The Egypt Effect: Some Thoughts on What it All Means

I want to share some thoughts about Egypt. I don’t mean to focus on the specifics of the events occurring there (though I will briefly); you can find better sources for that than me. I want to say what it has meant for me, and what I think some of its wider implications might be for those of us in the United States. I believe personally that the way this globalized society which has been knitted together by the maturing economic system called capitalism over the last few centuries is both unjust and environmentally unsustainable. I believe that fundamental revolutionary change is needed to create an egalitarian society, a truly finer world not plagued by the destructive contradictions which flow from our current economic and political system. Glimpses of this vision can be found throughout human history, from the Diggers of the English Revolution, to the Paris Commune, and even in the Bible, in Acts. (Of course Christianity is not the only religious movement which has had such radical characteristics attached to it at one point another) In my heart I believe (and this belief faith whether I would like to admit it or not) that this change can and should only come from social movements from below, and that justice will not be handed down from on high. Intellectually I know that the world is far more ambiguous and complex for such simple hopes, yet I think historical evidence would seem show  that much of what is in my heart has some truth to it.

Yet living in the United States of America makes it so hard to hold onto those beliefs. We live in a country with one of the most hegemonic and entrenched ruling classes in the world. It exercises hegemony over our political system, and burrows deeply into every corner of our society, using the powerful tool of the civic religion of the Free Market. The other civic religion, which cuts off attempts movements of change, is nationalism. The dominant narrative we are taught is that this is the greatest nation on Earth, that we have a messianic mission, that it makes sense that we dominate the world. American nationalism, based in a “golden era” of the founding fathers and the framing of the Constitution, effectively helps to limit the horizons of our collective imagination.  More than anything else I think Americans feel powerless to change things, in the face of powerful, amorphous, elites which dominate the levers of power.

The US has been for a hundred years the center of the world economic system, and has been the hegemonic imperial power of that world system since the end of World War II. This economic/political world order which the US shaped out of the ashes of the great wars of the first half of the twentieth century, and the dying gasps of European colonialism, has become increasingly unequal over the last thirty years, and American foreign policy has had a great deal to do with shaping the growth of that inequality (including in Egypt). It should come as no surprise that such policies are not just embodied in sweatshops and shantytowns in far off countries, but in increasing inequality and decreasing income mobility here. Correspondingly elites here have become all the stronger.

Americans are angry and dissatisfied. They know something is wrong; that the country they live in is losing its dominant place, that their personal prospects are becoming increasingly dim. At the same time they are politically listless, unable to see beyond the horizon of our highly managed electoral politics, when they bother to take part in politics at all. Even under the incredible strain of economic melt down the political/ideological structure has kept chugging along, more detached from reality than ever, but still without serious competition. Social movements and activists lacking a powerful social base, and swimming against the dominant narrative of our society, are able on occasion to alter that narrative, but never really challenge it. Change here is slow, and incremental, and often is accompanied by worse setbacks. Intellectually I knew significant change was possible, that it was unpredictable, and that one always had to keep fighting for a better tomorrow or else it would never happen. But in my heart it felt like we were scratching at an iron door with our fingernails. Then January 25th happened.

First off I would like to acknowledge that since I am not in Egypt, I can only do my best to extrapolate what it is like there from the accounts of those that are, and I am not (yet) fluent in Arabic. What has just occurred in Egypt is a truly amazing display of revolutionary people power.  A corrupt and powerful dictator has been driven out of office by an uprising encompassing most of the social fabric of Egypt, including Islamists, secular leftists, liberals, a burgeoning radical labor movement (for details <>), and perhaps most importantly millions of people who had never even considered taking part in political action a few weeks ago. This revolution, inspired by the demonstration effect of the neighboring Tunisian uprising, has altered the world in ways we cannot even guess yet. Egypt is one the key American allies in the Middle East, with which it has maintained dominance over that strategic region for decades.  Its importance lies in US policy on Israel Palestine, containment of Iran, and general regional “stability”.  It also possesses the Suez Canal, through which 8% of all seaborne world trade travels. Its military, which has dominated the state directly or indirectly since the Free Officers coup in 1952 has deep ties to the American military/intelligence/industrial complex, and receives $1.3 billion in military aid annually. This money is of course recycled into the purchase of American arms, making such aid more or less a subsidy for American the arms industry.  What the future of Egypt will be is unknowable. The military has now taken direct control, and elections are supposed to be in the offing. The emergency law, which has stripped Egyptians of basic rights during Mubarak’s reign, is also supposed to be lifted. Liberal democracy is supposed to be instituted. Whether this will happen is up in the air. The struggle may have just begun.

