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

Thursday, January 27, 2011

Egypt Erupts: The Kids Are All Right 

UPDATE 6 (10:55PM Pacific time): From the Associated Press:

Violence escalated on Thursday at protests outside the capital. In the flashpoint city of Suez, along the strategic Suez Canal, protesters torched a fire station and looted weapons that they then turned on police. The Interior Ministry said in a statement that more than 90 police officers were injured in those clashes. There were no immediate figures on the number of injured protesters.

In the northern Sinai area of Sheik Zuweid, several hundred Bedouins and police exchanged gunfire, killing a 17-year-old. About 300 protesters surrounded a police station from rooftops of nearby buildings and fired two rocket-propelled grenades at it, damaging the walls.

Video of the shooting of the teenager, Mohamed Attef, was supplied to a local journalist and obtained by AP Television News. Attef crumpled to the ground after being shot on the street. He was alive as fellow protesters carried him away but later died.

UPDATE 5 (7;25PM Pacific time): Right on cue for Vice President Biden:

Thousands of Egyptians are planning to take part in peaceful marches and sit-ins in major cities. Mohammed ElBaradei, who has offered to become an interim leader, will be attending a major demonstration after Friday morning prayers in downtown Cairo.

But already I have started getting reports from citizen journalists that government-hired thugs will make sure that nothing about tomorrow is peaceful. They say that in several low-income parts of Cairo and Alexandria, government-hired thugs were seen to be splashing petroleum over parked cars. This to prepare for protests in which they'll light vehicles on fire when the time is right for them.

They've also heard rumours that the intelligence services will release a separate group of thugs under the name Akhwan al- Haq, or Brothers of Truth, a trumped-up extremist group, that will charge through the streets with swords and caustic acid to splash on the protesters - thus placing all the blame of a peaceful uprising gone violent on a certain kind of Islamic extremism.

UPDATE 4: Egyptian security forces detain 80 members of the Muslim Brotherhood before dawn. And, perhaps, others as well?

UPDATE 3: Vice President Biden supports the Mubarak regime on the PBS News Hour:

Asked if he would characterize Mubarak as a dictator Biden responded: Mubarak has been an ally of ours in a number of things. And he’s been very responsible on, relative to geopolitical interest in the region, the Middle East peace efforts; the actions Egypt has taken relative to normalizing relationship with – with Israel. … I would not refer to him as a dictator.

He also appeared to make one of the famous Biden gaffes, in comments that could be interpreted as questioning the legitimacy of protesters' demands. Monitor Cairo correspondent Kristen Chick, other reporters in the country, and activists have generally characterized the main calls of demonstrators as focused on freedom, democracy, an end to police torture, and a more committed government effort to address the poverty that aflicts millions of Egyptians.

Biden urged non-violence from both protesters and the government and said: We’re encouraging the protesters to – as they assemble, do it peacefully. And we’re encouraging the government to act responsibly and – and to try to engage in a discussion as to what the legitimate claims being made are, if they are, and try to work them out. He also said: I think that what we should continue to do is to encourage reasonable... accommodation and discussion to try to resolve peacefully and amicably the concerns and claims made by those who have taken to the street. And those that are legitimate should be responded to because the economic well-being and the stability of Egypt rests upon that middle class buying into the future of Egypt.

Of course, Biden's emphasis upon the need for the protesters to act peaceably fits perfectly with the efforts of the regime to manufacture the appearance of out of control street violence to justify the crackdown.

UPDATE 2 (4:33PM Pacific time): OK, here's something that I have found the time to post: Riot control police are being withdrawn from various locations in central Cairo, while plainclothes security are pouring gasoline on vehicles and setting them afire. They are also trying to burn storefronts as well. This is similar to what happened in Tunisia just before and after Ben Ali departed, and the military put a stop to it. The purpose is to create a pretext for a crackdown that justifies mass arrests and the indiscriminate use of live fire against the populace. There are already reports that such arrests are taking place in the early morning hours.

Meanwhile, here is some recent video from Suez, where there are reports that the police are shooting at protesters who are responding with Molotov cocktails:

UPDATE 1: For ongoing updates on the situation in Egypt, please visit the Egyptian Chronicles, The Arabist, 3arabawy and We Are All Khalid Said. It is, frankly, impossible for me to attempt to keep up with the breaking news, which indicates continued confrontational protest in many Egyptian cities. The Guardian's live blog is useful as well. It has been reported that a call has gone out for day of national resistance after prayers tomorrow.

INITIAL POST: Something quite extraordinary is happening when The New York Times and As'ad Abukhalil, the Angry Arab, find themselves in agreement, or, at least, close to it. First, the Times:

The roots of the uprising that filled Egypt’s streets this week arguably stretch back to before the Tunisian revolt, which many protesters cited as the catalyst. Almost three years ago, on April 6, 2008, the Egyptian government crushed a strike by a group of textile workers in the industrial city of Mahalla, and in response a group of young activists who connected through Facebook and other social networking Web sites formed the April 6th Youth Movement in solidarity with the strikers.

Their early efforts to call a general strike were a bust. But over time their leaderless online network and others that sprang up around it — like the networks that helped propel the Tunisian revolution — were uniquely difficult for the Egyptian security police to pinpoint or wipe out. It was an online rallying cry for a show of opposition to tyranny, corruption and torture that brought so many to the streets on Tuesday and Wednesday, unexpectedly vaulting the online youth movement to the forefront as the most effective independent political force in Egypt.

