Sunday, February 13, 2011

The power of nonviolence; end the Egyptian wall cordoning Gaza

I have been giving nonviolence courses for many years. Friday morning at break, Vlad Shchukin, reported that Mubarak had resigned. For one indication of what this means, see Rob Prince’s posting of Wordsworth’s poem on the explosion of the French Revolution: “Bliss it was that dawn to be alive/but to be young was very heaven” here. Vlad had taken a nonviolence seminar with me before and I had suggested to him that he go work with Vincent Harding and the Veterans of Hope. He has for over a year – gone to the 50th anniversary of SNCC in North Carolina, talked to those veterans of the struggle - and brings a deep sense of the power of nonviolence to the class. Everyone voted to go down to the cybercafe at my school to watch the celebration.

As another student who went through my courses some years ago and joined us commented, what an expression of what the course studies, or, alternately - we have had some discussion of the Egyptian protests in class; what a fulfillment of what nonviolence, as Obama called it “moral force,” is about. In this context, Obama's speech was a wonder - someone who understands the power of nonviolence and can speak to it in Eastern Europe, Indonesia and India, with the words of King about the arc of history being long but bending toward justice - in a way which makes one proud (and I am not so often) to be an American. The US government corruptly armed Egypt and sustained Mubara’s 29 year reign of terror; Hillary seemed to indicate the necessity of Suleiman (a very bad actor) – with Obama’s support - but all this has been brushed away. Especially when compelled by circumstance, Barack often reaches for something deeper than the ordinary political speech; he found it in the memorial in Arizona and again yesterday.

The people of Egypt, he said, inspire us, and do it not through terror often against the innocent, but through nonviolence. He used to have pictures of Gandhi, King and Lincoln up in the Senate office, and the rhythms of King's speech often inform Barack's (it is the day not of the white man or the black man, but of man as man; we are not red states or blue states, but the United States). Hillary and Dennis Ross, the belligerent “diplomat.” were, I suspect, fighting for something bad. The Netanyahu-Lieberman racist government of Israel wanted to hold onto Mubarak, to keep the wall on the fourth side cordoning Palestinians in Gaza into a large open air concentration camp (the words of my friend Tom Farer).

Barack rose to the occasion. He is the head of the Empire; yet his words of admiration for the Egyptians who rose up rang true. Of course, with the demonstrators having picked up all those Combined Systems Inc, made in the USA, tear gas shells, his words did not much resonate with the people in Tahrir Square who were shown the speech on Egyptian state tv. As we watched on CNN, there was sweeping enthusiasm for democracy in Tahrir Square and a realization that they had stood up – theirs was a sense of dignity. Asked by CNN, Egyptians really hadn’t noticed Barack’s speech, and if asked when they have, would probably reflect on it in the context of American guns. Still, it was from Obama’s heart, but as President of the empire, he will of course, try to curtail that very movement. On Obama’s behalf, however, think of what Bush or Hillary or Petraeus might have said…

Still, even the instigator of the Iraq aggression Bob Kagan (one of the 3 principals of the Project for a New American Century) is summoned up in David Sanger’s column in the Times this morning praising Obama’s speech (the Times listens, as always, carefully to the neocons; the editors also chose not to reprint Obama's 6 minute speech and Sanger's column missed its force…). Were the US not dominated by a war complex and militarism, it could decide – as Obama may be considering – to honor democracy in the Middle East to a greater extent (a Times’ story also had Biden hoping for a resurgence of the Green Revolution in Iran; Ahmedinijad would not allow the opposition to organize a march in solidarity with Egypt, kept leaders like Moussavi under house arrest…). The United States is bogged down in losing wars; the point of firing off more weapons may even be escaping, in a depression, America’s leaders…

In this context, democracy from below, the power of nonviolence, is an antidote to (American armed-)oppression and may help bridle American militarism. Before my seminar went to watch the revolution, Leslie Dias, who is of Jewish and Portuguese background, gave a wonderful presentation, linking Gandhi’s notion of truth (satyagaha, literally siding with, grasping the truth to the extent one sees it) and soul force, with the Free Gaza flotilla. Last June, the Mavi Marmara from Turkey brought medical and food supplies to Gaza. Most people in my nonviolence class did not recall what she was talking about – such is the influence of the kept, corporate press (these are well informed, international studies graduate students taking a seminar on nonviolence…). But 8 Turkish citizens, along with an American of Turkish background, were murdered in international waters by an act of Israeli aggression (paratroopers parachuted onto the boat and shot down the people). Obama and Hillary corruptly issued no complaint to Israel about murdering an American in international waters.

