Monday, February 14, 2011

Lessons from Egypt: demonstrations work

What good comes of all that protesting?

As a longtime activist I have often gotten this question from all sides: what good comes of all that protesting?

On the one hand there are people who don't participate in grassroots politics and think those who do are wasting their time (despite all the obvious counter-evidence; if you don't know what I mean by that, keep reading).

On the other, pickets, boycotts, marches, and demonstrations through all the months and years when nothing much comes of them leaves attendees and organizers alike discouraged by the seemingly-poor return on investment ("ROI" as the business folk would have it): the microscopic changes (if any) effected by effort that is actually pretty taxing, on a personal level.

Yes, it's true. It takes a lot to organize even an 'unsuccessful' movement. This isn't contradicted by the welcome social aspect to grassroots politics: hanging out with people you like (or at least a mix of people that includes some you like!), and the camaraderie of roughly aligned beliefs about what's good and important. Countering these pluses, though, is the time, attention, and energy that get debited from other stuff you might like to do. Raising kids, lying on a beach, finishing school, writing a book, learning to cook, climbing a career ladder, sailing a boat, bowling.

Is it worth the effort, the sacrifice, the time? Or is demonstrating an exercise in futility?

The answer seems obvious this week.

Every so often we get unmistakable evidence that, whatever else demonstrations might be, they're not futile. Evidence of just this truth unfolded in North Africa -- Tunisia and Egypt especially (so far) -- in the early weeks of this year. And here comes Algeria.

So if the answer is obvious, why all this typing? For me it's worth typing about because people forget. I've heard the "what good comes of all that protesting?" question come from people who may have been in grade school in 1991, but can't possibly have missed reading about mostly-unarmed masses defending a Soviet government against what amounted to a KGB coup, so it could dissolve itself later the same month. Perhaps they're taking the long view of history, knowing now that the KGB would rise again in the person of Vladamir Putin.

But for all the compromise and backsliding inherent in human affairs, how can anyone think that no good came of the Civil Rights protests in the U.S., or the worldwide protests that helped the A.N.C. and their allies bring down P.W. Botha and South African apartheid? Let alone the Velvet Revolution of 1989? Or resistance to British colonizers in Ghandi's India?

Giddy celebration may be premature...

There are two enormously important aspects of recent events in North Africa and the Arab states that everybody's talking and writing about. I feel a need to acknowledge these, but don't want to dive down the same rabbit holes others are busily plumbing. These aspects are: why are regime-toppling demonstrations occurring? and will the outcomes for people in places like Tunisia, Egypt, and Yemen be better or worse than if the status quo held?

Joel Brinkley thinks that widespread unrest has a lot to do with spiraling food costs that most deeply affect poor people and nations:

"The world is heading into a food crisis again, barely three years after the last one, in 2008. That, not political reform, animated the riots and demonstrations across the Arab world and beyond - until Tunisia's president fell from power on Jan. 14. After that, hungry demonstrators aimed higher."

Brinkley is not alone in his opinion, and neither are the Tunisians or Egyptians alone in their hunger. If, and very probably when, China loses most of its wheat crop this year due to major draught, as Keith Bradsher reported in the NY Times on Thursday, and starts buying massive quantities of grain on world markets, food costs will soar even higher. This is going to hurt people, and strongly motivate them to make political and economic demands of their governments. 2011 could be a rough year for dictators.

To the second question, there's no end of writers and journalists pointing out that the Egyptian people, in the latest example, aren't necessarily going to get bread and roses for their trouble, despite the heroism of their collective stand against terrifying power. Yes, they've chased off a despot. Now what? History is particular, and its lessons are often unhappy. As David Remnick put it in The New Yorker dated today:

"[...] Tahrir Square is not Wenceslas Square, in Prague, nor is it Tiananmen Square, in Beijing, or Revolution Square, in Moscow. The Egyptians, for all their bravery, do not possess the advantages of the Czechs of a generation ago. Liberated from the Soviet grip, the Czechs could rely on the legacy of not-so-distant freedoms, the moral leadership of Václav Havel, and many other particulars that augured well for them. Circumstances were not as auspicious in Romania, China, the Caucasus, and Central Asia. Opening acts can be ecstatic and deceptive. The Russian prospect, in August, 1991, which began with the collapse of a K.G.B.-led coup, soon encountered its own historical legacies, including the lingering hold of the security services and the corruptions of an oil economy. Modern Russia is far better off than it was in the teeth of the Communist era, but it is not the state that so many had hoped for two decades ago."

The new (same old) military leaders of Egypt are promising to "eventually hand power to an elected government," say Hadeel Al-Shalchi and Lee Keath of AP, printed in the SF Chronicle yesterday under a headline "Military says it won't hold onto power." A spokesman for the country's council of generals is quoted saying: "the military is 'looking forward to a peaceful transition to permit an elected civil authority to be in charge of the country to build a democratic free nation.'" In the same article, the reporters assert that "on the face of it, the elderly generals are no reformers. The deeply secretive military has substantial economic interests, running industries and businesses that it will likely seek to preserve."

Egypt's parliament has been dissolved. Elections have been promised. The military will "appoint a committee to draft constitutional amendments," says the NY Times, but says they will be subject to referendum. Time will tell.

... yet the bottom line holds

But if we take a moment to step back from these vital questions, we're left with a very clear message.

