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What If the Egyptian Protesters Were Democrats?

[Image from unknown archive] [Image from unknown archive]

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. 

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21 comments for "What If the Egyptian Protesters Were Democrats?"


I agree with much of this, but I think the author is too dismissive of the structure of American democracy. The system is too complex, and too diverse for a simple three week long people's power movement to threaten. Because there are so many wings within the American system--in essence, several dozen "Egyptian Militaries"--with the ability, resources and credentials to step in and guide uprisings, they will almost always be co-opted, and sold out for short term gains. The difference between Egyptian and American movements is that the Egyptians have absolutely no faith in their institutions (except, arguably, the military). Americans, by contrast are indoctrinated from an early age to believe that the system itself, from concept and theory to actual structure, is valid. And, moreover, the best system in the world!

And as we have seen, the level of economic comfort that Americans enjoy, guarantees that until Americans experience real hunger for an extended period of time, it will almost always be preferable to go home at the end of a day of protest, than to occupy the commons.

I could go on and on. The brilliance of the American system of control, and one that the world's dictators can only envy, is it's elusive flexibility, a white supremacist apartheid one day, a diverse polity the next, while the root system remains in place and unchanged. It can respond superficially to demands for change, it has a hundred thousand more Mubaraks where the last one came from, to answer the call of deposing the dictator.

Omar Moon wrote on February 20, 2011 at 12:07 PM

it's most probable that all governments have problems with integrity & giving complete 'freedom' to their people. perhaps we might wait a little longer to see what the tunisian, egyptian, and other people's movements end up with as new governments before we start claiming the high moral ground.

richard wrote on February 20, 2011 at 02:52 PM

it's most probable that all governments have problems with integrity & giving complete 'freedom' to their people. perhaps we might wait a little longer to see what the tunisian, egyptian, and other people's movements end up with as new governments before we start claiming the high moral ground.

richard wrote on February 20, 2011 at 04:28 PM

The people of the Cherokee Nation will go to the polls in June to elect a principal chief. Will we vote for new leadership and a fresh start or will be stay with an autocratic leader now serving an illegal third term, running for a fourt and campaigning to remove term limits that he might be chief for life. We are inspired by the revolutionaries in Egypt, Tunisia, etal. As we approach our own Tahrir Square we can only hope their is some revolutionary in us too.

David Cornsilk wrote on February 20, 2011 at 05:26 PM

Many thanks, Omar, for your comment. I agree with you completely about the differences between the political systems of the United States and Egypt. I especially agree with your analysis of the self-sustaining nature of American power. I'm hoping that the piece I wrote uses Egypt as an example of how American power is sustained through the complicity of its liberal elite. There are many factors at play, of course, but whenever real change is afoot it is the liberal elite who usually come to the rescue of whatever center of power is under criticism. They make revolution in the United States virtually impossible, but alternate politics, I argue, are indeed possible, as long as we are willing to think outside the confines of a stifling electoral system.

Steven Salaita wrote on February 20, 2011 at 06:29 PM

Omor, the view always improves with distance. Here in the US, progressives (the true progressives, not the "fauxgressives" like Obama and the Democratic party mainstream) agree with this line of reasoning and can give a lot more details. The best one stop shopping on this topic is the website FireDogLake.

Yves Smith wrote on February 21, 2011 at 02:47 AM

I agree 100 % with Omar.The American system is the most sophisticated machine of control the capitalism has ever invented.

fair wrote on February 21, 2011 at 03:21 AM

Fantastic piece. I would add what Stokely Carmichael noted nearly 45 years ago:"American students are perhaps the most politically unsophisticated students in the world. Across every country in this world, while we were growing up, students were leading the major revolutions of their countries. We have not been able to do that. They have been politically aware of their existence." Juxtapose the use of social media between the Arab World and in the US and it speaks volumes about the political neutering of the American public.

Salviati wrote on February 21, 2011 at 05:55 AM

Well said.

RA wrote on February 21, 2011 at 09:38 AM

In Egypt, the elite rigged the elections to stay in power. In the US, the elite has rigged everything else so elections don't matter. Unrigging everything will take a lot more than a mass protest. That said, I'm game. Maybe that could kick things off finally.

Hosswire wrote on February 21, 2011 at 12:35 PM

The people who should be leading the charge have their cheap LCD TVs, cable and food stamps to keep them fat and happy - life is good, why cause a stink?

Bleh wrote on February 21, 2011 at 01:15 PM

Here's an on-topic comment instead of these stupid tea-partying-islamophobic ones I see below (or above).

The fact is that the Democrats work within the system and are part of it. Look at every liberals disappointment with Obama. Why are they disappointed because they didn't actually want the democratic party again, they wanted change and they didn't get much of it. Real liberals have to question the effectiveness Obama has with pushing progressive change. We've seen some yes. But he's quite regressive in many other arenas: Freedom of speech, TSA, Wikileaks, internet freedom, support for democracy, copyright, torture, etc.

What Obama shows us is that the democrats are incapable of coming down to our level. They are incapable of dividing the population along the 95% income line, and attempting to represent the 95% of Americans today.

Do you know how the Republicans do it? They tell that 95% we'll make you pay less. They buy it.