But this was a self-destructive act on Israel’s part. Talat Hussein, brother of my friend and student, Rifaat Hussein, the Oprah Winfrey of Pakistan, was on the boat, near one of the men who was murdered. See here. 10,000 Pakistanis came to the airport in Rawalpindi to welcome him when he returned. Every one listened to his reports...From every country, there were such people. There was a 96 year old holocaust survivor from New York…

In addition some of the boatpeople, led by Ken O’Keefe, a former American marine who had served in Iraq, disarmed some of the fascists and could have killed them in self-defense. See here. But they were nonviolent. They did not. The Israeli soldiers who survived – shivering – illustrate the immoral force of the occupation, got to see themselves for what they are…

We had a fine discussion of whether Gandhi envisioned such things as the Mavi Marmara (he did). Nonviolence is a way of communicating. It strives for calm and recognizing the soul of the oppressor, even unto suffering death. But one should recall the 10th rule for a satyagrahi: it is the job Gandhi said of a Hindu to protect a Moslem being attacked by a Hindu mob with his life. So for Jews, Palestinians, or as an Egyptian friend suggest to me, for Arabs, Jews during the holocaust. Through mass, militant noncooperation, nonviolence means taking on and stopping the oppressor. Since oppressors have souls, if one has stopped them, one can then work for truth and reconciliation…

Last week, the corrupt Palestinian Authority arrested teenagers who were nonviolently expressing solidarity with the Egyptian people. Many Egyptians sympathized with those who went to break the blockade – Code Pink was involved in one of those actions – but of course Egyptian security set about to harass such demonstrators. That intimidating and torturing police force is now gone. As Barack said, the power of human dignity is before our eyes. Egypt will not go back to the old ways.

Some students in Egypt exposed to the state television believe that the attempt to break down the wall is somehow connected to fantasized Hamas’ plans to expand into Sinai. In addition, many people have the illusion that the army and people are one. Many of the soldiers and junior officers are – it is why the decadent military leaders, including Mubarak and Suleiman, could not use them against the demonstrators. They were foreigners to decency; they called ordinary people who had stood up “foreigners.” But if they had gone beyond the thugs with whips on camels (their clients), the army – the junior officers and the soldiers - might have put down their guns, surrounded them, and ushered them out of Egypt.

In response to Mubarak’s and Suleiman’s speeches Thursday night, as is now famous in Egypt, 3 officers in Tahrir Square turned in their weapons and joined the protest. See also here.

Obama invoked Germany in 1989. So did a German reporter. Remember the day when the wall came down. The wall around Gaza, the wall which enables the fascist regime in Israel to starve the Palestinians, to keep them in a state of near genocide (the United Nations Convention refers to imposing conditions on a people which cause their destruction in whole or in part; what Israel, the United States and Egypt have done is such destruction “in part” and technically genocide). Add to this shooting fish in a barrel in the cowardly invasion of Gaza – 300 Palestinian children and 1440 people dead (the Goldstone report) while Hamas murdered 13 Israelis, one 7 year old child. What would the prophet Amos have said about that ratio, Mr. Netanyahu, Mr. Lieberman?

Note the Egyptian government can keep the peace with Israel – and pressure the Israeli government to make a decent, two state settlement – without continuing to make Gaza an open air concentration camp. The two issues are entirely separable.

Something there is that does not love a wall, Robert Frost once said. The Egyptians’ standing up means that this wall of starvation and intimidation and genocide against the Palestinians will end. Israel and the United States would have been far wiser to negotiate with both Palestinian regimes. Instead, Israel, with American toleration or in Bush’s case, backing, seeks to create a second transfer – to create a “greater Israel” - and even to investigate and silence human rights organizations inside Israel (this is the fascism of the Knesset).

As John Mearsheimer and others have noted, this expansion will probably destroy Israel as a Jewish state. First, it would become fully an odious apartheid state (Israeli leaders already cannot go abroad for fear of arrest for war crimes…). Then resistance from below with international support would bring down this new South Africa – and there would be one multiracial, rights-based, slight Palestinian majority democratic state.

