Monday, February 07, 2011

From the noisy phase to the quiet phase

Is it meaningful to say that the Egyptian revolution is calming down, or petering out? I ask because a common flaw of the reporting on it has been to treat the basic dynamics of mobilisation as if they were signs of huge political shifts behind the curtain. It's obviously true that both revolutionaries and reactionaries need to sleep and eat. When the revolutionaries want to, they have no great difficulty in putting over a million people on the streets in Cairo and probably a bit more again elsewhere in Egypt. These are peak efforts. Idiot management-speakers like to talk about maintaining peak performance, but they are idiots: the word peak implies a supreme effort that cannot be maintained continuously. People have to eat and sleep, they have families, they have jobs, although many millions of Egyptians have been taking part in the revolution silently by essentially going on strike. Even revolutionaries have to maintain their barricades, update their blogs, and hold meetings to decide what to do next.

The result of this is that there's been a sort of media cycle - one day the papers are full of pictures from the latest day of rage, the next it's all about people grandly speculating on what happens next, and the regime's spokesmen explaining how they intend to preserve the substance of the regime. Perhaps they talk about that on the other days, but nobody is listening. Or perhaps they believe it, when they wake up and hear that there are only tens of thousands of rebels in Tahrir Square rather than hundreds of thousands. Then, the next callout of the demonstrators resets the clock again.

Today, we seem to be in one of the ebb-tide phases. So it's a good moment for a bit of speculating. What is important, in these terms, is that the government doesn't seem to be regaining much ground in between waves of protest. Instead, there seems to be a ratchet in operation - each wave extracts a new concession. Mubarak sacked his government. And appointed a vice president. Then he promised not to stand again. Then talks were opened with the opposition. Then the military accepted to talk directly with the opposition, independently. Then the NDP hierarchy was purged. Then Suleiman renounced becoming president himself. And the regime's own peak effort - Wednesday's thug raid - was dramatic and violent at the time, but with hindsight was nowhere near enough in terms of numbers to change anything. Arguably, it wrecked the government's remaining legitimacy and only demonstrated its lack of mass support.

The fear is that this is no ratchet, but a sort of retreat into the Russian hinterland, a trap. On the other hand, it's a common pattern in the end of dictatorship, a sort of political Cheyne-Stokes breathing. You may think you are saving the structural realities of power and giving away the forms, but how will those realities stand up without the Emergency Law and the special constitutional amendments and the practice of having political prisoners and the ban on opposition parties and the censorship of the press? After all, there must be a reason, rooted in the structural realities of power, why you wanted them in the first place. If owning hotels was enough to sustain a tyranny, there'd be no need for Central Security or private thugs on camels or sententious TV broadcasts or bulk SMS messages with faked originating numbers.

Revolutions come with years, like New Order remixes used to. Prague '89. Paris '68. Probably the most relevant ones now are the Polish ones - Solidarity feat. Jaruzelski '81 and '89. The first one was a lot like what everyone fears for Egypt and also quite a lot like the official preferences of our governments. There was violence, but not as much as there could have been, and a safe military dictator won. He, in turn, turned to a religious and conservative pseudo-opposition to give his rule some foundation. The second was more optimistic but less spectacular. In 1989, the end of communism in Poland involved far more negotiating than it did street-fighting, and it involved putting up with Jaruzelski sticking around for the rest of his term as a sop to the powers that be, or rather the powers that were.

Egypt is already some way beyond 1981 - there is something like a round table, and the officially designated military strongman is getting very close to the exit, having disclaimed supreme power for himself. Probably the communists of 1989 thought they were cunningly playing for time. Suleiman has a far more ruthless reputation, though; the big issue is whether he can be trusted or better, constrained from trying to either crush the opposition between here and whenever the election date is set or else to start a civil war like the Algerian generals of 1991.

One argument has been that there would be a fake revolution, leaving the security state in charge, as Jamie Kenny put it. I think this is now out of date. Similarly, although they are now talking to the Muslim Brotherhood, I think my own prediction is also out of date. We're past the point where a few Brothers in the government would convince anyone. In fact, Jamie and I saw our predictions first validated and then rendered irrelevant within a week.

Looking ahead, it's worth remembering that 1989 took time to deliver. After the original moment of success, there was a long and uncertain haul of getting rid of specific individual bastards, changing laws, moving editors around the State TV and inspectors around the police force. I think we're now into this phase. Some people seem to agree, from very different points on the spectrum. Changing the union confederation and the university professors' club is very much to the point, whether you're thinking 1989 and maintaining enough forward momentum to protect the revolution or 1917 and the second wave.

Take it easy ya Ahmad. Every revolution in history always has this carnival-like side. The insurrection will come later. #Jan25

I think I'd rather have that man on my side.

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