The Praxis of the Egyptian Revolution

by Mona El-Ghobashy

published in MER258

If there was ever to be a popular uprising against autocratic rule, it should not have come in Egypt. The regime of President Husni Mubarak was the quintessential case of durable authoritarianism. “Our assessment is that the Egyptian government is stable and is looking for ways to respond to the legitimate needs and interests of the Egyptian people,” said Secretary of State Hillary Clinton on January 25, 2011. [1] With these words, Clinton gave voice to a common understanding of Egypt under Mubarak. Government officials, pundits and academics, foreign and domestic, thought the regime was resilient — not because it used brute force or Orwellian propaganda, but because it had shrewdly constructed a simulacrum of politics. Parties, elections and civic associations were allowed but carefully controlled, providing space for just enough participatory politics to keep people busy without threatening regime dominance.

Mubarak’s own party was a cohesive machine, organizing intramural competition among elites. The media was relatively free, giving vent to popular frustrations. And even the wave of protest that began to swell in 2000 was interpreted as another index of the regime’s skill in managing, rather than suppressing, dissent. Fundamentally, Egypt’s rulers were smart authoritarians who had their house in order. Yet they were toppled by an 18-day popular revolt.

Three main explanations have emerged to make sense of this conundrum: technology, Tunisia and tribulation. Technological analyses celebrate young people who employed new media to defeat a stolid autocrat. By the second day of the Egyptian uprising, CNN correspondent Ben Wedeman was calling it a “very techie revolution.” In the following days, every major news outlet framed the uprising as the work of wired, savvy twenty-somethings awakening the liberating potential of Facebook, Twitter and the writings of American intellectual Gene Sharp. “For the world’s despots, his ideas can be fatal,” asserted the New York Times of Sharp. [2] A second category of explanation credits the Tunisian people’s ouster of Zine El Abidine Ben Ali in mid-January with supplying a shining example to follow. Esam Al-Amin notes that the Tunisian revolution “inspired Egyptians beyond the activists or elites.” [3] A third theorem focuses on the many tribulations afflicting Egyptians, particularly soaring commodity prices, positing that hardship finally pushed the population to rise up against oppression. “Food: What’s Really Behind the Unrest in Egypt,” one Canadian newspaper headlined its story. [4]

None of these explanations are false. All of them correspond to interpretations of events forwarded by the participants themselves. And each has an impeccable intellectual pedigree, harkening back to two influential traditions in the study of popular collective action. One is the dramaturgical model, identifying a cast of self-propelled characters, armed with courage and a new consciousness, who then make an uprising. The second is the grievance model, by which an accumulation of social troubles steadily diffuses among the population and finally reaches an unforeseeable tipping point. The two models call attention to distinct but equally important forces: specific actors and generalized complaints. But both are oddly without context. Because aggrieved and heroic people exist under every type of political system, the models do not explain when such people will band together to challenge the conditions they deplore.

Egypt’s momentous uprising did not happen because Egyptians willed it into being. It happened because there was a sudden change in the balance of resources between rulers and ruled. Mubarak’s structures of dominion were thought to be foolproof, and for 30 years they were. What shifted the balance away from the regime were four continuous days of street fighting, January 25–28, that pitted the people against police all over the country. That battle converted a familiar, predictable episode into a revolutionary situation. Decades ago, Charles Tilly observed that one of the ways revolutions happen is that the efficiency of government coercion deteriorates. That decline occurs “when the character, organization and daily routines of the population to be controlled change rapidly.” [5] The organization and daily routines of the Egyptian population had undergone significant changes in the years preceding the revolt. By January 25, 2011, a strong regime faced a strong society versed in the politics of the street. In hindsight, it is simple to pick out the vulnerabilities of the Mubarak regime and arrange them in a neat list as the ingredients of breakdown. But that retrospective temptation misses the essential point: Egyptians overthrew a strong regime.

Strong Regime, Strong Society

Like his predecessors, President Husni Mubarak deployed the resources of a high-capacity state to cement his power. He handily eliminated all threats to his rule, from a riot police mutiny in 1986 to an armed Islamist insurgency in the 1990s to an over-ambitious deputy, Defense Minister ‘Abd al-Halim Abu Ghazala, whom he sacked in 1989. He presided over the transformation of the economy from a command model with the state as primary owner to a neoliberal model with the state as conduit for the transfer of public assets to cronies. He introduced an innovation to the Egyptian authoritarian tradition as well, attempting to engineer the handover of presidential power to a blood relative, rather than a military subordinate. To manage social opposition to these big changes, Mubarak used the political arena to coopt critics and the coercive apparatus to deal with those who would not be incorporated.

Opposite this wily regime stood an ostensibly weak and fragmented society. Echoing the regime’s own arguments, workers’ protests, rural riots, electoral struggles and any other forms of popular striving were explained away as economic, not political; local, not national; and defensive, not proactive. The little people had no politics. Thus spoke the political scientist and Mubarak loyalist ‘Ali al-Din Hilal to a US diplomat, who in a 2009 cable reported that Hilal said, “Widespread, politically motivated unrest was unlikely because it was not part of the ‘Egyptian mentality.’” Independent academics shared his view: “There could be a poor people’s revolt if the state fails to provide food. But we must bear in mind that Egyptians rarely explode and then only in specific cases, among them threats to their daily bread or national dignity.” [6]

The reality was that Egyptians had been practicing collective action for at least a decade, acquiring organizational experience in that very old form of politics: the street action. Egypt’s streets had become parliaments, negotiating tables and battlegrounds rolled into one. To compel unresponsive officials to enact or revoke specific policies, citizens blockaded major roads with tree branches and burning tires; organized sit-ins in factory plants or outside ministry buildings; and blocked the motorcades of governors and ministers. Take this small event in the logbook of popular politics from January 2001, one of 49 protest events recorded that year by just one newspaper. Workers at the new Health Insurance hospital in Suez held a sit-in to protest the halt of their entitlement pay. State security officers and local officials intervened, prevailing upon the authorities to reinstate the pay and fire the hospital director. [7] By 2008, there were hundreds of such protests every year, big and small. In June 2008, thousands of residents in the fishing town of Burg al-Burullus blocked a major highway for seven hours to protest the governor’s abrupt decision to halt the direct distribution of flour to households. Police used tear gas and batons to disperse demonstrators, and 90 people were arrested. [8]

If one classifies Egypt’s protests by the type of mobilizing structure that brings people out into the street, rather than the content of their claims, three sectors are salient, each with its own repertoire of tactics. The first is workplace protest, including collective action by industrial laborers, by civil servants, students and by trade practitioners such as auto mechanics and gold traders. The second is neighborhood protest, whether on the scale of a single street or an entire town. Protests by Copts, Sinai Bedouins and farmers are often organized along residential lines. Associational protest is the third sector. The organizing mediums here are professional associations such as lawyers’ and doctors’ syndicates; social movements such as the pro-Palestine solidarity campaigns, the anti-Mubarak Kifaya movement and the April 6 youth group; and the youth wings of political parties such as Ayman Nour’s liberal Ghad, the Muslim Brothers, the liberal-national Wafd, the Nasserist Karama and the Islamist Wasat.

Doing politics outdoors brought citizens face-to-face with the caste that rules the streets: Egypt’s ubiquitous police. Mubarak’s was not a police state because the coercive apparatus routinely beat and detained people. It was a police state because the coercive apparatus had become the chief administrative arm of the state, aggregating the functions of several agencies. Police not only deal with crime and issue passports, drivers’ licenses, and birth and death certificates. They also resolve local conflicts over land and sectarian relations; fix all national and sub-national elections; vet graduate school candidates and academic appointments at every level; monitor shop floors and mediate worker-management conflicts; observe soccer games and Friday prayers; and maintain a network of local informants in poor neighborhoods, to ensure that dispossession is not converted into political organization. Officers are free to work out their own methods of revenue extraction, sometimes organizing the urban drug trade. [9] Patrolmen routinely collect tribute from taxi and microbus drivers and shopkeepers, while high-ranking officers partner with landowners or crony businessmen. When there is a riot or a road accident or a natural disaster, Egyptian police personnel are the first responders, not to aid the victims but to contain their rage.

By January 25, 2011, every protest sector had field experience with police rule, from Helwan University students to villagers in the Delta province of Daqhaliyya to Cairo lawyers to Aswan horse cart drivers. But no population group had come close to shifting the balance of resources in its favor, with the arguable exception of Sinai’s Bedouins, who have been embroiled in fierce battles with police for years, ever since the Taba bombings in 2004 led to massive arrest campaigns targeting residents.

The first significant effort to link up Egypt’s three protest sectors was easily aborted by the regime. On April 6, 2008, a loose coalition of Mahalla and Kafr al-Dawwar textile workers, town residents and groups in Cairo’s associational landscape coordinated a general strike and national day of protest to demand a minimum wage and an end to corruption and police brutality. Riot police and state security officers dissolved the strike action at the Mahalla textile factory before it could take off. Then they easily broke up furious protests by thousands of Mahalla townspeople, lobbing tear gas canisters into crowdsand arresting 150 residents. Smaller solidarity demonstrations in Greater Cairo were also effortlessly managed, and state security’s plans succeeded in preventing the spread of protest to other provinces. But the event midwifed the April 6 youth movement, which would be a key organizer of the January 25 action.

Street clashes continued between locals and police in various spots throughout 2010, with some incidents leading to mass arrests and curfews. Although the triggers of these confrontations were particular to time and place, both police and citizens drew upon remarkably similar sets of devices, from Akhmim in Upper Egypt to Rosetta in the Delta to ‘Umraniyya in Greater Cairo. Two signal events embedded these local patterns of friction into a national framework. In June 2010, a young Alexandrian named Khalid Sa‘id was hauled out of his chair at an Internet café and beaten to death by plainclothes police officers in broad daylight, reportedly in revenge for his posting of a video on YouTube that showed the officers divvying up the proceeds of a drug bust. Sa‘id’s death galvanized public opinion in disgust at police predation. Google executive Wael Ghoneim helped start a Facebook group called “We Are All Khalid Sa‘id,” and social movements organized several large demonstrations against police brutality at which the slogan “Leave! Leave!” was hurled at Husni Mubarak. The second occasion was the national legislative elections. Under complete police management, the elections in November-December 2010 were flagrantly rigged to return 97 percent of the seats for Mubarak’s vehicle, the National Democratic Party (NDP). The elections outraged political elites and ordinary people alike, spurring a unified opposition protest on December 12, and leaving behind fresh memories of street battles in dozens of districts across the country.

By the time January 25, 2011 arrived, there was local resonance for the planned national “day of rage” in virtually every corner of Egypt. The political atmosphere was highly charged: Public opinion was inflamed by the Alexandria church bombing on January 1, which had led to numerous rumbles between police and Coptic protesters. The Tunisian people’s toppling of Ben Ali electrified Egyptians. Riot police corralled a January 16 demonstration outside the Tunisian embassy, where activists had gathered to sing the Tunisian national anthem. Unwittingly, the regime itself provided the calendar date for the “day of rage,” having newly designated January 25 a bank holiday to mark Police Day. The holiday freed up citizens for assembly, practically inviting them to convert the official celebration into a popular harangue against police rule. Several get-out-the-protest clips on YouTube strung together notorious scenes of police brutality captured by cell phone video cameras. Members of all protest sectors announced their participation, including Mahalla workers, Sinai Bedouins and civil servants employed by the cabinet. New actors joined in, such as hard-core fans of the two biggest national soccer teams and Khalid Sa‘id’s mother, who, in an interview uploaded by Nobel laureate Mohamed ElBaradei’s reform campaign on January 21, also urged Egyptians to reclaim their rights in the streets. [10] The government felt compelled to counter-organize. State security officers warned Muslim Brothers in the provinces to stay home. NDP parliamentarians branded January 25 the “day of loyalty to the leader,” paying for 500,000 posters featuring Mubarak’s visage and pasting them in major squares. [11] The Coptic Church, seven tiny opposition parties, the Nasserist party and Sufi orders spoke out against the protest action. [12]

In the days before the “day of rage,” a little-noted disturbance prefigured scenes that would soon pop up all over Egypt. One afternoon in the Nile-side working-class neighborhood of Warraq, a brawl erupted between two detainees at the police station. Officers violently put down the fight. The detainees then set fire to the blankets in the lock-up, and the blaze soon engulfed the station, injuring the Warraq head detective and his lieutenant. Armored cars and riot police were dispatched to the neighborhood, as rumors spread that a detainee had died in the fire. Hundreds of residents and detainees’ relatives descended on the station and tried to push their way in, pelting the building with stones and breaking four window panes. By 2 am, the standoff had ended. The Giza police chief had arrived to negotiate with residents, allowing them in one by one to ascertain their relatives’ safety. “My brother is wrongly imprisoned. They accused him of stealing a cell phone,” a resident outside the station told a reporter. “One of the officers framed him.” [13]

Verdict of the Barricades

The January 25 protest started as a midsize demonstration and ended as a massive uprising against autocratic rule. But no one leaving their house that morning knew that they were stepping into the largest policing failure of Mubarak’s tenure. The uprising was forged in the heat of street fighting, unanticipated both by its hopeful strategists and its watchful adversaries. “We went out to protest that day and expected to be arrested in the first ten minutes, just like usual,” recalled Ziad al-‘Ulaymi, an organizer with ElBaradei’s campaign. [14] A lieutenant colonel in the riot police, who was monitoring events from the Cairo operations room, later noted, “Our preparations for January 25 were as per usual, and the instructions were not to molest demonstrators.” [15]

Interior Minister Habib al-‘Adli and his four lieutenants had met on January 24 to finalize their strategy. Cairo police chief Isma‘il al-Sha‘ir issued stern warnings through the media, threatening protesters with arrest and invoking the demonstrations law of 1914 requiring a permit for any public gathering of more than five persons. [16] Giza police chief Usama al-Marasi deployed 12 riot police trucks on Arab League Street, the main thoroughfare of Cairo’s western half, and 18 trucks outside Cairo University. The broad avenue and the campus were two of the pre-announced protest locations on the Facebook pages of the April 6 and Khalid Sa‘id movements. For good measure, al-Marasi emplaced trucks along the entire stretch of the Warraq corniche. [17] Outside Greater Cairo, police set up checkpoints along the approaches to the large Delta towns of Tanta and Mahalla, blocking the entry of delegations from Kafr al-Shaykh, Daqhaliyya and Minoufiyya provinces that had been planned by protest organizers. Qalyoubiyya and Suez provinces were placed on high alert. Suez, in particular, had a recent history of troubles. In 2010, a high-ranking police general was assassinated in plain sight by a former informant, whose trial turned into an exposé of the gendarmerie’s brutal methods. And the heavy police hand was evident again during the 2010 elections. “The polling stations are under occupation. Suez has been turned into a military garrison!” cried an irate poll monitor on voting day. [18]

Zero hour, as announced by protest organizers, was to be 2 pm. The stated plan was to demonstrate in front of the Interior Ministry and then disband at 5 pm. Security forces therefore sealed off all the vital downtown streets leading to and from the Ministry, allowing pedestrians to pass only after checking ID cards. But it was a ruse. On the morning of January 25, organizers used cell phones and landlines to disseminate the real locations of the protests and the actual start time: noon. “The protest locations announced on Facebook and to the press were the major landmarks. The idea was to start marching down small side streets and pick up people along the way, so that by the time demonstrators reached the announced locations, they would be large crowds that security couldn’t corral,” explained organizer al-‘Ulaymi. [19]

The crafty tactic worked in some neighborhoods, but not in others. Envision a sizable Kifaya demonstration walking down a tiny, picturesque lane in the inter-confessional neighborhood of Shubra, calling on residents watching them from the balconies to come down and join. Actor ‘Amr Wakid is there, demonstrators are waving Egyptian flags and veteran sloganeer Kamal Khalil is providing the soundtrack with his unique sing-song rhymes. [20] By the time this group surged toward the announced rally point of Shubra Circle, they had collected 1,000 bodies and police officers had started to chase them. Khalil was arrested, and the other legendary sloganeer and seasoned unionist Kamal Abu Eita just barely escaped. “That’s when I realized that Abu Eita runs much faster than me!” said thirty-something activist Ahmad ‘Urabi of Abu Eita, who is nearly 60.