But there is another dark possibility. Israel has nuclear weapons, and the trace or theat of world war was visible even in the events in the Egypt (had Bush been President or McCain or General Petraeus or Palin or Hillary Clinton, American might have gone along with such destruction). In this context, the revolution in Egypt is also the hope of humanity against extinction. That revolution can press to end Egyptian participation in genocide in Gaza.

Thus, the Egyptian democracy extends the Mavi Marmara. It extends the power of nonviolence into Palestine and Israel. Every decent person – and especially, every Jew who remembers Amos and speaking truth to power – needs to stand up and bring down that wall. This is the first task – more than elections – of the democratic people of Egypt. They need to work for this starting today (it will not perhaps seem in Egypt that it is so central, the corruption or stealing of Mubarak and others perhaps seems more central, but this is at the heart of what the revolution might quickly accomplish. Egyptians should make sure that a new President – like a President Zapatero in Spain in 2004 who within two weeks withdrew the troops from Iraq, sent corruptly by Bush’s poodle, Aznar. The wall is a striking symbol of the old regime. Yes, as Mr. Reagan once did to Mr. Gorbachev, we all should say to the generals of Egypt and to Mr. Netanyahu, “Mr. President (Messrs. Generals), tear down this wall!”

I have spoken on this blog often of the power of nonviolent civil disobedience to change things in the United States. But despite great misery and the fading middle class, these sentences seem far away. In 18 remarkable days and in a first victory on Friday, Egypt, however, showed this reality to the world. Such a celebration may also be possible for ordinary Americans even over Goldman Sachs, AIG, the war complex and their death grip on both parties and even the Presidency of Obama. In the Times this morning, the Obama administration is abandoning Fannie Mae and Freddy Mac-style financing of workers’ homes. Now an ordinary person can, with government help, rent. The "American Dream" is no longer "It's a Wonderful Life," but to grovel to "Mr. Potter" or Lloyd Blankfein and Larry Summers...Obama is not yet going after social security, but on his watch, the American dream is vanishing for ordinary people.

Perhaps the idea of the power of nonviolence in the United States, despite the triumphs of the civil rights movement, seems just a phrase, a slender hope, about what we need. Egypt had had 50 years of dictatorship; many people lived in fear and despair. Yet one can see, before our eyes, the moral force of nonviolence in the festivities of Farewell Friday...

Hilary Putnam translated an Haaretz column last week by Yoram Meital, a Middle East expert who has fought courageously against the demonization of the Muslim Brotherhood, His words – below - are worth taking in.

Rob Prince has worried about the dangers of world war over Egypt and what almost happened negatively these last couple of days. In response, Doug Vaughan wrote a wonderful piece on the likely dynamic of what is happening. He did not look at bringing down the wall with Gaza – and in the context of his thinking – I would like to emphasize now the importance of standing up with the Palestinians. Some things can be accomplished. The genocide and the settlements need to be stopped.

Slavoj Zizek had another good column on likely developments and puncturing American ideological tropes (below). See also here.

In the revolution in Egypt and Tunisia, as Rob emphasizes, workers played a leading role. An Egyptian friend suggested that my previous praise of DemocracyNow was too strong. Sherif Abdel Kaddous has done some very good reporting, particularly compared to CNN and MSNBC,, but he interviewed mainly ngo people, bloggers and “personalities.” Radical intellectuals often do not transcend their class and a certain ease of connection. It takes effort and self-reflection and change, as Lenin pointed out long ago, for intellectuals to talk with, foster the leadership of workers, who by and large become more fierce radicals; it was also a great problem for both King and Gandhi.

The reporting on DemocracyNow is better than corporate coverage – CNN finally got a woman who speaks Arabic to interview Egyptians on Friday - but did not get to the many workers who poured into the square (about 40% of the people there) or to the wave of strikes – except in last Saturday’s report on DemocracyNow with Paul Amar, a Professor at Santa Barbara. Yes, twitter and the internet are a very important component of this uprising as the American corporate press overstresses. But without the workers and the poor, the Revolution would not be.

