Tahrir Round: This Is What History Looks Like

By Al Giordano

Since Tuesday, January 25, we have learned many things about Egypt, about State power, and about civil resistance. We have also learned that Tahrir Square is not, in fact, square. It is round. “Liberation Square” has served as a kind of Arthurian round table for the global video game that the mass media serves up as “news,” and also a Rorschach print upon which so much of the world has projected its greatest hopes and deepest fears.
Into this video game people and nations all over the world imagine our selves as players, with seats at the round table, presuming to decide Egypt’s future, pushing buttons and keypads to declare what we, as individuals, think should happen: From much of the West: Mubarak must resign, but, oh no, it can’t be Omar Suleiman who replaces him! And: This isn’t about Egypt. It’s about Obama and whether I like him or not! From Tehran, an authoritarian regime that is even worse than that of Mubarak’s also plays the game, typing: Hail the Egyptian Islamic Revolution! But don’t try this at home, kids! Armchair fetishists of “revolutionary violence” tweet and re-tweet anonymous claims that Egypt’s is a revolution of guns and riot porn footage posing as “alternative media,” To the barricades comrades! This is a military battle! And the digital evangelicals proclaim it theirs: The Twitter Revolution! The Facebook Revolt! In explanation as to why the resistance grew exponentially during the five days when the regime had shut down the Internet, the liberal technocrats offer nary a whisper.
The facts on the ground have not confirmed any of these projected fantasies. The discipline and restraint shown by the great mass of Egyptians in the resistance would, more accurately, make low-tech Gandhi prouder than they would Mao Zedong or Bill Gates. Then there have been the predictable arguments by some – Susan Estrich, today, the latest – that all this news isn’t even about Egypt: It’s about Israel! Oh, please, shut the fuck up and listen for a change. Such is the fantasy nature of video games and international “news” alike.
What gets lost in all this spin are the grievances of the only authentic players in the real-life game, those of the Egyptian people, whose demands have been consistent and clear for the past 16 days: Mubarak must go. Political prisoners must be freed. Repression must stop. The rights to expression and assembly must be protected. Free and democratic elections must be held. Those demands come from Muslims and Christians and secularlists alike, from young people with Internet and elders who don’t know what a URL is, and from every sector of workers that shut down the country’s economy with yesterday’s general strike.
As I type, the media tells us that Hosni Mubarak is about to go on national TV and many report that he will resign. This rumor happened once already in recent weeks, to no avail. We’ll believe it when we see it. If it does go that way – and I’m one who shares the hopes of those in Tahrir Square and throughout Egypt that it would be most wonderful news – the debates will begin as to how and why it happened.
A year ago this week, Egyptian journalist and blogger Noha Atef, then 25, was in Mexico explaining the situation in her country to 70 journalists from 40 countries at the 2010 School of Authentic Journalism. She told of her five-year struggle exposing the repressive state police of her country and the tortures they have inflicted. She shared deeply personal history of how her family had been targeted and harassed by those police, and of her father’s death in the midst of those tensions. If there was a dry eye in the house, I did not see it.
A couple of North American participants in that gathering raised what they thought was the “most important issue” for Egyptians: “What about the Army? It helped the CIA imprison and torture people after 9/11.” I stepped in and replied in a voice heavily laced with sarcasm, “That’s right Noha! It’s not enough that you have taken on the entire national police! The sacrifices you have made are insufficient! You’re not politically correct unless you also take on the entire Armed Forces too!” Noha, as I’ve learned is her nature, responded soft-spokenly to the question about the Egyptian Army. She said, “In Egypt the police are our repressors, but the Army is of the people and is the people’s friend.” That was in February of 2010, and her statement left a number of our participants from the Western Hemisphere – where Armed Forces have historically been the worst repressors against popular movements – scratching their heads, unable to comprehend such a statement.
Then, eleven days ago, on January 28, after three days of state police terror and violence upon the peaceful protesters, the Egyptian Army came out of its barracks and, in large sand-colored tanks, into the streets. I was invited to be privy and party on that date to some of the talks among the young organizers and bloggers who have served as the ad hoc organizing network of the pro-democracy protests. A group of them were gathered with elder opposition leader Mohamed El Baradai who essentially said to them, “tell me what to say and do.” There, they decided upon a strategy and tactic to respond to the entrance of the military into the conflict. Although they really did not know what the Armed Forces would do in the streets, and feared they could be there to repress the demonstrations even more violently, they decided on a tactic in which they would fan out and cheer the arrival of the tanks, telling the soldiers they thought they were there to protect them from the dreaded national police, a gigantic act of street theater embracing the Army on a world stage as a friend of the people.
In our interview with Noha last week about the situation in her country, she repeated that sentiment: "I know many people would not believe it, as the Army in many countries is involved in the dirty work. But in Egypt it’s the opposite. Unlike policemen, the military is respected and considered a guard or a freedom fighter; I, and my generation, had our fathers serving or volunteering in the military in the years of the sixties and seventies. We believe that the Army is protecting Egypt."
The tactic worked for the most part. While peoples of other lands might have jumped immediately to the presumption that this would mean a futile street battle with heavily armed soldiers, the young Egyptian resistance strategists’ decision to respond in the most optimistic way possible made their hopes a self-fulfilling prophecy. And that is classic, old school, text book nonviolent resistance strategy that carried the day.
Today, something similar has happened. Based only on the rumors that Mubarak will resign today, the resistance has apparently decided to treat it as a fait accompli, even as many news reports say that it is only an option under discussion in the halls of the Presidential Palace. By treating it as a done deal, with optimism and resolve, every minute that goes by brings them closer to making it a reality. And if Mubarak does resign today, it will be in large part because the resistance chose optimism and parlayed a rumor into reality.
And even if Mubarak does not resign today, they have further weakened his position and that of his regime simply by encouraging their countrymen and women to imagine it as if it is already so. All power comes from the barrel of imagination, after all.
We all have a lot to learn from these heroes of our time, the multi-generational, ecumenical, multi-cultural participants in the civil resistance of Egypt.
Now is not the hour to tell them what they must do or what solution they can or cannot accept.
Now is the hour to listen, look, learn from  and study their moves, and apply them to our own lands and struggles.
In the end, the round table named Tahrir, or Liberation, is not a video game. And we, looking in from the outside, are not the players. It is a moment of history that belongs to the Egyptian civil resistance and to them only, one that we all can and should embrace and emulate. But let’s not get confused: They are the protagonists of history, and the rest of us are, at best, merely their students.
What is the first thing we ought to learn from them?
That's easy: What we must learn anew is the power of optimism as a cold and calculated strategy and tactic.
Beyond that, we still have tons more to learn.
Maestros, strike up the band!


