Focal Points Blog

Is Egypt’s New Military Leadership Just Coup d’Etat Light?

Cairo slumsHosni Mubarak is out and the military is in charge of Egypt. Is this a soft coup d’état or a true transition to democracy stewarded by the military? On the surface, the pro-democracy movement appears to have succeeded without violence. Could the infant revolution succeed in bringing democracy and free and fair elections? This is an important question since the military is still in charge and the revolution is in its infancy.

The Egyptian regime has been kept in power for decades with an estimated one million Egyptians working for security services in the military as well as in the police. The security services have blood on their hands. With orders from the regime, these forces arbitrarily arrested, kidnapped, tortured, raped, and murdered its citizens who would dare to oppose the 30-year regime. In contrast, the Egyptian military has little or no blood on their hands directly, but they have used their influence and might to keep the regime in power. The role of the military became very clear in the removal of Mubarak (February 11) and anointing the military in charge.

The regime, in addition to their massive abuse of the people, has pillaged the country’s wealth for their use. They have robbed billions of dollars from the treasury and used their power to grab corporate dollars in ill-gotten deals. In the same period, the people have suffered extreme poverty and diseases. Thirty million Egyptians live on less than two dollars a day. According to a UN–HABITAT 2010-2011 report, out of the population of eighty-five million, fifteen million Egyptians live in slums.

Since the beginning of the Egyptians’ pro-democracy revolution on January 25, the demonstrators sacrificed over three hundred deaths and several thousand wounded. The demonstrators, amazingly, continued to call for peaceful demonstrations all across Egypt. What is next for the pro-democracy movement if the military reign of power subverts the revolution?

Before answering the question, first and foremost, the pro-democracy movement must choose their leaders along with a clear and unambiguous platform for democracy, party participation, and fair and just elections. The platform should declare that no country should interfere in the progress of their revolution. This will be difficult in an arena that has depended on Egypt for its cold peace with Israel. Immediately after the announcement of Mubarak’s departure, Israeli media reported that Israeli analysts were happy to have Egypt’s military in charge. They added that the 1.5 billion US dollars annually given to Egypt is the leverage to keep Egypt in check for the peace treaty with Israel. Let us hope that a sovereign democratic state of Egypt is the best guarantor of peace.

Ultimately, the next steps for the pro-democracy movement will be to lay the moral framework for their movement. The world was rocked by watching this peaceful revolution in real time. To remain faithful to the principles of democracy, the people must remain firm in their commitment to peaceful means, valuing each individual human life, and treating all of Egypt’s citizens as having equal worth. The pro-democracy movement must remain vigilant, increasing pressure peacefully while demanding the dismantling the organs of oppression.

The events in Egypt are still fluid. We all hope this peaceful revolution will be able to become rooted in an Egyptian republic. If democracy holds in Egypt, peace activists across the globe will be ecstatic that two peaceful revolutions – in Tunisia and Egypt- have come to pass. The world waits as the cultural heart of the Arab world begins its march to democracy.

Egypt Has Already Experienced Islamic Rule — and Found It Wanting

At Jadaliyya, Paul Amar, one of the most informed voices on Egypt, reinforces just how far the Egyptian protests were from a Muslim revolution.

In the past ten years [a] particular wing of the [Muslim Brotherhood] has been partially coopted by Mubarak’s government from two angles. First, Brothers were allowed to enter parliament as independent candidates and have been allowed to participate in the recent economic boom. . . . Second, the government wholly appropriated the Brothers’ moral discourse. For the last ten or fifteen years Mubarak’s police-state has stirred moral panics and waved the banner of Islam, attacking single working women, homosexuals, devil-worshipping internet users, trash-recycling pig farmers, rent-control squatters, as well as Baha’i, Christian and Shi’i minorities. In its morality crusades, the Mubarak government burned books, harassed women, and excommunicated college professors. Thus, we can say that Egypt has already experienced rule by an extremely narrow Islamist state – Mubarak’s! . . .

In recent years . . . people have grown disgusted by Mubarak’s politicization of Islam. Egyptians began to reclaim Islam as a project of personal self-governance, ethical piety, and social solidarity. This trend explicitly rejects the political orientation of Islam and explicitly separates itself both from Brothers’ activities and Mubarak’s morality crusades.