Women workers led the way. Strikes have surged through Egypt since 2006 and are going on now (see here, here and here). It is not the force of young people and the middle classes alone – they are a spark – but of the poor standing up. In fact, as another Egyptian friend pointed out, the tactic in Tahrir Square of people bringing their families was learned from the strikers. Every strike is a big deal for families and given the creativity of Egyptian strikers, inspires family resistance – and so, now, Tahrir Square.

There is thus a class reality to the Revolution in Egypt. When the illustrious maneuver in elections, even if Egypt elects an Obama or Zapatero (it might), there will be pressure to turn on or at minimum, not help the workers. But Zapatero introduced even more decent social programs in Spain in 2004 than Obama in his first year (I will write about this soon).

Even Mubarak and the military leaders just gave government workers a 15% raise this week, an attempt, which failed, to divide them against the rebellion. It is unlikely, that the bottom, the women workers, pushing everyone else up with them (as Esperanza says in the great 1954 movie “Salt of the Earth”) and who have already won dignity and have eliminated from Tahrir Square the viciousness and dopiness of patriarchy (women can walk in Tahrir Square without any fear of harassment), may also win more decent circumstances. Rob rightly fears that the role of workers will not be noticed in this revolt and in Tunisia. Not so long as their deeds and voices, and our voices continue…

Yoram Meital in Haaretz of Feb. 7, 2011

"Few in Egypt remember today the Hosni Mubarak who was the hero of the October war, (then) commander of the Air Force, whose emergency measures to break the popular uprising with an iron hand have failed. The urgent measures that have been taken have not worked, and the number of demonstrators grew despite measures of intimidation that were supposed to sow fear in the camp of the opponents. [Instead of being intimidated,] as the days passed the opposition focused on calls for the ouster of Mubarak, calling for "freedom, change and social justice". From the first days, they demanded the replacement of the government and the expulsion of the man at its head.
Will Egypt successfully get past the transition stage in which it finds itself now? This [question] is key to understanding the reality that may characterize Post-Mubarak Egypt.. Continuation of the popular uprising affords a real chance for a civilian government, one created after free parliamentary elections. On the other hand, if Mubarak continues to hold on to the horns of the altar, that can lead to chaos after which the army will seize the reins of government.

The camp of the demonstrators is indeed composed of a whole spectrum of parties, movements and groups, but all of them as one demand the expulsion of Mubarak and the establishing of a multi-party democratic government. Some of them are already occupied with the preparation of idea for the time after Mubarak's reign, ideas for the revision of the constitution to allow free parliamentary elections.

The end of the Mubarak era has scrambled the cards in the internal political scene. In addition to veteran political parties and movements, are clearly to be seen the activities of new political organizations. The vacuum which has been created in the public space by the retreat of Mubarak's "National Democratic Party" is in the process of being filled by groups such the the "6th April Movement", which has organized a whole wave of the present demonstrations, and by "The National Front for Change", at whose head stands Mohammed El-Baradei, and the "Kafiya" movement. The Moslem Brotherhood continues, of course, to be an important factor, but it is no longer the only political alternative.

The army and the security forces are playing a crucial role in the transition phase. The top commanders of the army have behaved with great sophistication. Army forces separated the hawks on both sides, but did not respond to the call to return to their bases ("Your message has been heard”, an army spokesman announced), Meanwhile, the administration of Egypt in the transition phase is in the hands of prominent members of the security forces at whose head stand Omar Suleiman, prime minister Ahmed Shafiq, and chief of staff Sammi Anan.

This military stabilization by the senior brass leaves all options open: to demand that the president resign in order to prevent further serious deterioration of the situation, or to disperse the demonstrators by force on the orders of the president.

The renewal of violence between the hawks of the two camps, the cutting of the pipeline that supplies natural gas to Israel, and the news of the attempt (which may or may not have occurred) to assassinate Suleiman, threaten to transform the liberation festival that is taking place in Egypt. At the end of two weeks of popular uprising without precedent in extent and in intensity, the demonstrators are determined to persist in their struggle.

At the same time, many of the demonstrators fear that Mubarak's refusal to resign is intended to paralyze life in Egypt in the coming months and lead to chaos, as a result of which, in practice, the heads of the security services will sieze power. That's not what the millions of Egyptian activists who demanded "change” dreamed of."

Thursday night, after Mubarak's speech, Rob posted on his blog:

"The news has broken a few hours ago that Hosni Mubarak refuses to step down as Egypt's president despite enormous domestic and international pressure for him to do so.

