From Tahrir to You: Claiming Democracy Beyond Trump

Many scholars and activists in Egypt, and some in the US, have argued recently that the Trump regime looks like an Arab dictatorship. This is, of course, an over-simplification and, indeed, a flattened analogy that relies on a gross generalization about the various forms of governance in the Arab world. Nevertheless, the comparison can still be useful insofar as it sheds light on the Trump regime’s authoritarian tactics and the challenges that lie ahead for those who oppose them.

Since November, I have noted a number of recurring issues and anxieties in discussions with other critical scholars and activists. “We are under constant attack. We have no time to think or organize.” “The Women’s March in Washington was incredible, but what next?” “Are we simply going to lose all the seeming progress we made in this country?” “I don’t know which to fear more: Trump or Trumpism.” “What type of coalitions should we building today?” These are just some of the sentiments and questions that characterize conversations today.

I am a scholar and on-the ground activist who was personally present for the Egyptian revolution. I experienced its stark highs and lows, and I have family, close friends, and allies in Egyptian activist circles. So, when I hear these discussions in the US, they sound both familiar and strange. I marched in Tahrir Square; I celebrated triumph and freedom with my heart and felt it in my body; and I also experienced defeat very deeply. I have been teaching and writing about the Egyptian revolution for the past six years, and am working on a book about the significant role of Tahrir Square and the social dynamics of space in the uprising. By invoking my familiarity with the events in Egypt in 2011,  I am not suggesting that the US is similarly on the brink of revolution (in this, I agree with Mike Davis[1]) nor do I intend to flatten the historical and social specificities of the two societies with unwarranted comparisons. I do believe, however, that I can contribute some insight. It is important to recognize what is both similar and different in the two contexts, and thus hopefully allow the insights gained in one instance to inform the struggles of the future.

Let us begin by considering the similarities between Egypt both pre- and post-revolution and what the US faces now. First, these are two regimes operating in openly authoritarian ways and demonstrating their explicit disregard for, and hostility to, the  rule of law. In both cases, the so-called leader regards himself as the most gifted person in the nation, and complains about “unfair treatment” when criticized for violating their country’s Constitution.

Second, in both cases, we see organizers and inexperienced activists alike struggling to respond to a seemingly endless series of rapid-fire attacks. The cruel way in which the Egyptian counter-revolution undid all the seeming gains of the uprising resonates powerfully for many watching, aghast, as the current US administration openly dismantles liberties and targets minorities. The way the police and military and intelligence apparatuses dealt with civilians, especially revolutionaries, in Egypt during the counter-revolutionary period was vicious. These parts of the state apparatus were determined to survive and even to expand their role; if the citizenry could be characterized as irrational and unruly post-revolution, so much the better. Similarly, the white supremacist administration in the US today seems to be running a rescue mission to save white corporate America from poor folks, especially poor folks of color.

Third, in both societies, activists and non-activists alike have been taken by surprise.  In Egypt, experienced organizers and millions of ordinary citizens were surprised by the revolution. There was a lot of organizing, but there was also a lot of spontaneity. More importantly, after the initial gains of the revolution, many were unprepared for the virulence of the counter-revolution. In the US, many activists, especially white liberals, have only recently realized how much they were taking their liberties for granted. While it is true that leftist organizers and organizers of color have always been targeted in the US, there was always a margin of freedom protected by liberal capitalist democracy.  This margin now seems endangered. These are new conditions. The scale of the attacks is new to many and this can be challenging, if not paralyzing.

Finally, perhaps the most troubling similarity between what Egyptians are enduring now under the fascist military regime and the Trump moment in the US is the under-preparedness of both experienced organizers and ordinary citizens to fight back.

In what follows, I want to identify and unpack what I believe to be the two most urgent questions moving forward for organizers for social justice against the Trump regime.  First, how can one seek to survive emotionally and still continue to organize and fight back; more specifically, how can we find the right balance between maintaining emotional and moral integrity and sanity on the one hand, and organizing effectively on the other. Second, how can we transform the groundswell of enthusiasm and opposition represented by the anti-inaugural Women’s March in Washington into a movement—crucially, a movement that opposes Trumpism, not merely Trump, and seeks to recognize and transcend the structurally corrupt, racist, and historically colonial foundations of American democracy.

On Endurance and Affective Organizing

Since the 1990s, scholars of social movements have recently started to pay attention to the role of emotions in movements, with particular attention to the role of affective emotions compared to reactive emotions in driving protests. Examples of affective emotions are hatred, love and solidarity, while examples of reactive emotions are anger, grief, outrage, or shame. The two types of emotions exist on a continuum, vary from one person to another, and shift over time, often explaining why people are willing to join a protest or endure attacks at one moment but not another. Despair is perhaps the most common sentiment in Egypt now among activists, in light of an acute feeling of defeat and what seems to be the decisive victory of the counter-revolution and the military fascist regime. Many of the activists I know are enduring this difficult time only by holding fast to their memories of victory and bravery.

