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Beyond Self-Reproach

Egypt in Discouraging Times


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