Sunday, February 13, 2011

Egypt: Thinking about tactics for overthrowing despots

Crossed Out

Exhilaration from watching Egypt's so-far-successful revolution continues to grip me. As a friend wrote this afternoon: "I've been riveted by events there..." A blog commenter was moved to come up with a new word for what we're seeing:

... in time, sufficient numbers will do a "Tungypt". There, I just created a new word / noun. A Tungypt: where the people finally assemble, and through daily protests force the government to create a government for the people, of the people, and by the people.

Nobody knows how this will play out over time, whether in a flowering of democracy or in dashed hopes. Egyptians will fight that out. But even now we can begin to look at the tactical level, the nuts and bolts of protest, and try to learn something.

I was struck to hear Robert Malley pointing out on NPR on Friday afternoon soon after Mubarak "resigned" that "both opposition activists and the regimes across the region are already looking at Egyptian events and adjusting their tactics to take these events into account." [Paraphrase; can't find a transcript.] Yes, all sides are looking for lessons.

I encountered the following attempt to draw tactical lessons in comments on a Professor Stephen Walt survey of the Egyptian and regional situation. The poster uses the name "Belisariusorb." I have no idea who this might be or where these points originated. My comments -- derived from a distant past in student movements and years of organizing since -- follow each item in italics.

Decalogue for People-Power Revolutionaries

1. Don’t have a visible spokesperson or committee to speak in public for the revolution. A beast with one head can be beheaded, by assassination, arrest or smear. A many-headed creature cannot be killed.

But can a many-headed creature find its way? Maybe, for a while, in very simple circumstances. but without trusted leaders, how will most people know whether to stay or go (for example) when the going gets tough? Having visible leaders sets some people up to be picked off, but lack of visible leadership can create opportunities for infiltration and confusion.

2. Keep your aims and demands simple and don’t have too many. The more stated demands you have, the easier it is for the regime to satisfy some of them and split off support. Justice must be the first demand.

Yes. Simple broad demands are unifying; laundry lists are meaningless and boring. Appeal to broadly shared values.

3. Use ridicule, satire and contempt as your primary weapons. This has a two-fold effect -- tyrants are extremely vulnerable to embarrassment, and are unsettled by disrespectful attitudes; and at the same time a sense of humour will make you much more attractive to the outside world.

Yes, but using humor is not a spectator sport; make satire, don't just watch Jon Stewart!

4. Your principal strategy is to make the regime uncomfortable. Anything -- from striptease protests to pirate videos to simply violating existing etiquette and forms of address -- is valid here. Think big in your aims and think “small and many” in your actions.

I like the second part better than the first. The youth of the US in the 1960s broke taboos so successfully that the society has never retrieved either prudery or gravitas. But we sure didn't get a revolution. On the other hand, many small actions are great because you don't know what will work until you try it.

5. All despotic regimes have a state TV station -- that is the principal target. Cut the cables and power lines, jam it with radio signals if you can, blockade it to stop staff getting in.

Egyptian protesters never achieved this. State TV carried on -- until it became the vehicle for announcing that Mubarak was history. Does TV matter as much as it once did in the internet/twitter/cellphone era? We don't know yet.

I agree with this from TechCrunch: "The people of Egypt made use of what means they had available, just as every oppressed people has in history. Twitter and Facebook are indeed useful tools, but they are not tools of revolution — at least, no more than Paul Revere’s horse was. People are the tools of revolution, whether their dissent is spread by whisper, by letter, by Facebook, or by some means we haven’t yet imagined. "

6. All despotic regimes have nations that back them or trade weapons with them -- the public in those countries will be guilty about participating in your oppression. You must also target them with letters to newspapers in those countries, telephone interviews, blog comments, and all other media.

I like this. Soften up the enablers of tyranny! Recruit allies where you can.

7. Don’t attack or storm any regime positions -- swarm around them. Never harm anyone. Isolate anyone in your movement who urges violence, don’t allow them to act in your name.

Non-violence is essential -- not because you think it a moral imperative, though you may think so -- but because the other side always has more guns and you've got to find a way to take the struggle off the terrain of who has the bigger stick.

8. Don’t act in the darkness -- dictators love the night. Try to coordinate all events in the full daylight so that the videocameras can record any repressive or violent action.