For those opposing the current regime in the US, it has been tough of late and will likely only get harder. There have been family fights, arguments between neighbors, social media friends or co-workers, and real shock at times upon finding out that one’s social and/or familial connections actually voted for Trump and are now telling us to “give him a chance,” despite his blunt racism and extreme fascist agenda. In Egypt, activists not only had to endure defeat, they also had a difficult time dealing with family members who tolerated the violence of the military regime and then the exclusionary politics of the Muslim Brotherhood, just because they were yearning for a return to fake stability. Many activists in Egypt took to blaming each other for past mistakes during the uprising and its aftermath. It would be wise for anti-Trump organizers to take emotions seriously in the coming years, both to endure difficult times and to find the energy to continue organizing.

Of particular importance for organizers are the following three issues. The first is the substantial need to maintain sanity and self-care. This is not a simple task. Keeping abreast of the sheer volume of news and the scale of the attacks themselves is draining. In counter-revolutionary Egypt, activists had to deal with losing loved ones, lengthy detentions of close friends and long-time activists and leading voices of the uprising, as well as normalized daily killings. In the US, it is fair to assume that things may not get “better” any time soon. We are dealing with an administration that is anti-black, xenophobic, homophobic, Islamophobic, anti-Semitic, anti-science and anti-poor; that deliberately undermines public faith in information and truth; and that even dares to organize continual pro-regime rallies—something only previously associated with openly fascist regimes. Things will not get better soon—and yet, people must take care of themselves in order to endure and fight back. Hence, it is important to keep doing smaller things like talking to close friends and sharing emotions, to keep hope alive and to remember smaller victories. Feeling helpless is what this type of regime wants. At the same time, it is critical to acknowledge your privilege in this effort. Some of us have the resources and opportunities needed to do self-care, others don’t. It is absolutely critical to be there for the most vulnerable and the most targeted communities.

The second emotional/affective consideration organizers must keep in mind is how to maintain moral integrity and real solidarity while organizing, specifically in group work and collective action. This is not chanting “when they go low, we go high” and other nice talk about integration and diversity. It is about principled commitment at all levels of organizing: at the planning stage, during the action, and while assessing the action. A key word in organizing is solidarity, and we need to rethink what solidarity means. Solidarity may refer to a state of unity or fellowship or emotional camaraderie and fellowship with the victims of injustices. But it is not only that. Solidarity also means actions to undo the injustice against those who are experiencing it. When organizing now against the racist, xenophobic, and Islamophobic rhetoric and actions of the current administration, the organizing should not be grounded in the “goodness” of organizers. Rather, the organizing must hinge on an acknowledgement of the history of racist and colonialist actions of our government. For example, we need to acknowledge that six out of the seven countries in the first Muslim ban (five now, after the un-listing of Iraq) are countries that the United States has bombed. Supporting our Arab and Muslim and Latino communities is not only about good intentions or feeling good, it is part of the battle. It is also our political responsibility.

Moral integrity and the determination not to make moral compromises are particularly critical now. The idea of a “compromise” will haunt organizers in the near future. But given strong consensus among activists and scholars alike that a multiracial coalition is needed to resist this administration, we must distinguish here between different kinds of compromise. We must avoid moral compromises, meaning compromises that benefit one group over another and which no movement should accept, and pragmatic compromises, meaning, for example, accepting legislation that may reach only some goals, which is acceptable in today’s circumstances.

Lastly, the most important lesson I learned from studying the Egyptian revolution with regards to emotions is perseverance. The pendulum swing from a dramatic state of triumph to a radical state of defeat was a devastating experience for many activists. The revolution was a constant roller coaster of excitement, hope, and despair. Many so-called revolutionaries later betrayed what the uprising stood for by working closely with the military in the transitional period. Likewise, many Islamists betrayed the democratic principles of the revolution and resorted to a divisive, sectarian-based vision of identity politics. The only way that some activists survived these difficult times was to maintain the memory and the values of the revolution. I am not talking here about some kind of revolutionary purity; I am talking about perseverance in terms of thinking and organizing. To this day, activists in Egypt continue to strive towards an alternative to both military fascism and political Islamist exclusionary politics. Ironically, it is this same group of activists who, despite being betrayed by the Muslim Brotherhood while it was in power, now defend the Islamists under persecution in Egypt today. This steadfast commitment to coalition and change, despite all setbacks, is a crucial lesson for activists in the US today. We must think of the future, despite emotional fatigue and the constant attacks of the Trump regime. As much as we are driven by anger and outrage at the present moment, we need also to be driven by hope for a redefined future.

