Monday, March 28, 2011

Sixty-two hours in Cairo.

My essay, "Sixty-two hours in Cairo," is now up, online, at The Feminist Wire.

Sunday, February 13, 2011

On inspiration and social movement

On Sunday, the Guardian reported from Algeria under the headline “Protesters clash with police as Egypt fervour spreads.” On the CBS News website, weekend demonstrations in Algeria, Jordan, and Yemen were framed with the banner “Infectious Revolution: Mideast Protests Grow.” Both stories follow weeks of reporting by the international press in which protest movements throughout the region have been presented as “inspired by” events in Tunisia. “There has been an awakening of political awareness among the young,” one western official is quoted as saying. “They are [asking]: ‘Why should we carry on like this?’”

There is no doubt that the revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt have been enormously inspiring—unless of course you, like Glenn Beck, have spent the last three weeks working yourself into an incoherent dither about the global Islamist-socialist-corporate conspiracy to inaugurate a worldwide caliphate. Within the nominally sane portions of the western media, however, the inspiration theme has played roughly the same role as the Twitter Story, allowing news organizations to construct a neoliberal narrative line in which the protests are portrayed as “spontaneous” and “leaderless,” a consequence of “rising expectations” fueled by “new media” and “social networking.” Very little has been said about the real organizational work that went into building the Egyptian revolution. Instead, CNN asks if Facebook brought down Mubarak.

In retrospect, it should seem painfully obvious to everyone that you do not set out to topple a dictator without having some strategy in place. One of the most remarkable aspects of the Egyptian revolution, thus far, has been the momentum of the popular protests. With every day since January 25, more and more people flooded the streets of Cairo. Less than two weeks ago, organizers were calling for a million people to march on Tahrir. By February 11, the day Mubarak announced his resignation, more than three million people had occupied the square. Certainly, spontaneity and inspiration played their part in growing and shaping the movement, but you do not get three weeks of sustained, non-violent protests without somebody doing some work. Inspiration, after all, is neither easy, nor cheap.

Within the western media discourse, however, inspiration is roughly correlative to infection, and revolution is portrayed as if it were part of a natural, metabolic process, best understood through reference to pathology. This, of course, is an old story, but with regard to recent events, it comes with a special racist twist. Even as the Egyptian revolution provides one more proof that the “clash of civilizations” thesis has always been nonsense, the notion of Arab world homogeneity and volatility reappears, if in a weirdly neoliberal guise. Thus, we get the Guardian talking about the February 12 Algerian protests as though they were a direct response to the ouster of Mubarak, while assuring its readers that Algeria has “many of the characteristics” of both Tunisia and Egypt. Nowhere is it mentioned that the Algerian protests had been scheduled for weeks.

One of the great dangers of this western media discourse is that, in seeking to generalize revolutionary sentiment across the Arab world, it distorts our picture of the unfolding global crisis. The crisis of the Arab nations, after all, is not unconnected to the crisis of the world system. Fareed Zakaria is one of the many western media figures who likes to talk about the “rising tide of expectations” in the greater Arab world; a rising tide that, in his estimation, has been occasioned by the “success” of neoliberal policy interventions that have allowed for greater access to education, information, and western-style media. (The Twitter Story, again.) This, of course, is a profound misreading of the situation. Across the world, expectations remain largely static, yet governments are presently unable or unwilling to meet the expectations of their citizens, in large part because of the intransigence of capital. While expectations vary greatly from nation to nation, based upon the legacies of different social struggles and historical processes, the upward redistribution of wealth to the plutocrats of finance capital has given this crisis a global form, one that is barely registered in present discussions of the Arab revolution.

The other great danger of this media discourse—at least, insofar as it concerns the future of political movements in the greater Arab world—is that it lends itself to a sort of magical thinking. Opposition does not just happen. There may be a great deal of earnest desire for political change, but that needs to be developed through forms of organization and analysis appropriate to the local, national, and global situation. Egypt is not Tunisia. Algeria is not Egypt. The differences may, at times, seem slight, but they are enormously important when it comes to questions of strategy, tactics, and the movement for social and economic justice.

Friday, February 04, 2011

Counter-Revolution and Anti-Americanism

After the mass detentions of foreign journalists in Cairo yesterday, many people seem to be wondering if Mubarak is planning some catastrophic counter-revolutionary action. He may be, although I think it's far more likely that the detentions were calculated to underscore his new found anti-Americanism. In Cairo, Mubarak's thugs are now claiming that the opposition is orchestrated by American and Israeli forces intent on undermining Egyptian sovereignty. Even as he continues to feed at the trough of US foreign aid, Mubarak has now cast himself as the stalwart defender of Egypt and the Arab world, standing alone against the forces of empire. This is more or less the same makeover that Saddam Hussein gave himself around 1990. It's difficult to know whether or not Mubarak's anti-Americanism will play to the Egyptian people (at this point, it seems rather unlikely). Nonetheless, he has, for the moment, successfully maneuvered the US into continuing to fund his counter-revolution. At this point, if the US were to withdraw its aid (so the strategic thinking goes) it would merely confirm Mubarak's identity as a lone wolf, a renegade, a rogue. This may be all the more reason to cut aid now, before the diplomatic situation deteriorates any further. The US has missed its window of opportunity. Strategically, the best it can do is play catch up with events on the ground.