Al, I leave with this


I leave with this article from the WSJ about the tactics of the revolution.

I need to stress that this revolution didn't happen on Jan25th, these activists have been working for years, small demonstrations  every week , that would mostly be rediculed, they organized, they trained, they endured.

This is a proud moment  for every Arab......

Food, oil, Tunisia, Egypt, and Mexico

Al -

I'm curious what you make of the connections between oil and food and the uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt.  It's generally acknowledged that the uprisings started as food protests (caused due to crop failures and increasing costs for inputs like oil).

Egypt used to be a major oil exporter - and a relatively wealthy nation as a result.  It stopped exporting oil last year, and doesn't have the money to subsidize food or simply pay off its people like other nations in the region.

Looking at Mexico's oil exports - that make up 40% of the government's revenue - there's a worrying trend.  At the rate things are going, domestic consumption will exceed the (falling) domestic production of oil in a couple of years, at which point that revenue stream will go dry.  Meanwhile important commodities are going through the roof (corn, wheat, etc.).  What happens then?

Snowballing in Tahrir and Tenochtitlan

"What happens then?" Egypt goes from 'well oiled' to... 'well peopled'. From Sphinxian 'Swiss vault' wealth to spreading Casbah riches, a People on the march, as for nourishment, feeds heartily on the Pharaoh. As does monumental Egypt with a middle eastern scepter, so will fellow pyramidal Mexico ...with its Northern shading sombrero.

The Organizers

Al, here's some Al Jazeera reporting on the organizers too. 25 minutes. The Revolution has been in the making for 3 years


US reaction


What do you think the optimal strategy is for the US (and Obama) at this moment? 

