Friday, 11 February 2011

A limit to peaceful protest?

If you saw yesterday's news, Egypt's President refused to step down, though he did vaguely suggest that he'd hand some powers to his new Vice-President, who has spent the past few decades overseeing the foulest torture chambers on the planet (hosting quite a few people handed over by the CIA and MI6 too). So that's all right.

Down in Tahrir Square, the people are angry. OK. What now? One of the most impressive features of their campaign has been the good-humoured liberalism of their approach. By and large, they seem like nice people making strong points in a persuasive way. It's noble, and admirable, especially from a comfortable office in the UK, where nothing seems that pressing. But is a noble failure enough? I don't think so: being right and being free are not the same thing.

Are there any other protest groups who've done that? The Tibetans perhaps. The Greenham Common anti-nuclear women. Native Americans. Tiananmen Square. Probably more. What links them? Failure. Niceness is all very well, but I'm no liberal pacifist. Force of arms is sometimes required. The Americans know this: they had 1776. Ireland's rebels tried many times, and finally succeeded in 1916 by forcing a crisis, after 80 years of constitutional nationalism had failed. The IRA in 1972 justified their campaign by pointing out that an apartheid state had not only failed to protect the lives or the rights of a significant proportion of the population but was actively killing and disenfranchising them with no prospect of reform, and they were right in the short term. The Poll Tax riots succeeded where merely being right failed.

So what are the conditions for armed struggle? In principle, self-defence, the use of armed force by the oppressive authorities (either actively or as a threat), and the certain knowledge that no other methods will succeed. In practical terms, only when success or at least a stalemate is possible. The IRA - despite drifting to the political right and losing most of the principles upon which it was founded, did fight the British state to a standstill and set the conditions for a negotiated peace (though not its objective of a united 32-county republic).

Should the Egyptians move to an armed resistance phase? In some ways, I wish they would: I don't want to watch the state mow down thousands of peaceful protestors. However, a symbolic violent action with no chance of success might only provoke massacres of peaceful civilians. There's still a chance of a 1989-style bloodless handover, especially if the international community continues to pressurise the Egyptian state. Moreover, I don't see how the rebels would arm themselves. Perhaps the Palestinians could lend them some light weaponry, or elements in the Egyptian Army might change sides, but it's a long shot, and the chances of victory are limited. The smaller the group, the more likely it is that symbolic atrocities become the tactic of choice, and (as the IRA learned when it started hitting civilians in the UK), this doesn't evoke fear but hatred in the enemy and horror amongst your potential supporters.

I'd love to see and Egyptian civilian militia overturn the Mubarak regime, but the conditions aren't right. Instead, I'd like to see a couple of things. Firstly, the Tahrir Square protestors should start a mass public constitution-writing debate, right there in the square, writing dictatorship out of existence in the glare of the international media. Meanwhile, the multitudes should start targeting the state's assets. It's been a dictatorship since 1952, and so the state controls massive sections of the economy. Everybody knows which companies, buildings and houses belong to the Army, the Secret Police or other state bodies. Start repossessing them: target the torture houses, the businesses and the storehouses. Empty the secret cells and the emergency supplies. Send a few thousand to stand outside each minister's private residence until he resigns. Turn every state news broadcast into a 'live studio audience' event in which each item receives an immediate critique from the people. Make it clear that the state owns nothing: the people own the state.

As one of my commentators advised us a while ago: 'run, but while running pick up a stick'.


Ewarwoowar said...

This post made me laugh more than it should. You are SUCH a frustrated revolutionary Voley!

The Plashing Vole said...

Well, that's true. Unfortunately, the thing about getting older and reading more is that one learns to distrust one's instincts. Given the chance, I'd put quite a few people up against a wall and a much larger number in re-education camps. But experience tells us that revolutions only occur when the conditions are right, and that lives are important. That's why the 17th and 18th century Irish risings failed: the cause was just but the timing and planning were awful, so lives were thrown away in vain. 1916 worked (if you don't mind the Civil War which followed) because the time was right.

Ewarwoowar said...

He must have read your thoughts Voley - he's gone.

PS. Before you scoot off for the weekend, check out my latest blog. I know you enjoy the barmy letter writers...