At this point, however, it's probably best that the US concede the Great Game altogether. Strategic planning based upon egoistic calculations of interest is neither ethical nor effective. There are too many variables in play, too many futures at stake. We've been playing out the endgame of empire for nearly a hundred years, and we've nearly killed the planet in the process. It's past time that we move on.

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Dear Mrs. Clinton

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, speaking to Arab leaders in Qatar:

“If leaders don’t offer a positive vision and give young people meaningful ways to contribute, others will fill the vacuum,” she said. “Extremist elements, terrorist groups and others who would prey on desperation and poverty are already out there appealing for allegiance and competing for influence.”

Is anyone else overcome by the irony?

Monday, January 10, 2011


There was a demonstration scheduled this afternoon for Place du Premiere Mai. Twitter is down, as is Facebook. It’s hard to tell what roll, if any, online social networking has played in the protest movement here, yet since the Tehran uprisings in 2009, governments everywhere seem to believe that every Tweet brings us another step closer to the brink.

This is how you know something is happening: it’s rush hour, yet the city is quiet. When I left the university this afternoon, there were few students milling about, and the languages building was almost completely deserted. My classes were more than half full, but many students were missing. We continued a long deferred discussion of Henry David Thoreau’s “Civil Disobedience.” The conversation was animated, as we pondered the problem that confronted Thoreau and his contemporaries: Once you see the world, as it is, once your perspective has shifted, once you know that the emperor is naked, what do you do? What are the consequences of this knowledge? We’re still working on the answer.

Saturday, January 08, 2011

Apres-midi, aujourd'hui

This morning, Al Jazeera reports there were again overnight protests throughout the country. The front page of El Watan shows a street clash in Algiers. The caption insists that similar scenes took place across the country: protesters and police injuried in Mascara, Ain Defla, Tipasa, Mila, and Sétif, public buildings attacked in Boumerdes. As of yet, nothing has happened in Hydra. No doubt, the preponderance of embassies in this district means that local security patrols have been increased. Since returning to Algiers, I have not yet left my neighborhood, but I imagine that it might be somewhat more difficult than usual.

The city is quiet, and there is little sign, from up at Place al-Quds, of what is happening in the streets. One of the boulangeries is shuttered. The Viennoiserie is not. The grocery store is open again. The mushrubet kahoolia remains closed. Instead of one cop at the bus station, there are two.

Al Jazeera continues to insist that these recent protests are a consequence of “decades of economic mismanagement” by the Algerian government. Something in this rings false, if only because Algeria’s single biggest problem, economically, is having hitched its wagon to the shooting star of energy production. And this says less about the Algerian government and the last forty years of economic policy than it does about the global north, African underdevelopment, and the legacies of colonialism. Algeria’s economic resources are many and varied, but the hyperdevelopment of the energy sector means that most of those resources remain under-utilized or untapped.

If economic conditions are similar throughout Africa and the Arab world, how can Algerian mismanagement be the cause?

What also falls out of the statistics on Algerian population and unemployment is the impact of the present crisis on the future of the Algerian family. If seventy-five percent of the population is under the age of thirty, and nearly a third of those are unemployed, it means that more and more men will defer, of necessity, getting married and starting a family. To the extent that marriage and family confers social and civic legitimacy, this means that more and more young men will be, as a consequence of economic dispossession, consigned to a marginal position within Algerian society.

Again, this says less about Algeria or the Arab world than it does about the global crisis of expectations, and the collapse of capitalism as a means of social reproduction. Following the logic of a tired, Cold War-era regionalism, the media connects recent protest movements in Egypt, Tunisia, and Algeria, while waiting for something to jump off in Morocco. Little is said about how these street demonstrations might align with tuition protests in London, San Juan, or the general protest of austerity measures throughout the greater EU.

Earlier this week, Immanuel Wallerstein announced that the global economy will not recover. Capitalism can no longer expand. It has reached its point of saturation, its structural limit. The only question, he argues, is what comes next. If capitalism is dead, the struggle is over how we will live, now that it is gone.

Somehow, when birds are falling from the sky, it seems fair to wonder if we have arrived at the zero hour.

Friday, January 07, 2011

Algiers, at dusk

When the French surrendered Algeria in 1962, those who were at all circumspect about the legacy of French colonialism comforted themselves with one fact: at the dawn of independent Algeria, the Algerian birthrate was strong. Sartre’s reply was caustic, and to the quick: “They would do well to remember that it is the poorest countries that have the highest birthrates.”

Here are some things we know: since 1988, when youth protests lit the fuse on what would become the Algerian civil war, the population of Algeria has more than doubled. Some seventy-five percent of that population is now under the age of thirty. Unemployment, officially, runs around fifteen percent. For young people it is much higher, nearer to twenty or twenty-five. Some speculate that it’s higher still, more like thirty or thirty-five. Figures and estimates are easy to come by. Their accuracy is harder to judge.

Here are some other things we know: Algeria is blessed with the world’s largest proven reserve of natural gas, and its third largest reserve of petroleum. US-run Halliburton does big business in the south, working in both energy and defense, but the majority of foreign investment comes out of Europe. Algeria, in turn, supplies Europe with the vast majority of its natural gas. As throughout Africa, China has been dumping vast fortunes into the development of infrastructure, but it is Chinese laborers who do the work.

Foreign capital flows into the south. The majority of the population lives in the north. European businessmen can now fly direct from Paris to Hassi Messaoud without ever setting foot in Algiers.

When money makes money, labor is an afterthought, a redundancy.

This is not about the slumbering masses of the Arab world.