by Evert Cilliers aka Adam Ash
Take a basic emotion: fear. Before a revolution can even get started, it has to face down fear.
After all, how do you prevent a revolution from happening? You put fear, massive fear, in the minds of your population. At one point, the Shah of Iran's secret police, SAVAK, had a surgeon cut off the arms and legs of a dissident in prison; then they sent his live torso back to his family and friends as a living warning of what could happen to anyone who resisted. A pretty effective fear tactic.
Revolutionaries swim in that fear. Like fish swim in water.
The conditions that breed revolution may be material: oppression and poverty. Egypt had 15,000 political prisoners to torture. Up to 50% of its workers unemployed. But there is something more lacerating than physical hurt and deprivation to consider: the psychology of revolution. A revolution is an intensely emotional experience. It has to be, to break the chains of fear.
That's why trying to make sense of a revolution without considering the emotions involved is like thinking about sex without considering the fact that penises and vaginas are involved. I count six emotions that drive revolutions, all evident in Egypt, which I will discuss. They are seldom, if ever, examined by political analysts or historians.
This is a truly startling omission of scholarship. There's no way you'll understand the first thing about a revolution if you don't grasp the emotions behind it. I know these emotions firsthand and can speak to them personally, because I was living in my home country, South Africa, during the 1976 Soweto Uprising, when black kids took on the apartheid regime in a storm of emotion. I was bludgeoned with an insider's education unavailable to most Americans. Be warned: what you read here will change how you think about revolution, about Egypt, and even about your own life.
1. FEAR AND RAGE
A dictatorship tries to pull the teeth of revolution in two ways. First, by mind control: censorship of all media and communication. Citizens are blanketed with state propaganda. In North Korea, the people know little of the outside world: their thoughts are the thoughts of the Leader. Their world does not acquaint them with any consciousness to revolt.
The other form of control is the afore-mentioned fear. The hammer of the state, its feared secret police, can “disappear” you in a moment, with no one knowing where you are. Anyone who challenges authority can be imprisoned, tortured and killed. In such circumstances, only the crazy brave — the fanatics — will consider resistance, because they can be pretty sure that, at the end of the day, they will find their genitalia hooked up to electrodes. The vast majority of folks, people like you and me, are cowed and intimidated into silence. Even within your family, within the seemingly-safe walls of a home, political dissent isn't expressed. You walk around with a plug in your mouth and a Maginot Line slung around your brain. Fear slams your innermost thoughts back into your own head, where they ricochet in silence; unspoken, unborn, dead.
Fortunately, most dictatorships can't afford the 24/7 job of instilling fear. You'd need at least one secret policeman for every five citizens to keep everyone scared suitably shitless. In his very model of a modern police state, ex-President Mubarak presided over more than a million informers, agents and police officers, but they had to keep 80 million Egyptians under surveillance — not all that easy at an 80:1 ratio.
So there was space for cracks of resistance to open. The unthinkable could happen. And it did — in Tunisia, and now in Egypt.
Naturally, the unthinkable is unpredictable. Ten CIAs in constant communication with microchips implanted in every brain on earth couldn't predict a revolution. Consider what happens: suddenly a whole nation gets all emotional about the state they're in, and takes to the internet in a snit, and then to the streets in communal rage, their fear momentarily overcome by some random spark that annoys the heck out of them. Nobody can envision what that spark will be. Nobody can measure how fierce will burn the fire it lights.
Rampant rage, insensate fury, ice-cold anger: those are the emotions that knock back fear. Journalist Nicholas Kristof was told by a young woman, Leila, in Cairo's Tahrir Square:“We are all afraid, inside of us. But now we have broken that fear.” This rage is of a special kind: moral outrage.
We're not being treated fairly, dammit. Our rulers are rich, they never stop stealing from us. They steal even from the poorest of us. They hurt us. They beat us. They kill or imprison anyone who stands up for us. Those bloody bastards. Let's show them.
Yet even while revolutionaries act in anger, their fear never leaves them. A revolutionary faces death at any moment, like a worm thrown to a bird. We know that at least 300 people have died in Egypt, and they're having quite a peaceful revolution. (The main reason it's been semi-peaceful: the Egyptian revolution is across a classic generational gap: Mubarak and cronies in their 70s and 80s against kids in their 20s and 30s, and naturally the old people are wary of starting a shooting war against the young, because they'll be shooting their own children and grandchildren: this revolution is also a family affair, being argued over every family dinner table.)
Here's a report of how hairy even this peaceful revolution can get, for both the revolutionaries and the counterrevolutionaries:
“In Barambel Village in Helwan, south of Cairo, residents set the local police station on fire after a police officer shot and killed a local resident for violating the curfew. The resident had gone out during curfew hours on Monday night and was shot to death after failing to respond to the police officer's warnings. He was killed instantly. Following the incident, village residents torched the police station in which the officer was taking cover, leading to the death of the officer and total destruction of the station and its civil registry. Other police personnel managed to escape before they were caught by residents.”
Besides fear and rage, there is another emotion that's even more basic to revolution than those obvious feelings. It's an emotion that poisons the lives of would-be revolutionaries more than fear: a bitter pill they eat every day for breakfast, a potion they drink every night before bed, a sour rancor that stinks up their psyches in unholy crappiness … so much so, it's the verdant soil for revolution, the corpse that sprouts maggots, the breeding ground, the very seedbed.
2. HUMILIATION AND DIGNITY
The rock-bottom existential emotional condition for revolution is humiliation.
Feeling humiliated sears the soul worse than Coca-Cola eats teeth. If you look at what Egyptians want, it's not only freedom and economic opportunity — an end to oppression and corruption — but DIGNITY.