By that point at 2:30 pm, the Shubra people received calls and text messages that crowds were filling streets in the working-class neighborhoods of Boulaq, Imbaba and Bab al-Khalq, and that Arab League Street in middle-class Muhandisin was overflowing with people marching toward Tahrir Square downtown. So they individually hopped into taxis and headed for the square. Meanwhile, outside the High Court building near Tahrir, middle-aged opposition parliamentarians and tweedy professors were scuffling with riot police. Lawyers from the bar association nearby had broken through the cordon and were approaching, as was a third roving group passing by the Judges’ Club around the corner and chanting over and over again, “Hurriyya! Hurriyya!” (Freedom! Freedom!). The police were disoriented by the convergence of the three formations. State security officers negotiated with parliamentarians, trying to convince them to persuade the crowds that they could chant as much as they liked but had to remain stationary on the High Court steps. But there was another logic at work. The bodies gleefully broke through the cordons and rushed toward Gala’ Street and from there to ‘Abd al-Mun‘im Riyad Square abutting the Egyptian museum, a stone’s throw from Tahrir.

While security forces were trying to contain the court demonstration, Ghad party leader Ayman Nour and Wafd party members Muhammad Shurdi and businessman Rami Lakah were fronting an energetic group of Wafdist youth speed-walking from Ramsis Street to the Nile corniche. A couple of hundred strong and each member carrying a green party flag, the procession plucked off bystanders as it moved along, making its way to the NDP headquarters where it stopped for some moments to denounce NDP leaders, promising them the fate of the Tunisian ex-president, Ben Ali. Before security forces could pen them in, a large group coming from the Qasr al-Nil bridge merged with the Wafdists and, together, they set off for the state radio and television building, completely encircling it for a few minutes with no security forces in sight. From there, they roamed the streets of Boulaq, reemerging at the intersection of Ramsis and July 26 Streets, and headed for Tahrir.

Nearby, on ‘Abd al-Khaliq Tharwat Street, Khalaf Muhammad Mursi, a 75-year old newspaper vendor, said, “Back in the days of the monarchy, I saw as many demonstrations as there are hairs on my head. Back then, they flipped over the trams and chanted against the king, and some of them wanted [Prime Minister Mustafa] Nahhas back in power. Demonstrating is good. They’re marching and not doing anything wrong. The government should let them.” [21]

In the provinces, there were also large demonstrations. Police containment varied in intensity, with some brigades tolerating the columns of protesters and others losing control of the crowds, as in Cairo. In Ismailiyya’s Firdaws Square, police made rigorous preparations starting the night before. By early afternoon, rows of riot police were tightly hemming in 600 demonstrators, who were performing the afternoon prayers outdoors and shouting, “Chant it, chant it! Raise your voice high! He who chants will not die!” By 6 pm, more people had joined in, enabling the protesters to break free of the cordon and ramble through the city. The labor stronghold of Mahalla was a different matter, the two demonstrations there having been violently put down, with 11 arrests. Alexandria’s squares and landmarks saw several simultaneous, separate protests. Police ringed a large crowd outside the governor’s office, chanting for the dissolution of the rigged parliament and demanding an audience with the governor, who refused. In the al-Asafra neighborhood, a procession flowed toward NDP headquarters, fending off the “karate companies,” the state security musclemen who disperse crowds by striking demonstrators.

Back in Tahrir, shortly before 4 pm, security forces were resisting demonstrators’ surge toward the national legislative headquarters from two directions. In the square, high-octane crowds led by soccer fans exclaimed “Egypt! Egypt!” in army-like cadence. They repeatedly rushed the thick layers of conscripts blocking the way to Qasr al-‘Ayni Street, which leads southwest in rough parallel with the Nile, passing by the houses of Parliament. When the protesters succeeded in breaking through, panicked officers went in hot pursuit, pushing the discombobulated lower ranks in front of them to rearrange them again in a human blockade before the people could reach the People’s Assembly, as Egypt’s lower house is called. From the other direction on Qasr al-‘Ayni Street, a now iconic scene saw light-footed young men sparring with an armored vehicle. In the footage posted online (where it has upwards of 2 million views), one of them then positions himself directly in the path of the moving lorry as it spouts water from a cannon. He stands there defiantly, hands on hips and drenched, as the vehicle brakes and the videographers wildly cheer him on from a balcony above. [22]

By then, something extraordinary was happening. The thousands of demonstrators who had been wending their way through different parts of the city were streaming through all the approaches to the square. Poet and Baradei campaign leader ‘Abd al-Rahman Yusuf was running from security forces through the labyrinthine streets of chic Garden City, home to the US and British embassies. He and his fellows approached the square from underneath the Qasr al-Nil bridge. “It was one of the most profound moments of my life. The sight of the square filled with tens of thousands heralded the long-awaited dawn. As we entered the square, the crowds installed there cheered the coming of a new battalion, greeting us with joy. I wept.” [23]

In the orange glow left by a setting sun, a skirmish unfolded outside the upper house of Parliament. Demonstrators had inched their way to that spot by making iterated advances into riot police formations, breaking them apart and gaining a tad more ground each time. Protesters clambered atop a red fire truck, and their jubilant fellows began to sing the national anthem. Tense riot police commanders herded their troops. The black-helmeted conscripts jogged in place and emitted the rhythmic grunts of soldiers revving up for close combat. When the order was given, the troops rushed into the crowd. “Silmiyya! Silmiyya!” roared the demonstrators, exhorting each other to non-violence and holding their ground as the troops retreated into position. An enterprising civilian knocked over a white-and-blue sentry kiosk. His fellows rushed to help him roll it to the protesters’ side; a barricade had been made. When hotheads in the crowd started hurling rocks at riot police, a chant rose up from both the front lines and cheerleaders on the sidelines, “No stones! No stones!” In this army, the commanders and the foot soldiers were one. [24]

Night fell, but the people stayed put in the square. Huge speakers were procured from nearby Bab al-Louq, and a people’s broadcast service was set up. Angry monologues, poetry couplets and political demands were read out. A cardboard replica of a squat dictator hung from a lamppost. News was relayed that two citizens had died in Suez that day, solidifying resolve. Volunteers ranged across the square, collecting garbage in plastic bags. People built fires and danced around their light. Out of nowhere, food and blankets appeared, to the delighted claps and cries of the encampment. Memories of March 20–21, 2003 flitted through the minds of those who were there that evening, when the square was under the people’s control for ten hours to express outrage at the US bombing of Baghdad. But on that occasion security forces had uprooted them by the next afternoon. Perhaps determined to avoid a reprise, the broadcast rallied everyone to spend this and every night in the square until their demands were met. As they had repeated over and over again throughout the day, they wanted: “Bread, freedom, social justice!” After sunset, as demonstrators realized their own power, this troika began to alternate with the Tunisian anthem: “The people want to overthrow the regime!” Reporters milled about, collecting stories. Sitting alone was Amal, a young nurse. Her friends had abandoned her, their parents refusing to let them join the demonstrations. Why did not her parents do the same? “My parents have passed away,” she explained, “and I support five brothers and sisters. I’m here so that they can live a dignified life. I don’t want them to be deprived because they’re orphans.” [25]

The riot police lieutenant colonel received the order at midnight. “The square had to be cleaned up,” he recounted. “Absolutely no one was to spend the night there.” The armored vehicles closed in, the riot troops were arrayed and the first tear gas canister was lobbed into the sit-in at 12:45 am. Nearly an hour later, following deployment of 200 vehicles, 50 public buses, 10,000 riot police and 3,000 special forces troopers, the people were expelled. Before scattering in all directions, knots of protesters encircled the vehicles that barged into the square at breakneck speed. A group ran to the NDP headquarters, where they smashed windows before being arrested. Another headed to the television building and blocked traffic in front of it. And a third group set fire to police kiosks and a police car near the ‘Abd al-Mun‘im Riyad bus depot. Holding up bloodied hands to the camera, one of the protesters said, “They shot at us! They shot at us! Who are we, the enemy?” [26]

Mubarak’s Worst Fears

Habib al-‘Adli and his adjutants were concerned by the day’s events, especially the synchronized diffusion of protests across the country, the fluidity of crowd movement in the two major cities and citizens’ euphoric sense of the weak points of the police. As the operations room lieutenant colonel recalled, “What we saw on January 25 was an uprising, not a demonstration. A young man standing in front of an armored vehicle, jumping on it to strike it, falling off and then doing it again? Honestly, there was no fear.” [27] Both the Cairo and Giza police chiefs were in the field all day on January 25, and they saw the electrifying empowerment that seemed to course through Egyptians’ veins. Both were experienced, hands-on officers who had proved their mettle in dicey situations. Cairo police chief al-Sha‘ir won al-‘Adli’s trust by handily managing the large 2006 protests in support of reformist judges. And Giza police chief al-Marasi had been the head state security officer in Suez, seat of a sparsely populated province with multiple coils of social tension, from labor strife to drug running to Bedouin tribes with serious grievances, all sitting at the southern mouth of the Suez Canal, the country’s prime generator of external revenue.

In the early morning hours of January 26, preparations were swiftly made to secure downtown Cairo against another popular takeover. State security instructed all downtown businesses to close before 1 pm on January 26. The two underground Metro lines converging on the major transfer hub at Tahrir announced that trains would not be stopping at the station. Police sealed off four entrances to the station, and three entrances to the July 26 station one stop to the northeast, outside the High Court building. Two thousand undercover policemen fanned out in downtown streets and government installations, and al-Marasi ordered the placement of multiple checkpoints on Nahiya Street, through which thousands of people had streamed the day before onto the Arab League boulevard. Labor commissar Husayn Mugawir, whose job is to control workers through the sole official union federation, instructed all union heads in the provinces to be especially responsive to the rank and file, lest any incipient job action happen to lend the demonstrations strategic depth. [28]

These measures indicated that Mugawir’s superiors were feeling the worst fears of an authoritarian regime. For a capable autocrat like Mubarak, large protests are no cause for anxiety. The fears are diffusion and linkage. Indeed, the diffusion of collective action in time and space emboldened Egyptians, signaling the unwillingness or incapacity of the coercive apparatus to suppress demonstrations. The simultaneity of protests across very different locations, especially the filling of streets in neighborhoods entirely unused to such processions, revised citizens’ calculations of what was possible and reduced uncertainty about the consequences of action. The second fear is the coordination between the three organizational infrastructures of protest. Indeed, the state security directorate existed to frustrate precisely this bridge building. It had done so quite successfully with the April 6, 2008 general strike, and had a stellar track record in branding each sector of dissent with a different label: Associational protest was “political,” but workplace and neighborhood protest was “economic.”

The diffusion of protests on January 25–27 shattered both the mental and material divisions between Egypt’s three protest sectors, forcing the regime to confront them simultaneously, when for 30 years it had done so serially. In Cairo, there was a spontaneous sit-in on the tracks at the July 26 Metro station, with demonstrators halting the train. In Boulaq, a moving crowd of 1,000 residents fought with police from early afternoon until past 2 am Friday morning, braving tear gas and rubber bullets, and setting up barricades on Gala’ Street with dumpsters and carefully arranged burning tires. Undeterred by the traumatic routing of people from Tahrir Square, angry demonstrators by the hundreds continued to stride through the streets of downtown.

The picture in the provinces was much the same, with protesters refusing to empty the streets. Demonstrations in Daqhaliyya, Port Said and North Sinai demanded the release of those arrested on January 25; in Sinai, residents used their signature tactic of blockading the highway with burning tires. On the third day of protests, a young Sinai protester named Muhammad ‘Atif was killed in clashes with police, making him the fourth casualty nationwide. In Alexandria, state security broke up a planned lawyers’ protest on the Manshiya court steps, arresting the first 20 people who showed up. The next day, 200 lawyers returned and held their protest. In Qalyoubiyya, another 200 lawyers marched down the streets on January 26 inveighing against price hikes and the export of Egyptian natural gas to Israel, so police cooped them up in the courthouse the next day. And Mahalla was still under lockdown, with security forces importing reinforcements to block renewed attempts by textile workers to start action. Percolating up from these varied locales was a decision to hold another round of protest on the next common-sense date: after Friday prayers on January 28, first dubbed “the Friday of the martyrs and the detained.”

The situation in Suez developed rapidly. On January 25, security forces had been especially violent; the fighting resulted in 110 injuries and three deaths, as well as 54 arrests. The next day, hundreds of residents flocked to Suez General Hospital to donate blood, finding it so full that the injured were lying on sheets in hallways. Meanwhile, a large group of incensed relatives and citizens had gathered outside the morgue. The authorities insisted on handing over corpses without forensic reports, and security forces besieged the funerals with a ferocity that further enraged residents. “When you see this, you feel like you’re in Palestine and Iraq,” said the leftist Tagammu‘ parliamentarian for the city. “Security uses bullets and tear gas canisters and water hoses, and the residents can only confront this with stones.” [29] But residents escalated their tactics, setting fire to a police post and the municipal council building on January 26, and trying to burn down the local NDP office. On January 27, hundreds of residents and detainees’ relatives demonstrated outside the Arba‘in police station, chanting, “Enough! We want our kids!” Demonstrators hurled petrol bombs at the station and ignited several police cars.

On the evening of January 27, police and protesters each held planning meetings to plot the second act of the confrontation. Police officials devised a comprehensive scheme to cut off physical and virtual means of linkage. They ordered a shutdown of Internet and cellular phone service for the next day; cell phones were especially important for demonstrators to spread news of protest diffusion in real time, and to share spot instructions or eleventh-hour location changes. Cairo was sealed off from the provinces and put under lockdown. All of the arteries and bridges leading into Tahrir Square from east and west were closed to traffic — even to pedestrians. Additional Metro stops were closed, not just the two nearest the square. And mosques were carefully primed in advance. The ‘Umar Makram mosque in Tahrir was ordered shuttered. Friday preachers all over the country were instructed to deliver sermons denouncing assembly and disobedience of the ruler. At the Giza mosque where Mohamed ElBaradei was set to attend prayer before joining the protests, the preacher of 20 years was replaced with a government pick. For their part, the youth groups and opposition forces coordinating the protest added new locations and reacquainted themselves with landlines to cope with the cellular shutdown. Opposition parties who had sat out the January 25 action — the Tagammu‘ leftists and the Nasserists — scrambled to join up. And the Muslim Brothers threw their organizational weight behind the Friday gathering, revising their calculus of risk after seeing the momentous events of the previous three days. The players readied themselves, and the world watched.

