'Intelligent discontent is the mainspring of civilization.' -- Eugene V. Debs

Wednesday, June 08, 2011


I don't recall if I have posted about it here, but I have ascerbically commented elsewhere upon the ethnocentrism associated with the belief that American radical pacifist Gene Sharp played a promiment inspirational role in regard to the Egyptian protests that brought down Mubarak, as reported in the New York Times in February:

Few Americans have heard of Mr. Sharp. But for decades, his practical writings on nonviolent revolution — most notably From Dictatorship to Democracy, a 93-page guide to toppling autocrats, available for download in 24 languages — have inspired dissidents around the world, including in Burma, Bosnia, Estonia and Zimbabwe, and now Tunisia and Egypt.

When Egypt’s April 6 Youth Movement was struggling to recover from a failed effort in 2005, its leaders tossed around crazy ideas about bringing down the government, said Ahmed Maher, a leading strategist. They stumbled on Mr. Sharp while examining the Serbian movement Otpor, which he had influenced.

When the nonpartisan International Center on Nonviolent Conflict, which trains democracy activists, slipped into Cairo several years ago to conduct a workshop, among the papers it distributed was Mr. Sharp’s 198 Methods of Nonviolent Action, a list of tactics that range from hunger strikes to protest disrobing to disclosing identities of secret agents.

Well, you know, those ignorant Arabs, they would have never thought of engaging in civil disobedience unless Sharp and activists associated with his work told them about it. Because, after all, as devout readers of the Times, know, Arabs and Muslims are reflexively violent in their response to anything they find objectionable. They could have only embraced civil disobedience with the assistance of purportedly more urbane, sophisticated American activists. Until Sharp, Egyptians never engaged in hunger strikes and never disclosed the identities of people involved in the security services.

Of course, the ignorance associated with this pop culture interpretation of events surrounding the Egyptian protests is breathtaking. For example, Egyptians have engaged in hunger strikes or threatened them on a number of occasions in the last decade alone, such as here and here and here and here. While one should not discount the possibility that Sharp and his acolytes may have indirectly influenced the more recent ones, the more likely possibility is that Egyptians learned from, among others, the example of Palestinians nearby. Incarcerated Palestinians have frequently engaged in hunger strikes over the years to protest the occupation and their conditions of confinement, and continue to do so, as anyone who conducts a cursory search on the Internet will readily discover. Meanwhile, the notion that Egyptians never considered publicly exposing the identities of people in the security services as a method of resistance until coming into contact with speakers from the International Center on Nonviolent Conflict is absurd on its face.

But this narrative, no matter how implausible, does serve a political purpose outside of Egypt. For educated Americans, Zionist ones, in particular, it is a reasssuring one, an Arab revolutionary movement significantly influenced by secular, American theories of non-violent direct action. Or, alternatively, it can be described as a reassuring narrative centered around the belief that Arabs can only rebel in a way that conforms to Eurocentric values of social and cultural superiority. From this perspective, given that North Africa and the Middle East are characterized as backward societies, they can only undergo radical political transformation by reference to modern, Eurocentric approaches to protest and rebellion. An indirect expression of this ethnocentrism can be found, again, in the pages of Times, where, as As'ad Abukhalil often observes, the reporters rely excessively upon Arabs and Muslims living the US to provide insight into events in their countries of origin thousands of miles away. Because, as we all know, an Arab or Muslim living in the US, having benefitted from the social, cultural and educational advantages of our society, is a more knowledgeable source than an indigenous one.

In regard to Egypt specifically, the reverence for Sharp is especially misguided. First of all, contrary to the desperate need for American elites to describe them as non-violent, the Egyptian protests were, in fact, quite violent, and they were as violent as required to overcome the repression of the Mubarak security forces, as explained by Hossam el-Hamalawy:

Suez was dubbed as Egypt’s Sidi Bouzid during the 18 day uprising. The city witnessed some of the bloodiest crackdowns by the police, and also some of the fiercest resistance by the protesters. In the video above, shot on the Friday of Anger, January 28, the revolutionaries in Suez after storming the police stations and confiscating the rifles, are using them to fight back the police.

One of the biggest myths invented by the media, tied to this whole Gene Sharp business: the Egyptian revolution was peaceful. I’m afraid it wasn’t. The revolution (like any other revolution) witnessed violence by the security forces that led to the killing of at least 846 protesters.

But the people did not sit silent and take this violence with smiles and flowers. We fought back. We fought back the police and Mubarak’s thugs with rocks, Molotov cocktails, sticks, swords and knives. The police stations which were stormed almost in every single neighborhood on the Friday of Anger–that was not the work of criminals as the regime and some middle class activists are trying to propagate. Protesters, ordinary citizens, did that.

