The Demise of a Pharoah and the Threat of a Passive Revolution

By Yousef K.B.

In the last few days we have been witness to historic processes of popular struggle on the streets of Tunisia, and most recently in Egypt. I have been glued to TV, radio, and the internet, at time simultaneously which let me tell you is a bit too much.

I have been ecstatic, angry, and anxious all at the same time as I look on waiting for the next thing to happen.  I am excited and inspired by my sisters and brothers in Egypt as well as Tunisia, Jordan, and Yemen.

I have been trying to make sense of it all, and obviously am filled with more questions than answers.  What I decided to do was to try to put my thoughts on paper, and try to make sense of what is happening on the ground. This is simply an opinion among opinions.  In fact the people of Egypt and Tunisia have taught us all, especially academics that there is nothing inevitable about history, which is filled with forks in the road and the choice of choosing one path over another is a result of continued struggle and conflict amidst continuing social relations of domination.  I am humbly putting forward some thoughts to elicit responses from others so that collectively we are inspired and learn further lessons from events in the Mid East and North Africa to help us in our struggle, in what I think and what I hope is a transnational Intifada raging against capital.

What I have written is a quick run-down of what has happened in the past two days, some thoughts about how it could be read, a small conversations about some deeper issues that have coalesced such a wide-ranging grouping of people against Mubarak, some cautions or things to be weary of, and lastly some reasons to be optimistic, and of course inspired.

What is happening now in Egypt:

Mubarak has named a vice-president for the first time since 1981.  He is Omar Soliman the former head of intelligence.  Mubarak also named Ahmad Shafiq the former chief of air staff the new prime minister.  Both of these men are close confidants of president Mubarak and are high-ranking officials in the National Democratic Party (the ruling party of Mubarak in Egypt).  Mubarak is still in power and the constitution remains unchanged.  Mubarak and his allies hoped that people would see this is a large enough shake-up in the government to satisfy people’s demand.  It quickly became clear today that this hope was not going to become reality, as people took to the streets once again in larger numbers.

A UCSB Professor of Global Studies commented on his facebook status regarding the new VP:  “As I understand it, the newly appointed Vice President Soliman leads the anti-Gamal Mubarak faction within the old guard…. he is a CIA-type, not exactly a democrat. The new PM is an Air Force man, representing the return to power of the military over the police. This is not yet a reformist or transition govt!”

As I write this, Al Jazeera is still showing people in full control of Tahrir Square (liberation square).  Jazeera is also reporting that the Gamal Mubarak, the son of Mubarak who was being groomed to rule Egypt after Mubarak has arrived in London, with reports that he and his wife left with over 50 bags signaling a long stay (reports have put his current location at 28 Wilton Place, Westminster London SW1X 8RL).   This followed reports yesterday that very wealthy businessmen and some leading figures of the regime were fleeing Egypt on whatever planes are leaving Egypt or are attempting to rent private jets to leave.

On the streets of Cairo, Suez, Alexandria, and throughout Egypt reports are claiming that the military today seemed to stand by and not intervene in the protests, and the police seemed to have disappeared.  Despite this latest Al Jazeera reports claim over 100 deaths and more than a 1000 injured, which means the security forces are still engaging protests (they have compiled the number of deaths by visiting mortuaries across the main cities, which means there is a likelihood that the number is actually much higher).[1] There are also plain clothed security personnel that have been seen beating and arresting people.  Nevertheless there is no confirmation as to the position of the military vis-à-vis the protests.  In Tunisia, the unwillingness of the military to put down the protests on behalf of president Ben Ali is what ultimately sealed his fate and sent him packing to Saudi Arabia.  Similar outcome could be expected in Egypt if the military sides with the protesters, but to this point it is unclear that this is happening, and I speculate that the Egyptian military is 1) much more complicated and has many more levels and 2) is much closer to the Mubarak regime as evidenced of Mubarak appointing members of the military in the new cabinet.