Or make sure you bring floodlights and generators!

9. Find out which officers command the platoons and companies on the front lines, and try to find family members of those officers who will stand with them in the protest. Also sergeants and private soldiers if possible. This reinforces the idea that the army are the people, and discourages any violent response from the soldiers.

One of the most frightening aspects of the current US is that the military is becoming a society apart from civilian life. If we're serious about future progress here, we'll try to keep lines of communication with the soldiers open.

10. Believe no promises from the authorities. Ever. Even the most democratic of politicians lie to save their positions, and a despot will lie more grandly and more readily than any other.

Yes. Listen -- then test and verify.

Photo: Flickr: darkroom productions.


Theo said...

When reading this post I was reminded of Jesus' creative instructions in the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5:38-42). Walter Wink points out that in context, turning the other cheek was actually a way for a "social inferior" to challenge her oppressor to treat her as an equal, rather than cower in submission. Giving the cloak as well as the coat was an invitation to perform a strip-tease in court to humiliate your creditor, who is trying to fleece you. Going the extra mile with a soldier who is forcing you to carry his load is a way to taking the initiative from him and calling impressed labor into question.

In other words, Jesus counseled making creative use of humor, satire, and other means of challenging authorities who have a monopoly on the use of force. This is not a counsel of passivity, but rather of empowering oppressed people to make use of the forms of leverage at their disposal - and to make use of them together. This is not an individual ethic, but rather a program for community organizing.

While I believe Jesus embraces nonviolence for theological-moral reasons as well - which have to do with imitating God understood in a particular way - he is also alert to practical realities. In his own practice, he exemplifies the possibilities for poor people to experience freedom and joy in the here and now.

And a political interpretation of the Resurrection points to the importance of leadership that is disbursed throughout the community. Think of Oscar Romero - "If they kill me, I will be resurrected in the Salvadoran people." In fact, John Dominic Crossan has argued that the post-resurrection appearance narratives are largely about leadership struggles within the continuing Jesus movement - Peter vs. Mary Magdalene, Peter vs. the anonymous "Beloved Disciple." Who can lay claim to the mantle of the crucified Lord?

Sacrificial love only makes political sense in the context of a movement with a long historical arc. Of course we can not know the scope or effect of nonviolent struggle in advance; hence it is an act of faith. The history of the early church - and beyond - is an instructive, ongoing debate about how best to mobilize symbolic (religious) resources in opposition to (and justification of) empire.

It would be interesting to know more about the role of Islam (and Coptic Christianity) in the current Egyptian revolution. I think the secular vs. Islamic polarity is too tightly drawn. Western commentators equate Islam with oppression in ways that obscure its deep historical commitment to justice and social equality (for men, at least). Perhaps we are seeing another side of Islam rather than a strictly secular revolution in Egypt.

At any rate, it has been breathtaking to witness. Perhaps the most moving scene for me was that of Muslims standing watch for Coptic Christian protestors while they celebrated the Holy Eucharist, with the Copts returning the favor during the call to prayer. Amazing!

Nell said...

Torching of the NDP offices and several major police compounds did give a mighty push to events, though, don't you think?

janinsanfran said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
janinsanfran said...

Hi Nell -- I'm sure some well placed torching made an impression.

Hi Theo -- over the last year I've been very aware of and interested in how some traditions, like Islam, are more aware of the collective, communal elements of a just society then we are. The Western Christian tradition could point in that direction, but currently does not. Turkey, and now perhaps Egypt, are important instances in which a faith tradition that really has little room for separation between religious authority and citizenship within the state is perhaps learning to live with some kind of individual democracy. It won't be our kind of polity; it will be another kind. That's a very hard to imagine that from within this self-referential country.

Belisariusorb said...

Hi, I'm the author of the piece you quoted, the "decalog". I found your comments and criticisms very interesting. I'll try to incorporate your suggestions into the 2nd edition of that list. Funny, a Russian friend asked me today about the prospects for such events in the US. I'm not American but I think it's unlikely.

Meanwhile I'm trying to disseminate my piece among protest circles in countries undergoing uprisings in the hope that it can save lives and get quicker results.

Belisariusorb said...

Great blog by the way. Never been here before, but I'm going to check out some of your excellent posts. Love the masthead photo too - I'm an enthusiastic hiker as well.

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