Given our history of supporting Mubarek (and dictators generally in that region), my first instinct was that Obama should do nothing more than make benign statements like, "we support the people of Egypt and urge free elections as soon as possible."

Now I'm not so sure.  On one hand, I see any statements Obama makes as being easily misinterpreted, if not misrepresented; so perhaps total silence is better.  At the other extreme, it seems that we have genuine influence with the military there; so perhaps we could be more active in facilitating a "transition."

If our ultimate goal is a Democrat, stable Egypt that will honor its international agreements, is there any thing at all the US should be doing at the moment?

@ Jim

Jim - What Washington does behind the scenes is far more important than what it says to the media. The latter can backfire when a regime can frame open calls for its demise as "foreign interference" and that in fact resonates with so many decades of imperialist interventions (and public rejection of them abroad).

What the Egyptian resistance leaders themselves say, openly, is that the Egyptian Armed Forces have to act to remove Mubarak. Since Washington funds that institution, it should be using that lever. The fact that the Armed Forces have so far refrained from repressing the resistance as an institution offers a pretty clear sign that that is precisely what has been going on in back channels in recent weeks.

The other urgent thing Washington must do is put a muzzle on the "hawk" faction in its own bureaucracy: Sec. Clinton, the former ambassador she sent to meet with Mubarak, and others who have offered mixed messages in recent weeks. Three or four times already the White House has had to smack down dumbass statements (like "maybe Mubarak shouldn't go") by those folks. Wouldn't it be better if such statements never happened in the first place?


Al - know you hold SecClinton in special disregard, but let's be honest about the "hawk" faction in this particular case. It surely must include Biden (whose statements were the most pro-Mubarak in the Administration), Ambassador Rice ("orderly transition" over and over - literally the mirror words to Clinton since the start), Panetta (shoulda stayed quiet really), and of course, Gates, the most hawkish Admin cabinet member - who is apparently in direct touch with Egypt's military. Together, this is Obama's FP brainstrust - it just is, and reflects his ideas on policy. It's hardly a rogue or oppositional group. It risks disrepecting the President's evident abilities to not place him at the center of policy decisions.

It was fascinating to watch Sen. Kerry break with this group and to smack down rumors he wants to succeed Clinton - he's moving toward opposition, which is not a bad thing. There needs to be a mainstream Dem counterweight unafraid to disagree with the Obama-Biden-Clinton-Gates nexus.

And btw, totally agree with: "Now is not the hour to tell them what they must do or what solution they can or cannot accept."

Just breaking - Mubarak gone!

Folk Psychology

Hooray for the Egyptian people !

Yes, optimism. I've been actively avoiding the kind of "commentary" that I would normally read in the mainstream media and I've found it much easier to stay informed as a consequence.

Assisted breathing to and fro.

Speaking from my own perspective on the unfolding global reality, I see what's happening in Egypt as close to a perfect mirror image of the state of the present U.S executive branch.

You have Clinton's D.O.S. Basically connecting with the Egyptian Security apparatus and Egypt's political power brokers for some continuity in Security management. Securing power and shady alliances takes precedence over securing a neutral transition to complete and total self-determined Democracy. The bad cop; Clinton/Suleiman.

You have the Pentagon and the Joint Chief connecting with their Egyptian counterparts with a weighed approach based on a U.S. framework for a healthy rapport between the Armed Forces and 'The People' they're constitutionally bound to protect and defend. The good cop; Mullen/Egypt AF.

You have the President, 'We, the American People', connecting responsibly with a lot of innuendos and a few lyrical "envolée" with his present leaderless counterpart 'We, the Egyptian People'. The citizen of both(and all) Nations as the ultimate voice for delegated empowerment.

These are the forces in play here. A subtle coupling of a live tri-polarized revolution with a high tensioned, triply wired US executive branch. All the rest is pure noise, a distraction from a fundamental and far reaching shift, an Obama and a People moment, in the World Democratic landscape.

A well done, and fruitful division of labour Mr.President! What you help set in motion in a distant Land befalls on a clever People's President. I hope, for their future relevancy, the lesson won't be lost on America's very own ...Freedom opponents.