Being oppressed deprives you of dignity, of self-worth, of self-respect, of feeling worthy in this world. It's humiliating not to be able to speak your mind, not to have enough to eat, not being able to get a job, not having a say in your destiny, not being able to contribute to the well-being of your fellow humans. It's humiliating to see the shits of your society on top, lording it over you — those folks who used to be the suckups and snotnoses and bullies in your school when you were a kid.
So you are ready to get angry. You are dry timber waiting for a spark. Then something stupid happens. Like a lowly Tunisian fruit-seller sets himself on fire because the government doesn't want to give him back his fruit-stall that they confiscated, and his family gets angry, and his neighbors, and they tell their story to everyone they meet, and they go and shake their fists at the people in a government office, and young folks vent their anger on Facebook, and people start congregating in anger, and their numbers grow, and all of them being together makes them feel inexplicably exhilarated and happy and free to express themselves for once, and now they feel powerful, and presto: a revolution.
When I say something stupid sparks a revolution, I mean stupid. Like really stupid. Here's an Egyptian reporter recalling the first time he started feeling revolutionary anger, after he was arrested and being driven somewhere in a truck cooped up with other detainees:
“After a while, the fog of bodily odors was infiltrated by the far more offensive stench of human feces, prompting one disembodied voice to curse, 'Hold it in, you heathens! We’re in for the long haul.' At that point, I was not particularly worried: my colleague had seen me be taken away, and I was confident that my boss would alert the appropriate heavyweights. Still, it wasn’t a particularly pleasurable experience. To distract myself from the growing sense of panic, I did some mental math problems, regretted it, and instead thought about pretty girls. I thought about the beach, thought about my cats, and then remembered I had forgotten to put food in their bowl. The apartment was empty, and if I was gone long enough, they would surely starve to death. For the first time since my arrest, I began to feel anger towards the current political regime. What did my cats have to do with anything?”
The possible suffering of his cats got this guy going.
3. EXHILARATION AND PRIDE
Revolution rides on emotion. Here's Wordsworth on the revolution that stirred him, the French Revolution:
Twas in truth an hour
Of universal ferment; mildest men
Were agitated; and commotions, strife
Of passion and opinion, filled the walls
Of peaceful houses with unique sounds.
The soil of common life, was, at that time.
Too hot to tread upon.
There is the hot fear and humiliation and rage that start the revolution, and then, when it is in full swing, there is sheer exhilaration. Before the government sent its goons into Cairo's Tahrir Square, there prevailed a carnival spirit. This past week, this spirit returned. People camped out on Tahrir Square with their families, and created for themselves a sweet little society of happy freedom there, complete with separate garbage cans for organic waste. Here's one report:
“The people who have been staying in the square for the past two weeks have created an organized system so as to be able to continue their strike indefinitely. Food outlets, entertainment, cultural centers and a security system are all available in the square. Protesters stress that they are not tired and are willing to stay as long as it takes for the regime to fall. 'We have a whole country in Tahrir Square — there's a ministry for sanitation, a ministry for protection, and so on,' says Mohamed Abdel Raouf, who has set up a makeshift newspaper booth in his tent. A family head who had been staying in a tent in Tahrir Square with his wife and two children for the past four days says that he is reassured about the safety of his family sleeping in a tent in the middle of the square — even more than he was at home.”
They're proving a revolution can work. When the Egyptian regime emptied the jails and withdrew the police from the country to try and create nationwide lawlessness so they could have an excuse for a nationwide crackdown, the citizenry immediately started taking over the functions of policing their neighborhoods themselves. The regime tried to fall back on the basic excuse for their existence: without us the country would fall apart. Apres moi, le deluge. We the elite are the only guarantee of stability. All regimes function because of a snotnosed contempt for their people: they don't believe the people can govern themselves. In his last speech, Mubarak patronizingly said: “am addressing all of you from the heart, a speech from the father to his sons and daughters.” Then, when he was ousted, he didn't have the guts to tell the country himself, but sent his flunky Suleiman to make the announcement. Pride and cowardice: Papa went into a sulk, and couldn't face his sons and daughters anymore.
When the people do for themselves without interference from above, they flower: the taste of freedom is a heady and exhilarating thing of joy.
It's interesting that the revolution has already freed women. In these last weeks they've walked the streets of Cairo without fear of sexual harassment, which has been a congenital Arab problem in this Arab city. With a regime to harass, males have stopped harassing females.
The revolution lets people take responsibility for themselves (responsibility is what a dictatorship takes away from you). I've read many quotes from the folks at ground zero in Tahrir Square, and I found this response, from one Seif Salmawy, the managing director of a publishing company, the most telling and quote-worthy:
“Suddenly we are human beings. We think we can decide and that what we decide has worth and that we have some value as humans. Before there was the president, the police, the army and their money. We the people were just there to serve them.”
There's nothing like a revolution for you to discover that you're human: a worthy individual with your own muscles to flex, your own mark to make upon the world.
It's of a piece with what Egyptians, and especially expats looking at their country from a distance, are saying: they are now proud of their country. Proud of its citizens. Goddam, my people are standing up for themselves.
“I was not proud to tell people I was an Egyptian,” said Ahmid Awn, 31, on Tahrir Square. “Today, with what’s been done here, I can proudly say again I am an Egyptian.”
One chanted slogan was: “Egyptians, hold your heads high, you are Egyptians.”
4. EMOTIONS AND THE YOUNG
Fear, humiliation, anger, dignity, exhilaration, pride. These are the six emotions that drive and flood revolutions, and we should be cognizant of them.
And we should know that these feelings live most intensely in the young, whose emotions are still burgeoning, because their unnerving hormones only kicked in recently … unlike the middle-aged and old, who are worn down to the adult cowardice of responsibility, compromise and plain old fear.