On January 28, shortly after noon, a majestic scene unfolded all over Egypt. Grand processions of thousands upon thousands of people in every province made their way to the abodes of the oppressive forces that controlled their lives. Beckoning those watching from their windows, they chanted, “Our people, our people, come and join us!” When the crowds reached town and city centers, they encircled police stations, provincial government buildings and NDP headquarters, the triad of institutions emblematic of the regime. The syncopated chorus that had traveled from Sidi Bouzid to Tunis now shook the Egyptian earth: “The people…want…to overthrow the regime!”

In Tanta, 50,000 people blockaded a major highway, encircled the provincial government building and ripped down its billboards. In Kafr al-Dawwar, 25,000 did the same. In Damietta, the people called for the dissolution of Parliament, torching the NDP building and defacing the façade of the governor’s offices. In Minya, whose governor had bragged that his middle Nile province had not seen demonstrations on January 25, people ignored the entreaties of the police chief and barricaded the Cairo-Aswan highway, braving rubber bullets to chant outside the NDP headquarters: “Corruption caused this country’s destruction!”

Everywhere, the rising of the commons was met with superior force. Police fired tear gas canisters, rubber bullets and — the ultimate escalation — live ammunition. The goal, to be reached at any cost, was to prevent separate crowds of demonstrators from fusing together in city centers. State security commandeered ambulances to arrest the unsuspecting injured, and hospitals were pressured into falsifying the cause of death for demonstrators who were shot at close range. Residents provided first aid to demonstrators leery of getting into ambulances, and tossed water bottles, vinegar and onions (homemade tear gas remedies) to the civilians fighting below. On Ramsis Street in downtown Cairo, as a crowd of 10,000 crashed into a security formation and was hurled back with copious tear gas, a woman cried out from her balcony, “God be with you, men of Egypt!” [30]

Communications between Alexandrian field commanders that day record the shock and awe police experienced in Egypt’s second city. “We are still engaging very large numbers coming from both directions. We need more gas,” a squadron head radioed to a superior. “The people have barged in and burned a security vehicle. The situation here is beyond belief. I’m telling you, sir, beyond belief,” says another. By mid-afternoon, Alexandrians had laid siege to three police stations. In other parts of the city, police had run out of ammunition and resorted to throwing stones. A high-ranking commander got on the line to sternly instruct a field officer, “Stop engaging and secure the police stations! You don’t have sufficient forces to calmly engage these numbers. Go and batten down the hatches!” [31]

And Suez? Security forces had isolated the Canal town from the rest of the country, closing off all access points. Massive reinforcements had arrived daily since January 25. At 1 am on January 28, the top police brass met at the Arba‘in police station, which only a few hours before had been ablaze, to set the plan for the “Friday of anger.” The showdown in Suez started after noon prayers. Gen. Ashraf ‘Abdallah, commander of the riot police in the Canal Zone, later prepared an internal report:

After Friday prayers, no fewer than 5,000 people began a procession that was joined by large numbers of citizens from all mosques. The procession grew to 40,000 people, and the police chief ordered that it be allowed to proceed to the provincial capital building. Once there, the numbers exceeded 50,000. The masses remained outside the building for many hours, chanting hostile slogans. At the same time, large numbers of no less than 20,000 had gathered in front of the Arba‘in police station and assaulted the forces with rocks and Molotov cocktails. The forces used only tear gas. Due to the density of the crowds, the forces were unable to deal with them. The crowds burned the station, released the detainees and burned all the police vehicles in the area, among them ten lorries and an armored car belonging to the Ismailiyya force. [32]

In five compact hours, from noon to 5 pm, the police battled the people in all areas of the capital, desperate to thwart the amalgamation of multitudes in Tahrir Square. A climactic battle erupted on the Qasr al-Nil bridge, as surging crowds from the west sought to cross the river to join their brethren converging on Tahrir from the east. Qasr al-Nil has rightly been memorialized in word and video. [33] But there was another climactic Cairo fight in the east, where at least 15 citizens died (the youngest of them aged 14) and ten troop carriersparked in a row burned. The battle of Matariyya Square, to the east of the suburb of Heliopolis, raged as police sought to stop residents from merging with crowds in the adjacent, densely populated ‘Ayn Shams neighborhood. The people’s insistent anthem, as outside Parliament on January 25, was “Silmiyya! Silmiyya!” and “No stones! No stones!” When police used overwhelming force, including live rounds, the people switched tactics, forming a barricade with overturned dumpsters, seizing the shields of riot police, and burning the vehicles and the police station. The mother of ‘Imad al-Sa‘idi, 24, killed by one bullet to the heart and one to the side, wondered, “If there was no way out for a policeman but to fire, then fire on his hand or his foot. But to shoot him in the heart and end his life — why?” [34]

The Egyptian uprising telescoped the daily encounters between people and police that had played out for more than ten years. Al-‘Adli’s police force did not melt away in the face of a popular onslaught. It fought for four straight days on nearly every street corner in every major city, before finally being rendered inefficient by the dynamism and stamina of exceptionally diverse crowds, each with their own know-how in the art of interfacing with gendarmes. At 5 pm on the afternoon of January 28, when reports started rolling in of police stations burning down, one after another, al-‘Adli capitulated and ordered the removal of his forces from the streets. It was a sight unseen in modern Egyptian police rule — the one and only time that Egypt’s three protest subcultures were able to jointly defeat the coercive apparatus that had existed to keep them apart.

By the end of the street fighting, preliminary estimates were that 365 citizens had died and some 5,000 had been hurt. On the police side, there were 32 deaths and 1,079 injuries, while 99 police stations and 3,000 vehicles had burned. Al-‘Adli stayed bunkered inside the Interior Ministry until January 31, when he was transported out sitting huddled in an army tank. In a six-hour interrogation by the prosecution, on charges of responsibility for the deaths and injuries, al-‘Adli shunted blame upward and downward. He accused his four top assistants of providing him with false intelligence, and demanded that Husni Mubarak be held accountable for the decision to fire on demonstrators, in his capacity as head of the Supreme Police Council. But he did concede defeat.

The situation was beyond imagination. The faces of the demonstrators showed how clear they were in challenging the regime and how much they hated it, how willing they were to resist with their bodies all attempts to divide them with truncheons and water cannons and all other tools. They outnumbered security forces by a million or more, a fact that shocked the Interior Ministry leaders and the president. Those government officials all sat at home watching the demonstrations on TV. Not one of them devised a political solution to what policemen were facing — confrontations with angry people and indescribable hatred of the government. All of us were astonished. [35]

The prosecutor-general referred al-‘Adli and his four lieutenants to Cairo criminal court, on charges of murder and endangerment of public property. [36]

The People’s Choice

When Husni Mubarak appeared shortly after midnight on January 29 to announce his appointment of a new government, it was the first time in his tenure that he had been summoned to the podium by popular fiat. But he was enacting a familiar script written by autocratic rulers past, offering concessions to a population that had beaten the police and gained control of a country’s streets. An offering that if made only four days earlier would have been considered shrewd — a cabinet reshuffle — was now foolhardy. It simply sharpened the population’s apprehension of imminent victory, spurring them to stay outdoors and demand nothing less than the ouster of the president. Since Mubarak had made it impossible to remove him from office through elections, Egyptians resorted to the streets to relay the people’s choice.

The liberation of the streets from the occupation forces of the Mubarak regime was only the opening act. Next was the symbolic public acquisition of Parliament, filling the avenue outside with peaceful protesters and plastering the building’s gates with the people’s insignia. Then came the branding of public goods; “our money,” read a scrawl of graffiti on an army tank. With remarkable focus, citizens targeted the structures of rule that had disenfranchised and dispossessed them for decades. The police stations and NDP headquarters were the first targets, but the nascent revolutionaries did not stop there, hitting municipal councils, governors’ offices, state security buildings, police checkpoints, traffic departments, toll booths, utility buildings and other institutions that had taken their resources without giving in return. In Fayyoum, residents stormed the public utility company and destroyed the water bills that charged them exorbitant rates. In Ismailiyya, among the government institutions stormed was the Electricity Administration. In Alexandria, youthful demonstrators grabbed files from the main provincial building that they said showed evidence of corruption. In Isna, a town in Upper Egypt, 1,000 demonstrators stormed a brand-new administrative building that had yet to be formally opened, paid for with their monies.

The genius of the Egyptian revolution is its methodical restoration of the public weal. The uprising restored the meaning of politics, if by that term is understood the making of collective claims on government. It revalued the people, revealing them in all their complexity — neither heroes nor saints, but citizens. It repaired the republican edifice of the state, Mubarak’s hereditary succession project being the revolution’s very first casualty. It compelled the police to bring back their old motto, erasing al-‘Adli’s sinister “police and people in service to the nation” and returning “the police at the service of the people.” The countless public institutions branded with the names of Mubarak and his wife are now being rechristened in the names of regular people who died for the revolution. The referendum, a procedure disfigured beyond recognition by authoritarianism, on March 19 regained meaning as a matter for adjudication by the people. The revolution will have realized its emancipatory promise if it achieves one great task: constructing institutional checks against the rule of the many by the few.

At press time, Egypt’s revolution is still in full swing. It must be expected, however, that the revolution will undergo phases of setback, real or apparent. The apparatus of coercion, indeed, has been quickly rehabilitated and is gingerly reinserting itself into civilian life. But on what terms? For Egypt’s revolutionary situation to lead to a revolutionary outcome, existing structures of rule must be transformed. Citizens must be free to choose their presidents, governors, parliamentarians, faculty deans and village mayors, their trade union, student, and professional association leaders. They must have a binding say in the economic decisions that affect their lives. The coming years will reveal how much of that will happen and how. Just as it provided an archetype of durable authoritarian rule, perhaps Egypt is now making a model of revolution.

Author’s Note: Thanks to Evelyn Alsultany, George Gavrilis and Mandy McClure for sympathetic and tough-minded feedback.

Endnotes

[1] Reuters, January 25, 2011.
[2] New York Times, February 16, 2011.
[3] Esam Al-Amin, “When Egypt’s Revolution Was at the Crossroads,” Counterpunch, March 9, 2011.
[4] The Globe and Mail, February 9, 2011.
[5] Charles Tilly, “Does Modernization Breed Revolution?” Comparative Politics 5 (April 1973).
[6] Interview with Muhammad al-Mahdi, professor of psychology at al-Azhar University, al-Shurouq, October 15, 2010.
[7] Al-Ahali, January 3, 2001.
[8] Al-Ahram Weekly, June 19–25, 2008.
[9] Al-Misri al-Yawm, March 18, 2011. [English]
[10] This interview is online at: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UgZMz3encLE.
[11] Al-Shurouq, January 22, 2011.
[12] Al-Misri al-Yawm, January 23 and 24, 2011.
[13] Al-Shurouq, January 12, 2011.
[14] Wall Street Journal, February 2, 2011.
[15] Al-Misri al-Yawm, March 12, 2011.
[16] Al-Misri al-Yawm, January 25, 2011.
[17] Al-Shurouq, January 25, 2011.
[18] Al-Shurouq, November 29, 2010.
[19] Al-Shurouq, February 18, 2011.
[20] This scene was in fact captured on camera: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1HfkUJrSMoM.
[21] Al-Misri al-Yawm, January 27, 2011.
[22] The scene can be viewed at: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kWr6MypZ-JU.
[23] ‘Abd al-Rahman Yusuf, “Diaries of the Revolution of the Patient,” al-Misri al-Yawm, March 7, 2011.
[24] See footage from this battle at: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pgh1iOXI6sQ.
[25] Al-Misri al-Yawm, January 27, 2011.
[26] These moments are recorded at: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=g58Sl_4GN0E.
[27] Al-Misri al-Yawm, March 12, 2011.
[28] Al-Shurouq and al-Misri al-Yawm, January 27, 2011.
[29] Al-Misri al-Yawm, January 28, 2011.
[30] Al-Misri al-Yawm, January 30, 2011.
[31] The transcripts of these communications were published in al-Misri al-Yawm, March 15, 2011.
[32] The report was obtained by al-Misri al-Yawm, March 16, 2011.
[33] New York Times, January 28, 2011.
[34] Al-Misri al-Yawm, February 15, 2011.
[35] Al-Shurouq, March 19, 2011.
[36] Al-Shurouq, March 23, 2011.

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The Revolution Will Be LIVE!

Gil Scott-Heron died this weekend. We at Steal this Hijab are deeply saddened by his death. We celebrate his life, his vast political legacy, and deep connection to social movements that give voice, courage and new ways to live justly in this world.

The Mind of Gil Scott-Heron

I had said I wasn’t going to write no more poems like this
I had confessed to myself all along, tracer of life, poetry trends
That awareness, consciousness, poems that screamed of pain and the origins of pain and death had blanketed my tablets
And therefore, my friends, brothers, sisters, in-laws, outlaws, and besides — they already knew
But brother Torres, common ancient bloodline brother Torres is dead
I had said I wasn’t going to write no more poems like this
I had said I wasn’t going to write no more words down about people kicking us when we’re down
About racist dogs that attack us and drive us down, drag us down and beat us down
But the dogs are in the street
The dogs are alive and the terror in our hearts has scarcely diminished
It has scarcely brought us the comfort we suspected
The recognition of our terror and the screaming release of that recognition
Has not removed the certainty of that knowledge — how could it
The dogs rabid foaming with the energy of their brutish ignorance
Stride the city streets like robot gunslingers
And spread death as night lamps flash crude reflections from gun butts and police shields
I had said I wasn’t going to write no more poems like this
But the battlefield has oozed away from the stilted debates of semantics
Beyond the questionable flexibility of primal screaming
The reality of our city, jungle streets and their Gestapos
Has become an attack on home, life, family and philosophy, total
It is beyond the question of the advantages of didactic niggerisms
The motherfucking dogs are in the street
In Houston maybe someone said Mexicans were the new niggers
In LA maybe someone said Chicanos were the new niggers
In Frisco maybe someone said Orientals were the new niggers
Maybe in Philadelphia and North Carolina they decided they didn’t need no new niggers
I had said I wasn’t going to write no more poems like this
But dogs are in the street
It’s a turn around world where things are all too quickly turned around
It was turned around so that right looked wrong
It was turned around so that up looked down
It was turned around so that those who marched in the streets with bibles and signs of peace became enemies of the state and risk to national security
So that those who questioned the operations of those in authority on the principles of justice, liberty, and equality became the vanguard of a communist attack
It became so you couldn’t call a spade a motherfucking spade
Brother Torres is dead, the Wilmington Ten are still incarcerated
Ed Davis, Ronald Regan, James Hunt, and Frank Rizzo are still alive
And the dogs are in the motherfucking street
I had said I wasn’t going to write no more poems like this
I made a mistake

 

Key Decisions on Afghanistan, Iraq Coming Any Day

This week, the House is expected to debate and vote on the 2012 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) – the bill authorizing spending for the Pentagon.

Lend your voice to this nationally coordinated campaign.

Call Congress today, using this toll free number 1-888-231-9276*.  The calls started yesterday, and we want to keep pressure on Congress until the vote which is expected on Thursday.

It is time we brought our troops home from Afghanistan and stopped wasting billions of dollars we need at home. The last thing Congress should be doing is authorizing endless war, but that’s exactly what the 2012 National Defense Authorization Act does.

Background:

The Lee amendment which would prohibit military funds from being spent in Afghanistan except to provide for a safely and orderly withdrawal of troops; the McGovern-Jones amendment would require President Obama to establish a timeline for withdrawal; and the Garamendi amendment would reduce the number of US troops in Afghanistan to no more than 25,000 by the end of 2012 and to no more than 10,000 by the end of 2013.

