Reflections on the Arab 1848

There is a conflagration in the Arab world right now. The wave of popular protest unleashed by the self-immolation of a poor, oppressed, despised young man in a small town in Tunisia is already making an indelible imprint on that world. However things turn out, and it is far too early to say how they will, nothing will ever be the same again.


Zine el Abidine ben Ali of Tunisia is gone, Hosni Mubarak of Egypt is on the threshold, Ali Abdullah Saleh of Yemen has promised to step down when his term ends in 2013, Abdullah of Jordan hasdismissed his cabinet, Abdelaziz Bouteflika of Algeria is planning to end a 19-year state of emergency (imposed after Islamists won the 1992 elections), and the contagion of popular protest has reached even Khartoum, previously embroiled in questions of civil war, secession, and brutality in Darfur. As I write, hundreds of thousands of Egyptians are in Tahrir Square for “Mubarak’s Day of Departure.”


Many commentators have compared this wave of popular uprising and revolution with 1989, when the Soviet satellite regimes of eastern Europe toppled like so many dominoes. The historical comparison I find more compelling is to 1848, when urban insurrections swept the provinces of Italy, France, the German principalities, and Austria-Hungary, and radicalizing effects were seen in eastern Europe, Scandinavia, and even Brazil (exiled radicals also played an important role in American politics leading up to the Civil War). France, of course, being France, had two insurrections, the second one being the first to bring forth the ideas of democratic socialism (the uprising was quickly crushed, but democratic socialism took much longer to die). Within months, conservative governments toppled all through central Europe, and within another year a wave of reaction restored, or seemed to, the status quo ante.


It is utterly foolhardy to attempt to predict what will happen; at this moment, I don’t even feel sure that Mubarak will have to step down. I do want, however, to put forth some general considerations.


Most fundamental is the First Law of Revolutions: He who hesitates is lost.


Some of the early tests of resolution have already been passed by the protesters. Tunisians weren’t fooled by ben Ali’s talk about being misled by other officials, whom he then dismissed, or by his promise to magically create 300,000 jobs. In Egypt, when Mubarak promised to step down in September, the people didn’t allow themselves to be mollified; when the army told them to go home, they stayed in Tahrir Square.


They have figured out that they have power only so long as they remain mobilized, and if they leave the streets their activist core will be eviscerated by September–and that promises only mean something when the other side can enforce them.


They have also figured out, if they had any doubt, that the military is not on their side. DespitePresident Obama’s commendation of “the Egyptian military for the professionalism and patriotism that it has shown thus far in allowing peaceful protests while protecting the Egyptian people,” the truth is quite different. Undoubtedly, early on there were commanders who took the side of the people and even protected them from the riot police, but after the protesters rejected Mubarak’s plan to arrange a slow transition to military rule with a different dictator at the head (Omar Suleiman, most likely), the military took that as a sign that anti-Mubarak now meant pro-democracy; after this, the military knew which side it was on.


Since then, the military has stood by and allowed protesters to be attacked by Molotov-cocktail-wielding thugs, who seem to be largely plainclothes police, criminals, and some young toughs who were paid to show up and keep protesters out of Tahrir Square. It has also been arresting and presumably torturing human rights activists and bloggers and harassing and beating foreign journalists.


Of course, the people being subjected to these indignities cannot be fooled by Obama’s or anyone else’s sententious pronouncements. Early on, there was a great deal of friendship and good-will manifested between people and the military and, on occasion, even the riot police (see numerous iconic kissingphotos)–this makes a lot of sense, since the success of these sudden mass popular protests (see Manila 1986, Jakarta 1998) requires that the security forces be split and that they lack the will or the ability to crack down. The arc from kissing soldiers to being mowed down by them is not an unusual one, though–see for example Tiananmen Square in 1989.


The latter has not happened yet in Egypt, and may not happen, because the military is torn between defense of its prerogatives and power, on the one hand, and, on the other, the need to retain a broad legitimacy among the Egyptian middle class. Thus their attempt to make it seem as if the protests are just back-and-forth violence between pro- and anti-Mubarak protesters, causing nothing but chaos and economic loss. That effort looks to be failing, but the military is still held back from unleashing real force, perhaps in part by a feeling that lower-level officers might mutiny, and certainly by the fact that the military is America’s stooge and beneficiary, and that the U.S. government has shown great squeamishness regarding open and public atrocities (what the Egyptian security services do behind closed doors is not only not much of a problem, we have relied on it as an asset, especially since 9/11).


Whether or not there is a brutal crackdown, the military is the obstacle; what it does will determine whether Mubarak is replaced by a near-identical military dictatorship or by a fledgling democracy.


If Mubarak steps down and things move into a negotiating phase between the people and the military, the Second Law of Revolution comes into play: Nothing is more dangerous than a failure of the political imagination.


