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Is There a Tahrir Square in Washington?

Egyptians are celebrating the ouster of Hosni Mubarak, as I write.  Inshallah they will celebrate for a long time to come.  But leaderless crowds are not well placed to govern.  The triumph of the Egyptian people leaves the military in control.  Let us hope that Egyptians will find no reason to share the complaint of Eastern Europeans ten years after their velvet revolutions that “the same people are still on top,” and that the Egyptian version of People Power will not require, in fifteen years, a People Power II (and III and IV. . .), as it has in the Philippines.  As the Turkish intellectual Bulent Somay warns:

[W]henever a “historical task” is assigned to “the people” as such, the outcome has always been that either a fetal bourgeoisie immediately took precedence and, through an accelerated growth process, organized itself into a ruling class. . . , or a political-ideological nucleus designated itself as a “caretaker” government for an indeterminate period. . . .

My reference to events in the Philippines in 1986 and 2001 and to the velvet revolutions of 1989 is no accident, as those “non-revolutionary revolutions” seem to have been the model for the overthrow of Mubarak, whether consciously chosen or not.  (Some might add the February Revolution of 1917.)

Still, could enormous and growing crowds of nonviolent protestors filling the streets of the nation’s capital to force a change of government serve as a model for successful insurrection in the United States?  Analysis of the historical, social, economic, and political differences between the U.S. and Egypt, the Philippines, (what was in 1989) Czechoslovakia, or Hungary could fill volumes.  But a time could come when most Americans, still divided by class, ethnicity, and political values, became united in our rage against a presidential administration.  Imagine, for example, economic collapse and an unresponsive administration: a repeat of 1930, let’s say.  Assume this as at least a possibility and we can make some comparisons regarding insurrectionary crowd terrain.

The first thing we might note is that the United States has no equivalent of Cairo, Manila, Prague, Budapest, or — for that matter — Paris in 1789.  Washington, D.C., is not the nation’s center of finance, manufacturing, commerce, or even communications.  It is only the political center, and unlike Cairo et al., it does not include nearly a quarter of the nation’s population but only around .002 percent.  The nation’s unelected rulers, the powerful billionaires who stand behind our elected officials, are widely dispersed.  In short, the United States is not so vulnerable to a shutdown of its capital.  Revolution in Egypt has not been confined to Cairo, of course, but the protests there were decisive.

In the recent past, D.C. has responded to impending protests by bringing in police from other cities.  So many cops were brought there for the protests against the IMF and World Bank in 2002 that they outnumbered demonstrators, arresting activists and passersby alike in their sweeps.  For crowds to shut down D.C., forcing military commanders to make a difficult choice, demonstrators would simultaneously have to fill the streets of New York, Philadelphia, Chicago, and many other cities.  Something like this happened in Egypt, as we know.

Speaking of the military, Egypt’s is a conscript army whose members are drawn from every social sector.  Such a military force is probably least inclined to fire on civilian compatriots in the street.  The U.S. military, at this point anyway, consists of volunteers, many of whom become military careerists.  Supplementing them are National Guard troops and the mercenaries of private contractors.  I suspect that a government could more reliably deploy some components of such forces against civilians.

People poured into Cairo from the surrounding countryside.  D.C. is surrounded by some of the wealthiest suburbs in the United States, thanks to lucrative defense and homeland security contracts awarded since 9/11.  D.C. has a large but declining population of impoverished African-Americans.  Would middle-class whites join them in an urban uprising to replicate the socially mixed crowds of Tahrir Square?  Would D.C.’s “underclass” join protests consisting mainly of white youths in the National Mall?  We can only speculate.

In recent news from Egypt, there was often mention of the made-in-USA tear gas canisters.  Had the U.S. government provided the Mubarak regime with the kind of state-of-the-art crowd control technology available to the police in major American cities, history might have followed a different course.  To take just one example, such technology would surely have included the kind of long-range acoustic devices (LRAD) or “sound cannons” that were used to scatter protestors at the G-20 economic summit in Pittsburgh in 2009.  A hand-held LRAD, which can double as a loudspeaker, can emit 135 decibels of noise and be focused on specific targets.  The threshold for painful auditory stimuli is 110-120 decibels.  A vehicle-mounted LRAD can emit sound at volumes up to an excruciating 143 decibels.  Exposure to sustained noise at volumes over 85 decibels can cause permanent hearing loss.

Finally, the Mubarak regime’s control of Egyptian media enabled it to externalize blame for the revolution taking place on that nation’s streets.  Foreign journalists were routinely attacked.  In addition, violent counterrevolutionary forces were unleashed on protestors, reminding us that an official willingness to tolerate, if not encourage, violent civilian assaults on peaceful protestors has plenty of precedents in the United States.

On the basis of the forgoing, one might conclude that the Egyptian revolution is ill suited to serve as a model for an American revolution any time soon.  On the other hand, who would have predicted, just a few short weeks ago, that People Power and the velvet revolutions could become models for successful insurrection in Egypt?  Recent events in North Africa should inspire our continued hopeful efforts.

Al Sandine is the author of The Taming of the American Crowd: From Stamp Riots to Shopping Sprees (Monthly Review Press, 2009).  See, also, Al Sandine, “Slouching Toward D.C., Trailing Bags of Tea” (MRZine, 25 December 2009); and Al Sandine, “Cultural Impersonations and Appropriations: A Fashion Report” (Monthly Review, September 2010).

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