To be a grownup with children is to be scared. Above all, you want your children to be safe. Having children is the first big step away from being a revolutionary. You've got to stay alive for the kids. You can't endanger them by putting your own life on the line. They're the little dictators against whom you could never revolt.
The young don't have children to fear for. That's why we need the young to start revolutions.
Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive
But to be young was very heaven! — Oh! times,
In which the meagre, stale, forbidding ways
Of custom. law, and statute took at once
The attraction of a country in romance
When Reason seemed the most to assert her rights,
When most intent on making of herself
A prime Enchantress — to assist the work
Which then was going forward in her name!
Not favoured spots alone, but the whole earth,
The beauty wore of promise, that which sets
(As at some moment might not be unfelt
Among the bowers of paradise itself)
The budding rose above the rose full blown.
5. FACEBOOK DEBATES LED TO REVOLUTION
In Egypt, the budding youth of the country kicked off their revolution. A group of youths began debating the state of the nation among themselves on a Facebook page started by Rashid, 30, and Ahmed Maher, 28 in 2008. This group called themselves the April 6 Youth movement because they started supporting textile strikers in Mahalla near Cairo, who were violently put down on April 6, 2008 by the Mubarak regime. 70,000 kids began to follow the lively arguments of their fellows on their Facebook page, like thousands watching other thousands playing fervid ping-pong on a vast table. It was a kind of emotional group hug — sharing their dissatisfaction with their regime anonymously on the web.
The group described themselves on Facebook in earnest adolescent officialese — somewhat like little Trotskys worried their moms might make fun of them:
“We are a group of Egyptian Youth from different backgrounds, age and trends gathered for a whole year since the renewal of hope in 6 April 2008 in the probability of mass action in Egypt which allowed all kind of youth from different backgrounds, society classes all over Egypt to emerge from the crisis and reach for the democratic future that overcomes the case of occlusion of political and economic prospects that the society is suffering from these days. Most of us did not come from a political background, nor participated in political or public events before 6 April 2008 but we were able to control and determine our direction through a whole year of practice.”
After the Tunisia uprising led to its dictator fleeing the country, these debating kids in Egypt got all excited, and set a date for similar protests in their country. They asked people to gather in protest against their own Egyptian regime on January 25, 2011. They had no idea how many would show up (remember the 60s slogan: “what if they gave a war and nobody came?”). But they knew they had the timing right: their exams were over and schools and colleges were closed for a mid-year vacation.
To their utter surprise, they had made a date with an actual revolution. We know you can use the internet to make a date with a stranger: now you can use it to make a date with something really strange: a revolution.
6. HOW THE INTERNET HELPS MAKE REVOLUTION
Here's the thing about the internet and revolution. Besides acquainting humanity with a blizzard of sexual images, proclivities and opportunities, the internet is also good for these three revolution-enabling qualities:
1. It's a quick and easy way to reach out to like-minded multitudes you don't know beyond your immediate circle of acquaintances. It turns the physical village square into Marshall McLuhan's virtual global village, which then allows you to actually flood the physical village square with all the folks you met in the virtual global village.
2. It's a quick and easy way for people to feel more powerful than they do in their everyday lives. In the virtual world of the Internet, you can give yourself airs you'd never attempt with your real-life friends. We're all quite overly proud on our Facebook pages. That's what Facebook thrives on: the ability of everyone to dream themselves into a virtual existence of their own self-created celebrity. Click on the Internet, and you instantly become arrogant. Your self-created virtual identity empowers your real-life identity. Your internet avatar pumps up your real self.
3. It's a quick and easy way for folks to get highly emotional and intemperate in the relative safety of their homes, because with a single click they can vent whatever they feel to the world out there. There's no physical restraint. The internet breeds unbridled, unthinking in-the-moment self-expression. It brings out people's inner ids: no need to be polite. You have the heady freedom to be as angry as you get privately with your own family … to be THAT angry in public and for all to see, with not a care that you're offending any strangers, because they're not physically in front of you to make your life physically unpleasant. It's like giving another driver the finger from the safety of your car.
The Internet spins a cocoon of invincibility, a bubble of personal power around everyone, that allows them to be as nasty as they like with no immediate physical consequences. In short, the internet is a safe place to be a bitch. (Look at how, in any argument on the internet in America, within ten or twelve comments, one commenter will inevitably call the other one a Nazi.) You get thousands of people bitching about their rulers on Facebook, and you can have a revolution on your hands.
7. LABOR PLUS YOUTH MADE THE REVOLUTION
But the Egyptian Revolution was much more than a snitfit on the web that spilled over into anger on the streets. It's been in the making for a long, long time — for as long as Mubarak has been a dictator promising reforms and never delivering. Raising hopes and dashing them. Locking up political opponents. Rigging elections. Running an economy that made him and his family and his cronies superrich (he's purported to have something between $10 to $70 billion stashed away), and caused food shortages for his people (in a country where the average person spends 40% of their income on food, any food shortage strikes right at the guts of the people).
The ruling clique privatized publicly-owned property into gated communities for themselves. Big coastal areas became exclusive resorts for the super rich in government and business. Enclaves like Qatamiyya Heights and Mirage City contain multi-million dollar palatial homes for the very privileged few, to which their owners drive through poor neighborhoods in their luxury cars for all to become irked by this blatantly flaunted inequality.
In this state of the lordly rich, Egyptian workers have been striking for better pay and working conditions for years. From a 2009 AFL-CIO report: “The current wave of protests is erupting from the largest social movement Egypt has witnessed in more than half a century. Over 1.7 million workers engaged in more than 1,900 strikes and other forms of protest from 2004 to 2008.” That was then. Now more than 2 million workers have staged an estimated 3,000 strikes and protests since 2004, especially in the textile industry. to Egypt’s Center of Economic and Labor Studies, there were 478 labor protests in 2009 alone, in which 126,000 workers were laid off, resulting in 58 suicides.