I had occasion recently to read Engels’ Revolution and Counter-Revolution in Germany (originally misattributed to Marx). In March of 1848, successful popular insurrections in Vienna and Berlin had dramatically shifted the balance of power in the German states. The powers-that-were, including the various princes and the Diet, the traditional consultative body of the German states, had little choice but to allow arming of the populace and popular elections. The newly elected representatives gathered in Frankfurt am Main and called themselves the German National Assembly.


In his signature intemperate prose, here is Engels’ analysis of that body:


The German National Assembly was expected, by the people, to settle every matter in dispute, and to act as the highest legislative authority for the whole of the German Confederation. But, at the same time, the Diet which had convoked it had in no way fixed its attributions. No one knew whether its decrees were to have force of law, or whether they were to be subject to the sanction of the Diet, or of the individual Governments. In this perplexity, if the Assembly had been possessed of the least energy, it would have immediately dissolved and sent home the Diet—than which no corporate body was more unpopular in Germany—and replaced it by a Federal Government, chosen from among its own members. It would have declared itself the only legal expression of the sovereign will of the German people, and thus have attached legal validity to every one of its decrees. It would, above all, have secured to itself an organized and armed force in the country sufficient to put down any opposition on the parts of the Governments. And all this was easy, very easy, at that early period of the Revolution. … THIS Assembly of old women was, from the first day of its existence, more frightened of the least popular movement than of all the reactionary plots of all the German Governments put together… Instead of asserting its own sovereignty, it studiously avoided the discussion of any such dangerous question.


Engels had the wrong idea about old women, but he was spot-on about everything else. People in the Arab world are rising against an equally illegitimate group of autocratic aristocrats. 1848 was a battle of modernist liberal values against traditional authoritarianism; 2011 is a battle of modernist liberal values against neo-traditional authoritarianism. Indeed, the way that the conservative powers of Europe ruled from the end of the Napoleonic Wars until 1848–through militarization, spies, strenuous censorship, and the creation of police states–is strikingly similar to the way that U.S.-supported Arab autocrats rule today (although maybe not tomorrow).


The Egyptian military, if it negotiates with the people (whatever exactly this would mean), will want to do so in the framework of the existing constitution, in which a national assembly dominated by the NDP (National Democratic Party–Mubarak’s organization) is supposed to remain in power until 2015. If the January 25 movement is not able to assert the sovereignty of the people and its special role as their representative, the chances of real democratization are minuscule.


The U.S. government, all factions united in terror of a genuine popular uprising in the Arab world (let alone one in the country that gave birth to the Muslim Brotherhood), will be on the army’s side in this, ideologically aided, no doubt, by the bland institutionalism of the “democracy promotion” bureaucrats and scholars. Les Gelb, so apt a spokesman for the U.S. foreign policy establishment that he almost seems a self-caricature, sums up the reasons for worrying about any precipitous removal of Mubarak:


“The worry on Mubarak’s part is that if he says yes to this, there will be more demands,” said Leslie H. Gelb, president emeritus of the Council on Foreign Relations. “And since he’s not dealing with a legal entity, but a mob, how does he know there won’t be more demands tomorrow?”


When the people have been excluded from being a legal entity, then it is impossible for them to be one. This is a problem insurrectionaries have always faced and will always face. But it is up to those people to decide whether they are, in Gelb’s charming term, a “mob” or whether they are the legitimate expression of the popular will. If they do so, they will get no support from the United States, Europe, the United Nations, other Arab states (except perhaps Tunisia), the bien pensants of the “international community,” or Mark Zuckerberg. The will need support from the one place they may actually get it–what the New York Times dubbed the “other superpower,” global public opinion.


Of course, Gelb, reprehensible as he is, has a point. Who will the military negotiate with and how? Tunisia and Egypt are striking because they belong to that class of revolutions where, suddenly, as if out of the blue, “everybody” is on the same side. Seemingly, the whole country unites and wants the dictator out. Of course, this is not literally true; there are always, if nothing else, the pampered security forces, cronies of the dictator, and a small paid-off subgroup of the elite. But if a vast majority of all sectors of society outside the dictator’s small group is on one side, revolution can come very swiftly.


The negative side to this is that such revolutions do not cohere around any kind of unified ideology, program, or organizational core. If they were ideological, they would not be unanimous–despite occasional fantasies you may hear from activists, “the people” are never united on some broad, principled approach to society. What is a strength in the tumultuous phase of rapid mobilization becomes a weakness once the question becomes, “What is to be done?” It is difficult and tiring to protest, deal with the disruption of daily life, see people be beaten and killed–at some point, it can be comforting to accept the word of some source of traditional authority that you can go home now, the problems will be fixed. I hope that will not happen in Egypt, but there is no use in anyone telling the people who are so heroically making this revolution what they should want next.


I don’t want to convey the impression that I am a fan of Engelsian “iron resolution,” and its long and sad history in the world of “actually existing communism.” Revolutions have a tendency to conflate the means with the end, but there is no need to worry about that here yet.

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