Organizing and Democracy Beyond Trump

One common call among most leftists since the election has been: “just organize.” Just organizing, however, may be misguided if it does not allow sufficient time to think, plan, and be grounded in vision. At the same time, the call to “just organize” is a useful imperative if it points to a reclamation of politics by the people. We should not wait for so-called moderate Republicans, who do not exist, or for the Democratic establishment, which is obviously part of the problem. The question then is what type of organizing is needed, and what are the most urgent priorities or questions? We are now past the immediate anger and shock that followed the inauguration, but we should still capitalize on the momentum of millions of people showing their willingness—many for the first time—to protest. Hence, the second pressing task for organizers is to transform the energy of the Women’s March into a mass movement. Importantly, the goal here is not to restore an already corrupt democracy effectively controlled by the economic and political establishments. At this juncture, it is absolutely critical to distinguish between the authoritarian, kleptocratic, white supremacist constellation of the current regime, and the long-term crisis of the American capitalist and racist mode of governance, that is, the enduring failure of American democracy.

Commenting on the opportunities opened up by the present moment, scholar-activist Keeanga-Yamahtaa Taylor wrote:

“We must build independent organizations and political parties that are not connected to the Democratic Party, or that rise and fall with each electoral cycle. We have to build organizations that are democratic, multiracial, and militant, with a foundation in solidarity.”[2]

I agree but would add three points of clarification regarding: organizing, particularly the question of multiracial coalitions; the relation between the electoral system and mobilization; and finally, reimagining democracy beyond Trump.

Multiracial Coalition

First, assuming that one of the most urgent issues today is the building of multiracial coalition(s), I would like to register the following thoughts. Activists and scholars know that diversity and popular power and legitimacy are key strengths in coalitional forms of organizing. But the necessity and the difficulty of compromise is the main weakness of this type of organizing.

In Egypt, for example, the revolution would not have had a chance to succeed (initially at least) without the existence of a cross-class coalition.  The revolution had broad slogans about bread, liberty, and social and economic justice, but there was no clear consensus about what this meant practically. This is not uncommon in revolutions. It became clear soon after the uprising that many middle-class protesters were not interested in any radical social policies or anti-corruption campaigns; rather, they became caught up in the military administration’s narrative about the need for security at any cost. The multiclass coalition against Mubarak compares to the goal of building a multiracial coalition in the US today. Without overstating the comparison, any multiracial coalition will need to have a clear vision of racial justice. For example, white supremacy and white nationalism must be clear targets of this coalition. This is not only because these ideologies run through the current administration itself or because ignoring this is arguably responsible for the failed project of liberal multiculturalism. It is because any future democracy in this country must recognize and replace the existing structurally racist democracy. The Trump administration has declared open war against minorities and those who do not conform to a Christian white nation, a war to rescue American white nationalist identity. Coalition organizing, therefore, must develop a clear understanding of, and opposition to, the racist politics of this administration.

Importantly, we should note that many white people with no experience in contentious politics, who previously took their privilege and “liberties” for granted, are now willing to participate in action. Questioning one’s privilege in a principled manner is critical. Multiracial coalition does not mean unity at any cost. No coalition can be effective without clear guiding principles, and unity against Trump alone does not qualify as guiding principles. Addressing the issues of the various groups in this coalition, especially the most targeted groups, is key. There is no doubt to me that Black Lives Matter, Native Americans organizers in Standing Rock, different women’s groups, immigrant organizers, Arab and Muslim American activists have to take a lead role in this organizing.

An important part of these guiding principles is the need for democratic and collective process at all stages of discussion, planning, and implementation. In these efforts, it is critical to situate identity politics in their proper context. Political Islamists and the military regime used sectarian frames about Islam and secularism to divide revolutionary Egypt in the aftermath of ousting Mubarak. In the US, it is crucial to recognize the similarities in how liberals and racists talk about identity—empty talk without economic and social substance. Identity politics and race are not disconnected from class and marginalization in general. We have to recognize and oppose empty rhetoric about identity, inclusion, and exclusion.