Opposition from labor has bred the Egyptian revolution. When the enthusiasm of youth joined them, the movement grew strong enough to turn the whole country upside down. If Mubarak hadn't stepped down, all the workers in the country were going to strike today Monday February 14th. Yes, EVERYBODY.
Imagine that. And imagine how spooked the regime must've gotten — to their very coccyxes — when 6,000 workers in Suez came out on strike, endangering one of Egypt's main sources of income from their canal, when the economy is already kneecapped by the fact that the tourist industry is currently deader than a mafioso in cement shoes. Over 160,000 tourists skedaddled out of Egypt in the last two weeks, a loss of at least $1.5 billion in tourism revenue. The Abu Dhabi-based paper The National that the country’s industrial output dropped 80%.
Besides blue-collar labor, even the johnny-come-lately white-collar professionals came out in support. On Wednesday evening, hundreds of judges in black robes and green sashes marched to Tahrir Square. Twelve thousand lawyers in their robes marched on Thursday to Abdeen, one of Mubarak’s presidential palaces in Cairo. The same day thousands of medical doctors and pharmacists marched in their white coats to Tahrir Square. Thousands of journalists chased their government-appointed union president from his office, and marched. Actors, writers, directors, singers, musicians and artists joined the chanting. workers from all industries united, with nothing to lose but their chains.
8. THE MAIN OPPOSITION GROUPS
An entire society became radicalized in less than three weeks. Hereare the known opposition groups in the revolution:
1. Kefaya (Enough!), led by the Nasserist Halim Qandil, founded 2004.
2. El Ghad (Tomorrow), political party founded by the parliamentarian Ayman Nour in 2004. Nour ran as a presidential candidate against Mubarak, and after he came second, was bundled off to prison for four years.
3. The liberal Democratic Front founded by Osama al-Ghazali Harb in 2007.
4. The Facebook page April 6 Youth movement, led by Ahmed Maher (who came out of Kefaya and has used the offices of El Ghad).
5. The Facebook page “We Are All Khaled Said,” administered by Google employee Wael Ghonim.
6. Nobel Peace Prize winner ElBaradei's National Association for Change.
7. Amr Moussa has just resigned as head of the 22-nation Arab League, to which he was side-lined by Mubarak because Mubarak wanted Moussa out of Egyptian politics; he intends to run for President.
8. The Federation of Egyptian Trade Unions, established at a meeting in Tahrir Square on January 30 this year, which effectively ends state control of labor exercised via the former state-sanctioned Egyptian Trade Union Federation.
9. The Muslim Brotherhood, founded in 1928, who assassinated President Sadat, spawned Al Qaeda and Hamas, was banned by President Mubarak, ran for parliament as independents, and has lately become so “moderate”, it took them three whole days before they turned up in Tahrir Square. Having been underground for so long, they are the best organized, and would get anywhere from 10% to 30% of the vote in an election.
This revolution has been falsely called leaderless because it has a bewildering array of leaders instead of a single charismatic leader, and because many instigators chose to remain anonymous to escape capture. Google's Wael Ghonim himself said that he had hoped to remain anonymous, and that now, after Mubarak's ouster, he just wants to go back to his job and his wife. One of the great things about this revolution is that, without a single charismatic leader to idolize, the nation can idolize itself and take national ownership for what happened — WE did it (not some braver-than-us he/she did it).
9. A REVOLUTION LAUNCHED BY FACEBOOK
Major unrest has been stirring for a long time, but it took three Facebook-enabled thingummies to actually kick off the revolution.
One: the virtual conversations on the April 6 Youth Facebook page, which gave 70,000 young Egyptians a feeling of community, as well as on the Facebook page “We Are all Khaled Said,” started after a young man, Khaled Said, was dragged out of a cyber cafe into the street in Alexandria and beaten to death by cops, a photo of his shattered face a rallying image; this was the Facebook page administered by Google marketing executive Wael Ghomid, who was detained for twelve days, and whose TV interview after his release on February 7 on the privately owned TV channel Dream 2, brought more people to Tahrir Square last Tuesday than there'd ever been there before (one hopes Larry Page and Sergey Brin throw a big party for their most famous employee ever). Also, oddly enough, a big role was played by Egypt's strong soccer fan clubs on the web.
Two: the example of Tunisia, itself driven by Facebook connectivity.
Three: the April 6 Youth group setting a date on Facebook for a mass protest. It started with one video on the Facebook page and Youtube, from 26-year-old Mahfouz, on January 18. She said:
“Four Egyptians have set themselves on fire to protest humiliation and hunger and poverty and degradation they had to live with for 30 years. Four Egyptians have set themselves on fire thinking maybe we can have a revolution like Tunisia, maybe we can have freedom, justice, honor and human dignity … I’m making this video to give you one simple message: We want to go down to Tahrir Square on January 25. If we still have honor and want to live in dignity on this land, we have to go down on January 25.”
There was a button to click on. It said: “Will attend.” The clicking began. Still, nobody had any idea that they had volunteered to attend a revolution.
10. REVOLUTION GOT BOLDER DAY BY DAY
As the youth streamed to Tahrir Square in Cairo, and other meeting places in other cities, they called out to bystanders and people watching from their balconies to join them. They engaged onlookers in discussions. They went into stores and cafes to talk to folks. They recruited people block by block. This was a crucial tactic by which the revolutionaries enlarged their revolution.
