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Egypt’s Transformative Moment: Revolution, Counterrevolution, or Reform

rageby Richard Falk

Since the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 there have been two further transformative events that have reshaped in enduring ways the global setting. When the Soviet empire collapsed two years later, the way was opened for the triumphalist pursuit of the American Imperial Project, seizing the opportunity for geopolitical expansion provided by its self-anointed global leadership as ‘the sole surviving superpower.’ This first rupture in the character of world order produced a decade of ascendant neoliberal globalization in which state power was temporarily and partially eclipsed by a passing the torch of lead global policymaker to the oligarchs of Davos who met annually under the banner of the World Economic Forum. In that sense, the U.S. Government was the well-subsidized sheriff of predatory globalization while the policy agenda was being set by lead bankers and global corporate executives. Although not often identified as such, the 1990s was the first evidence of the rise of non-state actors, and the decline of state-centric geopolitics.

The second rupture came with the 9/11 attacks, however those events are construed. The impact of the attacks transferred the locus of policymaking authority back to the United States, as state actor, under the rubrics of ‘the war on terror,’ ‘global security,’ and ‘the long war.’ This counter-terrorist response to 9/11 produced claims to engage in preemptive warfare (‘The Bush Doctrine’). This militarist foreign policy was put into practice by initiating a ‘shock and awe’ war against Iraq in March 2003 despite the refusal of the UN Security Council to back American war plans. This second rupture has turned the entire world into a potential battlefield, with a variety of overt and covert military and paramilitary operations launched by the United States without appropriate authorization from either the UN or by deference to international law. Aside from this disruption of the liberal international order, the continuing pattern of responses to 9/11 involve disregard for the sovereign rights of states in the global South as well as complicity of many states in Europe and the Middle East in violation of basic human rights through engaging in torture in response to ‘extreme rendition’ of terrorist suspects and providing ‘black sites’ where persons deemed hostile to the United States are detained and routinely abused. The response to 9/11 also was seized upon by the neoconservative ideologues that rose to power in the Bush presidency to enact their pre-attack grand strategy accentuating ‘regime change’ in the Middle East, starting with Iraq, which was portrayed as ‘low-lying fruit’ that would have multiple benefits once picked:

military bases, lower energy prices, oil supplies, regional hegemony, promoting Israeli regional goals.

The third rupture involving the continuing worldwide deep economic recession that started in 2008, and has produced widespread rise in unemployment, declining living standards, and rising costs for basic necessities, especially food and fuel. These developments have exhibited the inequities, gross abuses, and deficiencies of neoliberal globalization, but have not led to the imposition of regulations designed to lessen such widely uneven gains from economic growth, to avoid market abuses, or even to guard against periodic market collapses. This deepening crisis of world capitalism is not being currently addressed, and alternative visions, even the revival of a Keynesian approach, have little political backing. This crisis has also exposed the vulnerabilities of the European Union to the uneven stresses exerted by varying national capabilities to deal with the challenges posed. All of these economic concerns are complicated and intensified by the advent of global warming, and its dramatically uneven impacts.

A fourth rupture in global governance is associated with the unresolved turmoil in the Middle East and North Africa. The mass popular uprisings that started in Tunisia have provided the spark that set off fires elsewhere in the region, especially Egypt. These extraordinary challenges to the established order have vividly inscribed on the global political consciousness the courage and determination of ordinary people living in these Arab countries, especially youth, who have been enduring for their entire lives intolerable conditions of material deprivation, despair, alienation, elite corruption, and merciless oppression. The outcomes of these movements for change in the Arab world is not yet knowable, and will not be for months, if not years to come. It is crucial for supporters on the scene and around the world not to become complacent as it is certain that those with entrenched interests in the old oppressive and exploitative order are seeking to restore former conditions to the extent possible, or at least salvage what they can. In this regard, it would be a naïve mistake to think that transformative and emancipatory results can come from the elimination of a single hated figure such as Ben Ali in Tunisia or Mubarak in Egypt, even if including their immediate entourage. Sustainable significant change requires a new political structure, as well as a new process that ensures free and fair elections and adequate opportunities for popular participation. Real democracy must be substantive as well as procedural, bringing human security to the people, including basic needs, decent work, and a police that protects rather than harasses. Otherwise, the changes wrought merely defer the revolutionary moment to a later day, and an ordeal of mass suffering will resume until that time comes.

To simplify, what remains unresolved is the fundamental nature of the outcome of these confrontations between the aroused populace of the region and state power with its autocratic and neoliberal orientations. Will this outcome be transformative bringing into being authentic democracy based on human rights and an economic order that puts the needs of people ahead of the ambitions of capital? If it is then it will be appropriate to speak of the Egyptian Revolution, the Tunisian Revolution, and maybe others in the region and elsewhere to come, as it was appropriate to describe the Iranian outcome in 1979 as the Iranian Revolution. From this perspective a revolutionary result may not necessarily be a benevolent outcome beyond ridding the society of the old order. In Iran a newly oppressive regime resting on a different ideological foundation emerged, itself being challenged after the 2009 elections by a popular movement calling itself the Green Revolution. So far this use of the word ‘revolution’ expressed hopes rather than referred to realities.

What has actually taken place in Iran, and what seemed to flow from the onslaught unleashed by the Chinese state in Tiananmen Square in 1989 was ‘counterrevolution,’ that is the restoration of the old order and the systematic repression of those identified as participants in the challenge. Actually, the words deployed can be misleading. What most followers of the Green Revolution seemed to seek in Iran was reform not revolution, that is, changes in personnel and policies, protection of human rights, but no challenge to the structure or the constitution of the Islamic Republic.

It is unclear whether the movement in Egypt is at present sufficiently unified or reflective to have a coherent vision of its goals beyond getting rid of Mubarak. The response of the state, besides trying to crush the uprising and even banish media coverage, offers at most promises of reform: fairer and freer elections, respect for human rights. It is rather obscure about what is meant and even more so, what will happen, in the course of an ‘orderly transition’ under the auspices of temporary leaders closely tied to the old regime, and likely enjoying enthusiastic backing in Washington. Will a cosmetic agenda of reform hide the actuality of a politics of counterrevolution? Or will revolutionary expectations come to the fore from an aroused populace to overwhelm the pacifying efforts of ‘the reformers’? Or might there be a genuine mandate of reform, supported by elites and bureaucrats, enacting sufficiently ambitious changes in the direction of democracy and social justice to satisfy the publics? Of course, there is no assurance, or likelihood, that the outcomes will be the same, or even similar, in the various countries undergoing these dynamics of change, and some will see ‘revolution’ where ‘reform’ has taken place, and few will acknowledge the extent to which ‘counterrevolution’ can lead to the breaking of even modest promises of reform.

At stake, as never since the collapse of the colonial order in the Middle East and North Africa, is the unfolding and shaping of self-determination in the entire Arab world, and possibly beyond.

How these dynamics will affect the broader regional agenda is not apparent at this stage, but there is every reason to suppose that the Israel/Palestine conflict will never be quite the same. It is also uncertain how such important regional actors as Turkey or Iran will deploy or not their influence. And, of course, the behavior of the elephant not formally in the room is likely to be a crucial element in the mix for some time to come, for better or worse.

Richard Falk is an international law and international relations scholar who taught at Princeton University for forty years. Since 2002 he has lived in Santa Barbara, California, and taught at the local campus of the University of California in Global and International Studies and since 2005 chaired the Board of the Nuclear Age Peace Foundation.


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