Wonderful post, Al

I'd been hoping to hear your thoughts on this for a while, even though I knew the rough outlines of what you'd say.  I've believed for a long time that democracy only really works if the people themselves demand it, and trying to impose it is virtually impossible.  Nice to see it proven.  While I admit I knew little about Egypt prior to these events, my instinct is always to side with a non-violent mass movement, and I'm happy to see how effective it was.

Mind if I pick one nit, though?  You refer at one point to "Muslims and Christians and secularists."  It sounds like you're saying those are three distinct, non-overlapping sets.  But secularism is the idea that government and public functions should operate independent of relgious influence- it doesn't necessarily imply an aversion to religion generally.  It's perfectly possible to be a secularist and a religious person simultaneously.

Anyway, great posts.  It's always nice to hear your perspective, as well as that of those on the ground.  I'll read that interview you linked to as soon as I get a free moment.

Breaking radio silence

I was wondering, Al, why you hadn't weighed in on this earlier.  I needn't have worried.


The discipline, tenacity, creativity and nonviolence of the protesters has been inspirational.  When their rally turned encampment seemed on the verge of flagging, it seems that the government reliably came forward with a provocation that only swelled their ranks and commitment, and built support throughout Egyptian society and the world.  Allah will provide, indeed.


Looking in from the outside and listening to mass media reporting, it seemed that the demonstrators were very loosely knit, had amorphous demands beyond Mubarak's departure, and no program or strategy for governance in the aftermath.  As the days turned to weeks, it became clear that there was a substantial amount of organization and thoughtfulness.  We have much to learn from them.


My greatest hope now is that they will be able to hold their coalition together, and to successfully make the transition from resistance to governance.  A battle has been won, but the war is far from over.

Obama, Clinton, hard power and Egypt

It's wrong to assume that the viewpoint which Hillary Clinton and Joe Biden represent within the Administration also represents the default viewpoint of Obama himself.  It doesn't.  The Clinton-Biden viewpoint is essentially the viewpoint of the U.S. foreign policy establishment (including both its Republican and Democratic wings) prevailing over the past half-century, which was and still is influenced by the Cold War, i.e. that real power is hard power, that power is vested in governments and regimes, and that you have to deal with bad guys as well as good guys to protect American interests.  To the extent that it is necessary to talk with bad guys, and that you can't take them on all at the same time even if you wanted to, that viewpoint is realistic. But to the extent it means that all U.S. relationships are relationships of convenience and advantage, it means the U.S. doesn't stand for anything except projecting and protecting its hard power. That tension of ideas underlies the on-again, off-again struggle within the foreign policy establishment between those who want to enforce human rights and those who think that concern about human rights is nice but expendable in crises.

Into this dominant worldview in Washington sails Barack Obama, who tells the world in January 2009 that "from the grandest capitals to the small village where my father was born...America is a friend of each nation, and every man, woman and child who seeks a future of peace and dignity." And goes on to say:  "our power alone cannot protect us, nor does it entitle us to do as we please...our security emanates from the justness of our cause...the tempering qualities of humility and restraint."  And "to those who cling to power through corruption and deceit and the silencing of dissent, know that you are on the wrong side of history..."

So it was predictable that the hard power crowd would regard Obama, and would say this in their think tank panel discussions and in 'Foreign Affairs' articles, that Obama is a naive idealist and a wimp.  They've been consistent in that indictment of him for more than two years now, despite Obama's conduct of the war in Afghanistan (which he regards as counter-terrorism, not as an attempt to control Afghanistan).  Hillary Clinton and Joe Biden hobnob with the hard-power crowd and reflect their group-think.  Never known as having had her own ideas about foreign policy, Clinton reverts to their patois whenever she is not reading from a prepared script.  Don't think that that's designed to undercut Obama, with whom she has a good personal relationship, despite frequent hair-pulling among White House and NSC staff.  It just means she can't escape a lifetime of living in the policy establishment.  But Clinton is useful to Obama because she has stature and gravitas, and can be vehement -- a good person at the counter to deal with angry customers.  Yet when it comes to dealing with the world's rising powers, such as India and Indonesia, or responding to popular protests in countries like Iran or Egypt, Obama is very much his own quarterback.

