“All the Horizons are Being Opened”

February 11, 2011

“Everything now seems possible” cries a correspondent of al-Jazeera, weeping into the phone, “all the horizons are being opened.”

As Hosni Mubarak shuffles out of office, the Egyptian protest movement can now be termed a “revolution.” When the government falls, and the people gain the ability to elect their representatives, then only cynics could claim that profound change has occurred. Whether or not the outcome is a state which is oriented towards meeting social demands – jobs, welfare payments, land, infrastructure, services – the fact will be that a population has risen up en masse, discarding supposed habits of deference and the oppression exerted by a long-standing authoritarian state machinery.

This does not happen very often. The so-called “colour” revolutions could be cited as a precursor. Governments were toppled in Serbia, Ukraine, Georgia, even Kyrgyzstan – and even if the movements which effected such change were heavily assisted from without, they nevertheless reflected a sense of mass disillusionment with incumbent regimes. The government of Hugo Chavez in Venezuela, on the other hand, was protected from an externally fomented coup via the mass action of his supporters, allowing him to move towards redistributive radical politics. But why does the intervention of the Egyptian people seem momentous? After all, a few weeks ago the Tunisian people toppled their own Mubarak in Ben Ali, creating pressure on the streets in the face of deadly repression. Yet Egypt remains apart.

What I think is true, is that many people across the world see in the crowds massing in Tahrir Square a vivid symbol of social hope. The Egyptian revolution represents not just an attack on illegitimate authority, but an opening in the crack of neoliberalism, a resumption of the “history” that theorists like Francis Fukuyama influentially described as dead after the end of the Cold War. Stemming from dire economic conditions in the wreckage of capitalism, Egyptians an Tunisians are simultaneously demanding recognition of their dignity as citizens. They are confronting the problem of economic organization, at the same time as reformulating their shared notions of political legitimacy.

Here lies the opening. Not just a colour revolution, in which neoliberal autocracy gives way too neoliberal democracy (as in Serbia), Egyptians will be forced to confront the social contours sculpted by a faltering global capitalism. Those on the streets and on strike need better pay, housing, jobs. Yet the government claims that the costs will be too great – the bond markets and foreign investors will veto such plans. And still the streets were filled with wealthier students, professionals and poorer workers and the unemployed. Appeals to economic responsibility have failed to detach wealthier protesters from the poorer masses.

Historically, Egyptian capitalism has been heavily state managed – with trade unions run by the government on behalf of local elites and foreign investors. Since the Mahalla strikes of 2008, this has been weakening, with a range of unofficial protest groups and strikes. And now, the government has nothing to say to workers. As Jack Shenker reports for the Guardian, “Labour unrest has erupted in a wide breadth of sectors, including postal workers, electricity staff and service technicians at the Suez Canal, in factories manufacturing textiles, steel and beverages and hospitals.” Bus drivers in Cairo describe themselves as “immersed in debt” with inadequate pay, and pledge to join the protests in Tahrir Square. And the revolution intensifies.

With Mubarak gone, this is not the end of the protest movement. In a sense, all that has happened is a shift in the strategies employed to perpetuate authoritarian government. The military has been “handed” the republic and will “direct the state.” What happens next is uncertain. On another level, however, this is an immense achievement. Sustained protest and resistance to repression from the people has destroyed the legitimacy enjoyed by the president, supposedly the very summit of political allegiance in Mubarak’s Egypt.

Watching the celebrations in Tahrir Square, screened by Al Jazeera, I am watching the joy of the world. Will people be emboldened to take on entrenched and abusive authority? Will Egypt become a catalyst for radical social and economic changes across the global south? Or is this simply the fulfillment of Fukuyama’s historical process, the triumph of liberal democracy and liberal economics?

Of course, events like this should be seen dispassionately, shorn of hyperbole, but this is without doubt a moment of global significance. Perhaps we should revel in the spectacle of popular agency, regardless of the challenges to come. As blogger and activist Hossam al-Hamalawy puts it, “Enjoy tonight and leave worrying about the army and the transition till tomorrow.”

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