The Revolutionary Moment
CURRENT AFFAIRS, 7 Feb 2011
If the world has a heart, it beats now for Egypt. Not of course, the Egypt of President Hosni Mubarak—of the rigged elections, the censored press, the axed Internet, the black-clad security police and the tanks and the torture chambers—but the Egypt of the intrepid ordinary citizens who, almost entirely unarmed, with little more than their physical presence in the streets and their prayers, are defying this whole apparatus of intimidation and violence in the name of justice and freedom. Their courage and sacrifice give new life to the spirit of the nonviolent, democratic resistance to dictatorship symbolized by the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989. That event in fact symbolized a longer wave of revolutions that, spreading like a brushfire, swept dozens of dictators out of power, from the Philippines in 1986 to Poland in 1989, through to the early twenty-first century. But that global contagion had seemed to be flagging recently. Now, dictators all over the world are on their guard again. In Saudi Arabia, the monarchy is looking over its shoulder. Yemen is on notice. In China, the word “Egypt” has been censored from the Internet: the Egyptian autocrats removed the Internet from Egypt; the Chinese autocrats removed Egypt from the Internet.
Egypt presents in full the unfathomed and perhaps unfathomable mystery of revolution. For decades, the structure of an oppressive state rises above society, murderous, imperturbable, implacable. The torture chambers are operating twenty-four hours a day. The nation’s wealth flows to secret accounts abroad. The rich and privileged sit contented in their gated communities. “And the hapless Soldier’s sigh/ Runs in blood down Palace walls” (Blake). Often the sovereign bows to a foreign paymaster. A fog of propaganda fills the air like poison gas. The Leader’s portrait covers office buildings. Unaccountable bureaucracy tangles up the country in a thousand absurd regulations. Leonid Brezhnev snores in the Kremlin, his “dead hand” hovering over the nuclear button. Imelda Marcos communes with her three thousand pairs of shoes in her colossal shoe closet. Ben Ali sips cocktails in his resort in Hammamet. Nothing, it seems, will ever change, can ever change. In the words of Nadezhda Mandelstam regarding Stalin’s rule, “There was a special form of the sickness—lethargy, plague, hypnotic trance or whatever one calls it, that affected all those who committed terrible deeds. All the murderers, provocateurs and informers had one feature in common: it never occurred to them that their victims might one day rise up again and speak.” Only a few “dissident” voices break the calm, and most of them are in jail or in exile.
But then suddenly a tremor runs through the whole edifice. A few thousand people come out in the street, then tens of thousands, then, appearing as if by magic, hundreds of thousands all around the country. And somehow this rebellion—breaking out in only a few days—can be enough. Its spirit touches a nerve in something like the whole nation, which awakes, and with amazing ease sheds the long-hated yet tolerated regime. (In nearby Tunisia, the fuse that set off the Egyptian bomb, it took only twenty-three days from the beginning of the uprising for Ben Ali to get on his plane to Saudi Arabia.) Suddenly, all the rules change, all the old relationships of command and subservience are reversed, and the structures of power begin to dissolve. Later, scholars will ferret out signs of what was to come and even find “causes” of the event, but the fact is that revolutions are the least anticipated of all events, taking the world again and again by surprise.
Still, we know a few things about what happens at such moments. A people long overawed by state violence throws off fear and, in a flash, begins to act courageously. Courage becomes as contagious as the fear once was, and millions suddenly practice disobedience and defiance. At that moment, the dictator’s writ runs no longer, and the plane to Saudi Arabia beckons. In Hannah Arendt’s words, “The situation changes abruptly. Not only is the rebellion not put down but the arms themselves change hands—sometimes, as in the Hungarian revolution, within a few hours….The sudden dramatic breakdown of power that ushers in revolution reveals in a flash how civil obedience—to laws, to rulers, to institutions—is but the outward manifestation of support and consent.”
Egypt has clearly arrived at this moment. It’s commonplace now to say that everything depends on whether or not the army will intervene. And that is certainly true in part. Very often the hour of death for a dictatorship is the hour when the military, caught up in the mood that is sweeping the rest of the country, refuses to follow orders or defects to the other side. That’s why it’s so significant that on many occasions already in Egypt, crowds, chanting “peacefully, peacefully,” have embraced soldiers, who then have let them climb up on the tanks in public squares, giving the V sign. “The people, the army: one hand,” the demonstrators chant, hopefully.
But in truth the army is the secondary actor in this scene, whose primary agent is, always, the people. That is why although some headlines say Egypt is in “chaos,” they are mistaken. Never before has Egypt been the scene of so much purpose, never has it been more resolute.
And the government of the United States? Missing in action. Inveighing against “violence on all sides,” it fails to choose between the people and their oppressor. The Obama administrations exhibits its overall signature flaw in caricature: it is embedded with (let’s say this straight: in bed with) the Powers That Be. Well-meaning, it begins by taking those powers—the commanding heights of the society—as given, immovable. Then it starts to bargain. (On healthcare it bargains with Big Pharma, on finance with Wall Street, on war with the top generals—above all, David Petraeus.) Then, when the Obama administration is duly handed its half- or quarter-loaf—the stripped-down healthcare plan; the eviscerated financial regulations; the soft date for withdrawal from Afghanistan bought with the surge in troop levels—it’s at the charity of these powers.
In the present instance, the power with which the administration compromises is the Egyptian dictator Hosni Mubarak, a thirty-year ally of the United States, and the recipient of some $50 billion in aid in that period. Early last week, even as the crowds were battling the police throughout Egypt, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton pronounced that the Mubarak government was “stable”—thus showing anew the remarkable ability of the human mind to block out the flaming reality before its eyes and replace it with the soothing falsehood it wants to see. Vice President Joe Biden continued in this vein with his declaration that he would “not call Mubarak a dictator.” More recently, Clinton, still on the fence, called for “an orderly transition” without asking for Mubarak to step aside. But surely, as Mohamed ElBaradei, the former head of the International Atomic Energy Agency, and new-minted spokesperson for the revolution, was right when he responded, “It’s better for President Obama not to appear that he is the last one to say to President Mubarak, It’s time for you to go.”
The foundation of a new order of things is of course a notoriously difficult business. Everyone knows that the course of revolution is zigzag, and that the final outcome may be unwelcome. Power is disintegrating. It is in the streets. Someone will pick it up. A new structure will form, for good or ill, and the list of misbegotten states rising out of revolution is a long one. But nothing so far in the conduct of the Egyptians in the streets compels us to foresee such a turn of events. For now we must express solidarity. For the time of decision approaches. At this writing, the Egyptian people and Egyptian army coexist uneasily in the country’s streets and squares. At any moment the order for a crackdown could be given. “NIneteen eighty-nine” can also mean the massacre of the freedom activists in Tiananmen Square in China. Or the spirit of the people may at last penetrate the innermost citadels of power, which will abdicate in favor of a new order. The United States has little time to decide which side it is on.
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