The U.S. handling of Mubarak in this recent crisis had Obama's values written all over it:  Have humility, i.e. don't assume that this is about the U.S. or noisily barge into what is an Egyptian affair.  Let the Egyptian people get credit for what, after all, they are doing themselves.  But talk frankly though not publicly to the institution in Egypt that listens closely to its U.S. counterparts and is quite reliant on American largesse:  the army, and make sure they know that if they shoot at the people, all U.S. aid will be gone in a second.  As Al notes, they got the message.  The rest was what the people did, and Clinton's and Biden's maladroit remarks were not about to divert them or do more than consternate the blogosphere.  Obama knows something that Clinton and Biden don't know:  in lots of situations, U.S. leverage isn't as great as the foreign policy establishment thinks it is.  And unlike that establishment, he's not bothered by that.

Much of what Obama is doing to shift U.S. foreign policy is a matter of what he does not do or say:  it's selective avoidance of hard power ideas and demands -- which is why the right wing is continually apoplectic about his foreign policy.  This doesn't mean that Obama is a consistent liberal-progressive idealist. In top-down policy terms, he disappoints us as much as he satisfies us.  He has his own compass.  It was used to good effect in Egypt.

Obama's foreign policy team

The lede from this NY Times feature gives weight to Al's analysis of Clinton-Obama differences on how to handle Eygpt:

Last Saturday afternoon, President Obama got a jarring update from his national security team: With restive crowds of young Egyptians demanding President Hosni Mubarak’s immediate resignation, Frank G. Wisner, Mr. Obama’s envoy to Cairo, had just told a Munich conference that Mr. Mubarak was indispensable to Egypt’s democratic transition.

Mr. Obama was furious, and it did not help that his secretary of state, Hillary Rodham Clinton, Mr. Wisner’s key backer, was publicly warning that any credible transition would take time — even as Mr. Obama was demanding that change in Egypt begin right away.

Seething about coverage that made it look as if the administration were protecting a dictator and ignoring the pleas of the youths of Cairo, the president “made it clear that this was not the message we should be delivering,” said one official who was present. He told Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. to take a hard line with his Egyptian counterpart, and he pushed Senator John Kerry to counter the message from Mrs. Clinton and Mr. Wisner when he appeared on a Sunday talk show the next day.

Interesting, especially the confirmation that Kerry was not speaking out of turn when he went on TV.

Great analysis, as usual.

Thanks for some behind the scenes info. I also had the impression that some of the newspeople almost wistfully talked up the possibility of uproar and bloodshed. Irresponsible idiots! The president, on the other hand, has impressed me, also as usual:-) His address to the press struck the right notes, IMHO, in particular it was humble towards the Egyptian people as the main player.

The Revolution Will Be Organized...

Al, thanks for this post.  Like others, I've been eager to read your perspective on these remarkable events.

The Wall Street Journal article linked to above, the protest manual excerpts translated and published by Alexis Madrigal on The Atlantic's website, and the Wikileaks release of documentation of the opposition's longstanding plans to end Mubarak's regime this year all point to the years of struggle, sacrifice, discipline and patient, long-term organizing that led to this "spontaneous" uprising.

If you've read Gene Sharp's essay, "From Dictatorship to Democracy"---and if you haven't you should....  (No, really, go read it.  Use the Google, or go directly to www.aeinstein.org.  Download a copy. Share it. Impress your friends.)---then none of the tactics used by the Egyptian opposition come as a surprise.

Sharp's essay is arguably the most influential political essay of the last 20 years.  Behind most of the mass nonviolent uprisings against dictatorial regimes since the early 1990s (e.g., Serbs ousting Milosevic, the Orange Revolution in Ukraine, the 2009 Iranian revolt, and yes, the Tunisian and Egyptian revolutions), you'll find organizers and strategists who've studied Sharp's work and applied it to their circumstances.

One facet of the signficance of these recent events is the utter bankruptcy of the neoconservative world view.  Some of us are old enough to remember when Jeanne Kirkpatrick, Irving Kristol and company argued the US needed to support "authoritarian" regimes because totalitarian regimes could not be overthrown by their own people. 