In other words:

Egyptians tried out that kind of regime. And they hated it.

Egyptian Protesters Dared to Stand on the “Edge of Chaos”

Clinton Mubarak(Pictured: Secretary of State Clinton and former Egyptian President Mubarak.)

The new science of Chaos and Complexity has a laboratory experiment unfolding with breathtaking clarity before our eyes in Tahrir Square. This science, and its interface with peace-building and diplomacy, carries an explanation for a way of thinking about the events in Egypt that are likely to spread to the wider Arab world.

What if inside the White House Situation Room, with President Obama and the State Department facing a hyper-speed revolution in Egypt, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s advisors had sat together examining fractal structures, nonlinear dynamical systems, and models of self-organization and self-organized criticality? “WHAT”? you say.

What we have been watching on our television and computer screens is an emerging condition of self-organization by the protesters in Tahrir Square. The new conditions are unstable and fragile, complexity science tells us, because they are at “the edge of chaos,” and if diplomacy is not skillful in the coming days and weeks, all may yet be lost in the abyss of violence. When the Egyptian revolutionaries needed our unconditional support, the Administration played an old diplomatic game of deliberate ambiguity, missing an opportunity to make us look morally decisive to the Arab world. After Mubarak’s resignation, Obama sent a carefully crafted message that signaled diplomacy as usual underneath the soaring language.

Complexity science is often called the science of Emergence. Anderson Cooper and CNN and Aljazeera and Facebook and Twitter got it right, because both the old media and the new social media went with the flow of events and became strategic participants as well as heroes, publicly thanked by the leaders in Liberation Square. The administration sat on its hands, out-scripted by the pace of events they couldn’t predict or control.

The administration’s response to a 21st century event of profound importance to our national security is being met with 20th century diplomatic thinking. That thinking includes vigorous attempts to predict and control the outcome of events that are what mathematicians call “non-linear”—they don’t move in a straight line, they ebb and flow like water in a stream, or roll back and forth like clouds in a storm. Weather is a non-linear system—and we all know how hard it is to predict the weather even a day or two in advance.

So how on earth can we predict and control a revolution, one that ebbs and flows from one day to the next? Twentieth-century diplomacy was predicated on events that moved in a straight line, progressing from one stage to another. The world is much more complex today and demands a 21st century response to “non-linear” events like the Egyptian revolution.

Imagine the revolutionaries as kids building a tower made out of plastic chips, starting their tower and carefully adding more chips to the pile. The tower is stable for a while and growing taller, but as more chips are added (and no one is telling them what to do or how to do it — they’re figuring it out as they go along) the pile becomes unbalanced and seemingly on the verge of collapse. The tower is now a complex system at a critical juncture, because it has become larger and more variable, and the kids cannot know with certainty when and how the chips may fall.

If the foreign policy advisors were schooled in the latest thinking, they would have anticipated the revolution sooner, instead of being surprised. This wasn’t a “Black Swan,” the total surprise that Nicholas Taleb writes about in his terrific complexity book. Complexity thinking might have forged an appropriate response well ahead of time, because it opens minds to patterns that are emerging, not based on what has happened before in history, forcing analysts to use their imaginations as a tool for policymaking. Einstein encouraged this in his famous quote: “Imagination is more important than knowledge.”

If we apply complexity thinking to diplomatic strategy, we open our minds to a variety of scenarios, to new insights into emergent leadership and democratic structures. We include stories of possible, even probable futures previously unimaginable. We embrace the uncertainty of a spontaneous revolution, rather than trying to predict or control it. We can’t know how the chips will fall. Developing creative and imaginative scenarios about an unknowable future, we can anticipate those moments of “self-organized criticality” when our diplomatic interventions can contribute to the emergence of a transition to democratic governance and the women who will lead it.

There is no “road ahead,” as the President stated today. There is instead a shifting landscape of possibility, and if the administration is as smart as Anderson Cooper, they will take the time to explore it.

Merle Lefkoff is President of Ars Publica in Santa Fe, New Mexico, applying the science of complexity to the art of peace building and diplomacy.