And once the people came out in public in many cities, with the hub in Cairo's Tahrir Square, their demands increased from day to day, as the regime, caught totally unawares, kept lowballing the revolution's expectations. The regime's obtuseness provoked the revolution to want more than it originally wanted. At first the protesters just wanted some basic reforms. At that point they were not yet a revolution: they were only a massive protest. They asked that Mubarak not run again, and that he not make his son Gamal the next president. Then, three days after January 25, they wanted the entire regime changed ASAP, and rejected any concession made while Mubarak was in office. They wanted him to leave, leave, leave. Now they had turned from a protest into an actual revolution, demanding changes that were truly revolutionary. Soon they demanded that Mubarak also be put on trial. These days they want all the money back that he and his cronies stole from the country, and the Swiss, sensitive about their reputation these days, have frozen Mubarak's assets in their banks.
Spontaneity was a great feature of this revolution: it made itself up from day to day. It did not have a single leader or a fixed program. It did not even know it was a revolution. it did have was two potent ingredients: a Facebook-wielding youth that blindsided the ruling elite; and a disaffected labor mass who bonded with the youth in a big network of opposition.
For the educated youth, the lack of economic opportunity and upward mobility was as great a motivator as wanting freedom. Egypt's educated and ambitious youth have been forced to leave for other countries to make their way in the world. Wael Ghonim himself, who got his MBA in Cairo, worked as Google's Marketing Manager for the Middle East and North Africa in Dubai. In Egypt, it's tough for a young person to make enough money to afford their own apartment, so they can get married and have kids.
“No marriage, no kids, no apartment, no money,” one youngster summed up the problems of his generation. In fact, here's a question that goes to the heart of why so many young men went out there to revolt: how much of the revolution was born out of sheer sexual frustration, because young men couldn't afford an apartment, a private place of their own, where they could do what young men like to do, i.e. fuck chicks?
11. WE'RE ALL POTENTIAL REVOLUTIONARIES
Fear, humiliation, anger, dignity, exhilaration, pride. All of us feel these emotions. All of us are potential revolutionaries, with these six emotions ready to be activated. In a very basic sense, all countries are in need of revolution. Heck, America is a more unequal society than Egypt, for example. Our Gini Index is 45, making the US the 42nd most unequal country in the world; Egypt is the 90th most unequal society with an index of 34.4 (the lower the index, the better). The emotions of revolution burn inside us all, like the ignition flamelets on a gas stove. Think about these emotions in your own life; you have all six stirring around in you, each one a different veggie in the soup of your life.
Fear. You have it in you as an American, but you don't know it. It starts young, with fear of the dark, and fear of being abandoned by your parents, and it's assuaged only by your constant and quotidian access to the comforting familiar. As you grow up and are socialized by going to school, where you're forced to sit in rows and listen to a grownup telling you what to do and think, your fear transmutes into a passive acceptance of your lot. So chances are you sink into a life of commodity fetishization, and the only thing you can do to exert a little power over your existence is to vote every few years (and most of us don't even do that). When your government declares an unnecessary war, you might join a march against it for a few hours, but mostly you just submit. You and I, as we live our getting-and-spending lives, seldom realize a profound fact underlying our existence: most of humanity lives in a state of cowardice. We know we're being screwed by our rulers, but we don't bestir ourselves to do anything about it. It's a congenital human condition: inertia, anchored by fear.
Humiliation. A child feels it when a grownup yells or sneers at them, or teases them, and that child swallows it and lives with it because the grownup is bigger than they are, and it becomes part of that child for its entire life. Humiliation is part of you, because you were once a child.
Anger. In our homes, family members can easily drive us to express anger, but we're not supposed to vent our anger in public. It's embarrassing to ourselves and to others. The embarrassment about public anger is something dictatorships unwittingly rely on to stay in power. The French don't mind being rude in public, which is what makes them a uniquely revolutionary and unruly lot.
Dignity. Who knows true dignity? Only the self-made man or woman. The rest of us trade our dignity for a living, submerge our one life on earth into a job, submit to a boss, fit into a hierarchy, let an alarm clock wake us early every morning to summon us to the drudgery of spending most of our lives earning a paycheck. Only a revolution — or a comfortable retirement — can bring us true dignity.
Pride. Are you proud of your life? Are you proud of your station in life? Somewhere, somehow, most of us are a little disappointed in ourselves. We thought we were going to turn out differently.
Exhilaration. When did you last feel it? At a rock concert? Walking through a park on a bright sunny day? Being with a stranger you like, and suddenly realizing, in sweet moments growing on you, hey, chances are I'm getting laid tonight, and who might this lovely person become in my life? There are not many moments of high exhilaration in a normal life, but they are there, and the biggest is when your nation goes into that deeply emotional and highly satisfying snitfit called a revolution. The last time Americans felt something akin to revolutionary exhilaration was when, after the nightmare of Bush Two, Obama became our president. It didn't last very long, but we all felt quite exhilarated at the time. A million of us turned up at the Inauguration. Imagine that exhilaration and hope multiplied by a thousand: that's how a revolution makes you feel. That's what Egyptians are feeling today. Heck, our own Tea Party people feel some of this exhilaration; idiots can also feel revolutionary. No doubt that sublimely grandiose cretin Glenn Beck feels like some kind of revolutionary, especially when he moves his cretinous self to glutinous tears.
12. THE POWER OF REVOLUTIONARY EMOTIONS
Fear, humiliation, anger, dignity, exhilaration, pride. This mixture of heartfelt emotions is why revolutions are so attractive, and why they stir the human heart even more than war. It's why we like to say that “we are all Egyptians now.”