At no point has the democratic party shown they truly want change. Probably the most heoric thing they've done recentlty is to go shack up outside of the state of Wisconsin. Takes real courage to sit your 150k+ a year butt outside of your home state (probably on the taxpayer's dime too).

I think your article was too kind to democrats.

I would've said this: If egyptians were democrats there would be no revolution because democrats embrace cowardice.

Anonymous wrote on February 21, 2011 at 02:18 PM

Americans enjoy levels of both economic opportunity and security that make revolution impossible. As long as most people are doing OK, and there is some reasonable chance for their kids to do a little better, nobody is going to rebel because of "democracy" or "inequality" or any other abstract bullshit. And this has been true for a majority of Americans for a long time, and despite widening income gaps is actually true for more Americans now than ever because of the progress that we have made on racial issues in the last 50 years.

Sam wrote on February 21, 2011 at 08:38 PM

As William Blake said

"I must create a system or be enslaved by another mans; I will not reason and compare: my business is to create."

Most people in the west are slaves to a system, with delusions of what a democracy is.

Cody wrote on February 22, 2011 at 01:58 AM

Partisan politics is an illusion, designed to distract you from the fact that no matter who you choose, there is no real change. Ask yourself this-why is it that no matter who gets elected President, nothing really changes? The reason is that the real people in power, those who buy influence-the banks, are still there pulling the strings. All the petty squabbles you see on tv are there just to distract you, and to incite the partisan within you.

I wish the people of Egypt the best of luck, they should be truly proud of themselves as a nation. The real problem is finding a solution that really does give them a voice. Please don't go down the same road as the UK or the USA. If you dislike our countries for their support of Mubarak then I can't blame you, but I'd say that no politician truly represents those who 'elected' them. And if people think they do, then they're walking round with scales over their eyes....

bootsyjam wrote on February 22, 2011 at 03:07 AM

well said omar. it is both inspiring and frightening what is happening. when it's said and done, will there be more freedom or less? that's the basic question, yes?

i hope the people of these countries do not accept any iron fists in velvet gloves--as they will certainly be grabbing for the reins.

throw the State off altogether.

deepsoulradio wrote on February 22, 2011 at 03:22 AM

A bit early to be gloating about the Egyptian revolution, no? The outcome still seems fraught with peril.

Rather than engaging in the non sequitur of trashing American liberals --- who have a rather long and impressive history of providing for the social good --- perhaps you should get your own house in order.

Milton Marx wrote on February 22, 2011 at 01:41 PM

Some of us are old enough to remember the protests of the '60s. The hard lesson then (and perhaps now) is that when you try to ignore ALL of the existing system, you pretty much accomplish nothing at all. You get to be "right," but the world chugs on pretty much unchanged.

Anyway, if you don't like American liberals, I suggest you try American conservatives. That really is the only other game in town.

Saxo Grammaticus wrote on February 22, 2011 at 05:01 PM

excellent perspectives and thought provoking commentary here at a pivotal moment in history (and I like to think a continuing evolution of consciousness on a global, generational scale too - wistful or not!) Gene Sharp, Author of the influential nonviolent revolution rulebook ( suggests that as people develop techniques for withholding consent peacefully, regimes crumble. I say this must be true whether dictatorship or western "democratic" oligarchies. For this reason I subscribe to the privileged notion "Don't vote, it only encourages the bastards"- upholding for me the fact that democracy is just another failed system (there is only one party in the case of the US, the money party, with 2 lame factions) Information is power and this is it's time. Time to wake up! By dialoguing, thinking for ourselves, we begin to understand that centralized power has never served "the people". Our values must always remain in serving and supporting one another - not the f*ing banks and corporations who serve themselves only. The de facto wielders of political power now anyway are not any "government" which has become a puppet of the amorphous financial power of corporation. Lets see who steps in to claim oil wealth of these countries now and who's behind that. Fact will remain that until we give up our oil addiction by choice - yours and mine - we are all responsible for supporting all these mother-f*ers whether they are in your country or my country. We support all of this by voting with our choices. Living responsibly within our means is the only honest answer. Subsidised goods - oil, plastic, petrochemical fertilizers in food we eat, mineral resources in our buildings and electronics, human rights abuses that support subsidised products at their expense for pseudo self aggrandisement in the shopping mall - consumerism spearheaded by the creditcard and the multi headed corporate beast. I must ask myself - what do I really need? What do I really want? And then vote with my caring choices. This is revolution in support of the freedom of people everywhere!

nik wrote on February 23, 2011 at 03:47 PM

"The best one stop shopping on this topic is the website FireDogLake."

You mean, if you want to ignore Democrat complicity and read all about how bad the Republicans are, right?

FDL is so disconnected from reality that it's laughable to encourage people to consider it as "one-stop shopping" for anything but meliorism and apology for the Democrats.

Oh yes, I have seen FDL criticize Obama. I have. But it's always couched in terms of "incompetence" or "buckling to Republican pressure" or the like.

FDL isn't your best bet. Unless you want to be frustrated by inanity, that is.

CF Oxtrot wrote on February 25, 2011 at 07:13 PM

We have more to lose than the people of egypt. Our time is coming because corportations will push us there, but we aren't there yet. -antiwasp

antiwasp wrote on April 09, 2011 at 11:03 AM

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