What Does It Feel Like to Break Bread With a Murderer Slash Torturer?

Wisner(Pictured: Frank Wisner.)

At Britain’s Open Democracy, Craig Scott raises that question.

“I see in my mind’s eye the genteel spectacle of Chile’s former President, Augusto Pinochet, taking tea with former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. This was apparently a ritual for the two leaders after their respective retirements as heads of government, whenever the General would visit London. But the image specifically dates to the Thatcher-Pinochet tea tryst only days before Pinochet’s arrest in London in 1999 on an extradition warrant from Spain for his role in various brutalities in Chile, including overseeing its torture system. . . .

“That image popped up again twice in the last year, as I observe Hillary Rodham Clinton careening about in response to events in Sri Lanka and now Egypt – bouncing from (realpolitik) wall to (humanitarian) wall to (pragmatism) wall, in a kind of foreign policy funhouse of mirrors.”

After he catches up Mrs. Clinton once making the statement that “I really consider President and Mrs. Mubarak to be friends of my family,” Scott writes:

The image of Lady Thatcher and the General-President demurely sipping their Earl Grey dissolves into an image of the Clintons and the Mubaraks knocking back a latte or two in the Clintons’ Washington digs, for old times’ sake.

Scott’s next piece for Open Democracy, a British site well worth frequenting if you’re unfamiliar with it, is even more troubling. He analyzes the Frank Wisner debacle. It turns out that Wisner, supposedly sent to Egypt because he served as an ambassador there, currently works for a public relations firm that counts Egypt as a client. Scott asks:

Did President Obama send Wisner as his envoy in full knowledge of Wisner’s employment at Patton Boggs, or was that fact elided by Clinton when recommending Wisner to the President? Was Wisner briefed . . . the President or from Secretary of State Clinton? Did Wisner deliver the message President Obama charged him with conveying to Mubarak, or not, and what was that message, exactly? Was Wisner recalled from Cairo because of leaks of his role or because President Obama, or perhaps Secretary of State Clinton, learned of or suspected he had been off-message? Has Hillary Clinton been pursuing her own direct back channel with Mubarak or Suleiman, and with what messages? Did the idea of appointing Suleiman Vice-President and transitioner-in-chief emerge from discussions involving Wisner and/or Clinton with Mubarak?

In fact,

How is it that someone (Wisner) so versed in foreign relations and just coming off the most crucial of missions for the President could publicly state a position diametrically opposed to what the White House claims to be its own position? Did Clinton know in advance what Wisner was going to say or even actively encourage Wisner’s remarks?

Based on what we know now, by recommending Frank Wisner to be the President’s envoy to Cairo, Clinton could not have snookered Obama better if she had tried. The bigger question is whether this is in fact exactly what she tried – and also whether she has, in the result, succeeded given how the US seems to have lined up behind the Suleiman Transition as ‘solution.’

For the latest, see the Sunday New York Times report, In U.S. Signals to Egypt, Obama Straddled a Rift.

It’s Not Our Values They Hate, It’s Our . . .

At the Christian Science Monitor, Graham Fuller gets off a good “gotcha.”

. . . we have been through this debate endlessly since 9/11. Why is there so much anti-American sentiment? No, it’s not because “they hate our values.”

Wait for it (as they say) . . .

It’s our lack of values in foreign policy they don’t like.

Good one, Graham. Expanding on that, he writes that it’s “our hypocritical lack of commitment to democracy, except when it meets our immediate needs.”

The entire essay, US can blame itself for anger in the Middle East, and start making peace, is as eloquent as anything you’ll read on the subject by an American. As he brings the piece to a close, Fuller writes, “We favor democracy — but only when it produces the leaders and policies that suit our interests, not theirs.” Okay, we know that, but then he waxes epigrammatic again:

Democratization is always a punishment we deliver upon enemies, never a gift bestowed upon friends.

In fact, we’re as biased in our choice of states to which we grant democracy as we are with nuclear weapons.