Take a moment to make this call now.

************************************

This article originally appeared at The Nation on May 11, 2011.

The Obama administration is on the verge of decisions that will permanently define the Afghanistan and Iraq wars through the 2012 election.

Obama will decide, first, how many US troops to begin pulling out of Afghanistan starting this July and running through 2012 and, second, whether to comply with the current plan to withdraw all American forces from Iraq by this December, or leave troops and bases behind.

At stake politically is whether the president will choose to campaign through 2012 on a platform of ending two quagmires costing trillions of tax dollars and thousands of lives, or whether he will portray himself as staying the course in the “war on terrorism,” building on the death of Osama bin Laden.

Once these decisions are made in the weeks ahead, there are likely to be no further changes in US policy toward Afghanistan and Iraq until 2013, unless unexpected events intervene. The electoral cycle will be in full gear, and politicians are unlikely to change their rhetoric under voter and media scrutiny.

Many progressive activists may feel powerless in this situation, when large-scale peace demonstrations are unlikely and Congressional opposition is limited. Unlike in labor or civil rights politics, there is no large-scale Peace Lobby to bargain with the White House. But the very decentralized and amorphous nature of peace sentiment means that Obama will have to constantly address the feelings and criticisms of millions of voters unhappy with the slow pace of military withdrawals in the context of economic crisis. Polls consistently show that 75–85 percent of Democratic voters, and a smaller majority of independents, want a more rapid withdrawal than currently planned.

Peace voters will want to hear a clear message: that Obama intends to phase out of two wars and transfer billions to our needs at home. Absent that message, Obama risks a serious falloff in 2012 support, votes, door-knocking and grassroots mobilization.

Here are some important developments in this fast-moving situation:

First, important elements of Obama’s base are lining up to support a rapid withdrawal from Afghanistan. The Democratic National Committee (DNC) passed a resolution in late February supporting significant and substantial troop reductions. Obama himself used almost identical language in an interview with the Associated Press on April 15. Shortly after, MoveOn, Howard Dean’s Democracy for America and the Campaign for America’s Future launched petition drives. The liberal coalition Win Without War activated its e-mails. The substantive policy work was completed last December when the Campaign for American Progress (CAP), originally supportive of the Afghanistan escalation, switched to a phaseout proposal blandly titled “Realignment: Managing a Stable Transition to Afghan Responsibility.”

The new sentiment for change also came from Senators John Kerry and Richard Lugar, chair and co-chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. While opposing a “precipitous withdrawal” (whatever that means), they called it unsustainable to spend $10 billion per month on the military occupation.

True to their continuous resistance to White House policy, the American military pushed back this week with a token proposal to withdraw only 10,000 troops this year, and an official April 13 Pentagon report to Congress laid out a long-term nation-building/counterinsurgency plan that contemplates no significant troop withdrawals. The Pentagon report reflects the thinking of Gen. David Petraeus, who will become the new CIA director during a period of heightened drone wars. (For more discussion of how the Pentagon tries to manipulate and box in President Obama, see Bob Woodward’s excellent inside coverage in Obama’s Wars.) Worse, the House was poised on Wednesday to codify a war authorization, including detention without trial, justifying a permanent Long War against Al Qaeda, the Taliban and “associated forces.”

If Obama chooses to side with the military’s proposal for a token 10,000 reduction, he is likely to disappoint everyone from the moderate-to-militant spectrum of the peace voting bloc.

Obama can choose a more significant number to attract more peace voters back into the fold, especially now that his commander-in-chief status is fortified. Here are his choices:

—Withdraw 32,000 troops between July 2011 and November 2012, effectively drawing down the “surge” forces he sent in 2009. Declaring the surge over might placate some voters and US allies, but would leave US forces exactly where they were before the surge began, with 70,000 US troops fighting an inconclusive war against the Taliban, with bin Laden no longer a factor. American deaths in Afghanistan will climb well past 1,500 under Obama, in a war whose apparent purpose is not to suffer damage to our military reputation or to prop up the unsalvageable Karzai regime.

—Take the advice of CAP and withdraw 60,000 US troops between now and 2012, leaving a force of 40,000, which would be reduced further to 10,000–15,000 by the next Afghanistan presidential election in 2014. CAP says the reserve force could be stationed “in the region,” and be responsible for intelligence, training and targeted strikes against terrorist groups. If the Karzai government continues to flounder, CAP recommends an accelerated withdrawal.

—The Afghanistan Study Group (ASG), a branch of the New American Foundation, proposes a more rapid reduction of 32,000 by this October, effectively ending the surge, and another 35,000 by July 2012. Its proposal would save the US $60 billion to $80 billion per year and “reduce local resentment at our large and intrusive military presence.”

—To improve his peace image, Obama also needs to engage in, and not block, a conflict-resolution process involving talks with the Taliban and other insurgents, territorial compromise and power-sharing arrangements. Perhaps owing to Pentagon pressure, he has been slow to engage and faces the danger of reopening fractious divisions between the Tajik-Uzbek-Hazara north and the Pashtun-Taliban south that have never been quelled by a decade of intervention. Now the proposed new war authorization could vastly complicate talks involving representatives of the Taliban and “associated forces” in Afghanistan.

Obama is likely to benefit politically only if he follows the advice of CAP, ASG and the Democratic National Committee, and links the troop withdrawals to savings for the domestic economy.

Even such significant reductions would leave tens of thousands of American troops mired in Afghanistan, but the dynamic of the so-called Long War would be disrupted and NATO forces would be supportive allies.

Whether progressives like it or not, Obama no longer has to make concessions to his military over Afghanistan now that bin Laden is dead. Instead of compromising between choices of 10,000 troops and, say, 60,000, resulting in only 30,000, he can resume the posture of fighting terrorism through counterterrorism in Pakistan while claiming “victory” and pulling out of Afghanistan. He may add to his military credentials by forcing Qaddafi out of Libya and destroying the Al Qaeda cell in southern Yemen in the weeks ahead. Obama can balance those military strokes, if he wishes, by keeping his promise to withdraw all American forces from Iraq, another decision that must be made over Pentagon opposition.

Where might this leave the peace movement? In the best case now possible, public opinion and the Democratic rank-and-file will have begun to achieve the ending to two quagmires at savings of over $100 billion per year, and troop reductions of 100,000 from Afghanistan and Iraq. At the same time, more educating, organizing and resistance will be necessary to expose and derail the Long War policy, end the escalating drone wars, adapt constructively to the Arab revolutions and defend WikiLeaks, and Julian Assange and Bradley Manning, who face trials, extradition and (in Manning’s case) a military tribunal for their alleged roles in exposing hidden truths about Afghanistan, Iraq and US foreign policy.

The Long War will require a long peace movement. To its proponents, like David Kilcullen, the Long War may continue another seventy years (that’s eighteen more presidential terms). Obama adviser Bruce Reidel summarizes the strategy in Woodward’s book: “we have to keep killing them until they stop killing us.” These hawks apparently don’t care about the effects at home of another seventy war years, which would decimate our domestic economy and draw curtains around our democracy.

But the momentum of the Long War can be broken, like a fever that runs its course, if the body is healthy enough. Along the way, the American wars in Afghanistan and Iraq–what Kilcullen archly calls “small wars in the midst of a big one”–can be ended, freeing resources for the fight at home against the corporate and banking elites that have paid little or no taxes in support of the longest and costliest wars in American history.

Portrait of a Revolutionary: Hossam El-Hamalawy

Hossam El-Hamalawy speaks about the role of Labour/Unions in the Egyptian Revolution

Bassam [henceforth “B”]:  How are you?  Congratulations.

Hossam [henceforth “H”]:  Great.  Thank you!
B:  Can you tell us about the post-revolution situation?  There’s fear, hope, etc.  We’d like to hear from you personally, as someone who took part in the battle:  What’s going on?
H:  The war hasn’t ended.  The first battle of the revolution ended with Mubarak’s stepping down from power, but the revolution hasn’t been completed.  We now say that we entered the stage of the revolution. I would like in the beginning to inform your readers of certain facts so we can be clear about what happened in Egypt.  First, all the media now, even the government media, describe what’s happened in Egypt as a “youth revolution.”  Of course, I’ve never heard of a “seniors’ revolution” in any part of the world.  And it’s well-known that in any revolution of people of the world, those from the ages of 18 to 25 compose the segment of the population that is the most involved.   But describing the revolution as a “youth revolution also makes it vague and gives it a certain color something that has become fashionable  today, to give revolution a certain color, so there are orange, purple, jasmine revolutions and so on.  I believe that some people have tried to call our revolution the “lotus revolution,” an attempt that has failed utterly, thank God.

H:  OK.  All social classes in Egypt participated in the uprising from the first stages. Hosni Mubarak’s regime succeeded in creating a state of alienation between it and all the social classes, with no exceptions.    Even among the Egyptian elite except for those businessmen who surrounded HM, were relieved when he resigned. But what pushed Hosni Mubarak, or what pushed the armed forces to ask Hosni Mubarak to step down and give up power?  First, the battle between us and the authority when we were protesting in al- Tahrir began to turn into a battle of nerves, and a battle of waiting, and a battle of attrition:  who would wear out first? And at the same time, the government was staging something like a capital strike—not a labor strike—a capital strike.  In the first stage of the uprising, buildings were closed, shops, banks….  This was the government’s decision; it wasn’t our decision.  The protesters didn’t attack the banks.  We didn’t attack shops.  And in Egypt at that time it was the armed forces that imposed a curfew. What stopped life in Egypt was the army that imposed a curfew.  So the situation turned into a battle of waiting.  But what pushed matters in our favor and pushed Hosni Mubarak to realize OK, that he had to leave power, were the beginning of  labor strikes on the Wednesday and Thursday prior to the Friday he stepped down, when ‘Umar Sulayman announced that Hosni Mubarak had stepped down.  The entry of the working class as an independent social force with its independent general strikes, that’s what ended the regime of Hosni Mubarak.

We might ask, where were the workers at the beginning of the revolution?  The workers participated in the revolution from the beginning.  In areas of Suez, in areas like Mahallah, areas like Kafr el-Dawwar…these areas are working-class areas.  So when you hear that tens of thousands—and at times there were hundreds of thousands—of people protesting in these cities, I think it’s understood that the vast majority of them were workers.  But the workers were taking part in these demonstrations as demonstrators, not as workers.  They were not acting as a separate force.  Number one, because this was an uprising and all of them were there in the street; number two, because the government was staging a capital strike, so the workers weren’t congregating in factories because the whole time the workers were either in the street or in the popular committees that were protecting the neighborhoods.  But as soon as the government tried to restore “normal life” once again in Egypt in the week prior to the fall of Mubarak, the workers returned to their factories, returned to their companies, and began to talk to each other and discuss the country’s affairs.  And it was on Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday that was the turning point.  The strikes began. The workers began to act as a social bloc.
OK, Hosni Mubarak stepped down on Friday.  Afterwards, the question arose:  “What next?”  Now there is a split within the ranks of the revolutionaries between the youth of the middle classes and their youth organizations, who announced their confidence in the armed forces, their opposition to the continuing rallies in al-Tahrir Square and announced that they were against the strikes, and called it class-based strikes, on the basis that those who are taking part in them were classes with limited interests that primarily concerned them and weren’t of concern to the rest of the classes in society, from their point of view.  There was a situation of hostility between the workers and middle class youth.
And this state of hostility is repeated by the Higher Council of the Armed Forces, which issued more than one statement prohibiting protesters, and its forces in Suez two days earlier arrested a group of workers and killed by mistake a number of protesters who were the relatives of workers, which led to an outbreak of clashes. The military police were used in some of the ministries, such as the Ministry of Agriculture today, for example, so as to disperse the masses of protesters on the pretext of protecting the ministries from being stormed by angry workers.  The army so far has not opened fire on the demonstrators and it hasn’t opened fire on striking workers.  But we are all holding our breath:  When will it happen?  None of us doubt the loyalty to the revolution of the soldiers and officers—the young officers.  However, the generals who rule Egypt right now, the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, are Hosni Mubarak’s generals- he appointed them.  They are the generals who have provided support and have been the spine of Hosni Mubarak’s dictatorship during his rule for the last thirty years.  The military institution is the institution that has ruled Egypt since ’52, so I don’t have any reason to trust the generals of the military council.  But the younger officers and soldiers and conscripts—they, in my opinion, are allies, not enemies.

Currently, the strikes, and after the fall of Mubarak, the social strikes are continuing.  There is no day in which you can open a newspaper and not find news about a sit-in or a strike or a labor demonstration, or about employees demonstrating somewhere.  The common demand in all of these strikes is first of all the prosecution of corruption and the dismissal of corrupt managers.  The second demand that is also common to all of these strikes is to make temporary workers permanent.  Egypt is one of the worst countries in the world in terms of labor rights and the government plays its games here the whole time in that most of the workers that we have here in Egypt don’t have contracts, all these work with temporary contract or on daily basis  for many long years. They have no social security. That is the second demand.

Another demand you see in most strikes is the formation of independent trade unions, because in Egypt we don’t have independent trade unions; we have something called the “Egyptian Trade Union Federation,” which is a governmental entity established by ‘Abd al-Nasser in ’57, and its job is to exert control over the working class, not to defend the labor movement.  In fact, the members of the Union are against strikes and always fight them, for the sake of the government.  It’s run by Hussein Migawar, one of the lords of corruption in the National Party.

But in Egypt, from the moment strikes broke out in 2006 some trade union successes. There were some achievements during the wave of strikes of the past five years.  Property tax collectors succeeded in establishing the first independent trade union in the history of the country in half a century in December 2008.

[Sound cuts out] …health technicians, who work on hospital machines here in Egypt, succeeded in establishing an independent trade union two months ago, and pensioners formed a union.  Those are the three independent labor associations that we’ve just gotten here in Egypt.  But we don’t have the kind of labor entity they have in Tunisia, like the Tunisian General Union of Labor, a trade union which was quasi-independent under the dictatorship of Ben Ali.  As soon as the revolution took place, the revolution provided the opportunity for bases for coordinated action. And they were able to mobilize the working class and to act in a unified way.  Here in Egypt we don’t have this kind of entity or anything like it, but it’s something that I and my colleagues on the left and a large number of labor organizations are now trying to build.
B:  You talk about the workers at the time coming in and demonstrating and striking on the Wednesday and Thursday before the fall of the regime.  Are there people who say, no, that’s merely an addition to what was already there, it didn’t itself lead to the fall of the regime?
H:  No, I mean, first, I am not trying to dishonor the efforts that were there in Tahrir.  I was one of those who was there in Tahrir.  This doesn’t mean that I’m saying that the intervention of workers on the political scene with the general strikes that they staged on Wednesday and Thursday before the Friday that Mubarak stepped down…when I say that I don’t mean that that was the sole factor.  The entry of the workers onto the battlefield was really an addition, but in my opinion, it was a decisive addition.  The whole time we were in Tahrir we could exert control over Tahrir, but we didn’t control the rest of the country.  Hosni Mubarak and his entourage were perhaps really complete and steadfast and they still held the battle-axe.  We couldn’t bend them.  But the general strikes on Wednesday and Thursday [sound breaks up].  Look, students could hold demonstrations for a full year and occupy their universities.  The government can close them down.  Judges could demonstrate in the streets and hold heroic demonstrations.  The government can close them—it has military courts.  If the journalists demonstrate, the government can shut down the newspapers.  But the workers, if they strike, it’s “game over.”  The game is over.  It’s finished, because the machine won’t work. There’s no money coming in.  No trains are moving. No buses are moving. No factories are working. No ships are moving. No ports are operating. It’s “game over”—finished.  The subject’s over.So, the intervention of labor was the decisive factor.  Of course, it wasn’t the only factor.

