by Steven Salaita
Their recent upheaval would certainly have been different, perhaps dramatically different.
In the past month, the people of Egypt—inspired by the recent democratic revolution in Tunisia and preceding emergent revolutions in Libya, Algeria, Bahrain, Jordan, Yemen, and Syria—have undertaken a revolt of truly stunning proportions, one that includes men and women from all class strata, religious and ethnic origins, and ideological commitments. They managed to rid themselves of a longstanding and brutal dictator worth over $40 billion and supported by the collective power of the United States, European Union, Israel, and the Arab Gulf States.
Now that two Arab dictators have been vanquished by the collective will of unaffiliated protesters, many American commentators have been forced to rethink their assumptions about the supposedly tribal and authoritarian Arab mind. Such commentators, sometimes conservative but often liberal, fancy themselves guardians of a civic and political enlightenment that in reality is misinformed in addition to being conceited and imperialistic.
Nevertheless, given the ardor and self-confidence of the notion that American values exemplify democratic modernity, let us imagine a few potential outcomes had the pioneering people of Egypt followed the example of today’s liberal American Democrats.
Mubarak offered the Egyptian people what he deemed sweeping reforms. The people rejected his overtures as inadequate and disingenuous, which only increased their desire to oust Mubarak. A protester named Dalia observed, “Nothing will make this regime go unless we keep on coming and keep on coming.” Had Dalia been a Democrat, she might have instead responded, “The Egyptian government has a real opportunity in the face of this very clear demonstration of opposition to begin a process that will truly respond to the aspirations of the people of Egypt.”
Despite police brutality, the people of Egypt remained steadfast and continued their chants of “down with Mubarak” and “Tunisia is the solution,” both slogans underscoring the importance of a genuinely transformative revolution. Had they been Democrats, they surely would not have been so quixotic and would have instead opted for a pragmatic approach, as most Democrats do in every American election. As Michael Moore warns, democratic transformation has no real place in American politics: “And so, I just—I think that—I mean, what I’ve proposed for the last few years is that if we really want to try and get this power in our hands, in the people’s hands, in the hands of the working people of this country, then we should, on a very grassroots level, from the bottom up, be doing things to—whether it’s running for local office, taking over the local Democratic Party.”
Working within a corrupt system, rather than trying to abolish it, is the way American liberals like Moore prefer to pursue justice: “well, we have these two political parties which are really very much like one party, why don’t we make sure that one of those parties actually is a second party and start locally and do that? And that’s what I encourage people to do. That’s my approach.”
The Egyptian protesters demanded rule by the people rather than subservience to a small caste of politicians and crony capitalists. They continue to agitate for a new constitution, universal health care, a multiple-party democracy, unionization for workers, and an end to the violent suppression of dissent. If they were Democrats, they probably wouldn’t be so ambitious. In the United States, dissent is often suppressed, sometimes violently, unions are busted, two parties representing 300 million people assert plutocratic hegemony, and politicians of the two parties serve the interests not of their citizen constituents but of crony capitalists. The Democrats do not tolerate dissentient action in the form of mass protest; they prefer the tactic of voting for Democrats during election season.
Liberal commentators dismiss as silliness any desire to oust dictatorial leaders outside the pragmatic framework of Democratic values. Todd Gitlin preaches discipline in the face of abusive state power: “Will the rebellious left discipline itself, cool its boiling blood, and decide that the pleasures of sectarianism are worth less than the steady resolve of infrastructural work?” Speaking against—what else?—leftist politician Ralph Nader, Eric Alterman is less diplomatic: “The man needs to go away. I think he needs to live in a different country. He’s done enough damage to this one. Let him damage somebody else’s now.” Alterman despises Nader because of Nader’s lack of faith in politicians: “Politicians blow with political winds. To force them to blow our way, progressives need leaders who can combine hardheaded realism with the ability to inspire Americans’ nascent idealism.”
According to liberal Democrats, alternate politics are impossible and thus undesirable. The Egyptian people do not share the same viewpoint. There was nothing pragmatic about what they did: it is never a reasonable idea to march into bullets, tear gas canisters, and police boots in order to upend a rotten political system brandishing the imprimatur of the world’s most powerful armies and politicians. But if the Egyptian people wanted a just political system, rather than the practical realities of theft and corruption, they needed to replace and not merely reform their government. To challenge bad politicians by electing more bad politicians is not serious political thinking; it is an inducement to apathy and intellectual frivolity.
The Egyptian people erected a remarkably functional democratic space in Tahreer Square, complete with an infirmary, a kindergarten, and a pharmacy. When Democratic Party bosses get together, protesters are entrapped in chain link cages.
In short, if the Egyptian protesters were Democrats, they would have undertaken no revolution. The Democratic Party represents the pervasiveness of elite corporate power; its liberal supporters represent the appropriation of oppositional politics into the neoliberal economies of electoral hegemony; the Egyptian protesters represent a determined, collective will to social justice and legitimate freedom. If those protesters were American liberals, they would have sided with the state while professing support for the people.
If the Egyptian protesters were Democrats, they would have accepted Mubarak’s proposed reforms—not because those reforms were good, but because Democrats are accustomed to settling for empty rhetoric. They would have accepted Mubarak’s handpicked successor, the infamous torturer Omar Suleiman—not because they like him, but because he would presumably be less evil than his predecessor. They would have accepted the inevitability of defeat—not because they wanted to lose, but because losing would be both pragmatic and realistic. The actual Egyptian protesters, however, would only accept freedom.
For those who might respond to this hypothetical exercise by pointing out that the United States is not Egypt, I would agree. Egypt under Mubarak was more equitable than the United States under Barack Obama. Egypt has far less income inequality than the United States, and all of Mubarak’s brutality was at least indirectly underwritten by the American government.
The people of the Middle East and North Africa have never listened to American liberals, who through the years have loved to bestow unsolicited advice on Arabs. Had the Arabs accepted this unsolicited advice, they would have become Democrats instead of revolutionaries.
The only acceptable liberal American response to the revolutions in the Arab World is the silence that enlivens a sincere attempt to listen. Clearly it is time for American liberals to stop lecturing Arabs and start following their example, instead.