There are also reports of looting across Cairo.  American media of course is heavily reporting this, as they have a pattern of not differentiating between popular protest and chaos.  Paranoid and obsessed with “law and order”, media outlets knowingly or unknowingly help authorities in clamping down on the democratic potential of crowds.  However reports of looting seems to indicate that they are becoming more of a problem.  I seriously doubt that considering the collective consciousness of the Egyptian populace, that looters can be part of their rank and file.  Rather what is more likely, and there have been reports to suggest this as well that members of the security personnel including police in plain clothes, and paramilitary organizations are leading this effort.

A UCSB Professor of Global Studies suggested earlier in this regard, “Egyptian government has in the last 20 years developed co-dependent relations with street gangs (baltagiya), that they are now unleashing on the public to loot; including what, to me, looks like a staged looting of the Egyptian Museum. They are hoping this will lead the public to beg the government and police to come back in to restore ‘order.’”  It is important to remember that a tactic of counter insurgency is to turn political opposition into acts of criminality, and to downplay political demands. This allows authorities to deal with protests not as having legitimate political demands but as lawbreakers.[2] As scholars of “social crime” succinctly put it in their seminal work Policing the Crisis, “Crime issues are clear-cut; political conflicts are double-edged. But a governing class which can assure the people that a political demonstration will end in a mob riot against life and property has a good deal going for it – including popular support for ‘tough measures’. hence, the ‘criminalisation’ of political and economic conflicts is a central aspect of the exercise of social control” (189-90).

Nile TV and Al Masriya, state controlled stations in Egypt are filled with reports of looting and people decrying looters and talking about the fear that chaos might overrun the country.  Following such reports, they immediately cut to security spokespeople or statements from the security personnel talking about the military beginning to take positions to combat looters. Therefore I am worried that looting in Egypt is only a way for the military to justify––in the name of restoring calm and “law and order”––intervention and suppression of protests in Egypt.  The inactivity of the military is disconcerting, the clam before the storm maybe?

US response and the threat of “passive revolution” in Egypt:

The US does not want any change in the current government.  Why would it? Its ideal scenario is for the current government to stay in power with Mubarak somehow reestablishing order by making some concessions.  I speculate that knowing the situation could make Mubarak’s position increasingly untenable, the US administration will want to see the current establishment remain in power without Mubarak as its head.  The best option it has here is for the military to take over. The Egyptian military has very strong connections to and coordinates with the US as well as the Israeli military and intelligence establishment.  More importantly for the US, the military can then create a cocoon for a new elite to emerge and establish a new order.

I think the US wants in any Egyptian government a: 1) commitment to the interests of Israel especially vis-à-vis Gaza, 2) commitment to neo-liberal reforms in the economy, and 3) a counter-weight to the Iran-Syria axis in the Middle East and a firm ally with Saudi Arabia in the face of Iran-Syria and popular movements throughout the Mid East, especially Islamist and leftist currents.

I think the Obama administration is going to stay silent on the issue in Egypt as much as it could, sticking to its mostly vague and meaningless statements that can be seen to support and oppose any action by any side.  They do not want to make the Carter mistake with the Shah of Iran in 1979, and pull their support from Mubarak and giving an opening to people to topple him.  As it becomes clear that Mubarak is about to fall the US will come out more publicly with indifference and maybe even opposition to Mubarak’s government and support for the military to bring back law an order.

El Baradei and the opposition:

People and media are focused on El Baradei as the former head of the International Atomic Energy Agency and a Nobel laureate, and a “democrat.”  I have no evidence to suggest that El Baradei does not want elections, more political freedoms, and an end to the NDP and Mubarak.  However I view him as a “technopole,” a technocrat turned politician.  He is part of the UN establishment, with probably close ties to international institutions and that cadre of transnational elites.  There is nothing to suggest that besides political change he has a fundamentally different economic vision than the free market and deregulated state ideology that has been the mainstay of the Mubarak regime.  He brings no fundamental threat to the US.