This is a dangerous moment with events moving rapidly, although it is not clear towards what. At the moment - U.S. Middle East policy is in shambles, utter confusion with Obama's advisors split on how to proceed.

What I think is going on is `a revolt of the U.S. proxies'... in which Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Israel (a strange, but strong coalition) are making a common stand, and `putting the ball' back into Obama's camp. They are challenging him to act understanding that his options are limited; Their goal is to bring down his presidency rather than Mubarak. It might work. Obama's options are fraught with problems. Mubarak's rejection (after hinting that he would step down and getting the international media into a froth) of leaving office is tantamount to challenging Obama to move in the direction of military intervention. But a direct U.S. military intervention would throw the entire region into complete chaos.

On the other hand, if Obama does not intervene it would suggest his weakness under pressure. He would find himself in a situation similar to Jimmy Carter facing the Iran crisis in 1979. Whatever, the crisis is shaping up to be the defining moment in Obama's presidency.

Perhaps there are other options that I do not see? Of course, I'm sure there are. Regardless, these next days are going to be an extremely sensitive period. Earlier in criticizing U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East I labeled the current situation somewhere between a set back and debacle for U.S. policy. The diagnosis is leaning a bit more towards the `debacle' scenario."

Doug Vaughan responded:

"We are all trumped by events -- that is, by the unpredictible actions (or non-actions) of others, especially by seemingly immoveable masses in motion. Inertia and its twin momentum tend in one direction, then another strange vector, or not at all, accelerate toward a precipice or encountering friction even in the stillness of the air, slow, even reverse. People sometimes prove to be independent variables, others are dependent but seldom constants, some perhaps most are stochastic, especially in motion. They confound conventional and all sorts of other wisdom, including mine, which is this:

Although the "pharoah" was a tyrant ruling in the name of the nation and its aspirations, he was not simply an autocrat; he ruled on behalf of a ruling class whose interests and values he shared and represented. The regime is therefore less personal and vulnerable than his resignation would make it appear, no matter how well-padded his departure ($70 billion is the echo I hear.) which was inevitable if only because of his age. What makes his exit scary for some, not only in Egypt but next door and even here in the US, is that it was mass-action that drove him out the door, not stage-managed and well-prepared in advance. So it’s the repercussions unleashed by mass protest in the streets that are unpredictable, difficult to control, and which prompt elite concern for something "orderly" -- manageable. And that's where the military comes in, or re-enters, as it were, as the screenplay without a script requires:.

The upstart military officers who overthrew the monarchy and took power with Nasser nearly 60 years ago have formed a caste which has consolidated its hold over state power. After the assassination of Sadat (who remember, had been Nasser's liaison with the Moslem Brotherhood), Mubarak as head of the growing Air Force, emerged from the high-command of the military as first-among-equals, precisely because his contemporaries in the Army had been blamed for the humiliating defeats by the Israelis, but also because of the vacuum crated by the the relative weakness of the industrial capitalists and the export-oriented agricultural sector (cotton, sugar, dominated by big plantation owners in a feudal or share-cropping mode), both of which sectors relied on irrigation and hydroelectric power from Aswan.) The military bureaucratic pyramid is surely a parasitic kleptocracy growing fat, dumb and happy on commissions, rake-offs and bribes on foreign contracts including a large slice of the $2 billion in military "aid" -- most of which never leaves the US because it is largely in the form of credits to buy US-made weaponry, and which sits in the desert like the pyramids as a symbol of power and prestige -- so long as it is never put to use, which would mean the end of that pipeline.

Mubarak and his family were the chief beneficiaries of this system, but not exclusively so: They may have taken the lion's share but still parceled out the fruits of predation to the pride, the jackals, the hyenas et al, and this created internal markets that allowed some to "treacle down" and ripple out in concentric waves that necessarily became smaller at the periphery where most of the 80 million Egyptians lived in miserable poverty. But the officer corps and their families are more than that, and not simply a hereditary oligarchy: They now dominate the state-controlled joint ventures in tandem with the bourgeoisie, with which they have become integrated through marriage and extended-family ties over the past six decades. This is the real regime that now regards the figurehead as expendable, especially when the demonstrations of students and unemployed and "middle-class" types stifled by the system were joined in the streets over the past few days by thousands of striking port, canal, steel and untold numbers of irregularly employed street-vendors and agricultural workers. And the Saudi, Jordanian and Israeli garrison states are not so different: While some factions within each may have felt threatened by the mass protests in Egypt, the dominant elements recognize that the aging leader has served his purpose but now represents an obstacle and a threat to their continued control of the military-economic apparatus.

