Organize or fail: a lesson from Egypt for the armchair anarchist, by @DavidOAtkins

Organize or fail: a lesson from Egypt for the armchair anarchist

by David Atkins

As a blogger and Democratic activist, I often receive incredulous and angry messages about the futility of electoral organizing. Don't I see how useless it is, they say, when the one percent runs roughshod over the rest of us, when the government spies on its citizens at will, and when the corporate sector has its way with the public sector as it pleases? Don't I see, they say, that focusing on winning elections is a waste of time?

No matter how often I respond that it does in fact matter who and which party holds power (consider the fate of reproductive choice in Texas and North Carolina, the economic decline in Wisconsin since Scott Walker took office, the resurgence of California since Republicans were disempowered, the difference between even a weak Democratic approach to Wall Street such as Dodd-Frank and the deregulation on steroids championed by Republicans, or any number of other examples), these people are unswayed. It does little good to point out that the John Birch society types didn't take power by force of arms or popular revolt, but by methodical organizing over the course of decades beginning at the local level. That's too slow, they say, too much work (the true common denominator for most armchair anarchists, I fear), and too impossible given the force of oligarchic money at play against us.

When challenged to suggest their own tactics against the forces of oligarchy, the critics typically respond that Americans must take to the streets and force the oligarchs to give up power by sheer force of public anger. How exactly this will happen is unexplained, but the words "Gandhi" and "Martin Luther King, Jr." are often used as examples.

It's a fair point. Sometimes, when things are very bad and people have no other viable choice, mass protest is the only way to effectuate change. Selma in 1960, British India, and the France of Louis XVI are all exemplary. But it's unlikely that Americans in 2013 will engage the oligarchs in that way. We are struggling, but most of us are still far too comfortable to put life and livelihood at risk in the face of fire hoses, tasers and machine guns. More importantly, there are still too many viable alternatives to effect change. The common denominator of societies forced into open rebellion against their government is the inability to organize politically or create change via democratic processes. Oligarchic money may make it somewhat more difficult now than it has been, but to equate the modern American experience with that of native Indians under British rule, or that of blacks under Jim Crow, is a petty, delusional bourgeois insult to people who have suffered the darkest oppressions that most modern Americans will never begin to experience.

That said, if protests rather than politics are to be the change agent, then it's critically important to organize for what comes after. Protest is not a magic bullet. It is an angry expression of dissatisfaction with what is. It is not a blueprint for what will be. Power lies in the hands of those who create blueprints, not in the hands of those who protest. More often than not, the idealism of protesters is used as a tool for those who plan ahead. And the cure is often worse than the disease.

That, if nothing else, should be the lesson out of Egypt:

Millions of Egyptians have spoken: President Mohamed Morsi, elected a year ago, has failed. With vast throngs calling for his ouster and demanding new elections, the army has given him an ultimatum: satisfy the crowds by Wednesday evening or face military intervention. How could this happen, two years after the military helped demonstrators rid Egypt of the autocrat Hosni Mubarak?

Egypt has a dilemma: its politics are dominated by democrats who are not liberals and liberals who are not democrats.

The Muslim Brotherhood, Mr. Morsi’s Islamist movement, accepts — indeed excels at — electoral competition. Voters in 2012 gave it a far stronger grip on power than poll numbers had suggested. But that was foreseeable: though outlawed, the group built an effective political machine, starting in the 1980s, as individual members ran (as independents) in legislative and professional labor-union elections, even though Mr. Mubarak always found artifices to deny them real power.

Fair elections have improved the Brotherhood’s campaign skills. But it hasn’t fully committed to pluralism or to equal rights for minorities. It participates in democracy, but doesn’t want to share power.

Many in the opposition, on the other hand, believe fiercely in minority rights, personal freedoms, civil liberties and electoral coalition-building — as long as the elections keep Islamists out of power. In other words, they are liberal without being democrats; they are clamoring fervently for Mr. Morsi’s ouster and want the military to intervene. But they have proved themselves woefully unequipped to organize voters. Though my heart is with their democratic goals, I must admit that their commitment to democratic principles runs skin deep.

So today, Egypt faces a disturbing paradox: an ostensibly democratic movement is calling on the military, which produced six decades of autocrats, to oust a democratically elected president — all in the name of setting the country, once again, on a path to democracy.
Under the iron fist of Mubarak's rule, the only group that planned, organized and maneuvered for a post-Mubarak future was the theocratic Muslim Brotherhood. Liberals and secularists, by contrast, mostly sat on their hands and groused as the Brotherhood got to work and quietly organized for decades, beginning at the hyperlocal level.

It is true that the Arab Spring of protest did eventually fell Mubarak's regime. But in the absence of an organized left to pick up the reins, the group that had laid a generation's worth of groundwork waiting for its day in the sun was far better prepared to take control of what came after. And they did.

Unfortunately for Egypt, the theocrats and President Morsi have stumbled badly in office. And yet the liberals seem no better prepared for a post-Morsi politics than they were for a post-Mubarak politics. The plan seems to be perpetual revolt and a sea of humanity in Tahrir Square, demanding that something happen. Demanding that the oppressor du jour leave power, but with no very clear idea of who should take power, or what they might do when they get it.

Thus, we see liberals and secularists taking the decidedly undemocratic step of asking the military to engage in a coup to stop the predations of well organized theocrats who won elections fair and square, but have no respect for constitutional democracy as we know it. The oligarchic military is organized. The theocratic Brotherhood is organized. No one else is, so one of those two groups will hold power. That's the way of things until the secularists and liberals decide to organize on the ground to take power legitimately.

There's a lesson in there somewhere for Americans seeking to take the power away from our own oligarchs and theocrats. Yet it seems the armchair anarchists are often slow to learn it.