Let’s briefly rehearse what could happen if Baradei or someone like him has a chance at power.  Mubarak would step down; the military would take over and call for elections in 6 months.  Within those six months, Baradei who has name recognition will attract money from international and domestic sectors, especially liberal businesspeople.  Baradei will dominate news in the region and internationally.  Domestically he will unite the secular opposition parties behind him.  He could then get elected as the interim president with Muslim Brotherhood coming in second or third.  Baradei will bring in a cadre of technopoles and technocrats along with some opposition party members including the Brotherhood.  Remember that the Brotherhood much like the Islamists in Iraq such as the Da’wa has no economic ideology and in fact the leadership has a much more middle class composition.[3] Thus the Brotherhood is not going to stand up to the economic agenda of Baradei.  Together this Baradei interim government will write a new constitution that will entrench the neo-liberal reforms of Mubarak in a permanent constitution.  The novelty of this constitution is that it will bring about more political open-ness with elections, and bill of rights, a polyarchy of sorts which will be heralded as a democracy.[4] Then the interim government will dissolve making way for the first election under the new constitution.  The result will be the same economic structure, but with a new leadership that decapitates the revolutionary fervent and aspirations of the people, a “passive revolution.”  This “passive revolution” retains the social formation, and only introducing political reforms, but in doing so re-establishes hegemony.  A neo-liberal hegemony that retains Egypt’s integrated position within the global economy, its alliance with Israel, no threat to the Suez Canal and global trade, and most importantly gains consent from the people.  This hegemony will be much improved over Mubarak’s regime––it will rule with more consent than coercion.  This is the beauty of neo-liberalism.  Neo-liberalism can give political and cultural power and autonomy to popular forces, while retaining the social relations of domination.

My bottom-line as Professor Sohail Daulatzai reminded me is simply “Don’t just hate the player, hate the game!”

The simmering anger and displeasure of the people of Tunisia and Egypt that erupted was in a large part due to the quality of life and their impoverished conditions.  A major part of Muhammad Bouazizi’s complaints were economic hardships.  But these economic conditions are not the fault of Ben Ali and Mubarak, but rather due to the agenda of the global economy, and the transnational capitalist class that was imposed by these dictators with the blessing and cheerleading of the IMF, WB, and the UN.

The Multitude:

As I sit here in my comfortable apartment with the privilege of calculating from far away possible outcomes, people on Tahrir Square and in Casbah are making history.  Sadri Khiari, a Tunisian activist exiled in France since 2003 recently defined those in the streets, in a statement, asthe people who resist in the obscurity of everyday life. The people who, when forgotten too long, remind the world of their existence and break into history without prior notice.”[5] We have all been surprised and schooled by the power of the multitude, who without a leader or a party were able to topple one dictator and are threatening to bring another one down despite the misgivings of the most powerful of countries such as the US and their militaries.

Even though the lack of a clear ideological vision makes these movements susceptible to a passive revolution, their lack of party affiliation also makes them hard to de-mobilize.  As we are witnessing in Tunisia people are not going to go back home once the military takes over.  They are ready and willing to come out in their streets once again to ensure that the conditions that drove them into the streets are finally changed.  This might take a while.  They might go back to their homes as interim governments are announced and new constitutions are written, but this generation will remember that they did change one government, so they can change another.  No longer afraid of the coercive apparatus of the state, their consent becomes that much more important to gain for any government.

It is truly a good day to be a Middle Eastern.  Long live the people’s struggle in Iraq, Afghanistan, Palestine, Iran, Jordan, Lebanon, Yemen, Algeria, Tunisia, and Egypt… a region with a people in the trenches of a Transnational Intifada, a Global Insurgency!

[2] Check out US Counter Insurgency Field Manual, pages 40-45.

[3] Check out Asef Bayat’s Making Islam Democratic and Life as Politics about a discussion of the Brotherhood and Islamists in Egypt and across the region.

[4] Check out William I. Robinson’s Promoting Polyarchy.  Check out the Iraqi permanent constitution for a sample of what this constitution could look like.



Filed under The Egyptian Revolution

5 responses to “The Demise of a Pharoah and the Threat of a Passive Revolution

  1. Yousef K.B.

    Al Jazeera is now reporting that El Baradei has joined the protests in Tahrir Square. On the other hand the military has taken more control and reports are suggesting they are moving on police and other security personnel who were looting.