Because suddenly, our emotions are in play like they've never been before. Both negative and positive, each driving the other higher, like volcanoes trying to out-erupt one another. Fear joins humiliation and flips to anger and switches on dignity and pride and sparks exhilaration. If you're an Egyptian in Paris, you get on the first plane to Cairo, or you wish you were there to share in the emotions of your nation. The everyday cracks: life becomes new: existence flaunts possibility: things will never be the same. I know, because when I was in South Africa during the Soweto Uprising in 1976, suddenly, huge emotions flooded the country as though a dam of rich red wine had broken over the citizenry, intoxicating us all. Suddenly fear was trumped by the pride and exhilaration of flinging a Molotov cocktail at the grinning molars of the oppressor.
In a revolution, you are fully human, for once in your life, sharing the same emotions with millions of people. A country becomes a nation. Geography becomes emotion. You become part of something bigger than yourself. You are as one with others. You rise as one. Says 80-year-old Egyptian feminist . Nawal El Saadawi from Tahrir Square: “I feel I am born again.” Everyone becomes a hero, a champion, a freedom fighter. Everyone is Che.
What a glorious feeling.
Your emotion is shared: a mass emotion. Mass emotions are highly contagious, and difficult to contain. The entire Middle East may be about to blow up one dictatorship at a time.
13. POSSIBLE OUTCOMES
Of course, after the exhilaration of revolution can come any one of four rather more sobering feelings:
1. The fear and anguish of The Terror, which is when revolutionaries fight among themselves and the revolution eats its own, as happened in the French Revolution and in Iran's 1979 revolution, when the Shah was overthrown and Khomeini's mullahs killed and imprisoned their fellow revolutionaries and took the revolution away from the people to establish an oppressive theocracy.
2. The major disappointment of a revolution deferred: a successful counterrevolution, when the authorities clamp down and kill and imprison and suppress enough revolutionaries to stop a revolution from happening. As in Tiananmen Square in 1989 and in Iran in 2009.
3. The irritation of having to be patient with a fortunate outcome, which is — at best — a slow and messy journey to some form of democracy (like in the Philippines) or a semi-responsible autocracy (like today's post-Mao China, which is giving its people some measure of economic freedom without any political freedom).
4. Most often, if there is a strong military, they will take over in a coup, and then it is up to them to either encourage a civilian authority to flourish (Turkey) or to keep themselves in power, like the Army did in Burma after they put down the 1988 uprising. This is what has happened in Egypt, when Mubarak ceded power to the military's Supreme Council, or rather, was told by them to go the fuck away. So the Egyptian revolution could go one of two ways: either Burma or Turkey. And Egyptians are going to be in a state of fidgety unease until they know which path their military intends to pick.
14. THE U.S. RESPONSE
My suspicion is that the Burma option was the outcome favored by Obama, Biden and Clinton, with their calls for an “orderly transition.” Orderly transition my ass: this was code for giving Mubarak and his Torturer-in-Chief henchman VP Omar Suleiman the time to wait out the protesters. Suleiman baldly stated that Egypt is not ready for democracy. The only emotion to have about Obama's earlier one-step-behind-events caution and double talk is dismay. He was ducking the obvious right thing to do — to call publicly and insistently, together with all world leaders, for the entire Mubarak regime to retire immediately, to be replaced by a caretaker government representing all the big opposition factions plus some of the country's current bureaucrats, whose sole job it must be to allow political parties to form so there can be a free and fair election ASAP.
What we're seeing is yet another American domino falling: a further decline in American power. Even America's dominoes don't listen to America anymore, despite all the money we funnel their way. Obama has been begging Israel's Netanyahu not to build more settlements. Obama badly wants Pakistan's intelligence services to stop its secret support of the Taliban. Obama would really like China to revalue its currency. But nobody listens to America anymore, even when we shower them with billions. Well might one ask: why the fuck are we giving them money if they don't do what our money is telling them to do? (And why the fuck can't Mubarak hold on to power when we give his military $1.5 billion each year, and even supply him with the tear gas canisters he needs to keep his nation in line?) One pundit likened the irritating refusal of our recalcitrant friends to feel indebted to us, to these words of Prince Schwarzenberg of Austria after the Russians had helped suppress the Hungarian rising in 1849: “They will be astonished by our ingratitude.”
The US was looking as clueless as Mubarak and his VP Omar Suleiman (the intelligence chief who was our long-time CIA point man in Egypt, whom we turned to for the extraordinary rendition of folks we wanted the Egyptians to torture on our behalf). In his interview with Christiane Amanpour, Suleiman said the protest was engineered by jihadists and foreigners. If he believed it, his intelligence was as clueless as our own CIA; and if he didn't, he was trying to imply that the protesters were unruly terrorists deserving of a whacking.
15. THE MILITARY IS EGYPT'S BIGGEST CORPORATION
It's a given that the older generals, like Suleiman, wanted to hang on to power, and that the younger officers wanted the old guys to go — somewhat like Nasser's young officers' 1952 coup.
The generals are going to have to proceed with some caution, because they are responsible for 15% to 35% to 45% of economic activity in their country (nobody knows how much — the law forbids anyone to write anything about the Army in Egypt — but it's a lot). There's a great deal of stuff they'll want to keep for themselves as they orchestrate or impede a transition to democracy. And there is a great deal to grab as they prosecute corrupt businessmen like the unpopular steel magnate Ahmed Ezz. The revolution demands that some rich folks get thrown under the bus, and the military are ready to pick up the spoils. They will surely do all they can to destroy the new crony capitalists like Ezz, ceramics tycoon Mohammed Abul Einein and Kamel, who formed around the would-be successor to Mubarak, his enterprising businessman son Gamal. Since the late 1990s, this business elite became movers and shakers in the National Democratic Party and in parliament. They even became Cabinet Ministers. They've been trying to speed the privatization of an economy dominated by the state and the military, but now the generals have a chance to beat back the new business elite, who were hoping to really coin it when their man Gamal became the successor to his President Dad. Now they're not so happy, because many of them are not allowed to leave the country while legal actions against them are being readied at the Army's instigation.