B:  When you say “decisive,” what is the thing that decided matters?  When you say “decisive,” did the army do something in particular that put pressure on Mubarak?  Decisive with respect to whom?
H:  Decisive for the Egyptian Revolution with the logic….
B:  Who made the decision that had the decisive reaction?
H:  In our situation, the army leadership intervened and asked Hosni Mubarak to step down and disappear from the political scene, because the army leadership, which was already beginning to control the country at that time, saw the regime crumbling.  And this was something Hosni Mubarak who was sitting holed up in his palace with Gamal Mubarak and his clique, this was something clearly that could not reach his sons at all, in addition to his great madness, as well as his pride and his hotheadedness.  But the army, which was more in touch with the scene on the street and how things were going, simply saw that Hosni Mubarak had to disappear or the regime was going to crumble.  That’s it, the country was no longer working.
B:  I’d like to talk about what happened afterward later.  But Hosni Mubarak was in the position that he would have to disappear.  Are you avoiding any talk about accountability….any type of accountability?  It’s as though he was put aside, and that was that.
H:  The chants in Tahrir, which began with “the people want the departure of the president” and “the people want the fall of the regime,” in the last days the people were shouting, “the people want the trial of the president,” “the people want the trials of the butcher” and “the people want the execution of the butcher.”

They were shouted together. We need to be clear about this. These were the slogans that came up again and again.  In the view of the vast majority of the Egyptian people, we don’t want Hosni Mubarak to leave the country.  We really want Hosni Mubarak to stay in the country.  We want him to answer for what he’s done over the last thirty years, and at the same time, to return the wealth that was looted and stolen from us.  The current estimates of Hosni Mubarak’s wealth range from 5 billion up to 70 billion dollars (according to varying figures).  We need to get this money back.  The Public Prosecutor, who we have to understand that he is also a part of the old regime, he’s a Public Prosecutor who was chosen by Hosni Mubarak, is under pressure now and waging a campaign to combat corruption.  This “fight against corruption” involves arresting former ministers, taking custody of their property, and arresting certain businessmen with close connections to Hosni Mubarak and the former regime in order to assuage public opinion, and at the same time to freeze their bank accounts and conduct investigations around them.  The family of the president have begun to come under scrutiny, and that’s under extreme pressure from the masses.

But we also have to understand that it will not do for the friends of Hosni Mubarak to try Hosni Mubarak.  That Public Prosecutor was put there by Hosni Mubarak.  The generals in the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces who are currently running the country—the situation is a part of the machinery of corruption present in Egypt.  Why should we think that the armed forces are the only arm of the state that is pure and has not been touched by any corruption during the last 30 years of Mubarak’s rule? ?  They are part of the machinery.

They are part of the regime.  I personally want to know how much money and wealth and financial assets Tantawi’s and the rest of the generals of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces.  It’s my right as an Egyptian citizen to know this—it shouldn’t be a secret.  So I am not optimistic that the Egyptian people’s wealth will be returned so long as the current regime remains in power.

B:  What is your overall opinion, as an activist, journalist, writer, analyst, an Arab, an Egyptian, of what is going on in Bahrain, Yemen, and especially Libya?  Wednesday, 23rd February.

H:  Firstly, I am very, very proud that the efforts we made in Egypt on the way to toppling Hosni Mubarak inspired and was the source of the campaign of our brothers in neighboring Arab countries.  And the domino effect has even reached China.  I read a Reuters report that talks about arrests among the ranks of activists in China inspired the Arab revolution and the Egyptian revolution and the Tunisian revolution and their fighting spirit and now they want there to be a “Day of Rage” in China.
The revolution that’s underway right now in Libya and Bahrain and the demonstrations in Algeria and the demonstrations in Morocco calling for reform, and the demonstrations of our brothers in Yemen and the demonstrations in Jordan…all of these, in our opinion are demonstrations that give us hope.  The success of our revolution in Egypt, which is not yet finished, will be contingent upon the spread of this uprising, or the spread of this uprising through the region.  Every corrupt or client Arab regime in the region that fell, that, in our opinion, that was a step and a push forward.  Every defeat of any Arab revolution in the region, that is, in our opinion, is a defeat that pushes us backwards, for us in Egypt.  The Egyptian revolution in the condition of completeness will have the effect of an earthquake in the region.  America will lose its biggest ally, or the biggest client, to put it more accurately, in the Arab world:  The regime of Hosni Mubarak—and the post-Hosni Mubarak regime—which is the second-biggest recipient of foreign aid from the United States, after Israel. The army gets $1.3 billion every year from American taxpayers, and there’s $200,000 that used to go to the government under the rubric of economic aid.

If we succeed in removing the regime that is dependent on American aid, then we will start talking about:  One, a strong defense of the Palestinian revolution and our brothers in the Occupied Territories when they begin to rise up.  Secondly:  strong defense of our brothers in the rest of the Arab world that are also asking for an end to the dictatorships that are assisted by America.  If the countries that ring the Zionist entity were to fall into the hands of revolutions—I’m talking about Egypt, Jordan, and Syria, and Lebanon of course—these countries, if revolutions were to break out in them, if Israel was surrounded by countries in revolution, Israel will fall without a single shot fired.  People have to understand this.  American hegemony over the region that has been an impediment to development and growth in the region and an impediment to gaining our freedom, that hegemony will disappear.  For this reason, I shout in solidarity with all the Arab peoples that are rising up today, and wish them success.  They also are in solidarity with the Egyptian revolution; we share the same destiny.
B:  What is your opinion of what is going on in Libya, with respect to the use of airplanes to attack civilians and demonstrators.  Of course, I know your opinion, but what is your reaction as….

H:  A crime!  What’s happening in Libya is a crime!  All our lives we’ve  made fun of  Qaddafi and have said he’s crazy, he’s stupid, but what’s been going on there lately is a crime; there’s no other way to describe it. And I don’t think that any one of us thought that his madness and bloodthirstiness would reach the point where he would be attacking people with heavy weapons and airplanes.  At the same time, though, something that gives me hope is the disobedience seen now in the Libyan army.  There are airplanes going to Malta, refusing to fire on demonstrators.  Today another one of its planes was brought down because it refused to unleash bombs on the demonstrators.  All of these things give hope.  I really hope the Libyan revolutionaries are successful, and here in Egypt there is an activist campaign to show solidarity with the revolution in Libya and the rest of the Arab countries.

B:  How?  With Libya specifically?

H:  Egyptian activists have organized some demonstrations right now in front of the Libyan embassy in Cairo and in front of the Consulate in Alexandria.  There has also been a campaign to collect donations of food and medical supplies and to transport them to Salloum and bring them in from there.  There are now videos on YouTube of this assistance entering Libyan territory and being received by revolutionaries.  Right now Eastern Libyan is not under Qaddafi’s control; it’s under the control of the Libyan opposition.  The Libyan brothers, between them and me a blood connection.  We’re neighbors.  There were more than a million Egyptians residing and living in Libya.  And at the same time, we have common concerns, oppression, and dictatorship, so there’s nothing that will help us more than the action of Arab brothers.

B:  Thank you very much.  Do you think an end to American hegemony and the “domino effect” that will affect American hegemony and affect Israel—do you think this is something automatic, or is there a role that can be played by activists like yourself in Arab countries to drive these developments to this outcome?  Not just thinking that surrounding the dictators or the state of Israel or American hegemony will settle the matter, without action, of course serious action, but without deliberate action available with every means of oppression.  I’m asking about this because there is great optimism among at least those of us those of us who’ve been around for 40 years, when we think about this with respect to dictatorships, with respect to the apartheid system in Israel with American hegemony…but is the optimism automatic…?

H:  No, nothing is automatic, and nothing is inevitable.  If the revolution had been inevitable, or if success were assured, we would have gone home these last few years and waited in bed sleeping and not bothered to make a revolution, but no, the whole we’ve been organizing ourselves and have been staging interventions in the political sphere, the whole time, the activists’ role has been to agitate the masses to act, and to raise awareness among them.  I always say that if any truly democratic government comes to Egypt or any Arab country, the result will not be one that will please America or Israel.  The general feeling among most Arabs from the Ocean to the Gulf, are feelings that, number one, are hostile to America and its role in the region supporting dictatorships and around the world, its military presence in the region and its occupation of an Islamic country like Afghanistan or an Arab country like Iraq.  Second, the viewpoint toward Israel.  The great majority of the Arab people hate Israel.  They hate Israel, not out of hatred toward Jews, but out of hatred of its imperialist history and its atrocious crimes against the Palestinians.  So if we get a democratic, elected government, in a manner that is transparent, fair, and without any interference of any kind here in Egypt, this government will surely be hostile to Israel and hostile to America, or, more precisely, hostile to American imperialism and hostile to Zionism.  But the rise of the new revolutionary regime that we aspire to, this is not automatic.  First, if we are not well-organized; if we don’t know how to organize workers in factories into nation-wide networks, becoming trade unions capable of coordinating strikes; if we don’t know how to coordinate the workers’ and students’ movements; if we don’t know how to connect the political demands of the revolutionaries in Tahrir with the economic and social liberation demands of the workers and fellaheen in Cairo and the countryside; if we have a role in making these connections and we fail in that, the revolution will fail.  True, the revolution was spontaneous, but the organization and the activists’ role in it can’t be done away with.  This is what will differentiate us in the coming stage, the second stage of the revolution.

B:  Thank you very much Hossam, and we hope that you and your colleagues will succeed, especially since what’s happening is a dream.  I’d like to thank you for your time; maybe I took up a lot of your time, but we’ll speak again.  Good night, and I hope you wake up to revolution tomorrow!

H:  You too, in America!

The Killing: Wild West Justice

by Ramzi Kysia

My heart is filled with sorrow. The killing of Osama bin Laden has given birth to an apparently bottomless well of dark, narcissistic delight. Though media manipulation contributes to the basic prejudices that drive that joy, it’s clear that America’s celebration is both deep and genuine. I’m stunned at how happy, how proud the killing of this man has made our nation.

It was almost amusing seeing the crowds that spontaneously gathered at the White House singing ‘We are the Champions (of the World).’ I wonder how many realized they were singing a song first sung by Farrokh Bulsara/Freddie Mercury – a bisexual Iranian art student who, before he died of AIDS, fronted a pinko-European rock band named, of all things, Queen.

We have devolved long past cowardice and corruption into realms of violent absurdity. We have told ourselves lies for so long that it would seem our public lives can no longer be influenced by anything as insignificant as historicity, nor inspired by anything so seemingly devalued as human dignity.

Maybe I’m wrong. Maybe we’ve always been this way – violent, senseless, and juvenile – from our founding sins of genocide and slavery, up to the present day. But today seems different to me. And I think the difference is that we’re slowly losing our need to pretend, even to ourselves, that we’re anything other than stone-cold killers.

I think back to my birth during the middle of the Vietnam War, a conflict that resulted in over 58,000 Americans killed and near 3,000,000 Vietnamese, Cambodian, and Thai dead, a slaughter waged at the height of the Cold War, waged at a time when we faced an ever-present existential threat of global nuclear annihilation. We committed terrible war crimes during Vietnam, from the Phoenix Program to My Lai and other massacres, to Nixon’s bombing of Cambodia. At home, the government viciously attacked American human rights workers, going so far as to frame Leonard Peltier and assassinate Fred Hampton, among others. I know America wasn’t any more moral in my youth.

But could any serious presidential candidate from 40 years ago have campaigned on a platform of torturing individuals to get information and deliberately bombing other countries simply to steal their resources? Would any American politician of that day (other than perhaps Ronald Reagan) have openly advocated warrantless surveillance of millions of Americans, arrest without charge, indefinite imprisonment without trial, convictions based on torture and secret evidence, and the extrajudicial killing of anyone whom the President designates as worthy of death? I don’t think so. We’ve changed. We’ve cast aside even the pretense of honor.

I think a large part of our sickness comes from how we view our own history. We remember the Alamo, but forget Polk’s War. We remember Pearl Harbor, but forget Hiroshima. We remember September 11th, 2001, but forget September 11th, 1973.

I remember September 1st, 1983, when in the dead of night the Soviets shot down KAL 007, an off-course, Korean jetliner with American citizens on board that had strayed into Soviet airspace. Americans were practically frothing at the mouth in their anger at the Soviets and their desire for blood-vengeance. But I also remember July 3rd, 1988, when in broad daylight Captain William Rogers, of the U.S.S. Vincennes, shot down Iran Air 655, killing 290 innocent Iranians. Captain Rogers got promoted. Americans were actually angry with Iran, for getting upset, and genuinely seemed unable to understand why Iranians were upset.

I remember the 1978 Iranian Revolution and the hostage crisis. But I also remember that we overthrew Mossadeq and supported the Shah for decades. I remember when hundreds of U.S. Marines were killed in a suicide bombing in Beirut in 1983, but I also remember how the U.S.S. New Jersey shelled Lebanese villages, killing women and children. I remember the U.S.S. Cole bombing, but I also remember the fact that the Cole was part of a military blockade that deliberately starved hundreds-of-thousands of Iraqi children to death.

I remember the shoe bomber and the underwear bomber, as well as al-Qaeda’s actual attacks against innocents in London and Madrid and East Africa, and all across Iraq. But I also remember that we’ve likely killed well over a million innocent Iraqis ourselves over the last 20 years, as well as hundreds-of-thousands of innocent Afghans.

I remember that when communist leader Babrak Karmal took power in Afghanistan after a coup in 1978, the United States chose to get involved by providing billions of dollars of military aid and training, including thousands of tons of weaponry, to groups of Mujahadeen, or “Islamic” fighters from around the world – including Osama bin Laden.

In a 1998 interview with the French journal Le Nouvel Observateur, Jimmy Carter’s National Security Advisor, Zbigniew Brzezinski, insisted on the righteousness of this war, saying: ‘What is most important to the history of the world? The Taliban or the collapse of the Soviet empire? Some stirred-up Moslems or the liberation of Central Europe and the end of the cold war?’

Yet the Soviet invasion, lasting from 1979-1989, resulted in the destruction of half the villages of Afghanistan, over one million civilian deaths, and over six million refugees. What was more important to the history of those people?

And, to its bitter end, what was more important to the history of the people killed on September 11?

We must not continue to allow the pursuit of terror to be committed outside of the civil and civilizing force of law. Bringing criminals to justice through the law educates and informs our lives and, unlike the rule of force, the law, properly exercised, protects civilians and provides freedom from fear. When we fight terror with “Wild West Justice,” with extrajudicial wars and assassinations, we demonstrate that the only thing we respect is power, thereby teaching that power is all we will respond to–planting the seeds for future terror.

How can we ‘bring terrorists to justice,’ without first bringing justice to those we ourselves are terrorizing in Afghanistan, and Pakistan, and Iraq, and Libya, and Yemen, and Somalia (and God knows where else)?