Ordinary Egyptians Have Little to Show for U.S. Military Aid to Egypt

Obama MubarakIt was fairly clear that the military would act after Mubarak’s and Suleiman’s ineptly provocative speeches. The motives for forcing him out were almost certainly multi-faceted – and indeed confused. Certainly the gnomic communiques from the Supreme Army Council could have been drafted by the Sphinx for their lack of content.

On the side of pragmatic self-interest, the senior commanders of the military have had a good deal out of the regime, with profits and jobs in all the military-related and controlled industries, not to mention the prestige and other perquisites of power. The senior commanders seem to have calculated that their only chance of keeping their position and privileges was to go with the flow and tell Mubarak to leave.

If they had ordered the army against the protestors they faced a real problem. Would the conscripts and junior officers follow orders and move against their fellow citizens? Mubarak’s announcement of his departure by September and his other concessions profoundly reduced the chances of the military personnel risking their lives, not to mention their honor, for a self-admitted lost cause.

So now the issue is one for delicate compromises. The opposition leaders and the military have to negotiate the proportions of power sharing. The high command will be trying to maintain its power, but their position is weakened: if they are too greedy, then they have to think of the tens of millions who took to the streets and are now confirmed in their potential power. In addition, much of the military does indeed share the sentiments of the protestors, and so their commanders are playing with a weak hand.

The transition will be difficult. Washington has seen it in terms of a move from one amenable strong leader to another more acceptable but equally amenable one. The EU and US preference for Omar Suleiman, a secret policeman in cahoots with what most Egyptians regard as inimical powers, demonstrates how out of touch they are. They have looked at opposition leaders such as Mohammed El-Baradei as potential strongmen and found them wanting.

But that is precisely their attraction. El-Baradei, or retiring Arab League ambassador Amr ElMousa, should be considered as conveners, whose absence from domestic politics and wrangling could make them impartial and consensual spokesmen. El-Baradei showed his integrity under pressure from the UN and others and gained stature, which is perhaps why some of the chattering classes in Washington, who have never forgiven him for that, have been so eager to suggest his unpopularity.

The last thing Egypt wants is a presidential system concentrating power in one person. To replace decades of autocracy will take a parliamentary consensual system that reflects the views of the disparate masses and interests who rallied to overthrow the President — and as they showed the last two days — the regime.

Anyone who knows Egyptians knows their deep interest in politics and international affairs and the evidence of the last weeks certainly indicates they will not revert to becoming passive subjects again.

What are the international repercussions? Washington and the West will now have to take account of the wishes of the Egyptian people rather than rely upon a bribed autocracy. That certainly should reduce the perennial tendency to see the region through Israeli eyes.

It is unlikely that anyone wants to rip up the peace treaty with Israel. There will be no military assault on Israel. But a government in Cairo looking over its shoulder at a newly enfranchised and staunchly patriotic people is unlikely to enforce the blockade against Gaza, or to help Western efforts to frustrate Hamas/Fateh reconciliation. That degree of security cooperation is almost certainly over and the unpopular sales of Egyptian natural gas to Israel will likely be called into question.

But even the US-Egyptian alliance will need much more work and attention than sending a large annual check to the army. Ordinary Egyptians have seen little practical benefit from alleged American friendship, which has taken the form of supporting their oppressors and to some extent impinging on their patriotism by enforcing cooperation with Israel.

In a situation of diminished American power, Washington’s best bet is to sit on the sidelines and applaud, unless it makes it clear that the money to the military stops immediately if it does not reflect the legitimacy established by the street.

One significant and practical gesture would be cooperation in tracking down and returning to the new government the money that Mubarak and his colleagues have looted over the decades.

For the future, Obama needs some more public diplomacy. In the long term, the military aid has to be diverted to civilian uses, and even expanded. But an Obama who does not stand up to Netanyahu over settlements is unlikely to have much standing in front of the Arab street — as will be reinforced in the other autocratic dominoes that might topple.

Any suggestion that the US will only welcome a democratically elected regime if it hews to American preconceptions about Israel, or that its welcome will be tempered if Islamic parties are represented in the new government, is guaranteed to be counterproductive.