So he had to go, and the "transition" is not likely to result in a real change in the regime, the reigning system of rule and exploitation. To what? Mubarak's die-hard supporters were drawn mostly from the police, their snitches and other dependents on petty graft and corruption, even including the infamous team of camel-jockeys who bought their jobs at the state-run tourist spots. This was a small base upon which to build, and they as quickly fodled their tents and disappeared into the dawn when the protesters fought back and drove them off. The loyal elements of the military were forced to step in to protect not Mubarak, but themselves, and to ease him out, ceremoniously or otherwise, by coup d'etat if necessary. The next phase is likely to see a power struggle among the top levels of the officer corps as the functional ruling elite, but there is room for emergence of a broader, therefore somewhat more representative coalition government that incorporates and co-opts dissident but largely rudderless and dependent "middle" sectors -- small-scale producers, shopkeepers, merchants, professionals, technocrats, and joint-venture bureaucrats -- and even some unionized labor -- for whom the state is biggest purchaser of domestic production, business-partner, employer of last resort and arbiter. And all beholden to the US and the money-center imperial bankers, who have pushed their stage-manager/understudy and trusted collaborator, Omar Suleiman, head of military inteligence and torturer-in-chief for the CIA-sponsored renditions of suspected jihadis, on the political stage to mutter his lines, with M. El-Baradei waiting in the wings as the safe "technocratic" alternative.

The Pharoah is gone, but The Show must go on.

The Audience has yet to speak for itself and may yet have the last word."

Expressing the dazzled joy we all feel at the amazing accomplishments of the Egyptian people, Rob wrote back:

"i agree with this analysis (no great surprise) 100%. once gain reveals a fine mind, cutting edge insights...what we have come to expect from vaughan and he always delivers..

... as i looked at the constellation of forces here in the usa - there seemed to be a rather incredible power struggle going on within the obama administration... on the one side hillary clinton and dennis ross essentially netanyahu's hand maidens in washington. on the other side a few decent folk (the ones who wrote obama's cairo speech)... I feared a `november 1963 moment' ... then there was/still is the possibility of all kinds of unknown military factors - NATO troops seizing the Suez Canal, the Israeli [government] striking out because they've lost a great friend, etc, etc.

ok it's morning. (or now afternoon)... the phone has been ringing from all over the country and the world (finland, uk, spain, lebanon)...

let us for the moment celebrate. yes it is complicated moment. but something has happened in the middle east...organized in large measure (to the extent that there was organization) by the working classes of tunisia and egypt, who will never get the credit due them...instead it will go to twitter!... the world has changed for the better. let's celebrate the moment. tomorrow we can slap ourselves in the face again and go out there and talk about how little has been gained and how much there is to do, and keep organizing... still, bringing down mubarak was no small thing. very few people thought it possible... so having underestimated the tunisian and egyptian people once, maybe we are underestimating them again.

rob"


Published on Thursday, February 10, 2011 by The Guardian/UK
For Egypt, This Is the Miracle of Tahrir Square
There is no room for compromise. Either the entire Mubarak edifice falls, or the uprising is betrayed
by Slavoj Žižek

One cannot but note the "miraculous" nature of the events in Egypt: something has happened that few predicted, violating the experts' opinions, as if the uprising was not simply the result of social causes but the intervention of a mysterious agency that we can call, in a Platonic way, the eternal idea of freedom, justice and dignity.

The uprising was universal: it was immediately possible for all of us around the world to identify with it, to recognise what it was about, without any need for cultural analysis of the features of Egyptian society. In contrast to Iran's Khomeini revolution (where leftists had to smuggle their message into the predominantly Islamist frame), here the frame is clearly that of a universal secular call for freedom and justice, so that the Muslim Brotherhood had to adopt the language of secular demands.