And, now, the Angry Arab:

I have just received from Egypt a secret document titled How to Revolt Intelligently prepared by the youth activists in Egypt. It is a most sophisticated manual by activist that I have seen. I am not exaggerating. It has very specific instructions as how to deal with the oppression tactics and methods of the Mubarak regime. I would have shared it with you, but the activists are circulating it as a secret document with special instruction against wide distribution for fear of falling into the hands of police. It has specific instruction as to how to deal with tear gas canisters and the repression vehicles and baton of the police. It sets the demands and style of the movement with well-done illustration. It ends with an illustration of Jamal Mubarak nicknamed Jaban Mubarak (Coward Mubarak). It is most impressive and makes me more hopeful about change in Egypt. I have not seen anything like this before, not by any revolutionary or activist movement anywhere.

Both point toward the fact that it has been young people, acting outside of any recognized institutional structures, that have driven anti-establishment protest around the world. Of course, the role of young anarchists in the December 2008 protests in Greece is well known, so much so that AK Press has published an excellent book that places these protests within a broader context of anti-authoritarian resistance there, with the anger of the Greek protesters subsequently finding an echo in the United Kingdom and France. In France, during nationwide protests triggered by a proposed reduction in pension benefits in October 2010, young people rioted in downtown Lyon, a riot described by a Figaro reporter as about 2000 youths . . roaming the streets in an insurrectional climate of urban guerrilla combat.

Meanwhile, a couple of months later, in December 2010 in the UK, student protests over increased university fees brought out unanticipated participants:

They marched to parliament square, got stopped, surged through police lines and trampled onto the grass that had been so painstakingly regrown after the eviction of the peace camp. And then they danced.

The man in charge of the sound system was from an eco-farm, he told me, and had been trying to play politically right on reggae; however a crowd in which the oldest person was maybe seventeen took over the crucial jack plug, inserted it into a Blackberry, (iPhones are out for this demographic) and pumped out the dubstep.

Young men, mainly black, grabbed each other around the head and formed a surging dance to the digital beat lit, as the light failed, by the distinctly analog light of a bench they had set on fire.

Any idea that you are dealing with Lacan-reading hipsters from Spitalfields on this demo is mistaken.

While a good half of the march was undergraduates from the most militant college occupations - UCL, SOAS, Leeds, Sussex - the really stunning phenomenon, politically, was the presence of youth: bainlieue-style youth from Croydon, Peckam, the council estates of Islington.

Having been very close to the front line of the fighting, on the protesters side, I would say that at its height - again - it broke the media stereotype of being organised by political groups: there was an anarchist black bloc contingent, there were the socialist left groups - but above all, again, I would say the main offensive actions taken to break through police lines were done by small groups of young men who dressed a lot more like the older brothers of the dubsteppers.

A similar pheonomenon occurred in Rome about a week later during protests after Berlusconi survived a no-confidence vote.

And, then, of course, Tunisia:

Despite a curfew being imposed in the Tunisian capital during the hours of darkness, young men defied threats not to leave their homes and took their anger onto the streets of the southern suburbs of Tunis.

Police who had used tear gas during the day to try to control mobs of angry people fired live rounds. According to reports from eye-witnesses three people in Tunis were killed.

Finally, I forgot to mention the young people who pushed beyond the timidity of the so-called Green Revolution in Iran in June 2009:

Meanwhile every Westerner seems to think that Mousavi is a great reformist or revolutionary, and some kind of saintly figure beloved by all. He's an opportunist crook. That being said, I support the students and protesters in Iran, even the ones chanting Mousavi's name. I believe they are putting their lives on the line to fight for greater freedom, accountability, and democracy within the Islamic Republic, and they have to couch that in the language of Islam and presidential politics in order to avoid even greater repression than that which they already face. A friend who is in Iran right now confirms: half the kids throwing rocks at the police didn't even vote. To me, that means that they are not fighting for a Mousavi presidency, but for more freedom, which they must hide under a green Mousavi banner in order to have legitimacy in the eyes of the state.

Do the young people in all these countries share a clearly defined ideological and social perspective? Of course not. But there are some important commonalities between them. Many of them, even the dubsteppers of London and Rome, are well educated, yet find themselves paying the price for the corruption of their political and economic leadership through a lack of job opportunities, a lack of social mobility and increased poverty. Global policies of austerity and local ones of crony capitalism are making their lives miserable. All of them resent the social controls placed upon them, whether it's a black Londoner in Brixton angry about police brutality or a Egyptian, Tunisian or Iranian subjected to the surveillance and repression carried out by the security forces of their countries. At best, they are cynical and calculated about the utility of working within established political institutions and parties, at worst, they are disdainful of it.

Hence, there is the question as to what sort of new social order can incorporate their needs, their concerns, their legitimate anger that is increasingly being expressed violently. It is a difficult question to answer, but we can tentatively say that it must necessarily be more inclusive, less dependent upon the corrupted forms of representation that have been so discredited, and, thus, independent of the military neoliberalism practiced by the US. In relation to the protests in Tunisia and Egypt, nothing has been more comical than to hear US diplomats speak of the need for regimes to reform themselves so as to provide economic opportunities for their growing population of young people, while simultaneously continuing to insist upon neoliberal, IMF-style policies of structural adjustment. The US clearly wants to buy off the protesters, while preserving the authority of its most favored, most tested political figures, but its wallet is empty. Absent a reversal of policy, and an embrace of Keynesian policies of demand creation globally, the protesters will ultimately discover that their most determined, most implacable enemies are the elites of the US, and their transnational allies.

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