I have no doubt that Osama bin Laden shared great responsibility for multiple acts of violence, including the September 11 attacks. But when we shot him and dumped his body in the sea, it was with the logic of a world in which even the ceremony of innocence is drowned. It’s madness. How this can make anyone so happy, so proud that they feel compelled to spontaneously gather to sing and cheer and kiss and hug and joyously celebrate is a psychopathy I will not bring myself to understand.

Vengeance is a sin. It is a denial of the redemptive power of love. At its heart, vengeance is the sin of pride – a dismissal of the commonalities all humans hold. Vengeance requires we dehumanize other humans and, as such, it contradicts and corrupts our faith in God. No one in this world, no matter how “evil” their actions, is beyond redemption. This is the actual definition of our species: Humans are animals that possess both the ability to sin and the ability to seek, and find, redemption for our sins.

The simple truth is that my ‘self’ is not any more precious to me, to my loved ones, or to God than that of the person I would injure or kill in defending myself. That person is equally precious to their self, to their loved ones, and to God. There is no “they,” there is no “us.” I know many Americans find this difficult to accept, but we really are all just the same. We’re all human beings. Trust me on this. One thing about we humans, in whatever country we happen to live in: when you kill and oppress us, those that survive scream for revenge. And some among us go out to try and take it.

If we cannot see past our own anger and fear, we would do well to at least remember that neither could the terrorists who destroyed the World Trade Towers. Those attacks, and their aftermath, have manifestly demonstrated that so long as any of us in our world are unsafe, all of us are unsafe. If there was a divine purpose to September 11, we won’t realize it until we start seeing the rest of humanity as we see ourselves. That challenge is where our faith should begin, for in its failure lays continued war, continued terrorism, continued killings, and our continuing moral degradation and devolution.

Bin Laden’s killing has shown us that the only place we can possibly wage war against inhumanity is within our own hearts.

—–
Ramzi Kysia is an Arab-American pacifist and writer. He has worked on peace and justice projects in the United States, Europe, and throughout the Middle-East.

The Iranian Election a ‘Legacy of Martyred Flowers’

Legacy of martyred flowers committed me to life,
Legacy of martyred flowers,
Don’t you see?
-Forough Farokhzad, Only the Sound Will Last

Since the close of polling late Friday, and the hasty confirmation of Mahmoud Ahmedinejad’s second term in office, protests have broken out across Iran. Many Iranians, who consider the landslide victory for Ahmadinejad a symbol of their country’s deeply corrupt political system, have endeavoured to force the government to nullify the results and hold another election. In what can only be considered a classic case of state-repression, police and Revolutionary Guards have soaked the streets in blood; shooting into crowds of peaceful protestors, arresting scores of demonstrators, and targeting constituencies known for their criticism of the government. Just yesterday, the Guardian conservatively reported that as many as twelve students from universities throughout the country lost their lives as they courageously and openly opposed state forces.

In a brash attempt to validate the legitimacy of the political structure in Iran, those in the Guardian Council and Ministry of Interior (its civic counterpart) confirmed Ahmadinejad’s ‘win’ and congratulated ‘democracy’. Ahmadinejad seized the opportunity to describe his ‘election’ as a ‘mandate from the people’, before the people unequivocally mandated a recount!

Media would have us believe that the crucial issue concerning the recent election ‘results’ in Iran centers on the question of whether or not the election was rigged. While general curiosity and speculation around this issue is a healthy aspect of the debate, it cannot moderate the far more profound lessons to be learned from the mass protests throughout the country.

Were the elections rigged? Probably. It is more than likely that the higher voter turn-out for this election came in favor of change. This was not true in the 9th Presidential Elections, four years ago, where an unknown, conservative, Tehrani mayor, Ahmadinejad, was ‘challenged’ by the highly controversial cleric-turned-businessman, Rafsanjani. The election was mostly boycotted or dismissed by many reformists minded voters, and the aspect of its ‘rigged results’ by way of the candidates having been hand-picked the Guardian Council (as is policy), was ignored in Western-language press.

This new eruption of protest over the still hotly contested election outcome has animated the already decades long debates within Iranian politics over civil and political rights, participation and inclusion. Just like many other countries, specific issues and rights in Iran are held like captives to particular names on the ballot. For example, a vote for Mousavi is a vote for greater freedoms for women. A vote for Ahmedinejad is a vote against the liberalization (privatization) of Iran’s economy. Though many Iranians remain sceptical of all the candidates ‘allowed’ to participate in this highly contestable and prodigious style of electoral engineering, elections are not entirely hollow, as the protests demonstrate. Iranians, like many of their counterparts in throughout the world, were made to choose between issues and candidates that did not necessarily represent the broad spectrum of their politics, concerns, or aspirations.

However, it is not the regiment outcome of Iranian elections that is at the heart of the protests, though this is certainly a concern. These protests, dissimilar to the swell of similar outpouring in the late 1990’s, are made up Iranians from many different backgrounds, and varied political, religious and social opinions. This is precisely the reason the executive levels of the Iranian government have, with its decades of training in repression of domestic discontent, met the protesters with the full force of state power.

Though the contestability of the elections is disputed, what protesters, Ahmadinejad and the Guardian Council seem to all recognize is that the immediate future of the Islamic Republic of Iran remains unsecure. The ‘democratic dilemma’ that the state has ensured through its dubious electoral processes is kindling increased opposition not just among the ‘parents of the Revolution’, but most pronouncedly in those twenty-somethings born after 1979 who represent the manifest ‘success’ of the Islamic Revolution. The government’s campaign to mold ‘model’ Islamic citizens has not only fashioned a profound crisis of loyalty to the religious ‘ideals of the revolution’, it has nurtured action that many have silently prayed for – as the public sphere, the last bastion of the religious elites grip on power, was shot open by their own guns Sunday.

This is not to make the mistake that Iran is moving towards, or desirous of, a secular revolution, it might very well be the opposite. However, the iron-clad grip on power that many of the religious elites have enjoyed since the Iran-Iraq war is gradually unravelling at all ends. Today, reformist-minded voters in and outside of Iran, who watched as their political aspirations were dashed time and again by during Khatami’s tenure, vigilantly braved the vast, violent and manipulative forces of the state and dared not be silent once again in the ballot box. Those who bravely opposed the regime objected to the misuse of religion for political ends – and so the protests continue.

In the thirty years since the fall of the Shah and the gradual installation of an Islamic theocratic government in Iran, opposition movements have bravely attempted to reclaim spaces in the political landscape of the country. These movements have nurtured democratic ideals in an attempt to assert the human and political rights of the poor, ethnic minorities, and women amongst others. Over the past two years Iran’s women’s movement most manifestly known as the One Million Signatures Campaign has sought to amplify the disparities felt by women on every level of Iranian society. Prior to the Saturday protests, this campaign was the largest and most vocal dissident movement in Iran.

For those of us concerned over securing some notion of ‘the truth’ about what happened in Friday’s elections, or who continue to be confused over the myriad of political mud-slinging in the media over ‘what the protests are really about’, we can be assured no easy answers.

However, the far more unsettling queries this election has left the ‘us’ (those who are watching from afar), and the other ‘us’ (those who are an on the ground in Iran) with surely sustain questions about the reach of our solidarity, our courage to speak, and our interest in the welfare of those ideologically opposed to ‘us’.

Iran is a country struggling to sustain vast differences of opinion over political allegiances, social policies, and the fine lines that govern the ‘morals’ of their state system. Do not mistake the events currently taking place in Iran as a fight for democracy, or even a ‘ better representation’ of the will of the people. What is happening in Iran is a fight for a slightly fairer electoral process. If political pundits, Western-language journalists and solidarity activists wish to support Iranians in their fight for freedom, they should take notice of the few who have been executed and exiled, whose lives have committed the many you see in the streets today to life.

10 Iranian Films You Should Probably Net-flick

Circumstance, directed by Maryam Keshavarz:

Nobody Knows About Persian Cats, directed by Bahman Ghobadi:

Be Like Others, directed by Tanaz Eshaghian:

Gabbeh, directed by Mohsen Makhmalbaf:

Offside, directed by Jafar Panahi*:

The Buddhas Collapsed Out of Shame, directed by Hannah Makhmalbaf:

Baran, directed by Majid Majidi:

Tehran Has No More Pomegrannates, directed by Massoud Bakhshi

The Color of Paradise, directed by Majid Majidi:

The Hidden Half, directed by Tahmineh Milani:

Women’s Rights: Afghanistan

In a neighborhood of northern Kabul once called “little Paris” after its famous patisseries and tree-lined avenues, a taxi driver drops me off in front of a 15-foot-high metal gate. The fence surrounds a large old house barely visible from the street.

I am here to have a meeting with the director of the Afghan Women’s Skills and Development Center, a non-government organization working to enhance the basic skills and capacities of women and girls through education and training courses. The center is a member organization of the Afghan Women’s Network (AWN), “an umbrella association of over seventy women-focused NGOs.”

Both organizations have signed a report submitted by 29 NGOs working in Afghanistan documenting their serious concerns over growing insecurity for ordinary Afghans. The report indicates that 2010 was the deadliest year for Afghan civilians since 2001. Citing a recent U.N. Human Rights briefing, the report concludes that there were “1,271 civilian deaths in the first six months of 2010—an increase of 21 percent on the same period” in 2009. Careful to outline that a majority of deaths are at the hands of armed opposition groups, like the Taliban, the report emphasizes that the current U.S./NATO military strategy, including arbitrary detention, night-raids, drone bombing, and financing and arming of militia groups are the most significant factors creating instability for civilians.

The AWN and its partner organizations have been working since the fall of the Taliban to advocate for legislation that would protect, and maybe in the future even benefit the status and rights of women across Afghanistan. All are starkly aware of the realities “on the ground” for women, and speak passionately about the need to create security before any substantive work towards human rights can be accomplished.

Still, the issue of security in Afghanistan is as pressing as it is contested. Thenarrative of guaranteeing women’s rights in Afghanistan has served as the highly politicized accessory to the 2001 U.S. invasion. And this objective remains a potent piece of the political puzzle in Afghanistan. Thus, while these two organizations were clear in their condemnation of U.S. military strategy, they also advocated for the necessity of the troop presence due to the reality of violence women would face if there were a civil war.

However, other women stress that the U.S./NATO presence are contributing so significantly to insecurity in the country that there is no choice but to demand from the U.N. an alternative international force that would not act as occupiers. Zohra, a photographer and self-described feminist with a local arts collective Third Eye, reasons that while cosmetic changes for women have occurred in Kabul and Herat since the fall of the Taliban, for the vast majority of women in the provinces this event held no significant political meaning. Zohra, like her colleagues from AWN, assert that while many people in the West focus on the “need” to challenge the gender norms of a culturally conservative society, it is the insecurities accented by war and occupation that remain the principle obstacle to securing women’s human rights.

As Zohra explains, “Your [U.S.] leaders say they are here to secure Afghanistan, especially for the women. The reporters happily wrote stories about how the Taliban did not let women to go to school

. And this is true; many of our women cannot even read. But now it is not the Taliban who are stopping the girls. What mother would let her child to go to school if they think a bomb will drop on them? For the girls does it matter from which hand the bomb drops?”

Across the street from the center is a makeshift refugee camp, homes built from dirt and materials gathered from nearby garbage heaps. The refugees are from Pakistan border areas, I’m told—families fleeing the ongoing fighting and U.S. air raids. I see women scavenge for materials to burn to survive the freezing nights. Across Afghanistan women weep for children who cannot survive the cold; women whose anger must grow as they send children to bed with pains of hunger, or who fear the bombs that mutilate and murder loved ones without recourse to justice. As many have concluded, and as I have heard repeatedly in my time here, “You cannot bomb people and then expect them to accept your aid.”

Over Wo(my)n’s Dead Bodies: On Surviving Liberation

It was a vivid autumn evening. Americans were still grieving from the stun of 9/11, and the only entity that dared punctuate the eerily quiet streets of New York were the lurid faces of the missing, plastered across a thousand white pages on everything that could still stand in lower Manhattan. It was under this tense and mournful atmosphere that first lady, Laura Bush, took to the airwaves. It would be the first solitary address of any president’s wife in U.S. history, and Mrs. Bush would use her airtime to bolster her husband’s military campaign, Operation Enduring Freedom. Just six weeks after the US invasion of Afghanistan, Mrs. Bush spoke with confidence and pride as she described the rejoicing felt across Afghanistan with the fall of the Taliban. ?Nearly a decade has passed since Mrs. Bush’s address. The military campaign Bush began in 2001 has become known as the War on Terror. Americans have long learned to swallow the irritating truth that the corporate media assisted the political elites of this country in financing its military aspirations by capitalizing on the deep grief of September 11th. And what of those fatuous geographical alignments of “evil” so prudently crafted in order to solidify American resolve for Iraq? Well, they’ve shifted to Yemen, Pakistan and Somalia. But so has global solicitude, once ardently vigiling with slogans declaring “we are all Americans,” now shrinks and scowls embarrassed it was inveigled into believing “Enduring Freedom” meant something other than torture, bombing and occupation.

Of all the stories culled into existence in order to facilitate mass compliance and participation in the War on Terror, none has been as politically potent as Mrs. Bush’s initial November appeal. Her call dared all decent people of the world to join the US and its allies in freeing the women of Afghanistan from the “brutal terrorism” of Islamic fundamentalism. Almost ten years later this explanation continues to oblige the US government’s ‘feminist’ agenda in South Asia. Even Time Magazine weighed in with its July 2010 headline, What Happens If We Leave Afghanistan. Notice the punctuation, and picture a melancholic young Afghan woman, wrapped in a purple veil, her black hair framing her warm brown skin, her nose (according the article inside) savagely cut off by the Taliban.

Unfortunately for the young woman, and the millions like her in Afghanistan, the War on Terror has spiraled into a war of terror. And even those of us who smelled the dire stench of imperialism before a single boot fell to the ground in Afghanistan are nevertheless perplexed by why it goes on into perpetuity.

“Moral arguments do not work,” an old professor of mine stated emphatically when I posed the question to him of how we were going to end the wars. “I don’t know,” he said, followed by a long, penetrating silence, then, “perhaps you, my dear, should write.” He slinks away to call for another drink, and I dare myself not to feel semantically ill-equipped to stop the hemorrhaging of innocent people caught in the cross hairs of a world gone mad on war.

Brushing aside my insecurities, I am resolved to address the contention that this war is a necessary step in liberating the women of Afghanistan. Despite Laura Bush’s optimism, I don’t believe the War on Terror has made anyone safer, not least the women of Afghanistan.

I contest Mrs. Bush’s assertion by taking notice of the dynamics of modern Afghanistan that make her promise entirely problematic. You see, firstly I am unconvinced that the majority of Afghans have much access to sources of international news. A recent poll conducted by the International Council on Security and Development found that nearly 92% of men (women were not polled) in Qandahar and Helmund provinces knew nothing of the September 11th attacks. Further, they reported that nearly 40% of all those surveyed believe the war is being waged to “destroy Islam” and others, Afghanistan itself. If after ten years a majority of Afghanis from the most war-torn areas remain unaware of the US’s principle argument for the war, I cannot say that the 2001 invasion held significant political meaning for the majority of Afghan women.