Emphasis on Social Networks Does a Disservice to Egyptian Protesters

In a recent post titled You Can’t Tell Egypt’s Players Without a Scorecard we excerpted an essential piece on Egypt by Paul Amar, Associate Professor of Global and International Studies at the University of California, Santa Barbara, at Jadaliyya. He explains that, Egypt (as, we observe, in Iran with Ayatollah Khameini) isn’t ruled by a single supreme leader, but by a tangle of governmental and security departments with competing agendas.

Meanwhile, many are celebrating the spontaneity of the protests and how they seemed to arise from the Egyptian masses energized by the electrical current of social media. But that does a deep disservice to the social consciences, years of hard work, and heritage of many in Egypt. Or as Amar explains, “. . . behind the scenes of the non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and Facebook-driven protest waves, there are huge structural and economic forces and institutional realignments at work.”

To wit:

With the burgeoning youth population now becoming well organized, these social and internet-coordinated movements. . . . can be grouped into three trends. One [group is] organized by and around international norms and organizations, and so may tend toward a secular, globalizing set of perspectives and discourses. A second group is organized through the very active and assertive legal culture and independent judicial institutions in Egypt. . . . A third . . . represents the intersection of internationalist NGOs, judicial-rights groups and the new leftist, feminist, rural and worker social movements.

Also:

. . . there has been a return of very powerful and vastly organized labor movements, principally among youth. 2009 and 2010 were marked by mass national strikes, nation-wide sit-ins, and visible labor protests often in the same locations that spawned this 2011 uprising. . . . Then just on 30 January 2011 clusters of unions from most major industrial towns gathered to form an Independent Trade Union Federation.

Finally:

. . . the critical, and often overlooked role that Egypt has played in United Nations and humanitarian organizations. . . . Muhammad ElBaradei. . . . bravely led the IAEA and was credited with confirming that there were no weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, and that Iran was not developing a nuclear weapons program. . . . For much of the week, standing at his side at the protests has been Egyptian actor Khaled Abou Naga who has appeared in several Egyptian and US films and who serves as Goodwill Ambassador for UNICEF.

Ultimately:

This may be much more a UN-humanitarian led revolution than a Muslim Brotherhood uprising. This is a very twenty-first century regime change – utterly local and international simultaneously.

Tahrir Square a Product, in Part, of the Perversion of Microcredit

A great idea in theory, in Egypt as elsewhere, Paul Amar explains at Jadaliyya, “the micro-enterprise system has become a massive set of police rackets and ‘loan shark’ operations.”

In the very recent past, Egypt has reemerged as a manufacturing country. . . . And many of the workers in Egypt’s revived textile industries and piece-work shops are women. If you stroll up the staircases into the large working-class apartment buildings in the margins of Cairo or the cement-block constructions of the villages, you’ll see workshops full of women, making purses and shoes, and putting together toys and computer circuitboards for sale in Europe, the Middle East and the Gulf. These shop workers. . . . were the ones who began the organizing and mobilizing process that led to this uprising.

Why?

Since the early 1990s, Egypt has cut back welfare and social services to working-class and lower-middle-class Egyptians. In the place of food subsidies and jobs they have offered . . . Micro-credit loans. . . . often specifically targeted toward women and youth. Since economically disadvantaged applicants have no collateral to guarantee these loans, payback is enforced by criminal law rather than civil law. . . . Police demanding bribes, harassing small micro-businesses, and beating those who refuse to submit had become standard practice in Egypt. Internet cafes, small workshops, call-centers, video-game cafes, microbuses, washing/ironing shops, small gyms constitute the landscape of micro-enterprises that are the jobs base and social world of Egypt’s lower middle classes. . . . Police sexualized brutalization of youth and women became central to the “regulation” of the massive small-business economy.

A by-product of these abuses:

. . . the micro-business economy is a tough place to operate, but it does shape women and youth into tough survivors who see themselves as an organized force opposed to the police-state.

WikiLeaks: U.S. Advises Bulgaria on Modernizing Its Military for NATO Deployments

We’re honored to have Michael Busch dissecting the latest WikiLeaks document dump for Focal Points. This is the forty-first in the series.

Under normal circumstances, news this week that Bulgaria has announced plans to replace its aging fleet of Soviet-era fighter jets with planes that other countries actually might be scared of wouldn’t attract much attention.