In essence, the military taking power now does not amount to any great change from anything at all, and renders the Egyptian revolution entirely symbolic. It's a profoundly pre-revolutionary state of affairs. Since the 1952 coup that overthrew the old monarchy, Egypt has been dominated by the military. Its presidents — Nasser, Sadat and Mubarak — have all been military men. Current or former military men hold all the governorships. Omar Suleiman, the here-yesterday-gone-today vice president, was a general. Ahmed Shafik, the here-today-probably-gone-tomorrow prime minister, is a retired air marshal. In Egypt, the military is the ruling caste, plain and simple (they have450,000 poor conscripts under them in the Army itself, who serve for two or three years, and whose sympathies lie with the people, and not with their generals, and who would surely have mutinied if ordered to fire on the protesters).
One reason the Army never wanted to open fire on the protesters is because, being good businessmen, they didn't want to shoot their customers. The Army makes and sells everything from dishwashers to bottled water to pots and pans and clothes. They even grow, process and sell food. They control a great deal of tourism, having turned coastal areas that their troops used to guard into resorts in which their officers have shares. The propane cylinders bought by every Egyptian household that uses gas for cooking are sold by the army.
In fact, the army's most senior man, Mohamed Hussein Tantawi, 75, more of his time on business matters as the CEO of Egypt's Military Inc. than he does on military matters as Field Marshal. Serving also as Defense Minister, Tantawi is an old-guard Mubarak crony known among fellow officers as “Mubarak's poodle,” and if it were up to him alone, Egypt will revert back to being a military police state with sham democratic elections and a sham democratic parliament. He's strongly opposed to any social change or reform. The military man to watch for signs of a more accommodating style is the younger, seemingly more progressive . Gen. Sami Hafez Enan, 63, chief of staff of the armed forces.
It will be very interesting to see if the generals are willing to open up the government for real elections, which will take political power out of their hands, since the party in their control, the National Democratic Party, has now fallen to pieces, and will be replaced by parties like El Ghad, whose leader was jailed for four years; the banned Muslim Brotherhood, whose candidates had to run as independents in the last election; and the many parties still to be born.
The government may very well be taken over by a party, or a coalition of parties, that don't exist yet, with no particular connection to the military. That could threaten the military's business interests. After all, the military wouldn't want a civilian government to open up the economy to the likes of GE and Coca-Cola to come and compete with them and get the Army into a price war with international business invading their territory and conquering their market share.
Not that the youth, in their current state of exultation, fear a military takeover, as they should, because they will have to do their revolution all over again — what a drag — if the Army doesn't give them the democracy they want.
Revealingly, the Army stood by and did absolutely nothing when pro-Mubarak goons attacked Tahrir Square (they've also been known to detain and even torture some protesters). So far, the revolution trusts the military more than the regime, even though the military is the regime. A prime revolutionary slogan has been: “The military and the people are one hand.”
They are decidedly not. Egypt's young men, who spend two or three years of their youth in the Army as conscripts, where they are fed, have work, and enjoy manly camaraderie, take back to civilian life a rosy perspective of the Army. But they have no idea how corrupt their officers are, and how tight the Army's grip on their country is. Just because the police have been the force chosen by the elite to brutalize and oppress the people, doesn't mean that the Army elite are a swell bunch of innocent babes who shed wet tears of deep sympathy on a daily basis for the common people.
Still, the youth of Egypt are rightfully cocky about democracy's prospects. When Sleem, an organizer from ElBaradei's group was asked what he thought about a military takeover, he said:“We know how to force them to step down. We know the way to Tahrir Square.”
16. WHO OWNS EGYPT?
A question to ask besides “who runs the country?” is “who owns the country?” It's not only the people who ran the country who became momentarily disturbed. The folks who own the country are more than a tad freaked, including the military.
This is not just a battle between labor and capital, rich and poor, young and old. It's also a battle over the country's riches. Egypt has the biggest non-oil GNP in the Middle East. Its GDP doubled between 2005 and 2009, from $88 billion to $189 billion. Yet it lost 5% of its purchasing power in 2008. In other words, the income of average folks went down. With the world’s 21st largest labor force of 37 million workers, Egypt is 136th in per capita income. Its service sector, the largest sector in the economy, has an unemployment rate of 50%. Around 40% of its people live at or near poverty, even though its value of traded shares ranks 40th in the world. If Mubarak has stolen $70 billion, as some say, he's richer than Bill Gates with his $54 billion. The Middle East business practice of hawala — informal non-contractual financial transactions based on nothing else but loyalty and honor — means he and his cronies have many chips to cash in, and many calls they can rely on to many central banks all over the world. Hawala can be exercised illegally in many ways: money laundering, kickbacks, price gouging, the ransacking of national treasuries. What do you think Mubarak was doing while he hung on to power? He was on the phone, trying to safeguard his billions from the hands of his people. Mubarak and his cronies are as powerful and as crooked as Goldman Sachs, and just as capable of surviving their downfall — just like Goldman Sachs did.
It's going to be a long, hard fight for some semblance of economic justice in Egypt (easily as intractable as America's fight against Wall Street and Big Business for economic justice). The 15% raise to all public employees in Egypt is a nice gesture, but it's not going to placate Egyptians all by itself.