Beyond this, Afghanistan is a country where the majority of its citizens, nearly 78% according to a 2008 UNICEF report, live in the provinces. This also means that a majority of Afghanis have extremely limited access to civil infrastructure like electricity, running water, roads or means for transportation. Poverty rates are among the highest in the world, and literacy among the lowest. In the case of women, statistics find that only 12.6% are literate, most of them residing in Kabul and Herat. Several surveys do demonstrate an increase in enrollment of girls in secondary schools in Kabul in comparison to ten years ago. They also find that provinces not involved in the heaviest fighting report improvements for women when it comes to freedom of movement outside the home. Still, many claim that these changes are only cosmetic, and that conditions for women have either stayed the same as they were under the Taliban, or have worsened as a direct result of insecurities caused by war.

This past November, twenty-nine non-government organizations in Afghanistan submitted a briefing to the NATO Heads of Government Summit at Lisbon. The briefing entitled Nowhere to Turn described the conditions under which most Afghanis were living and described the security situation within the country as “rapidly deteriorating.” The report also chronicles three major concerns the NGOs deem major factors causing insecurity: a marked increase in night-raids conducted by US Special Operations Forces, a failed counterinsurgency campaign that looks increasingly unable to prevent a civil war, and widely circulated accounts of the US going around the Karzai government and financing and arming any opposition group claiming to be fighting the Taliban.

In a situation where living is far from assured, liberation is unthinkable.

Laura Bush’s contention that Afghan women have benefited from the ‘liberation’ brought to them by the US military is problematic because it isn’t backed up by conditions “on the ground” in Afghanistan.  But there are several other more insidious issues raised by the U.S. governmental and mainstream media propagation of this notion. The narrative about ‘freeing’ Afghan women only became politically expedient when the aim of capturing Osama bin Laden and al-Qaeda proved harder to do than anticipated. So the Bush Administration asked Laura to polish off that erstwhile story of the savage East in need of an altruistic West, and they cleverly reinvented orientalism in the guise of “the woman question.” Though emotionally manipulative and strongly lacking in historical credibility (the US financed militia groups throughout the 1970’s and 80’s when it was more advantageous to beat the Soviets than to rally for women) the narrative has become one of the most widely used justifications for continued occupation. Whilst there is no novelty in inculcating historical amnesia at politically opportune occasions, neither are these narratives about ‘East’ and ‘West’ impervious.

As we approach a decade of war in Afghanistan we must confront not only the material conditions that make structural improvements in Afghanistan unlikely, but also those narratives that allow continued support for the status quo. For me this confrontation is best expressed in the crucial debates about strategies for resistance.

Many post-colonial theorists contend that discursive change must be a precondition for structural transformation. In other words a process of decolonization necessitates not only the transformation of the political and economic apparatus of colonialism, but also its legitimizing narratives. I see this issue of freeing the women in Afghanistan through war as nothing more than a narrative used to legitimize the apparatus of imperialism, and unfortunately it is not only the political elites who are recycling this story.

There was a great and sobering opportunity, following the September 11th attacks, for all those “meaning makers” (journalists, academics, artists, etc.) to seriously contend with the ideology of American exceptionalism that has kept much of the US public naïve about the injurious role US foreign policy has played in the world. Instead public discourse was concentrated on futile questions like, “why do they hate us?” and determined that the principle issue between ‘the West’ and ‘the Rest’ were civilizational in nature – i.e. Samuel Huntingdon’s foolish “clash of civilizations” theory. Thus, it is no surprise that many people were persuaded that the U.S. must help the abject Muslim women in need of liberation. Notice the refusal by many leftists to critically reflect on the perils of bestowing cultural icons (e.g., the veiled Muslim woman) on serpentine historical and political realities.

Rather than seeking to ‘save’ the women of Afghanistan, with the superiority it implies and violence it affects, solidarity activists can critically engage by making a concerted effort to recognize their  own responsibility to address the injustices that forcefully shape the world in which we live. Critical engagement also involves struggling to understand and manage cultural differences. Anthropologist Lila Abu-Lughod specifies actions we can take , “What does freedom mean if we accept the fundamental premise that humans are social beings, always raised in certain social and historical contexts…that shape their desires and understanding of the world… I do not know how many feminists who felt good about saving Afghan women from the Taliban are also asking for a global redistribution of wealth or contemplating sacrificing their own consumption radically so that [other] women could have some chance of having what I do believe should be a universal human right – the right to freedom from the structural violence of global inequality and from the ravages of war, the everyday right to having enough to eat, having homes for their families…have the strength and security to work out, within their communities and with whatever alliances they want, how to live a good live, which might very well include changing the ways those communities are organized.”

For me the issue of what constitutes ‘freedom’ or ‘liberation’ is something subject to historical context, and must be understood in the light of capacities and desires specific to the community in which one lives. If we wish to ‘liberate’ Afghan women from disembodiment and violence, what vision of life after liberation are we asking them to be liberated to? Nowhere on the planet have we yet been able to significantly challenge the male-centric social system of patriarchy that is at the heart of disparate power relations between the genders. Not in Afghanistan, and not here at home.

Similarly war and occupation have been the defining features between our society and Afghanistan. This unfortunate reality can also be the impetus for a commonality of purpose between our societies – either we all work to end the war or none of us will survive to benefit from liberation.

Solidarity and Its Discontents

By: Raha Iranian Feminist Collective While building solidarity between activists in the U.S. and Iran can be a powerful way of supporting social justice movements in Iran, progressives and leftists who want to express solidarity with Iranians are challenged by a complicated geopolitical terrain. The U.S. government shrilly decries Iran’s nuclear power program and expands a long-standing sanctions regime on the one hand, and Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad makes inflammatory proclamations and harshly suppresses Iranian protesters and dissidents on the other. Solidarity activists are often caught between a rock and a hard place, and many choose what they believe are the “lesser evil” politics. In the case of Iran, this has meant aligning with a repressive state leader under the guise of “anti-imperialism” and “populism,” or supporting “targeted” sanctions.

As members of a feminist collective founded in part to support the massive post-election protests in Iran in 2009, while opposing all forms of US intervention, we take this opportunity to reflect on the meaning and practice of transnational solidarity between US-based activists and sections of Iranian society. In this article, we look at the remarkable situation in which both protests against and expressions of support for Ahmadinejad are articulated under the banner of support for the “Iranian people.” In particular, we examine the claims of critics of the Iranian regime who have advocated the use of “targeted sanctions” against human rights violators in the Iranian government as a method of solidarity. Despite their name, these sanctions trickle down to punish broader sections of the population. They also stand as a stunning example of American power and hypocrisy, since no country dare sanction the US for its illegal wars, torture practices and program of extrajudicial assassinations. We then assess the positions of some “anti-imperialist” activists who not only oppose war and sanctions on Iran but also defend Ahmadinejad as a populist president expressing the will of the majority of the Iranian people. In fact, Ahmadinejad’s aggressive neo-liberal economic policies represent a right-wing attack on living standards and on various social welfare provisions established after the revolution. And finally, we offer an alternative notion of and method for building international solidarity “from below,” one that offers a way out of “lesser evil” politics and turns the focus away from the state and onto those movement activists in the streets.

We hope the analysis that follows will provoke much needed discussion among a broad range of activists, journalists and scholars about how to rethink a practice of transnational solidarity that does not homogenize entire populations, cast struggling people outside the US as perpetual and helpless victims, or perpetuate unequal power relations between peoples and nations. Acts of solidarity that cross borders must be based on building relationships with activists in disparate locations, on an understanding of the different issues and conditions of struggle various movements face, and on exchanges of support among grassroots activists rather than governments, with each group committed to opposing oppression locally as well as globally.

The spectrum of protest

Numerous protests and actions took place over the week of Ahmadinejad’s UN visit in September 2010, with at least eight activist groups organizing protests on the day of his General Assembly address–all  claiming to speak in the interests of the Iranian people. However, despite some commonalities, these voices represented very different political approaches and agendas. Whether clearly articulated or not, one major fault line was on the question of the appropriate US and international role in relation to Iran, especially on the issues of sanctions and war.

The protests gaining the most media attention were organized by a newly-formed coalition called Iran180 and by the Mojahedin-e Khalq (PMOI). Both take a hard line, pro-sanctions position on Iran. Iran180, launched by the Jewish Community Relations Council of New York, organized a press conference under the banner “human rights, not nuclear rights.” The PMOI on the other hand, held a large rally of reportedly 2000 participants from far and wide. The PMOI is an organization known for its militant opposition to the Iranian regime and its anti-democratic, cult-like structure; it has been largely discredited among Iranians and is also listed as a “terrorist” organization by the State Department. Speakers included former mayor Rudy Giuliani, former US ambassador to the UN John Bolton, and British Tory MP David Amess, all calling for a hard line on Iran and apparently positioning the PMOI as the legitimate diasporic alternative to the current Iranian leadership.

By contrast, Where Is My Vote-NY (WIMV), an organization formed to express solidarity with Iranian protests after the contested election in 2009. They mobilized around a platform that called for holding Ahmadinejad accountable but also took an explicit no war and no sanctions position, making them the only organization to do so. WIMV’s strong anti-sanctions stance has been controversial among some human rights activists in the US who have supported sanctions that are supposed to target individual Iranian human rights violators. Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International pulled out of a WIMV-organized protest in September 2009 because they refused to endorse the WIMV platform. Below we size up the efficacy of “targeted” sanctions that claim to be in support of the human rights of Iranians.

The record of “targeted” sanctions

From 1990 until 2003, a United States-led United Nations coalition placed what amounted to crippling financial and trade sanctions on Iraq in an ostensible effort to weaken Saddam Hussein’s authoritarian regime. Sanctions, we were told, amounted to a humane way of combating intransigent authoritarianism around the world while avoiding mass bloodshed. The results of that strategy should have shattered these illusions for good. The complete collapse of the Iraqi economy during thirteen years of sanctions coupled with the inability of ordinary Iraqi people to access banned items necessary for their day-to-day survival–such as ambulances and generators–led to over half a million Iraqi civilian deaths. Furthermore, the sanctions were an utter failure in their purported primary goal—thwarting the Hussein regime while avoiding full-scale war. Not only was Hussein not dislodged by the sanctions, but he also managed to consolidate power throughout the ‘90s while resorting to increasingly autocratic means of suppressing dissent. Finally, in March 2003, the United States and a small “coalition of the willing” began a full-scale military intervention in Iraq, which has shredded the fabric of Iraqi society and left a network of permanent US military bases–and Western oil companies–behind.

Despite the benefit of this hindsight, we are being told again to trust in the human rights agenda of a state-sponsored sanctions effort as an alternative to war, this time against the Islamic Republic of Iran. In fact, some form of sanctions against the Islamic Republic have been in place with little effect for over thirty years. But since President Barack Obama took office, the sanctions have been amped up to new heights. In June of 2010, a US-led United Nations coalition passed the fourth round of economic and trade sanctions against the Islamic Republic since 2006. The stated goal: limiting Iran’s nuclear program. Soon after, the European Union imposed its own set of economic sanctions. A month later, President Obama signed into law the most extensive sanctions regime Iran has ever seen with the Comprehensive Iran Sanctions Accountability and Divestment Act of 2010 (CISADA).

It should not be surprising, given the United States’ historic attempts at controlling Iranian oil, that CISADA’s primary target is the management of the Iranian petroleum industry. These sanctions would penalize any foreign company that sells refined petroleum products to Iran, which are a necessity for Iran’s primary industry as well as for the everyday functioning of modern life. This winter, shortages of imported refined gasoline forced the Iranian government to convert petro-chemical plants into makeshift refineries that produce fuel loaded with dangerous particles. As a result, the capital city of Tehran has been plagued by unprecedented levels of pollution, shutting down schools and businesses for days at a time and leading to skyrocketing rates of respiratory illnesses and at least 3,641pollution-related deaths.

Further, Iran’s ability to import and export vital goods has been profoundly curtailed because the most powerful Western-based freight insurance companies—many of which worked with Iran until these most recent sanctions—can no longer do business with any company based in the Islamic Republic. Without insurance coverage, most international ports refuse any Iranian ships entry because they are not covered for potential damages. The current round of U.S.-led sanctions have had the effect of cutting off more of Iranian businesses because foreign companies are simply unsure of whether or not their business is sanctioned. As a stipulation of the US, EU, and UN sanctions, no corporations or private individuals can do business with the majority of Iranian banks or industries. Parts and supplies for a great deal of machinery—and not only those potentially associated with nuclear industry—are denied entry into Iran; indeed, one of the deadly examples of the effects of these sanctions in recent years has been the spate of commercial Iranian aircrafts that have crashed due to faulty or out-of-date parts. These measures have already had disastrous effects on the Iranian economy and the health ordinary Iranian citizens, adding to historic levels of inflation, unemployment and pollution-related illness.

Despite mounting evidence warning against the humanitarian disaster of unilateral, state-engineered sanctions, many people outside of Iran are still compelled to support them as a diplomatic alternative to war. The operating principle behind such a belief is that these sanctions—unlike those wielded against Iraq, which limited all facets of the economic life of the nation—only target certain individuals, groups, and aspects of economic life. In the case of the Islamic Republic, the argument goes, these individuals and groups are directly linked to the state, including the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC–or Sepah Pasdaran) and the paramilitary Basij forces, which do indeed command much of the economic resources of the Islamic Republic. Unfortunately, the reality of even “targeted” sanctions is not nearly so rosy. To see why this strategy is almost certain to be a failure, we consider the recent example of Zimbabwe.

Since 2001, there has been a similar set of so-called “smart” sanctions in place against Zimbabwe in an effort to weaken President Robert Mugabe and to force him to join a coalition government with his principal political opponents. In the decade after the imposition of these sanctions, Zimbabwe has suffered enormously, experiencing one of the most cataclysmic instances of hyperinflation in history, skyrocketing unemployment rates, a startling lack of basic necessities, a rapidly growing income disparity, and the rise of a black market for goods that only an elite few can access. Indeed, the story in Zimbabwe is remarkably similar to that in Iraq: in both cases the authoritarian state only increasedits power as a result of the economic stranglehold on the country due to its monopoly over all of the available wealth and resources in the nation. As the Iraqi and Zimbabwe cases demonstrate, sanctions are not an effective means to avoid war, nor do they inevitably undermine repressive and authoritarian states. Most importantly of all, they further immiserate the very people they claim to be helping.

Often, these failed examples are countered by one historic success story, namely, the divestment and sanctions movement against apartheid South Africa–a very compelling instance of international solidarity with a mass domestic opposition movement. Is this an apt analogy for the Iranian case? A crucial difference is that sanctions against South Africa came only after a divestment campaign led by South African activists, which succeeded in convincing a great deal of private capital to flee the country before US or UN involvement. As a tactic developed and deployed within South Africa, sanctions were not the result of power machinations between antagonistic states or a strategy that enhanced US global dominance.

Iran presents a very different situation. No member of any Iran-based opposition group—from leaders of the “green” movement, to activists in the women’s and student movement, to labor organizers—have called for or supported the US/UN/EU sanctions against the Islamic Republic. On the contrary, leaders from virtually all of these groups have vocally opposed the implementation of sanctions precisely because they have witnessed the Iranian state grow stronger, and the wellbeing of ordinary Iranians suffer, as a result. Imposing sanctions in the name of “human rights,” as the US did for the first time this fall, doesn’t alter these outcomes. The US government’s long record of either complicity with or silence regarding the treatment of dissidents in Iran–from the 1950s when it helped train the brutal SAVAK torture squads right through to the post-election crackdown in 2009–makes it nothing if not hypocritical on the issue of human rights in Iran.