But whatever happens this great human upsurge has reminded me that social change is possible; but more than that it has made social change come alive in a way that I don’t remember happening before (at least since I became politically aware). The Egyptian revolutionary movement appears to be an inspiring mix of spontaneity and carefully thought out planning and strategy. The diverse young people  (Islamist, leftist/socialist, and liberal), who planned out the original demonstrations on the 25th of January, and who continued to shepherd the revolutionary movement throughout, have been incredibly sophisticated



Yet when the dam broke, and Egyptians realized that they didn’t have to be afraid anymore, they self-organized themselves to a truly astonishing degree.  Much of the spontaneous organizing was helped by the presence of experienced members of the disciplined Muslim Brotherhood, but this only demonstrates the importance of taking part in organizing, whether it looks like the “revolution” is around the corner or not. That work can bear fruit in unexpected ways. Even when events appear spontaneous they have not just come out of nowhere. This of course is especially true for the strike movement, which seemed to have been key in pushing Mubarak over the edge.  Still the vast majority of people involved most likely had no prior experience. I think this quote in some ways gets across better than I can what a truly revolutionary consciousness looks like:

“Everyone I talked to echoed similar transformative themes: they highlighted a sense of wonder at how they discovered their neighbor again, how they never knew that they lived in “society” or the meaning of the word, until this event, and how everyone who yesterday had appeared so distant is now so close. I saw peasant women giving protestors onions to help them recover from teargas attacks; young men dissuading others from acts of vandalism; the National Museum being protected by protestors’ human shield from looting and fire; protestors protecting captured baltagiyya who had been attacking them from being harmed by other protestors; and countless other incidents of generous civility amidst the prevailing destruction and chaos…[T]hose evidenced themselves in a broadly shared sense of personal responsibility for civilization—voluntary street cleaning, standing in line, the complete disappearance of harassment of women in public, returning stolen and found objects, and countless other ethical decisions that had usually been ignored or left for others to worry about.”

The Tahrir square commune (a designation which seems appropriate since the demonstrators have occupied the space since the 28th of January) is, I believe, one of those moments which I mentioned at the beginning, a moment in time in which a finer world is visible. The Egyptian people have reclaimed the radically empowering implications of citizenship, so tamed in countries like the United States. The people are the source of power. This was a nationalist/patriotic uprising, but in way very different from how we usually see such concepts played out in the real world. I think it is possible to say that the pride and love of one’s native land, which has been on display in Egypt embodies some of the ideals so beautifully put forth in the song “This Land is Your Land”(look up the complete original lyrics and you begin to see its radical implications). Love of your homeland does not have to mean following the lead of the state and the (military, economic, political) elites who dominate it, or adopting jingoistic attitudes toward outsiders.  It can mean feeling a responsibility to yourself and others to take true ownership of your society, and make your home a better place, even if doing that takes the sacrifices revolutionary change.

So what does all this mean for us, living in the United States? Directly comparing Egypt and the US has limited utility. They are radically different societies in governing structures, wealth, history, economic makeup, religion…well you name it. There are some similarities, such as a widening gap between rich and poor, but the incredibly difference in total societal wealth means that the implications are much more dire in Egypt. Still I think Egypt can be a way to puncture our American bubble, and remember that we have a lot to learn beyond yoga and Chinese food from the rest of the world.  It can also be seen as a teaching tool to remind others that American foreign policy is not as benevolent as we are taught school. We cannot recapture the mass psychology which rapidly reshaped millions of Egyptians. That is something which is in some ways unique to those rare truly revolutionary situations. But I do think we can us their example to energize our own efforts to make a better world. And I think we can learn from their “this land is our land…” nationalism (if that even is the right word), and use it as a tool to reframe how we see our own society. We can use Egypt as a mirror to look at ourselves, and reevaluate what it means to believe what we believe, and live where we live.  As the US continues to lose its dominant place economically and politically in the world, such reevaluation becomes ever more important, no matter where one is on the political spectrum. History is on the move. We can choose to take part in that movement, or be resigned to spectator status, but we can no longer afford to act as if it isn’t happening.

(Here are some other good blog entries on this topicBlog 1 , Blog 2, Blog 3.

  1 comment for “The Egypt Effect: Some Thoughts on What it All Means

    Erin W
    February 15, 2011 at 9:33 pm

    Thank you, Isaac. That makes me think about Rosa Parks and how even on the radio and in major history books it sounds like one day she just decided to stay seated in the front of the bus. That’s not what happened and it doesn’t do justice to the movement she was a part of. Rosa Parks was part of a nonviolent movement that had decided the best forum and individuals to use to put their ideas on the national stage. It was planned for months and brilliantly executed. Sometimes you work and work and something happens; sometimes it doesn’t. But you keep on working. Knowing about what’s happened in the past and the current events in Egypt and the Middle East keeps you going.

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