The Headless Revolution

Posted on February 13, 2011


IVFHR from Greenwald’s blog on Salon posted this link from a professor of Sociology who was in Egypt during the uprising. I think that this really captures for me, the best and most applicable lesson that Americans can learn about organizing.

Second, in every sense the revolution maintained throughout a character of spontaneity, in the sense that it had no permanent organization. Rather, organizational needs—for example governing how to communicate, what to do the next day, what to call that day, how to evacuate the injured, how to repulse baltagiyya assaults, and even how to formulate demands—emerged in the field directly and continued to develop in response to new situations. Further, the revolution lacked recognized leadership from beginning to end, a fact that seemed to matter most to observers but not to participants. I saw several debates in which participants strongly resisted being represented by any existing group or leader, just as they resisted demands that they produce “representatives” that someone, such as al-Azhar or the government, could talk to. When the government asked that someone be designated as a spokesperson for this revolt, many participants flippantly designated one of the disappeared, only in the hope that being so designated might hasten his reappearance. A common statement I heard was that it was “the people” who decide. It appeared that the idea of peoplehood was now assumed to be either too grand to be representable by any concrete authority or leadership, or that such representation would dilute the profound, almost spiritual, implication of the notion of “the people” as a whole being on the move.

Spontaneity was a key element also because it made the Revolution hard to predict or control; and because it provided for an unusual level of dynamism and lightness—so long as many millions remained completely committed to a collective priority of bringing down the regime, represented in its president. But it also appeared that spontaneity played a therapeutic and not simply organizational or ideological role. More than one participant mentioned to me how the revolution was psychologically liberating, because all the repression that they had internalized as self-criticism and perception of inborn weakness, was in the revolutionary climate turned outwards as positive energy and a discovery of self-worth, real rather than superficial connectedness to others, and limitless power to change frozen reality. I heard the term “awakening” being used endlessly to describe the movement as a whole as a sort of spontaneous emergence out of a condition of deep slumber, which no party program could shake off before.

Further, spontaneity was responsible, it seems, for the increasing ceiling of the goals of the uprising, from basic reform demands on January 25, to changing the entire regime three days later, to rejecting all concessions made by the regime while Mubarak was in office, to putting Mubarak on trial. Removing Mubarak was in fact not anyone’s serious demand on January 25, when the relevant slogans condemned the possible candidacy of his son, and called on Mubarak himself only not to run again. But by the end of the day on January 28, the immediate removal of Mubarak from office had become an unwavering principle, and indeed it seemed then that it was about to happen. Here one found out what was possible through spontaneous movement rather than a fixed program, organization or leadership. Spontaneity thus became the compass of the Revolution and the way by which it found its way to what turned out to be its radical destination.

It proved therefore difficult to persuade protestors to give up the spontaneous character of the Revolution, since spontaneity had already proved its power. Spontaneity thus produced more confidence than any other style of movement, and out of that confidence there emerged, as far as I could see, protestors’ preparedness for sacrifice and martyrdom. Spontaneity also appeared as a way by which the carnivalesque character of social life was brought to the theater of the revolution as a way of expressing freedom and initiative; for example, among the thousands of signs I saw in demonstrations, there were hardly any standard ones (as one would see in pro-government demonstration). Rather, the vast majority of signs were individual and hand-made, written or drawn on all kinds of materials and objects, and were proudly displayed by their authors who wished to have them photographed by others. Spontaneity, further, proved highly useful for networking, since the Revolution became essentially an extension of the spontaneous character of everyday life, where little detailed planning was needed or possible, and in which most people were already used to spontaneous networking amidst common everyday unpredictability that prevailed in ordinary times.

None of this brand new. The Palestinian Intifada began in a similar way, with leaders and organizations rising and falling as the demand emerged.  Granted the Intifada couldn’t have lasted forever, and it occurred in a context very different from that of Egypt where citizens have nominal rights and, in any case, cannot all be branded dangerous terrorists in an effort to dampen the world’s sympathy. But the emergence of the Intifada in refugee camps mirrors the momentum of the Egyptian revolution, as both populations had suffered invisibly from unjust police procedures and brutality, and found themselves in desperate economic times.

There’s a bit of Ella Baker in there, too. And much of the movement that has been coalescing around the solidarity movements and world social forums have had similar decentralized foundations as their foremost goal, rather than a product created through a managed hierarchy created by a few individuals.

I realize that this flies in the face of almost every facet of the American philosophy, hooked as it is on individualism and individual accomplishment. But it’s time to realize that our national character is the one thing holding us back.

Note: when I speak of the intifada here, I speak of the 20th c. one, not the 21st century one, which was complicated by co-optation from the Palestinian Authority.

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