But the news came right on the heels of a new cable released just days before by WikiLeaks, outlining efforts by American diplomats to get the Bulgarians to modernize their air force by purchasing planes from US corporations.

The cable was written in the wake of the Bulgarian Council of Minsters’

decision to revise [the country’s] “Plan 2015″ military modernization roadmap [which] represents an important opportunity for the United States to influence the development of Bulgarian military capabilities over the medium and long-term.

Particularly, the United States was interested in helping Bulgaria develop its military capabilities so that the new European Union member could send more troops to various battlefields of the war on terror.

Although Bulgaria possesses nearly 40,000 service members, it has no means to deploy and very limited means to sustain forces outside its borders. The overwhelming majority of its currently deployed 727 service members are drawn from the Bulgarian Land Force’s four maneuver battalions, virtually all of which have been transported and are sustained by the United States. These realities represent the most basic limitations to increased Bulgarian commitments to Iraq and Afghanistan. The highest priority should be placed on encouraging Bulgaria to invest in the equipment, vehicles and weapons that will enable them to deploy and fight interoperably with U.S. and NATO forces overseas.

A number of roadblocks to achieving this objective stood in the way, however, including wasteful investments in submarines and an antiquated surface-to-air missile defense system that were bleeding the already meager state budget dry.

Of particular concern to the Americans was the possibility that Bulgaria would look to European corporations to upgrade their military capabilities.

Bulgaria has been under intense pressure from France to sign a massive ship procurement deal worth over one billion dollars. While modernization of the Navy remains a goal, we will continue to advocate against Bulgaria spending an amount greater than its annual defense budget on this single procurement, particularly since this purchase exceeds Bulgaria’s operational requirements and will not address its own stated top priority of improving Bulgaria’s ability to deploy and sustain troops outside its borders.

Instead, American diplomats urged the purchase of Lockheed Martin C-27J transport aircraft.

Theater lift capability will improve with the purchase of five C-27Js (one per year for the next five years with first delivery scheduled for Nov 07) and participation in the NATO C-17 consortium, but Bulgaria’s current fighter force has reached the end of its useful life. Affordable, interoperable multi-role fighters are necessary for them to continue to police their airspace, but it is important to advocate for systems to which they can quickly transition. Bulgaria should be steered away from the purchase of additional Russian fighters, which are currently an obstacle to Bulgaria’s transformation to a more operationally and tactically flexible organization as expected by NATO.

The fact that State Department diplomats have acted as travelling salesmen for the American corporations has been well-documented by cables WikiLeaked thus far. But the cable from Sofia is the first instance of diplomats playing the part of used car dealers. Embassy staff planned

to advocate against new, very expensive systems such as the Eurofighter, Swedish Gripen, and Joint Strike Fighter in favor of very capable older versions of the F-16 or F-18 as a bridge and catalyst for operational and tactical transformation. The Bulgarians may be eyeing new combat aircraft, and U.S. manufacturers will, of course, be in this hunt. But cost factors would exhaust the defense budget, and Bulgaria would be hard pressed to perform essential training and maintenance functions on such a squeezed budget.

This last observation was confirmed this week, when the Bulgarians announced they would consider both new and used aircraft while shopping for upgrades to replace the current fleet. And while the final decision on what to buy has yet to be made in Sofia, the cable suggests that Washington has a distinct advantage in competing for Bulgarian bucks.

Key contacts within the Ministry of Defense see U.S. and NATO guidance in the revision process as vital to ensuring a productive and affordable outcome; without our input they are concerned that political interests will trump military requirements. These contacts have offered to help ensure a U.S. voice in the process and to share inside information on the behind-the-scenes maneuvering.

All this jockeying for favor may all be for naught, however. While Bulgaria announced plans to buy an undisclosed number of planes this week, any purchase will not take place until 2012…at the very earliest. Currently, the country continues to suffer under a distressed economy which has been downgraded even further from its already weak standing by both Moody’s and Standard & Poor since the start of 2011. Even as Prime Minister Boiko Borissov confidently predicts a rapid recovery by the start of next year, it is far from clear the country will have the financial wherewithal to get itself up to snuff for deployment by the United States government.