Finally, it is critical that any multiracial coalition not include or work with the “wrong” allies. These include the democratic establishment, the liberal and corporate media, or the so-called deep state, including elements of the military and intelligence agencies. During the mobilization against the Muslim Brotherhood government in late 2012 and 2013, liberals participated in the protests. But they proved to be more Islamophobic than committed to democracy when they tolerated the military’s hijacking of the political processes in the aftermath of the coup in July 2013. The so-called deep state agencies penetrated mobilizations against the first democratically elected president. Liberals tolerated the prosecution of the Muslim Brotherhood members afterward, and they tolerated the prosecution and targeting of the revolutionary youth. In the US, the liberal and corporate media were so delighted with Trump’s “presidential” tone in his first address to Congress that they ignored the extremely destructive and racist agenda outlined in that same address. And not only are the political and economic establishments (the two parties) not interested in organizing, they also view any mobilization against mainstream politics as a threat, and only use these mobilizations opportunistically.

Party Politics

As is becoming obvious to a growing number of people, electoral politics in the US is totally corrupt. The electoral college, re-districting, the influence of lobbyists and big money are just some of the problems in the present system. But should we then completely ignore electoral politics? There is a popular argument that anti-Trump organizing efforts should follow the example of the Republican Tea Party, which refers to the case of maintaining some “ideological agenda or purity” while at the same time being pragmatic and play around party politics. Regardless of what one thinks of this particular strategy, I do think it is a mistake to ignore electoral politics this altogether. Anti-establishment feeling—of all varieties—was a key explanation for what happened in the election. Clearly, any critical mobilization to stop Trumpism/Fascism and implement real change must oppose the current economic and political establishments. Leftist activists can at least organize to expose the corrupt nature of the existing electoral system. They can stop some legislation, among other things. If the Republican Party’s natural constituency is white America and the natural constituency of the Democratic Party is white liberal elites and some elite and professional people of color, then there is no real party for the vast majority that is oppressed America! There may yet be room to form new organic leftist parties against the establishment. We cannot afford to ignore party politics altogether.

Many Egyptian revolutionaries had a deep contempt for party politics. This was something, they reasoned, that could be addressed after the revolution. Political Islamists dominated the first parliament after the revolution precisely because they were already organized to participate in that system. Both the military regime and the Islamists used electoral politics to suppress revolutionary momentum after the uprising, but mobilizing in the street and mobilizing around party politics should not be understood as mutually exclusive.

I firmly believe that only revolt and popular actions can stop fascism. However, we lose too much if we leave electoral politics entirely to the corrupt establishment, both Democratic and Republican. Instead, organizing outside the system and developing a vision for a future that goes beyond party politics should be combined with a watchful eye on party politics and a readiness to expose the problems of electoral democracy.

Democracy Beyond Trump

In hindsight, it is easy to say that Egyptian protestors committed a grave mistake by thinking that ousting Mubarak meant the downfall of dictatorship in Egypt. Scholars of political regimes describe Mubarak’s dictatorship as a personalistic regime, where politics revolve around the leader and his networks. Because Mubarak had been in power for close to three decades, Egyptian activists understandably confused the man with the system. But now the bitter lesson is learned: it was a huge mistake not to oppose the military regime that is the backbone of authoritarianism and economic corruption in Egypt.

The Trump regime may not be entirely personalistic, but it has some features of this model. Again without abusing the analogy, organizers in the US should organize to claim a new democracy. We oppose Trump not because he is a liar, or because he is a spy, or only because he is misogynist, or because he does not release his tax returns. Even as we organize against the immediate threats to many people of color and poor and targeted communities, we must understand that the success of the present moment of popular dissent and protest hinges upon a vision of democracy beyond Trump, and beyond the structural problems of the capitalist racist democracy in this country.

US democracy since its inception has been a colonial and racist system founded through settler colonialism. The modern Egyptian state is shaped by colonial and postcolonial conditions. This is why it was so shortsighted of some Egyptian activists to speak only about democracy in national terms, without drawing the necessary links to global militarism and capitalism and the interests of US empire. For these activists, the lesson was that the corrupt military apparatus is the backbone of authoritarianism in Egypt. For leftist and progressive activists in the US, envisioning a new democracy has to start with acknowledging the country’s settler colonial history and racial capitalist structure.

Atef Said is a Visiting Assistant Professor of Sociology at the University of Illinois at Chicago. He worked as human rights attorney in Egypt from 1995 to 2004, where he directed many human rights initiatives and wrote two books about torture under Mubarak. He is currently working on a book manuscript titled The Tahrir Effect: Protest, Revolution and Counter-Revolution in Contemporary Egypt.


[1] Mike Davis. Not a Revolution—Yet. November 16, 2016. Truthdig. Available in this link: (Last Accessed March 12, 2017)

[2] Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor. No Time for Despair. Jacobin. January 28,2017. Available in this link: (Last Accessed March 12, 2017)