemn their errors looks very like a desire to declare failure and go home.

Too often this mindset seems to infect even those who have no intention of going home and who wish to continue the struggle. This is apparent in an essay by a well-regarded figure of the Egyptian Arab Spring, Sandmonkey (Mahmoud Salem). I’ll use his piece as a departure point for suggestions about how to move forward under the burden of self-condemnation that hangs heavily over his analysis.

Sandmonkey’s roadmap for the future looks like this:

“People will need to actually do something except alienate people who are their allies and continue to take the dumbest route possible at all times. If you are a revolutionary, show us your capabilities. Start something. Join a party. Build an institution. Solve a real problem. Do something except running around from demonstration to march to sit-in. This is not street work: real street work means moving the street, not moving in the street. Real street work means that the street you live in knows you and trusts you, and will move with you , because you help them and care for them, not because you want to achieve some lofty notions you read about in a book without any real understanding on how to apply it on Egyptian soil.” Copied from: Chapter’s end!.

What distresses me here is how quickly what is genuinely constructive dissipates and, as the essay proceeds, gets lost. Yes indeed, solving a real problem is a great idea, and so is ‘real street work’. But these great ideas become bit-players on a large stage. Join an institution? build a party? get people to know and trust you? In the next paragraph, solving problems and street work cede to concern for displays of political virtue. We hear that “the next phase requires four things.” They are, briefly: putting aside petty differences; having the first generation ‘admit its failure’ and leave the front lines to the second and third generation; being on the development, cultural and political fronts all at once; and cooperating. How far we have come from ‘the street’, and how fast! Morality has all but swamped practicality.

Suppose instead we keep the focus on ‘solving problems’ and on ‘the street’, though the phrase seems patronizing. What, from that perspective, seems to matter most?

To acquire power, revolutionaries must actually deliver something to people. No one gives a shit what you advocate or stand for. No one is interested in expressions of concern for the poor and oppressed. No one cares that you’re not just in Tahrir any more, that you’ve ‘gone to the people’. No one is interested in a show of humility. Few if any are interested in demands – such as increasing the minimum wage – that, given the lack of power, seem more like idle wishes. People want better lives. To acquire power, you have to make their lives better in some tiny way. This means changing something about how they live.

There are two basic ways of doing this. One is to change some little thing about people’s environment. Trade unionists have been doing this for years; it’s an approach that needs to be taken outside the factory. This means providing a service of some kind. The Muslim Brotherhood built their power on decades of such effort: does it not occur to anyone to imitate their success? At the street level, this can mean improving security, sanitation, health, not with demands but with actual hands-on activity. But it needn’t be the traditional sorts of activities: the campaign against sexual harassment, whatever its faults, is one of the few cases where the revolutionaries have really tried to provide a service. Revolutionaries could also help ordinary people harassed or detained by the authorities – something that activists have already learned to do for one another. These are the actions that need to be carried beyond episodic efforts into an ongoing strategy, something for which people can actually feel grateful. A movement that delivers some small benefit can grow to deliver more. That’s how power is built.

The other way to deliver something is through demonstrations – no, they are not anathema. But they need to be directed against something both immediate and attainable. Protests that (normally) do not deliver anything – like demanding the fall of SCAF – may have their place, but they cannot increase the power of a movement. More likely, the sort of demonstrations that build power focus on some smaller isssue where success is attainable in the near future – protests against price increases, or shortages, for example. If a protest can make this sort of real difference, it is as valuable as providing a service.

In other words, activists do not need to become more virtuous; they need to become less self-accusatory. They should sermonize less about reducing the divide between The Revolutionaries and The People, and pay more heed to what everyone really has in common, the desire for some concrete improvement in their lives. In other words, they need to follow the Brotherhood’s lead and provide real services that build loyalty, trust and confidence in a way that merely good attitudes never can.

Inevitably the preceding will raise the question: who are you to tell the Egyptians what to do? Well, I am someone who writes sentences. They are true or false, useful or useless. True and useful, I hope.