  2. Maryam

    this is great!! thank you for sharing your profound and thoughtful reflections, yousef. i hope it has the desired effect of provoking conversation. i am adding some thoughts here by way of encouraging that conversation. you’ve also given me a lot to think about, and so i pose some questions to you below.

    your use of _policing the crisis_ is awesome. i would say you could even emphasize more clearly that the moral panic phenomenon often relies on a forged exaggeration of the “threat.” in other words, during the period in question in PTC, the mugging statistics did not actually evince a boom in mugging, but the moral panic phenomenon proceeded nevertheless through sensational stories as well as, to put it plainly, lies. the same seems to be happening in egypt. and why not talk about “moral panic” as such? do you think that term does not fit?

    also, what does it mean to look at the transnational dimension of moral panic, which i think is what’s operating here and which i think is slightly different than moral panic around mugging in 1980s england. by that, I mean to call attention to what I am simply speculating is the greater impact of this forged moral panic on people outside of egypt than inside in convincing them that the situation is “complicated” at best and that the protests are aimless and chaotic. so the moral panic is transnational in the sense that it emphasizes the lack of a coherent, directive ideology shared by protesters (some coded: looters, arsonists) and focuses on these moments of violence to raise doubt about whether the current situation will really be better than mubarak’s reign. the coverage of the (contrived?) threat to the museum of antiquities played precisely into this transnational moral panic because of the special nature of the object of the threat. the museum is a collection of artifacts that symbolize the terrain of “civilization’s origins” (or pre-origins) of which the West constantly struggles to portray itself as the beneficent heirs (here, i am very ungracefully drawing on Said’s Orientalism). and i am positing this transnationalized moral panic because i wonder what the power of this moral panic is within egypt and whether the people there are buying into the looter discourse with the same fervor.

    your analysis of Baradei is great and much needed right now. however, as i read, i wonder where your projections are coming from? is this from analogies to iraq? what are your thoughts on tunisia since its fate is also in flux? all of this passive revolution stuff strikes me as cynical but also realistic. what else can we take from this moment? is it inevitably going to be a passive revolution? one of our mutual friends has answered this by saying that “the convergence of social forces say so.” so, if that’s how you feel, can you explain the inevitability a bit more?

    i really, really liked this point: “Even though the lack of a clear ideological vision makes these movements susceptible to a passive revolution, their lack of party affiliation also makes them hard to de-mobilize.” i wish that this was explored even further in your piece. aren’t these mobilizations a kind of democratic impulse, a direct investment in one’s own fate, the likes of which we in the U.S. (or in the West) have rarely seen? (possibly an overstatement, but one that i make for effect). and i recognize that it can be problematic to always come back to the issue of democracy or the democratic impulse, especially when describing the middle east and north africa as compared to the west, because it reinforces clash of civilizations-style dichotomies. but the point that i am taking in this vein is really a lesson about the durability of democratic mobilization: that once stirred, its mighty demands must be addressed before the forces of social control can even hope to contain it again.

  3. in american impossy in cairo controling the situation in Egept they dont whont chang of the regeam they whont chang faces new faces like Baradei
    the man how blayed bad roll in Iraq to hellp israel no one can forgeve him for that-

  4. Pingback: Fall of the Pharoah and the Million Masry March: Updates and Analysis on the Egyptian Revolt |

  5. ff

    great post! the military seems to be increasingly divided themselves, and this may prove to be a key decisive point in terms of how the events unfold… One thing to think about might be how the people of Egypt might be able to further create a wedge between the military and Mubarak on the one hand, and the sectors of the military that are already seemingly siding with the people and those that are still loyal to Mubarak. Muslim Brotherhood has openly suggested “embracing” the military so that they recognize that their future is also bound to the future of the people and not to that of Mubarak. I am not necessarily a fan of this approach, but any thoughts on this end would be greatly appreciated, as it could “make or break” that happens from here on out….

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