The most sublime moment occurred when Muslims and Coptic Christians engaged in common prayer on Cairo's Tahrir Square, chanting "We are one!" – providing the best answer to the sectarian religious violence. Those neocons who criticise multiculturalism on behalf of the universal values of freedom and democracy are now confronting their moment of truth: you want universal freedom and democracy? This is what people demand in Egypt, so why are the neocons uneasy? Is it because the protesters in Egypt mention freedom and dignity in the same breath as social and economic justice?

From the start, the violence of the protesters has been purely symbolic, an act of radical and collective civil disobedience. They suspended the authority of the state – it was not just an inner liberation, but a social act of breaking chains of servitude. The physical violence was done by the hired Mubarak thugs entering Tahrir Square on horses and camels and beating people; the most protesters did was defend themselves.

Although combative, the message of the protesters has not been one of killing. The demand was for Mubarak to go, and thus open up the space for freedom in Egypt, a freedom from which no one is excluded – the protesters' call to the army, and even the hated police, was not "Death to you!", but "We are brothers! Join us!". This feature clearly distinguishes an emancipatory demonstration from a rightwing populist one: although the right's mobilisation proclaims the organic unity of the people, it is a unity sustained by a call to annihilate the designated enemy (Jews, traitors).

So where are we now? When an authoritarian regime approaches the final crisis, its dissolution tends to follow two steps. Before its actual collapse, a rupture takes place: all of a sudden people know that the game is over, they are simply no longer afraid. It is not only that the regime loses its legitimacy; its exercise of power itself is perceived as an impotent panic reaction. We all know the classic scene from cartoons: the cat reaches a precipice but goes on walking, ignoring the fact that there is no ground under its feet; it starts to fall only when it looks down and notices the abyss. When it loses its authority, the regime is like a cat above the precipice: in order to fall, it only has to be reminded to look down…

In Shah of Shahs, a classic account of the Khomeini revolution, Ryszard Kapuscinski located the precise moment of this rupture: at a Tehran crossroads, a single demonstrator refused to budge when a policeman shouted at him to move, and the embarrassed policeman withdrew; within hours, all Tehran knew about this incident, and although street fights went on for weeks, everyone somehow knew the game was over.

Is something similar going on in Egypt? For a couple of days at the beginning, it looked like Mubarak was already in the situation of the proverbial cat. Then we saw a well-planned operation to kidnap the revolution. The obscenity of this was breathtaking: the new vice-president, Omar Suleiman, a former secret police chief responsible for mass tortures, presented himself as the "human face" of the regime, the person to oversee the transition to democracy.

Egypt's struggle of endurance is not a conflict of visions, it is the conflict between a vision of freedom and a blind clinging to power that uses all means possible – terror, lack of food, simple tiredness, bribery with raised salaries – to squash the will to freedom.

When President Obama welcomed the uprising as a legitimate expression of opinion that needs to be acknowledged by the government, the confusion was total: the crowds in Cairo and Alexandria did not want their demands to be acknowledged by the government, they denied the very legitimacy of the government. They didn't want the Mubarak regime as a partner in a dialogue, they wanted Mubarak to go. They didn't simply want a new government that would listen to their opinion, they wanted to reshape the entire state. They don't have an opinion, they are the truth of the situation in Egypt. Mubarak understands this much better than Obama: there is no room for compromise here, as there was none when the Communist regimes were challenged in the late 1980s. Either the entire Mubarak power edifice falls down, or the uprising is co-opted and betrayed.

And what about the fear that, after the fall of Mubarak, the new government will be hostile towards Israel? If the new government is genuinely the expression of a people that proudly enjoys its freedom, then there is nothing to fear: antisemitism can only grow in conditions of despair and oppression. (A CNN report from an Egyptian province showed how the government is spreading rumours there that the organisers of the protests and foreign journalists were sent by the Jews to weaken Egypt – so much for Mubarak as a friend of the Jews.)

One of the cruellest ironies of the current situation is the west's concern that the transition should proceed in a "lawful" way – as if Egypt had the rule of law until now. Are we already forgetting that, for many long years, Egypt was in a permanent state of emergency? Mubarak suspended the rule of law, keeping the entire country in a state of political immobility, stifling genuine political life. It makes sense that so many people on the streets of Cairo claim that they now feel alive for the first time in their lives. Whatever happens next, what is crucial is that this sense of "feeling alive" is not buried by cynical realpolitik."

© Guardian News and Media Limited 2011

Slavoj Žižek is international director of the Birkbeck Institute for the Humanities

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