This is why the psychology of evolution is so crucial to follow. So far the revolution has simply shifted a few butts around on the plush sofas of the elite: not much of a change. But the masses of people themselves are different. They're not the same folks they were three weeks ago. They've tasted freedom; they've tasted power; they've re-invented themselves; they've become human in the full sense of the word. This is the new reality that the elite has to deal with, even though they're still on top. The elite themselves have changed: they've had three weeks of shitting themselves. A different elite, a different people: psychologically. That's the big change, the fundamental upheaval, the real revolution. There's been a 180-degree turn in hearts and minds.
The people cannot be scared into submission anymore. Egyptian labor has become implacably bolshie: it has flexed its muscles and felt the power of resistance against capital. As Egypt goes back to work, workers will feel empowered to stand up to their bosses. Middle managers and business owners are going to feel the heat from a suddenly proud work force who feel they've just won their country back, and will be in no mood to take any shit from their overseers.
17. THE OUTCOME: CYNICISM VS OPTIMISM
So what's going to happen? Now that the people have spoken, what acts will their words induce?
My cynical self says this: the least likely outcome is that there will be free elections in September or within a year, followed by a freely elected government that will allow free and fair elections after that. It just can't happen: there is too much privilege to protect. If that's ice-cold water on your romantic bunny-hopes of revolutionary emotion, sorry, dear reader. Revolutions seldom erupt into instant democracy. Egypt's military hasn't, for example, lifted the Mubarak's decades-old and hated state of emergency.
My optimistic self, buoyed by what happened in my home country of South Africa, says this: the military will oversee a peaceful breathing space for parties to organize themselves; for young people to go into politics and represent young people in young-people parties; for an election to happen; and for a secular coalition government to come into being, led by a moderate president who will not be a kleptocrat.
My optimistic self sings along with the great Arab poet, Nizar Qabbani, who wrote this for the next generation, after the Arabs suffered a bitter defeat at the hands of Israel in 1967:
Corn ears of the future,
You will break our chains.
Kill the opium in our heads,
Kill the illusions.
Don't read about our suffocated generation,
We are a hopeless case,
As worthless as a water-melon rind.
Don't read about us,
Don't ape us,
Don't accept us,
Don't accept our ideas,
We are a nation of crooks and jugglers.
Corn ears of the future,
Qabbani did not know exactly what victory the Arab children would win, but it turned out to be a victory by the biggest Arab nation of all … over themselves.
18. THE IMMENSITY OF WHAT IS HAPPENING
We shall see if the military holds on to power — or allows a civilian authority to rule, and the country's wealth to be shared by its people. At least the Egyptian elite knows their people are upset, and will try to adapt. Meanwhile, Egyptians are more alive now than they've ever been, and ever will be. Bless them. They're having the time of their lives. Said a doctor on Tahrir Square: “If I die, it's for my country.” Let's face it: only a revolution is that immense thing: something that can be worth more to you than your life itself (or to put it in easier-to-understand shallow American terms, something totally worth giving up a fuck with Angelina Jolie or Brad Pitt for).
To date, the Egyptian revolution is the 21st century's greatest moment. 2/11 replaces 9/11 as a bigger hinge and rupture in history. And a more positive one. It's youth flexing their idealism. It's 1989 in the Arab world. It's tremendously nervous-making and diarrhea-inducing for all dictators. It's instant-revolution-by-cellphone on the cheap that dislodges a regime in a matter of weeks. It's given young people all over the world a blueprint for the road to democratic power. It's a planetary turn-on. It reminds me a lot of the 60s, when Western youth broke down sexual norms and launched a sexual revolution — and freed us all to bang each other with impunity.
In the Middle East and North Africa, dictators have their backs against the wall. Algeria says it will lift the state of emergency it declared in 1992. But the “Free Youth Movement in Algeria” organized massive demonstrations this past Saturday, February 12. Yemen’s President, Ali Abdullah Saleh, says neither he nor his son will run for president in 2013. But opposition groups are calling for huge protests. In Jordan, King Abdullah II booted his Prime Minister to dampen down massive protests and began talking to the opposition. And our experts, clueless as they may be, now believe that our big friends, the Saudi regime, exhibit enough instability and inequality to qualify for imminent overthrow. What happens in Egypt will have a big influence: after all, with 80 million people, Egypt is bigger than Iraq (21.9m), Saudi-Arabia (25.7m) and Syria (22.1m) combined. Only Iran's population of 72m rivals Egypt's.
The Egyptian Revolution is certainly giving the moral arc of the universe, said to be very long, a rather sudden and swift kick towards justice. How inspiring, how elevating, how downright spiritual, is the immensity of a entire nation ready to change its face, its character, its very own self! If there's any chance for you to join a revolution, jump at it. You'll never live more intensely. You'll never feel better.
You need to feel better, considering the state of our own American nation, where democracy morphs day by day into plutocracy, and we seem to be going backwards about as fast as Egypt is jumping forwards — what with our suspended habeas corpus, our predatory Wall Street that milks and bilks us, our corporations that export our jobs, our public school system funded by property taxes that shortchanges our poorest kids, our campaign-funding system that allows corporations to buy the government out from under us, and our legal system that refuses to prosecute torturers and bankster-fraudsters (the US has the biggest prison population in the world, yet not a single person from Goldman Sachs or BP is among them).
What speaks most poignantly to all us non-Egyptians, as we watch what's happening over there with a barely submerged feeling of envy (they're the nation on our planet having the most fun now), is not simply that the entire trod-on world has gained a little bounce in its step from walking like an Egyptian, and caught a little breath of what Egypt is feeling now as its citizens inhale the suddenly freer Egyptian air in deep gulps of exultation, having run the gamut of revolutionary emotions from fear and humiliation and rage to dignity and pride and exhilaration.
To put it plainly, bluntly, simply, starkly: it's not so much that we are all Egyptians now. It's that — given our humdrum, fearful, cowardly lives — we really wish that we actually were Egyptians now.