The Egyptian Protests Are a Many Constituencied Thing

Cross-posted from the Dissent Magazine blog Arguing the World.

All of us who have been watching the Egyptian protests over the last few weeks have been told many times that the demonstrations have been “spontaneous” and “leaderless,” sparked by the Tunisian rebellion and spread via the Internet.

Those intent on repeating this storyline can count me as skeptical. As I previously wrote, such depictions of social movements are not unusual, yet often they are more a reflection of ignorance than reality:

[W]hen demonstrations like these erupt, they’re inevitably labeled ‘spontaneous uprisings.’ However, that characterization is usually more a product of previous media neglect and ignorance than it is an accurate description of protest activity. If you’re not paying any attention to a country’s politics and only swoop in when things have reached a crisis point, events will invariably look out-of-the-blue. Yet that’s hardly the whole story.

Yes, there are extraordinary moments when public demonstrations take on a mass character and people who would otherwise not have dreamed of taking part in an uprising rush onto the streets. But these protests are typically built upon years of organizing and preparation on the part of social movements.

There are elements of the “spontaneity” narrative that I think have some truth to them. The Egyptian protests are decentralized, not controlled by any single figurehead or political party. And in terms of social movement theory, moments of dramatic upheaval present a legitimate challenge to some of the ways we might normally look at groups that are pushing for social change.

Without going too deep into the theoretical debate: approaches aligned with Resource Mobilization Theory, which focuses on organized networks and their ability to deploy community resources in prompting social change, are good at understanding the slow, year-in-and-year-out work of building up oppositional organizations. But they tend to be weaker in accounting for moments of mass upheaval, when huge protests take on a life of their own and the legitimacy of a previously dominant order seems to crumble overnight.

Among those who have challenged the Resource Mobilization school, Frances Fox Piven and Richard Cloward have emphasized the disruptive qualities of mass movements, suggesting that such movements can wield significant power even without particularly well-established organizational structures. Theories of strategic nonviolent conflict, working in the lineage of Gene Sharp, offer an independent set of conceptual tools—and a rich set at that—for understanding the art of unarmed uprising.

With regard to Egypt, the tension between these different schools of thought raises a lot of interesting questions—too many to sort out here. But there are some relevant points I think we should keep in mind as we look at the developing story.

First, the skills that it takes to create and sustain a period of mass protest are not the same as those needed to institutionalize the gains of mass demonstrations—to carry forward after the moment of upheaval has passed. Right now, those who are savvy at engaging the media and creating protest scenarios that convey a sense of excitement and forward momentum are very important. However, when it comes to determining how mass action will translate into lasting social change, more traditional organizers, who can develop local leaders and create stable networks of commitment and accountability, will be essential.

With reference to the U.S. civil rights movement, historian Charles Payne distinguishes between two different activist traditions. In the South there was, he argues, a “community-mobilizing tradition, focused on large-scale, relatively short term public events“—a “tradition best symbolized by the work of Martin Luther King.” At the same time, there was also a “community organizing tradition,” with a “greater emphasis on the long-term development of leadership in ordinary men and women“—epitomized by the likes of SNCC and Ella Baker. Both mass mobilization and long-term leadership development are organizing, and both can be extremely valuable. And, at times, they can overlap. But it’s useful to understand that they are distinct processes.

A second point: Even during a moment of dramatic upheaval, there are dangers in ignoring the organizational networks that make up more established social movements. If you view a mass movement as “spontaneous” and “leaderless“—leaving its constituent groups unexamined—it makes it much easier to employ the language of “chaos” and “riots” in describing popular mobilizations. These descriptions lend themselves to a fear of the mob that robs movement participants of their legitimate democratic agency. They’ve been useful for right-wing commentators who argue that we should be wary of the pro-democracy movement (and supportive of the United States’s historic backing of Mubarak), since “chaos” in Egypt will inevitably produce a radical Islamic regime hostile to U.S. interests.

In this type of conservative account (represented in a particularly nutty form here), Mohamed ElBaradei becomes a “self-appointed spokesman for the Egyptian ‘revolution’”—despite the fact that he has significant support from anti-government groups across the political spectrum.