Egyptians understand well what a police station is for. Every family has a member who got abused, tortured or humiliated by the local police force in his/her neighborhood. And I’m not even talking here about the State Security Police torture factories. I’m talking about the ordinary police.

Other symbols of power and corruption were attacked by the protesters and torched down during the uprising. Revolutionary violence is never random. Those buildings torched down or looted largely belonged to Mubarak’s National Democratic Party.

In a number of provinces like in N Sinai and Suez, arms were seized by protesters who used them back against the police to defend themselves. State Security Police office in Rafah and Arish, for example, were blown up using RPGs, hand grenades and automatic rifles, while gas pipelines heading to Jordan and Israel were attacked.

Amazingly, there is a revisionist, pro-Sharp response to Hamalawy. Eric Stoner of Waging Nonviolence actually condemns the Egyptian protesters for attacking the forces that had subjected them to such repression:

No proponent of nonviolence would ever argue that by using nonviolent action protesters will not face violence from the state. In fact, in most cases, when facing repressive regimes violence should be expected.

Moreover, no one that I know ever claimed that there was absolutely no violence in Egypt. We acknowledged the violence of the protesters on this site and were critical of it.

That said, to argue that it was the rocks, Molotov cocktails, sticks, swords and knives that won the day in Egypt is crazy. Could anyone really think that these crude weapons were any match for Egypt’s military and security apparatus?

Rather than being a key to their eventual victory, the moments when protesters resorted to violence were the closest points during the uprising that they came to losing control. The throwing of rocks was about as useful strategically in Egypt as it is in Palestine. Such desperate acts distract onlookers from the cause they are fighting for and provide a ready excuse for state repression.

The truth is that most people in Tahrir Square and throughout Egypt did face violence without responding in kind and their nonviolent discipline was a key to their success. If most people had responded with violence the death toll of the revolution would have been dramatically higher and Mubarak may very well have prevailed.

So speaketh the sanctimonous American pacifist, who pompously proclaims that El-Hamalawy doesn't understand non-violence. If given a choice between a failed non-violent protest movement, or one that resorts to violence and succeeds, Americans like Stoner will choose the latter every time. Even worse, people like Stoner would relegate the peoples of the lesser developed world to imperial subjugation until they can overcome their masters non-violently. If that can't be done, well, too bad, things well get better when they ascend to heaven. No wonder the Times embraced Sharp in the service of its fictional characterization of the Egpytian protests as his insistence upon non-violence transforms a potentially immediate, radical, often violent revolutionary movement against the governments of US client states in North Africa and the Middle East into a long term, evolutionary one that is likely to preserve the prerogatives of capital, if it succeeds at all.

Clearly, the emphasis upon non-violent protest methods disseminated in Egypt by the International Center, as with the comical exaggeration about the importance of social media, is also about obscuring the class aspect of the Egyptian protests. There has been growing labor unrest in Egypt over the last decade as the clientelist policies of the regime began to be supplanted by neoliberal ones. While it would, of course, be an exaggeration to ascribe the success of the protests to the emerging labor movement in Egypt, it did, undoubtedly play a significant role, as explained by here and here by Joel Beinin. Labor protests in 2007 and 2008 against employers supported by Mubarak foreshadowed much more massive ones against the regime this year. By exaggerating the role of Sharp and social networking media, the Times, and other news agencies that did so as well, sought to persuade the American public that the protests were classless. Had Mubarak prevailed, it is likely that they would have been described in different, more ominous terms.

But I have digressed badly. I started this post with the intention of showing how Egyptians have responded to the claims of Sharp's importance to their protest movement. Here is a sample of some of their comments:

@3arabawy: I was happy all my life under Mubarak, but suddenly #genesharptaughtme I must rebel.

@Zjen1: #GeneSharpTaughtMe how to grow and eat garlic and breath in my enemies faces so they will faint.

@M_Alhalaby: #GeneSharpTaughtMe that washing eyes with Pepsi lessens the effects of tear gas.

@CVirus: #GeneSharpTaughtMe how to dodge bullets.

اي اتظاهر تضامنا مع قانون منع التظاهر@moneloky: #GeneSharpTaughtMe How to protest in support of the law that bans protesting

@prof_mostafa: #GeneSharpTaughtMe how to make a Facebook group

@alaa: #GeneSharpTaughtMe how to throw rocks at thugs, baricade myself behind burned out car hulks, dodge petrol bombs

Personally, I like these three best:

@deetaha: #GeneSharpTaughtMe that social networks is the only method to communicate, even when the Internet is down.

@nermin79: #GeneSharpTaughtMe that the west always wants to be sure that white men get credit for all the great things that happen

@ArabUprising: #GeneSharpTaughtMe that backward brown & black people need the permission of the white man to #revolt against his puppets

Apparently, the Egyptians have learned a lot from Gene Sharp, and fortunately, it is different than what the Times would have us believe.

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