The 1989 nonviolent revolutions in Eastern Europe proved that, embarassingly enough, the neocons were wrong.  Undeterred, the next generation of neocons (hello there, Bill Kristol) claimed that Arabs and Muslims understood nothing but brute force and repressive violence.  In the last month the people of Tunisia and Egypt have discredited that ideology as well.

Since World War II, mass nonviolent revolutions have overthrown repressive regimes in every region of the world---and have seriously threatened many of the surviving dictators.  Hope and change baby, hope and change.

@ Tribunus P

I liked your analysis of Hillary. Unlike some in America's corporate/government establishment, she doesn't seem to me to be an 'evil' person although some of the things she does and says aren't very helpful to humanity.

Don't think that that's designed to undercut Obama, with whom she has a good personal relationship, despite frequent hair-pulling among White House and NSC staff.  It just means she can't escape a lifetime of living in the policy establishment.  But Clinton is useful to Obama because she has stature and gravitas, and can be vehement -- a good person at the counter to deal with angry customers.  Yet when it comes to dealing with the world's rising powers, such as India and Indonesia, or responding to popular protests in countries like Iran or Egypt, Obama is very much his own quarterback.

Learning from the Egyptians


It is so refreshing to read this perspective.

I have been following the events from an isolated chacra in Patagonia via the internet, and my feelings are that the citizen journalism, when regular journalists have been targeted and prevented from doing their jobs, has been the most important role of technologies such as twitter and FB. I am in awe that I have been able to observe events as they have been unfolding - getting an inside perspective from the Guardian's Live Blog, and even interact, if only to show my support to those fighting at the epicenter, the Heroic Egyptians inside the circle. But instead of praising and giving credit to the technology, we must praise and give credit to Humanity having finally caught up to its Technology - which is something to celebrate, indeed.

The Egyptians have shown what Humanity is capable of, by utilizing the best qualities of our Humanity, and that is why they are Heroes.

As is the point of your article, we have much to learn from the Egyptians, and we all need to step back and look at their achievement in the proper perspective, as an enormous achievement for all of Humanity, for peaceful revolution and for optimism, the only kind of revolution that can truly bring the changes that are necessary for the world to confront the great challenges ahead of us.

Perhaps one of the biggest changes of all would be if we could all really take these achievements to heart, if we could stop chattering about it, stop analyzing it, stop our minds from breaking it down and separating it out and compartmentalizing it and diminishing the power of this amazing moment in history by trying to make sense out of it in the context of the world as we know it, and instead, simply embrace it, meditate on its fullness, internalize it, and become one with this change..

This is how we learn from the Egyptians.

Al's comment on the Egyptian revolution

Thanks, Al - and to think you wrote it before the results were known.

    The intelligence and courage of the Egyptian opposition groups is almost unbelievable - as in, I can't beileve I would be as smart and brave as that. 

    I am not saying I'm completely sanguine about the motives and capabilities of the Egyptian military, but I have confidence that the smart, courageous people of Egypt took the best chance offered.  Muslim Brotherhood - lately trying to to be democratic, but still having some anachronistic positions.  A partner in opposition that seems to understand that it will be monitored by the other opposition.  The Egyptian people will be heard from again if they believe corrections should be made.

    I do hope that officials representing the US will not think they can prescribe solutions - simply support human rights in public and do what they can on the practical human rights agenda in private.   

  And the inspiration!  Maybe the opposition groups in other countries are less well prepared, but it is clear that the people have the ame potential power. 


Khaled Said and cannabis prohibition

Wonderful article.  I would very much like to hear your take on Khaled Said, the young activist who caught police divvying up confiscated marijuana for resale and uploaded the video to the internet.  He was later savagely beaten to death by police at an internet cafe near his home in front of dozens of eyewitnesses.  Protests in outrage over the event were reported by the Daily Beast (http://www.thedailybeast.com/blogs-and-stories/2011-01-22/we-are-all-khaled-said-will-the-revolution-come-to-egypt/) 3 days before "January 25th" when the protests spilled over into a mass movement.  What is your knowledge of drug policy and drug reform in Egypt, and what part, if any, do you think it played in the uprising?




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About Al Giordano


Publisher, Narco News.

Reporting on the United States at The Field.

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