As a counter to this nonsense, I have been pleased over the past week to see some thoughtful and detailed analysis of the protest movement appear, giving attention to some of the different constituencies that have contributed to the uprising.

Juan Cole, at his appropriated named Informed Comment blog, calls the protesters a “broad-based, multi-class movement, with working-class Egyptians clearly making up a significant proportion of the crowd in Tahrir Square.” In arguing why “Egypt in 2011 is not Iran in 1979,” Cole further breaks down why the “social forces making the revolution in Egypt,” including the Muslim Brotherhood, “have a significantly different profile and different dynamics than in Iran.”

Robert Dreyfuss at the Nation also does a good job discussing “Who’s Behind Egypt’s Revolt,” noting:

Contrary to some media reports, which have portrayed the upsurge in Egypt as a leaderless rebellion, a fairly well organized movement is emerging to take charge, comprising students, labor activists, lawyers, a network of intellectuals, Egypt’s Islamists, a handful of political parties and miscellaneous advocates for ‘change.’

He pays particular attention to youth constituencies:

First, by all accounts, is the April 6 Youth Movement. Leftists, socialists and pro-labor people know that the movement takes its name from April 6, 2008, when a series of strikes and labor actions by textile workers in Mahalla led to a growing general strike by workers and residents and then, on April 6, faced a brutal crackdown by security forces. A second, allied movement of young Egyptians developed in response to the killing by police of Khaled Said, a university graduate, in Alexandria. Both the April 6 group and another group, called We Are All Khaled Said, built networks through Facebook, and according to one account the April 6 group has more than 80,000 members on Facebook. The two groups, which work together, are nearly entirely secular, pro-labor and support the overthrow of Mubarak and the creation of a democratic republic.

Overlapping with the youth movement is labor. David Macaray makes the case that “Egypt’s current political unrest was inspired and energized by the actions of the country’s labor movement”:

According to a report presented at a symposium hosted by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, in February, 2010, there have been more than 3,000 labor protests by Egyptian workers since 2004. That’s an astounding number. The report declared that this figure ‘[dwarfs] Egyptian political protests in both scale and consequence.’ …Joel Beinin, a Stanford University professor, referred to Egypt’s labor activism as ‘…the largest social movement in the Arab world since World War II.’

U.C. Santa Barbara Professor Paul Amar elaborates on this in an excellent assessment of Egyptian civil society:

Paralleling the return of organized national(ist) capital associated with the military and ranged against the police (a process that also occurred during the struggle with British colonialism in the 1930s-50s) there has been a return of very powerful and vastly organized labor movements, principally among youth. 2009 and 2010 were marked by mass national strikes, nation-wide sit-ins, and visible labor protests often in the same locations that spawned this 2011 uprising. And the rural areas have been rising up against the government’s efforts to evict small farmers from their lands, opposing the regime’s attempts to re-create the vast landowner fiefdoms that defined the countryside during the Ottoman and British Colonial periods.

In 2008 we saw the 100,000 strong April 6 Youth Movement emerge, leading a national general strike. And in 2008 and just in December 2010 we saw the first independent public sector unions emerge. Then just on 30 January 2011 clusters of unions from most major industrial towns gathered to form an Independent Trade Union Federation. These movements are organized by new leftist political parties that have no relation to the Muslim Brotherhood, nor are they connected to the past generation of Nasserism. They do not identify against Islam, of course, and do not make an issue of policing the secular-religious divide. Their interest in protecting national manufacturing and agricultural smallholdings, and in demanding public investment in national economic development dovetails with some of the interests of the new nationalist capital alliance.

At this point, I hope a vibrant, resourceful, and decentralized protest movement will remain in the streets of Cairo and other cities throughout Egypt until Mubarak and his cronies are out for good. But I also hope that Egypt’s labor movement, its youth organizations, and all those who will be organizing long after the international press departs gain plenty of enduring fans and international supporters to make their work ahead a little easier.

Mark Engler is a senior analyst with Foreign Policy In Focus and author of How to Rule the World: The Coming Battle Over the Global Economy (Nation Books, 2008). He can be reached via the website Democracy Uprising.

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