Demonstrations work. They can change history.

Change can start with a mass of unarmed people and proceed to a change of government, even when the government is highly armed. The Egyptians in Tahrir Square did not have weapons, a plan, a single leader, a single party, or even a strong coalition of parties. Nonetheless, Mubarak has fled.

In my just-finished novel, Consequence, the protagonist is asked by a skeptic why he pours so much of his time and talent, year after year, into protest that seems, on its face, ineffective. He responds, "Waving signs and blocking traffic may seem pointless, but it holds open a space. Someday people are going to jump into that space, when the moment comes around again."

And people do. Consider a very distant relation of the protests in Egypt ...

AIDS activism in the 1980s and 1990s.

To see this episode of grassroots activism in historical context, let's take a roundabout path back to the twentieth century. Here's Michael Specter from the 15 November 2010 issue of The New Yorker, on Preventing tuberculosis deaths in India:

"In the developing world, though, tuberculosis has surged dangerously, and this year, according to the World Health Organization, there will be ten million new cases, the largest number in history. As people join the great migrations from villages to crowded cities, slum life and tuberculosis await them. With India’s urban population expected to double in the next thirty years, to seven hundred million, its cities will remain fertile ground for an infectious epidemic. Yet—no doubt owing to the fact that rich people in the West rarely get the disease—tuberculosis receives fewer resources, fewer research dollars, and less attention from the global health community than either AIDS or malaria—the two other most deadly infectious diseases. TB activists don’t march on Washington or chain themselves to the gates of pharmaceutical firms to demand better treatment."

Look at that last sentence.

Marching on Washington and chaining themselves to the gates of pharmaceutical firms is exactly what AIDS activists did in the '80s and '90s, among many other sign-waving and traffic-blocking modes of protest. I was there, friends and lovers were too, people from far and wide joined in disruptive protest over the course of six or eight years. Not all of us survived. Many in the movement were there because they were deathly ill, and many of those succumbed before modern treatments were developed. The fight is hardly over, in that people without political clout continue to die even when public health measures and treatments for their illnesses exist to contain and/or cure them -- and here we're talking AIDS or TB, pick your poison, and there's more where they came from.

What has changed since the late 1980s is that now it is widely recognized, matter-of-factly as Specter's reporting shows, that the development and availability of medical treatment is politically influenced and can be transformed by grassroots politics. That was not even obvious, let alone acknowledged, in the 1980s when Larry Kramer lit a fire at the Lesbian and Gay Community Services Center in New York, and ACT UP was born.

Demonstrations worked. The way sick people approach the medical-industrial complex, certainly in the U.S. and other wealthy nations, was fundamentally changed.

To the people of Egypt, Tunisia, Yemen, Jordan, Algeria ...

... here's to people all over the world who live under despots' rule.

Yes, change is uncertain. And the factors that cause feckless demonstrations to crystallize into fundamental shifts in power are complex. These complexities are often under no person's or organization's or government's control.

But have no doubt. Refusing to submit to power is massively powerful itself, however slow it is to wake.

It's foolish to pretend that protest is futile. It is certainly not.

Thanks to Floris Van Cauwelaert for the photo from Tahrir Square; and to Paul Dalton for the ACT UP image. Today marks one year and 108 posts since One Finger Typing was born. Viva le stylo!


  1. Hey Steve,

    I see here a difference between demonstrations that are geared towards an immediately attainable goal (Egypt, Prague, Civil Rights) and are the culmination of a series of circumstances, and demonstrations that are artificially manufactured to raise awareness and perhaps in a broad sense add to the circumstances that might theoretically cause a tipping point (like Egype, Prague, etcetera – the whole you refer to that gets jumped in).

    This is something I've always wondered: when demonstrators march with signs that say "shut down our bases in Japan!" they certainly don't think it's going to lead to a base shut down, do they? I assume that what's going on is that the message under the message is "don't forget that there are bases in Japan that should be shut down, people." One purpose of demonstrations is to present opinion, i.e. 90% of the country might think one way - by demonstrating you remind people that not everyone feels that way and at minimum keep the dissenting voice in view. And then there's that other thing, trying to create a tipping point, basically putting grains of sand on a scale.

    One thing as an outside observer I've always questioned is some of the specifics: it seems to me that if (and this is my supposition, so it's a big if) the goal is to be a tipping point/raise awareness/add to the tipping point scale, these demonstrations should be organized accordingly based on the goal. If I'm going to demonstrate to end the war in Afghanistan, say, my goal is to gently sway public opinion. If I burn Bush (imagine it's a few years ago) in effigy I'm only preaching to the choir, and that's unhelpful. Shouldn't the goal be to determine what sort of demonstration it's going to be, and then pitch accordingly to that audience? It seems to me that controlling message and understanding audience should be king, even trumping personal opinion, if you know what I mean.


  2. @Steven: No one person, organization, or coalition of organizations governs demonstrations here in the U.S. with an iron fist. People do a variety of things. Sometimes some of what gets done looks quite off-target to people who are actually there, at a protest event ... let alone how it filters through a media that selects what to present based on particular goals (greater viewership? to advance the agenda of its owners?). It's complicated.

    To get a sense of how complicated, it might be worth checking out the comment-stream unfolding as I type on my cross-post of this piece on Daily Kos. A lot of people have a lot to say, and some of it goes to the points you raise.