Friday, February 3, 2012

Every Revolution Has Its Road

I was reading about the terrible, terrible tragedy in Egypt last night and today - 74 dead at a soccer match - and the ensuing mass protests and national explosion of anger. And I was struck by how the battle is unfolding in Egypt, the way that the military dictatorship maneuvers and shifts as it tries to undermine the revolution. Even more, I was impressed at how spectacularly and immediately this brutal ruse, this strategy of tension meant to make the people wish for the return of the recently lifted emergency laws, failed completely. There can be hardly anyone in Egypt who doesn't believe that this was a deliberate policy meant to punish the Ultras, who are widely seen as key element of the fighting forces of the revolution.

The massacre of the Al Ahly Ultras took place on the anniversary of the Battle of the Camel, which was an example of this same strategy in play but during the days prior to the overthrow of Mubarak. As the Revolutionary Socialists of Egypt noted in a leaflet released immediately following this week's massacre, this was a warning and a reminder from the military that they can still mobilize killers, just as they did during that battle. Of course, the military lost the Battle of the Camela and their thugs were routed. This time the Ultras were trapped inside a stadium, separated from the mass of revolutionaries amongst whom they have played such a prominent role. The Ultras could be punished for their high profile defence of the revolution and uncompromising opposition to the military junta.

Of course, it is already clear that this attack on the revolution has blown up in the faces of the military as tens of thousands have mobilized and attacked the hated Ministry of the Interior in Cairo and more symbols of the military throughout Egypt. The Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, held in such high esteem in the days following the fall of Mubarak, has by now almost completely used up its prestige amongst the Egyptian people. Their tactics, tested and tried over years and years of dictatorship are outdated and transparent now that the Egyptian people are mobilized and thinking critically about who and how their nation will be governed. The old ways no longer work. And that's a good thing.

But this event also made me think about how every revolution is an interaction of the general and the specific. The Russian revolutionary Vladimir Lenin wrote that a revolution occurs when the ruling class is split and can no longer rule in the old way and the oppressed and exploited will no longer accept being ruled in the old way. That is a general rule that has a certain obvious - but worth stating - truth to it. However, the way that it unfolds is specific to every revolution, rooted in the particular historical experience of each nation, region and so on.

So, we see with Egypt there was a long period of gestation for the revolution, ten years or more, in which the forces and ideological groundwork was laid for the revolution by the movement in solidarity with the Second Palestinian Intifada and the movement against the war in Iraq in 2003. This anti-imperialist ferment found its counterpart in the growing resistance to capitalist austerity inside of the workplaces, with growing strike waves and the first hint of unions independent of those controlled by the state. And, finally, the meeting point of these two oppositional movements occurred in the democracy movement, typified by the Kefaya (Enough) movement in the first decade of this century. This long gestation meant that the ground work was laid at both ends of the class spectrum - at the top there was a sense that the dictatorship was stifling capitalist development and creating instability. At the bottom there was a growing sense of confidence that the regime could be taken on and even that concessions could be won.

In Syria, on the other hand, that process of "gestation" only really began a year ago with the first protests against Assad's regime. Of course there have been struggles and uprisings in the past - most notoriously the uprising in Hama in 1982 that led to a massacre of somewhere between 10,000 and 40,000 people. There are opposition movements and parties as well. But the brutal suppression in Hama led to decades of quiet relative to Egypt where there was no comparable massacre (though there was certainly repression, torture and even extra-judicial killings). There is also an important component that is a side effect of the pressure of imperialism and Zionism on Syria. Syria is a "pariah state", which doesn't tell us anything about its character - democratic, liberal, or authoritarian - only that it doesn't bend its knee with suitable rapidity to American whims and Israeli bullying. That pressure - just as in Cuba, Iran or other countries that have historically resisted US imperialism - creates pressure for a "union of necessity" amongst progressive and nationalist forces. The present movement has to therefore achieve the first condition of Lenin's formula - the undermining of the unity of the ruling class - as well as uniting the broadest section of the population against the dictatorship of Assad, undermining the idea of there being any union of necessity with the Assad regime in order to resist imperialism. It seems that this is beginning to take place and even to gather steam as the incredibly brave Syrian people continue to broaden and deepen their revolution in the face of regime brutality. It is likely, then, that when Assad finally goes out the revolution will begin in an entirely different place, with much deeper networks of revolutionary mobilization than in Egypt (though the exact character of those networks, their connection to the workplaces, their political program for the democratic development of the nation, etc. remains to be seen).

There is a further sense in which the revolution in each country - following certain general principles, such as the important role of the working class in order for the revolution to achieve its goals - has a specificity. Every revolution has key turning points, key battles. These are moments of contingency and even historical accident. A religious or cultural celebration can become for reasons that are hard to fathom - certainly from the outside - focal points for advances and retreats of the revolution. In Egypt the anniversary of the revolution marked a huge re-awakening of the revolutionary forces as people took stock of where they were after a year of the revolutionary process and decided that they weren't far enough. And the elections, which in other revolutions without the depth of the Egyptian, have been the moment of the eclipsing of popular mobilization and its shift to the realm of "professional" politics, in Egypt became instead a test of the depth of the revolution's transformation of the country. Rather than accepting the parliamentary terms of debate, the opening of parliament became an opportunity to raise the demands of the revolution and insist that the elected representative implement it. It also increased the pressure on the Muslim Brotherhood to pick sides in the revolutionary struggle, leading to further fragmentation as the leadership tries to dampen expectations without being seen as total sell-outs (which is the growing perception).

This present massacre and battle is another example of a contingent specificity. It requires the particular popularity of football that exists in Egypt, along with the existence of a politicized fan base, in the form of the Ultras, et al. The choice by the military leadership to pursue a big defeat against the Ultras and the response of the broader masses to that massacre is specific. I am no fan of sports and, in general, I think that most spectator sports plays a reactionary role, instilling notions of thuggish competition with opposing teams and cultivating notions of imaginary unity between classes over trivial commonalities, such as place of residence. But that role is frequently challenged and undermined by the masses themselves, such as with the Ultras, or even in Canada, with the Richard Riot of 1955 by Montreal Canadiens fans, which was an expression of the growing demand by francophone Quebecoises for their national and linguistic rights. It was, in many ways, a prelude to the Quiet Revolution of the early 60s and, later, the rise of the PQ and the explosion of strikes and radicalization in Quebec.

These sorts of contingencies and "accidents" are one of the reasons why revolutions and rising class conflict are hard for rulers to manage. Once the pandora's box of struggle has been opened, it often takes many years to put it back, requiring a series of battles, none of which will be decisive but each of which could reverse all of the gains of the ruling class. They never know when they will make a fateful misstep and launch the struggle to a higher level - as opposed to creating more passivity and acceptance. It creates a growing sense of "walking on eggshells" that also increase the tension and uncertainty inside the ruling class. When anything can blow up in your face there is inevitably bickering about what to do. And such bickering can increase the confidence of those at the bottom to impose their own solution.

To bring it back to Egypt, the failure of the football massacre to generate a pro-policing response or to cow the Ultras and their allies could easily lead to a further fracturing of the state machinery. Already the state governor in Port Said (where the game and massacre took place) has been forced to resign, along with the head of security and the entire board of the football association. Everyone, even the Muslim Brotherhood see this event as an intentional act of vengeance against the Ultras. If SCAF were intending to test the resolve of the revolutionaries, they have gotten their answer. My guess is that it wasn't the one they were hoping for.

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