The spectrum of support

In stark contrast to the range of groups protesting the Iranian president and the Islamic Republic’s policies, some 130 activists from anti-war, labor and anti-racist organizations took an altogether different approach in September 2010, attending a dinner with Ahmadinejad hosted by the Iranian Mission to the UN. According to one attendee, the goal of the dinner was to “share our hopes for peace and justice with the Iranian people through their president and his wife.” During two and half hours of speeches, activists embraced Ahmadinejad as an ally and partner in the global struggle for peace and, with few exceptions, ignored the fact that his administration is responsible for a brutal crackdown on dissent in Iran (click here for one notable exception).

Rather than listening to the millions of Iranians who protested unfair elections and political repression, these activists heard only the siren song of Ahmadinejad’s “anti-imperialist” stance, his vehement criticism of Israel and his statements about US government complicity with the September 11thattacks. Their credibility as consistent supporters of social justice has been shipwrecked in the process. Many of these groups are numerically small organizations with histories of denying atrocities carried out by heads of state that oppose US domination.[1] But some attendees are national figures, such as former US Congresswoman and 2008 Green Party presidential candidate Cynthia McKinney, who has been a beacon of principled opposition to neo-liberalism and the “war on terror.” While it is important not to lump all of the groups and individuals together as sharing the same set of political ideologies or organizing strategies, we need to investigate the reasons that these activists showed up to express support for the current Iranian regime. Below we take up the most common reasons attendees expressed for standing with the regime–that it has populist economic policies benefiting workers and the poor, is anti-imperialist and pro-Palestine.

Do Ahmadinejad’s policies support Iranian workers and the poor?

One of the most bewildering misrepresentations of Ahmadinejad outside Iran has been around his economic policies, which are often represented by the US left as populist or even pro-working class. In reality, the extent and the speed of privatization in Iran under Ahmadinejad has been unprecedented, and disastrous, for the majority of the Iranian people. The International Monetary Fund (IMF)’s report on the Iranian state’s neo-liberal policies glows with approval, confirming once again that the Fund has no problem supporting undemocratic attacks on the living standards of ordinary people. Privatization in Iran has happened under government/military control. State-affiliated actors, mainly Sepah, have bought a huge share of the country’s economic institutions and contracts–from small companies all the way to the largest national corporations such as telecommunications, oil and gas. Recently, despite vast opposition even from the parliament, the government annulled gasoline and food subsidies that have been in place for decades. Gas prices quadruped, while the price of bread tripled, almost overnight. This is an attack on workers and the poor of historic proportions that had been in the works for many years but was delayed due to fear of a popular backlash. It was only under conditions of extreme militarization and suppression of dissent that Ahmadinejad’s administration could finally implement this plan. Arguing that subsidies should go only to those the regime decides are deserving, the government will now be able to use this massive budget to reward supporters and/or buy loyalty. The massive unregulated import of foreign products, especially from China, has made it impossible for agricultural and industrial domestic producers to survive. Import venues are mainly controlled by the government and Sepah, which profit enormously from their monopolies. These hasty and haphazard developments have severely destabilized Iran’s economy in the past few years, leading to rocketing inflation (25-30%) and growing poverty. Unemployment is very high; no official statistics are available but rough estimates are around 30%, creating fertile ground for recruitment into the state’s military and police apparatus (similar to the “poverty draft” in the United States).

Is the Ahmadinejad administration anti-imperialist?

The 1978–79 revolution was one of the most inspiring popular uprisings against imperialism and homegrown despotism the world has seen, successfully wresting Iran away from US control over Iranian oilfields and ending its role as a watchdog for US interests in the region. Denunciations of American imperialism were a unifying rallying cry and formed a key pillar of revolutionary ideology. However, in the more that thirty years since, the Iranian government has, like all nations, ruthlessly pursued its interests on the world stage. Despite its anti-American/anti-imperialist rhetoric, Iran cannot survive without capital investment from and trade with other “imperial” nations, without integration into a world market that is ordered according to the relative military and economic strength of various states. Witness the large oil, gas, and development contracts granted to Russia and China, and the way that these countries, as well as France and Germany, have cashed in on the Iranian consumer goods market. The Islamic government has even cut deals with the US, such as during the infamous Iran-Contra episode, when it served its interests. US opposition to Iran’s nuclear program, and multiple rounds of sanctions, should be understood as part of the American effort to re-exert control over this geo-politically strategic country and re-enter the race for Iranian energy resources and markets from which it has been shut out.

Iran’s foreign policy cannot and should not be reduced to one individual’s inflammatory speeches. In fact, the same Ahmadinejad who grabs western media headlines by criticizing the US is the first Iranian president to send a letter directly to a US president requesting a new era of diplomacy, something unthinkable under previous administrations. Diplomacy, to be clear, carries with it the goal of re-entering a direct relationship with the so-called “Great Satan.” Far from acting as an outpost of anti-imperialism, the Ahmadinejad administration is maneuvering to cut the best deal possible and to renegotiation its place in the global hierarchy of nations. Given its massive oil and gas resources and strategic location, Iran would likely be playing a far more significant and powerful role if not for decades of isolation, sanctions and hostility from the US. It is in the Iranian governments interests to break this stranglehold. Its strategy is to play all cards possible in extending its regional influence in smaller and weaker countries, such as Lebanon and the occupied territories of Palestine. As Mohammad Khazaee, the Iranian ambassador to the UN told the New York Times, Iran is a regional “heavyweight” and deserves to be treated as such.

The Iranian government’s support for Palestinians also scores it major points with many leftists in the US and around the world. Again, it is crucial to see through the rhetoric and examine the more complex aims and effects of Iran’s policies. While the Iranian government does send material aid to Palestinians suffering under Israeli blockades and in refugee camps in Lebanon, they have also manipulated the situation quite cynically for purposes that have nothing to do with Palestinian liberation. Using money to buy support from Palestinians, and financing and arming the Hezbollah army in Lebanon, are crucial ways the Islamic Republic exerts its influence in the region.

There is no mechanism for Palestinians or Lebanese people, who are impacted by Iran’s actions, to have any say in how Iran intervenes in their struggles, even when the results are harmful. For instance, Ahmadinejad’s holocaust denials undermine the credibility of Palestinian efforts to oppose Israeli apartheid by reinforcing the false equation between anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism. At the 2001 UN conference against racism in Durban, South Africa, an anti-Zionist coalition emerged and got a hearing. But at the 2009 conference in Geneva, Ahmadinejad’s speech on the first day overshadowed the whole conference and undermined any possible critique of Israel, creating a serious set back for the anti-Zionist movement.

Relentless state propaganda about Palestine coming from an unpopular regime has tragically resulted in the Iranian people’s alienation from the Palestinian’s struggle for freedom. Leaving aside the hypocrisy of Ahmadinejad claiming to care about the rights of Palestinians while trampling on those of his own citizens, the policy of sending humanitarian aid to Palestinians while impoverishing Iranians has produced massive domestic resentment. In an article on The Electronic Intifada, Khashayar Safavi attempted to link the pro-democracy Iranian opposition to broader questions of justice in the region. “We are not traitors, nor pro-American, nor Zionist ‘agents,’” he wrote, responding to Ahmadinejad’s verbal attacks on the movement, “[W]e merely want the same freedom to live, to exist and to resist as we demand for the Palestinians and for the Lebanese.” Unfortunately, sections of the US left support the self-determination of Palestinians while undermining that of Iranians by supporting Ahmadinejad’s government. We now look at some of the key problems of Ahmadinejad’s government, exposing the high cost of aligning with repressive state leaders.

Harsh realities for labor and other social justice organizing in Iran

Currently no form of independent organizing, political or economic, is tolerated in Iran. Attempts at organizing workers and labor unions have been particularly subject to violent repression. The crushing of the bus drivers’ union, one of the rare attempts at independent unionizing in the last few decades, is one of the better-known examples. The story of Mansour Osanloo, one of the main organizers of the syndicate, illustrates the incredible pressure and cruelty labor organizers and their families experience at the hands of the regime. In June 2010, his pregnant daughter-in-law was attacked and beaten up by pro-regime thugs while getting on subway. They took her with them by force and after hours of torture, left her under a bridge in Tehran. She was in dire health and had a miscarriage. These unofficial security forcescontinued to harass her at home in order to put psychological pressure on Osanloo, who is still in prison and is not yielding to the government’s demands to stop organizing. Currently, even conservative judiciary officials are complaining about violations of their authority by parallel security and military forces who arrest people, conduct interrogations and carry out torture, pressure judges to issue harsh sentences, and are implicated in the suspicious murders of dissidents. (In the past few months, not only political dissidents, but even physicians who have witnessed some of the tortures or consequences of them, have been murdered.)

No opposition parties are allowed to function. No independent media–no newspapers magazines, radio or television stations–can survive, other than websites that must constantly battle government censorship. The prisons are full of journalists and activists from across Iranian society. Conditions in Iran’s prisons are gruesome. Prisoners are deprived of any rights or a fair trial, a violation of Iranian law. After the election protests, killing, murder and rape of protesters and prisoners caused a scandal, which resulted in the closing of the notorious Kahrizak prison. Executions continue, however, as the government has meted out hundreds of death sentences in the last year. Iran has the second highest number of executions among all countries and the highest number per capita. In January 2011, executions soared to a rate of one every eight hours.

The women’s movement has been another major target of repression in the past few years. Dozens of activists have been arrested and imprisoned for conducting peaceful campaigns for legal equality; many have been forced to flee the country and many more are continually harassed and threatened. Women collecting signatures on a petition demanding the right to divorce and to child custody are often unfairly accused of “disturbing public order,” “threatening national security,” and “insulting religious values.” Ahmadinejad’s government employs a wide range of patriarchal discourses and policies designed to roll back even small gains achieved by women.

Ahmadinejad’s anti-immigrant positions and policies are the harshest of any administration in the past few decades. The largest forced return of Afghan immigrants happened under his government, ripping families apart and forcing thousands across the border (with many deaths reported in winter due to severe cold). Marriage between Iranians and Afghan immigrants is not allowed and Afghan children do not have any rights, not even to attend school. Moreover, Ahmadinejad’s government has been repressive toward different ethnic groups in Iran, particularly Kurds. It is promoting a militarist Shia-Islamist-nationalist agenda and escalating Shia-Sunni divisions.

Given these realities, how is it that large parts of the US left can support Ahmadinejad? We now look at the confusions that make such a position possible. US left support for Ahmadinejad

Despite the many differences between the individuals and groups represented at that dinner with Ahmadinejad a few months ago, what the overwhelming majority of them have in common is a mistaken idea of what it means to be anti-imperialist or anti-war. The sycophantic speeches at the dinner can be understood as an enactment of the old adage “the enemy of my enemy is my friend.” There are two problems with this approach. The first is that it equates governments with entire populations, the very mistake the activists at that dinner are always saying we shouldn’t make when it comes to US society. The second problem is that support for Ahmadinejad means siding with the regime that crushed a democratic people’s movement in Iran. This position pits US-based activists who want to stop a war with Iran against the democratic aspirations and struggles of millions of Iranians.

Part of the confusion may stem from a distorted notion of what it means to speak from inside “the belly of the beast.” In other words, the argument goes, those of us in the United States have a foremost responsibility to oppose the actual and threatened atrocities of our own government, not to sit in hypocritical judgment over other, lesser state powers. But in the case of the vicious crackdown on all forms of dissent inside Iran, not judging is, in practice, silent complicity. If anti-imperialism means the right to only criticize the US government, we end up with a politics that is, ironically, so US-centric as to undermine the possibility of international solidarity with people who have to simultaneously stand up to their own dictatorial governments and to the behemoth of US power. The fact that the US is theglobal superpower, and therefore the most dangerous nation-state, does not somehow nullify the oppressive actions of other governments. China, for example, is increasingly participating in economic imperialism across Asia and Africa, exploiting natural resources and labor forces well beyond its borders. There is more than one source of oppression, and even imperialism, in the world. The necessity to hold “our” government accountable in the US must not preclude a crucial imperative of solidarity–the ability to understand the context of other people’s struggles, to stand in their shoes.

If any of the activists defending Ahmadinejad would honestly attempt to do this, they might have some disturbing realizations. For example, if those same individuals or groups tried to speak out and organize in Iran for their current political agendas–against government targeting of activists, against ballooning military budgets, against media censorship, against the death penalty, against a rigged electoral system, for labors rights, women’s rights, the rights of sexual minorities and to free political prisoners–they would themselves be in jail or worse.

Given that these are the issues that guide the work of these leftists in the US, we must ask: don’t the Iranian people also deserve the right to fight for a progressive agenda of their choosing without execution, imprisonment and torture? As we demand rights for activists here, don’t we have to support those same rights for activists in Iran?

Solidarity: concrete and from below

In the tangle of conflicting messages about who speaks for the “people of Iran”–a diverse population with a range of views and interests–what has been sorely lacking in the US is a broad-based progressive/left position on Iran that supports democratization, judicial transparency, political rights, economic justice, social freedoms and self-determination.

There is no contradiction between opposing every instance of US meddling in Iran–and every other country–and supporting the popular, democratic struggles of ordinary Iranians against dictatorship. Effective international solidarity requires that the two go hand in hand, for example, by linking the struggles of political prisoners in Iran and with those of political prisoners in the US, not by counterposing them. Iranian dissidents, like dissidents in the US, see their own government as their main enemy. The fact that Iranian activists also have to deal with sanctions and threats of military action from the US only makes their work and their lives more difficult. The US and Iranian governments are, of course, not equal in their global reach, but both stand in the way of popular democracy and human liberation. US-based activists must not undermine the brave and endangered work of Iranian opposition groups by supporting the regime that is ruthlessly trying to crush them.

We are calling for a rethinking of what internationalism and international solidarity means from the vantage point of activists working in the US. Internationalism has to start from below, from the differently articulated aspirations of mass movements against state militarism, dictatorship, economic crisis, gender, sexual, religious, class and ethnic oppression, in Iran, in the US and all over the world.For activists in the US, this means being against sanctions on Iran, whether they are in the name of “human rights” or the nuclear issue. It means refusing to cast the US as the land of progress and freedom while Iran is demonized as backward and oppressive. Solidarity is not charity or pity; it flows from an understanding of mutual–though far from identical–struggle. It means consistent opposition to human rights violations in the US, to the rampant sexism and homophobia that lead to violence and destroy people’s lives right here. But we don’t have to hide another state’s brutality behind our complaints about conditions in America. We have to be just as clear in condemning state crimes against activists, journalists and others in Iran, just as critical of the Iranian versions of neo-liberalism and oligarchy, of attacks on trade unions, women and students, as we are of the US versions.

For solidarity to be effective, it must be concrete. US-based activists need to educate ourselves about Iran’s historic and contemporary social movements and, as much as possible, build relationships with those involved in various opposition groups and activities in Iran so that our support is thoughtful, appropriate to the context and, ideally, in response to specific requests initiated from within Iran. It is our hope that these struggles may be increasingly linked as social justice activists in the US and Iran find productive ways of working together, as well as in our different contexts and locations, towards the similar goals of greater democracy and human liberation.


[1] For example, Workers World, ANSWER and several other groups who share the same political tradition have historically supported Soviet crackdowns against popular uprisings in Hungary in 1956 and Czechoslovakia in 1968, the Chinese state’s massacre of unarmed protesters at Tiananmen Square in 1989 and the ethnic cleansings carried out by ultra-nationalist Milosevic throughout the 1990s.