Michael Neumann is a professor of philosophy at Trent University in Ontario, Canada. Professor Neumann’s views are not to be taken as those of his university. His book What’s Left: Radical Politics and the Radical Psyche is published by Broadview Press. He contributed the essay, “What is Anti-Semitism”, to CounterPunch’s book, The Politics of Anti-Semitism. His latest book is The Case Against Israel. He can be reached at: mneumann@trentu.ca

Michael Neumann is a professor of philosophy at a Canadian university.  He is the author of What’s Left: Radical Politics and the Radical Psyche and The Case Against Israel.  He also contributed the essay, “What is Anti-Semitism”, to CounterPunch’s book, The Politics of Anti-Semitism.  He can be reached at mneumann@live.com

More articles by:
June 27, 2016
Robin Hahnel
Brexit: Establishment Freak Out
James Bradley
Omar’s Motive
Gregory Wilpert – Michael Hudson
How Western Military Interventions Shaped the Brexit Vote
Leonard Peltier
41 Years Since Jumping Bull (But 500 Years of Trauma)
Rev. William Alberts
Orlando: the Latest Victim of Radicalizing American Imperialism
Patrick Cockburn
Brexiteers Have Much in Common With Arab Spring Protesters
Franklin Lamb
How 100 Syrians, 200 Russians and 11 Dogs Out-Witted ISIS and Saved Palmyra
John Grant
Omar Mateen: The Answers are All Around Us
Dean Baker
In the Wake of Brexit Will the EU Finally Turn Away From Austerity?
Ralph Nader
The IRS and the Self-Minimization of Congressman Jason Chaffetz
Johan Galtung
Goodbye UK, Goodbye Great Britain: What Next?
Martha Pskowski
Detained in Dilley: Deportation and Asylum in Texas
Binoy Kampmark
Headaches of Empire: Brexit’s Effect on the United States
Dave Lindorff
Honest Election System Needed to Defeat Ruling Elite
Louisa Willcox
Delisting Grizzly Bears to Save the Endangered Species Act?
Jason Holland
The Tragedy of Nothing
Jeffrey St. Clair
Revolution Reconsidered: a Fragment (Guest Starring Bernard Sanders in the Role of Robespierre)
Weekend Edition
June 24, 2016
Friday - Sunday
John Pilger
A Blow for Peace and Democracy: Why the British Said No to Europe
Pepe Escobar
Goodbye to All That: Why the UK Left the EU
Michael Hudson
Revolts of the Debtors: From Socrates to Ibn Khaldun
Andrew Levine
Summer Spectaculars: Prelude to a Tea Party?
Kshama Sawant
Beyond Bernie: Still Not With Her
Mike Whitney
¡Basta Ya, Brussels! British Voters Reject EU Corporate Slavestate
Tariq Ali
Panic in the House: Brexit as Revolt Against the Political Establishment
Paul Street
Miranda, Obama, and Hamilton: an Orwellian Ménage à Trois for the Neoliberal Age
Ellen Brown
The War on Weed is Winding Down, But Will Monsanto Emerge the Winner?
Gary Leupp
Why God Created the Two-Party System
Conn Hallinan
Brexit Vote: a Very British Affair (But Spain May Rock the Continent)
Ruth Fowler
England, My England
Jeffrey St. Clair
Lines Written on the Occasion of Bernie Sanders’ Announcement of His Intention to Vote for Hillary Clinton
Norman Pollack
Fissures in World Capitalism: the British Vote
Paul Bentley
Mercenary Logic: 12 Dead in Kabul
Binoy Kampmark
Parting Is Such Sweet Joy: Brexit Prevails!
Elliot Sperber
Show Me Your Papers: Supreme Court Legalizes Arbitrary Searches
Jan Oberg
The Brexit Shock: Now It’s All Up in the Air
Nauman Sadiq
Brexit: a Victory for Britain’s Working Class
Brian Cloughley
Murder by Drone: Killing Taxi Drivers in the Name of Freedom
Ramzy Baroud
How Israel Uses Water as a Weapon of War
Brad Evans – Henry Giroux
The Violence of Forgetting
Ben Debney
Homophobia and the Conservative Victim Complex
Margaret Kimberley
The Orlando Massacre and US Foreign Policy
David Rosen
Americans Work Too Long for Too Little
Murray Dobbin
Do We Really Want a War With Russia?
Kathy Kelly
What’s at Stake
Louis Yako
I Have Nothing “Newsworthy” to Report this Week
FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail