Monday, February 13, 2012

Talk "Experiencing the Egyptian Revolution: Lessons Learned"

This is the talk I gave at the Workers' Rights Centre at Autumn Leaves Bookstore in Ithaca, NY on Thursday, 9 February 2012, to coincide with the 11th of February of Mubarak's ouster:

Making sense of events in the making, as they are unfolding, is not an easy task, especially if we are in the middle of them. There are of course many causes of what began in 2011. And I have addressed some of these explanations in my previous writings on the Arab Spring. In one article I wrote about ‘the imperial reach’ of the Arab Spring – how western powers and institutions quickly named the popular uprisings in the region, prescribing solutions to the ‘democratic transition’ that are more of the same neoliberal policies that have created much of what people are revolting against – the revolving door between business and politics, rising food prices, lowering wages and worker rights, and so on. I have also written about the rise and fall of powerful businessmen/families in high ranking positions within the ruling regime in Egypt. In a piece that I just wrote that hopefully will be published online soon I discuss the hike in food prices and the end of cheap food generally. So I will be happy to discuss any of these issues after the talk if you wish. In this talk, though, I focus our attention on what transpired during the three-week lockdown in Egypt as I experienced it – and what that experience in particular told me that helps me make sense of the events that have transpired since and that are ongoing.

In the first half I describe some key events that I draw from my blog writings at the time, so bear with me if I am regurgitating what you already know well. In many ways I take us out of Tahrir. In the second half I provide my analysis that hopefully addresses not just what is happening in Egypt but what is going on for social movements in other places of the world, including here. So allow me to begin provocatively:

During my first year in Egypt, in 2008, I became deeply concerned about the possibility of a Muslim majority onslaught of the Christian minority. It became a deepening fear not only because of recurrent deadly bouts of violence, such as the gunning down of Christians exiting from a church on New Years Eve by Muslim gunmen in southern Egypt in 2008. But my fears grew from conversations my husband, a Muslim, and I, a supposed Christian, had with Egyptians in everyday life. Christian Egyptians would talk to me as a fellow Christian, expressing distrust of Muslims; Muslim Egyptians would talk to my husband as a fellow Muslim about distrust of Christians. The conversations were not just about how the other religion was ‘wrong’, but about, for example, whether a Muslim should buy a house from a Christian or a Christian should work for a Muslim.

I feared not just recurrent bouts of violence, but a large scale violent attack. I thought that a genocide was possible given that Copts tattoo themselves with crosses and other Christian symbols, and would be easily identified. Horrid visions of the holocaust ran through my mind.

From these first-year fears I understood why so many progressive, secular Egyptians that I met and befriended “supported” Mubarak and the existing political regime in Egypt. It is not as if they liked or believed in the Mubarak regime, but they feared what would take its place. They feared that if it were not Mubarak, then Islamists would take over the country and turn it into a Saudi-style republic.

This reasoning sounded very familiar. After all, I came from a political environment within which people chose the lesser of two evils in presidential elections (or all elections for that matter). In this way people’s choices in Egypt seemed like the choices of Americans, or at least the imaginings of ‘what is possible’ mirrored one another on a flat political scene. And thus the democratic-authoritarian divide that supposedly distinguishes the two political orders reveals itself as a blurry, complicated one.

If it were not large-scale sectarian violence, I knew something very explosive could happen in Egypt. During my time living there, protest and dissident activity escalated. Within my first months in Egypt there was a food crisis: food prices mounted in the early months of 2008 and protest spread. On April 6th 2008 a general strike was called and a youth movement born (the April 6th movement), to form solidarity with industrial workers in El-Mahalla who were planning another strike. In fact, the protests that arose in the face of the food crisis were ongoing and steady for the five or so years preceding 2008. There was growing worker unrest (industrial and white-collar) for crippling wages and growing political opposition movements (e.g., Kefaya) and spaces (e.g., blogging). In fact, I began to blog at this time as I was inspired by Egyptian bloggers who were at once activists, journalists, students, professionals – ‘active’ citizens assuming many roles and contributing to this dissent virtual community.

So how do we situate the 25th of January, the day that the revolution (or uprising) began, within this period of intensifying agitation among not only young people but the working poor and professional classes? There were many ‘events’ that mobilized people on this day, but the one event that I will mention that didn’t get much attention in the press was the January 1 bombing of a Coptic Church in Alexandria that left more than 20 people dead, Christian and Muslim.

A group of activists had mobilized around the January 1 bombing, indignant that the police were ‘removed’ from the Church. As one such activist told me, the police always manned the churches and at an important time of the year for Christians they were absent from this church. In other words, they knew that the Mubarak regime was behind it. But also, I would say, that such a horrific incident turns the fear of regime change inside out. Meaning: There is a fear of “what if” at a time when that which is feared exists. (Again, the fear of a rise of an Islamist regime shows its futility at a time when the existing regime props up political Islam and sectarian violence.)

Immediately after Ben Ali fled and Tunisians began to celebrate Egyptian activists began to organize for a national protest on the 25th. During these days there was a growing conviction among activists that regime change was possible, but there was also pervasive disbelief. Throughout this early phase of the Arab Spring I heard Egyptians say that what happened in Tunisia won’t happen here! Leading up to January 25th one Egyptian friend said to me that there won’t be a revolution in Egypt on the 25th like in Tunisia as revolutions “just don’t happen that way”! Another Egyptian friend said that she and a friend agreed that they would go to the 25th protest in Tahrir, and if no revolution happened, the two of them would go eat koshary and go home!

I will highlight key turning points in the three weeks from the 25th of January to the 11th of February that led to Mubarak’s ouster. Although much of the Western media attention was on Tahrir, Suez quickly exploded. Reports were that there was a siege on the city (by the police) after mounting protests and violence by the 27th of January.

Suez, let me remind you, is the home to the Suez canal, a billion dollar revenue generator for the Egyptian government – none of which has been seen by the residents of this depressed city.

The explosive situation in Suez coupled with police brutality and kidnappings in the rest of the country culminated in what I call the Day of the Street Battles, January 28th or the “Day of Rage”. Throughout the day and night there were clashes between protestors and the police. Police installations – stations, posts, vehicles –were the main targets of protestors. In our neighborhood major clashes broke out between protestors and the police in front of the police station, down the street from our apartment. Protestors charged the station with sticks, glass, stones, Molotov cocktails – and then would retreat when police responded with what sounded like tear gas and rubber bullets.

At some point in the night the police were disbanded and the army came in to take its place. At around 3 in the morning President Mubarak gave a public, televised speech stating that he would create a new government. He fired his Cabinet, including the prime minister, and tried to distance himself from the police, stating that he and his army would protect the people.

When we walked out of the apartment in the morning to see what had happened to the police station, we saw a beaten up station, military tanks lined up in front of it and hundreds of residents standing around and taking pictures of the tanks. There was a short-lived celebratory atmosphere in the air.

But keep in mind that from that day onward many throughout Egypt were in their homes, in front of the television. There was no internet, then no mobile service. Satellite television remained. When the military took over the streets and instituted a curfew, television and state radio were the only sources of news media. Life in Egypt didn’t really ‘stand still’ but almost. In Cairo people didn’t go to work, shops didn’t open, government offices and businesses were closed. Even in the countryside an activist-colleague said that farmers were at home watching what was happening on television. There was a tremendous amount of anticipation and fear. It was palpable.

All at once the military instituted curfew (which started earlier with each passing day), the police were removed from the streets, prisoners were released from jail, and gangs were unleashed to loot and vandalize. In front of the television, flashing all day, were images of ragged prisoners, looted store fronts and government buildings, the vandalized Egyptian Museum and its ‘national treasures’, ‘food shortages’ as people rushed to the bread ovens and supermarkets in fear of the worst.

The next day, the 30th, a Ministry of Defense spokesperson addressed the public in a televised address, telling them to stay inside and observe the second day of curfew. He assured the public that the military would protect the people from looters, but he urged young people to be vigilant in protecting their families and neighborhoods throughout the night. And that is exactly what neighbors did – they set up popular committees to ‘secure the peace’—setting up road blocks with anything they could find, taking shifts throughout the night to keep watch over the streets and securing themselves with sticks.

And fears continued to circulate and intensify: Fears of a run on the banks loomed. The banks and stock exchange were closed and would continue to be. Fears of nighttime raids by ‘looters’ and ‘escaped’ prisoners. Television reports showed government buildings, shops and offices ransacked. The commercial heart of Mohandiseen – with its many regional and international food and clothes shops – was also heavily ransacked. But reports surfaced early on that captured ‘would-be looters’ by vigilantes were found with security service IDs on them.

Propaganda began early on that non-Egyptians were behind the vandalism and looting. The US media as well as Egyptian state television circulated these rumors. One rumor in the US television media was that Iraqis were coming into Egypt to infiltrate the demonstrations. Another in the US internet media was of Bedouins taking over a police installation, stealing weapons, and charging onto Cairo to take over the government. Egyptian state media was pressing that those creating ‘havoc’ were non-Egyptian (possibly tied to Al Qaida).

On Wednesday, the 2nd, the morning after Mubarak’s second televised address in which he promises that he will not seek re-election in that year’s scheduled presidential elections, I went to Tahrir for the first time. The protestors/revolutionaries had set up several layers of checkpoints, so anyone who wanted to enter had to be checked by those manning the posts. I was searched by a woman and before I was ‘let in’, another male ‘guard’ asked, “But what do you have there?,” pointing to my belly. I responded, “Ana hamel” (I’m pregnant) and smiled. We all laughed. But the feeling in the square didn’t feel light or fun; it rather felt like a battle field. I had arrived just as protestors were beginning to enter and there were hundreds camped out in tents and on the grass. Women and men, young and middle aged, were entering the Square, some with food for the protestors. A friend and I talked to a number of people on the street, around Tahrir, and they all expressed a wish that Mubarak would stay until his term ended, under the assumption that he fulfilled his promises. And the tv media at the time was saying that Mubarak’s speech had split the public – between those who wanted to see him exit office gracefully and those who wanted him out immediately.
A couple of hours later baltagiyya (or thugs) were unleashed onto protestors in Tahrir: Again, evidence emerged that they were from or sponsored by the government. One report apparently from captured ‘thugs’ was that they were offered a 5,000 LE reward if they took over the Square. Another report was that they were from an Alexandria prison and the police offered them a release if they stormed the Square to break up the protest.

But protests continued and I argue a turning point was on Tuesday the 8th of February, the 2nd week anniversary of the uprising. Tahrir in fact had developed a kind of carnival-like atmosphere. People who had stayed home, came. People who had protested brought their families. It was one of the largest demonstrations in Tahrir until that point. As I stood on the other side of Qasr al-Aini bridge on that day I felt such joy, with thousands of young people and families holding Egyptian flags and chanting and chatting. There was a festive atmosphere, with horse carriages taking people for carriage rides.

Another way to think about this is that the revolution could claim a “majority” – or gained a ‘critical mass’ – for the first time. How? 1) The unleashing of violence on peaceful protestors the week before had backfired. The baltagiyya are a known ‘fixture’ in Egyptian society and they are commonly associated with the authorities. (And it is clear that this state technique of violence has backfired once again, as anger is exploding against the military council for the death of more than 70 Ultras (Ahly fans) in Port Said last week.) 2) Labor responded en masse. On Tuesday the 8th the Suez Canal Company workers went on strike in several cities – Suez, Ismailia, Port Said. After 24 hours they were still striking. 3) One of the chief online protest organizers of the 25th of January demonstrations, Wael Ghonim, who had disappeared during the first week of the uprising, was released from police custody the day before. In an interview on one of Egypt's most popular television shows, Ghonim gave a sincere and passionate defense of the movement. His defense put a badly needed human face to the movement that has been systematically slandered by the state media and state officials. In the interview Ghonim repeated with such emotion that he and the others involved in the demonstrations were not traitors. Throughout his police detention the officers claimed that he was being influenced by outside forces, that someone was using him and others to infiltrate the Egyptian political scene and create instability. He repeated that they are not foreign spies, that they are doing this for Egypt, out of their love for Egypt.

A few days later, on Friday the 11th, the Vice President announces Mubarak’s “resignation.” The next day I went with friends to Tahrir to celebrate. As protestors had been doing throughout the 18-day ‘standoff’, that day as well people chanted “Shab wa gayesh eed wa7eda” and I remember wondering how long that love affair would last. (That chant later changed in demonstrations to “Gayesh wa shorta eed wasakh”.) For weeks after Cairo felt like a different place. People went back to work but there were work-place protests ‘everywhere’ and young revolutionaries were ‘cleaning up’ Cairo.

Paradoxically what the Egyptian revolution and the ‘Arab Spring’ reveals to me is the way in which the modern state system has relinquished a ‘trust in ourselves’, or the belief in the ability to rule ourselves or in organizing society around non-authoritarian relationships. It is a paradoxical exploration in that at the same time that millions of people confront fear and embrace a type of trust in the possibility of a ‘rule of and for the people’, this distrust becomes even more apparent.

There were and are two types of fear at work in the uprisings of the Arab world that reinforce this distrust: a fear of state reprisal and a fear of the unknown. State apparatuses both violently suppress the uprisings and actively create a sense of instability and ‘chaos’. For example, the state uses a fear-provoking mechanism that warns of enemies without and/or within, and then state agents present themselves as protectors, providers of peace and stability. I argue that these state mechanisms are reinforcing a ‘distrust of ourselves’, in which populations do not trust that they can govern themselves in the absence of traditional state institutions (like the police, the presidential office and so on). In other words, it is not enough to say that people do not support the revolution or are immobilized by fear because of state fear-mongering tactics. I was surrounded by people who were wallowing in the ‘what ifs’ while assuming an array of worst possible scenarios – and who had no specific fears of the military raiding their homes or putting them in jail.

One signifier of this distrust was the descriptive term given to what was happening in Egypt as ‘chaotic’. The first utterances of ‘chaos’ were heard very early on in the uprising, when the police were withdrawn from the streets. At this time there was talk in the foreign Arabic and English medium press that chaos reigned the streets of Egypt. Keep in mind, there was only one night of vandalism, mostly targeting major commercial districts – and, again, evidence points to the ruling party/regime for releasing the vandals. (This does not deny that there was some theft, but much of the damage done appears to be from vandalism, not theft, in order to create an appearance of the absence of ‘rule of law’.) Neighborhood vigilante groups kept most neighborhoods free from vandalism. There were reports, though, of hoarding at grocery stores and at subsidized bread stations. In an upscale neighborhood, a friend witnessed as neighbors clamored at a grocery store, struggling to get the last remaining items on the shelves. And in my neighborhood, apartment buildings were locked. Ours hadn’t been locked before, and during and after the uprising the doorman kept the front door locked twenty-four hours a day.

Most of the people that I talked to during the period from the 25th of January to the 11th of February expressed fear of chaos early on. Even though they were either living in Egypt, experiencing a non-chaotic day to day on the streets, or they were talking to me who was living in Egypt and wasn’t experiencing chaos, they quickly assumed that there was chaos. The overwhelming voice from Mubarak in his three speeches was of order and stability (and the rhetoric of the military council has been similar). Mubarak was posturing as an authority figure, in office to maintain order and stability. The military council in fact reiterated the state mantra: The Supreme Council is there to restore order and stability – and who better to do this then military officers!?

Many swallowed and continue to swallow the state-fed idea of lawlessness, a situation that was actually “chaos” for the regime. The ground shook beneath the feet of ‘the people’ but fell for the regime. Žižek puts this as an analogy: It is like in Tom and Jerry cartoons when the cat is running off a precipice, and he keeps running as he doesn’t realize that there is no ground to stand on. But once he looks down and sees there is nothing beneath him, he falls. And so it is with the regime.

The fact that people felt and still feel that there is no ground beneath their feet perhaps is one way to say that during this last year the revolution lost whatever ‘critical mass’ that it had. There appears to have been widespread continued support for the council even though many of the demands of the 25 January revolution have not been met – and the military has been using violent, coercive tactics to enforce its rule.

How? For one thing the ruling regime quickly recovered its legitimacy by co-opting the revolution. The very day that Mubarak was ousted, even before it was publicly announced that he left office, the state propaganda machine changed its tone. On that day state television began to report from Tahrir and refer to the protestors’ demands. By the next week or the week after posters from the state media agency Al Haram were placed in the metro and in other parts of the city celebrating the revolution: “Benat Almusta2abl”! And the “Mubarak” metro station was changed to “Shuhada’”, and so on. Very quickly the state apparatus aligned with the revolution and in doing so made it its own. The martyrs of the 25th of January became heroes of the nation. In fact, when the intifada or uprising began in November the military council and the state media were (this time) branding the protestors as hulligans and betrayers of the revolutionary martyrs. And the ‘counter revolution’ that began to re-appear – bringing attention to the deteriorating economic situation, rising food prices, and so on – positions itself with the martyrs and the 25th of January revolution. To give an example, in November or December Anouar met a representative from the Rebels of Tahrir party, members of which claim to have protested in Tahrir but left the square because they didn’t like where the demonstrations were heading.

I do not suggest that the state took over all public space or has successfully monopolized the memory of the 25 January revolution. In fact, revolutionaries have claimed a lot of space with graffiti, a reminder to all the dreams and demands of the revolution.

In short, people want to believe state propaganda. After all, the military in the popular imagination is one ‘of the people’, a hero in the 1973 victory, and so on. And there are material realities ‘at stake’ that evoke fear and opposition. Those who had money in banks had no access to that money. People who live from daily wages and monthly paychecks did not work for weeks. And so on. In other words, as has been reiterated over and over during the last year, people are ‘tired’ of revolution.

But ‘class’ does not explain why people joined the revolution. Those who were involved and continue to be come from many backgrounds – the urban poor, youth, middle classes, professional classes, and so on. Sure, material realities help explain why some people protested – for example, the working poor are being squeezed by rising food prices – and why some people stopped supporting the revolution – like a young agribusiness executive I interviewed who confided in me that he realized that he was wrong in going to Tahrir because the revolution was against his interests.

But material life or brutality on the part of the authorities does not adequately explain why life nearly stood still for weeks and why momentum has been significantly lost during the last year. A representative from a non-profit organization working with small-scale farmers told me that even the farmers that she works with lost most of their winter crop as there were no trucks, no fuel, by which to transport the harvest to markets. There was in fact a paralysis from an imagination of the worst.

This ‘distrust in ourselves’ can be related to the Middle East exceptionalism thesis that Islam and democracy are incompatible. This thesis in fact has been widely disseminated in the region. But the distrust to which I refer and the thesis should not be conflated, as I liken this distrust to what Noam Chomsky refers to as the “disdain for the population” – a guiding principle of the US, domestically and internationally. Rather than being merely a guiding principle of hegemony, I argue that a pervasive distrust in ourselves is the modus operandi of the modern state system – as exemplified by the intensification of the security agenda of states or in Giorgio Agamben’s language, by the state of exception which increasingly appears “as the dominant paradigm of government in contemporary politics.” By ‘state of exception’ Agamben refers to extraordinary measures (what have historically been instituted as emergency powers) in “democratic” states that have become part of the normal apparatuses of state rule. This state of exception renders democracies ‘constitutional dictatorships’ as the executive holds greater decision-making power. In other words a belief in the ability of a rule ‘for the people and of the people’ (i.e. popular democracy) does not refer to authoritarianism as a type of government per se but more generally to authoritarian techniques of rule, thus referring to both “democratic” and “authoritarian” states.

This understanding of authority is perhaps most clearly articulated by anarchism, which offers a radical critique of authoritarian relationships. Also, the history of anarchism as a movement may help us understand how the consolidation of the modern state system has relinquished a trust in ourselves – and how at this particular juncture we are seeing a revival. In the previous era of ‘globalization’, starting in the 1880s, at the height of British imperialism, there was a ‘global’ radical movement that fundamentally challenged state and capital structures of authority. In fact, a book has just been published about global radicalism in the Eastern Mediterranean (in Beirut, Cairo and Alexandria) at the turn of the century. And now in Egypt, for instance, anarchism does not seem to be a part of the lexicon of the Left. I told a socialist Egyptian colleague that Chomsky is an anarchist and he was aghast.

The point is not that those who become ‘revolutionaries’ (the minority who do) have a belief or imagine possibilities of popular democracy (or are anarchists), but there was and is a willingness to believe that something fundamentally different is possible. That is why a second uprising (intifada) happened in November just a week or two before parliamentary elections, illustrating that those who continue to protest do not swallow the false promise of elections. And this Arab Spring has afforded many people the experience of a kind of rule ‘for the people and of the people’ – when they took over the role of the police in Cairo, for instance, or in the encampments of the Madrid square of the indiginatos and of Occupiers in Wall Street. People who are participating are living a democracy but what about the other ‘we’ which the movements claim? As Rami Zurayk, a professor at American University of Beirut said in a talk, how can this be a revolution without a manifesto? In other words, the Arab Spring and other movements that it has inspired like the “Occupy” movement are challenging us to imagine a popular democracy once again, and a part of the struggle seems to be a reimagining of rule ‘for the people and by the people’.

Sunday, December 4, 2011

Occupy the Electoral Process

If there is one lesson that the Occupy movement can learn from the Arab Spring this last month it is that the electoral process should not be ignored.

There was resounding participation in the parliamentary elections in Tunisia, and there appears to be in Egypt as well. In Morocco where the Arab Spring has not yet bloomed, turnout in the elections was only slightly better than the previous elections and the February 20 movement officially called for a boycott.

The message to the Occupy movement: participate or boycott.

There has been a debate of sorts ‘within’ the Occupy movement about demands. Some argue, like philosopher Slavoj Žižek has in the Guardian, that the movement should occupy first and make demands later. Others have argued, like Naomi Klein in an interview with Grounded News, that the movement is currently amorphous – without a clear organizational structure, leadership, demands – but much could be lost in staying this way.

I agree with Naomi Klein. By moving toward more structure with time, the movement does not have to take a normal non-amorphous form that some contemporary social movements have taken. In the US, this normalcy often translates into blind embrace of the Democratic party at the time of elections. The movement can rather take a number of forms, some with more clarity and shape than others – one being an articulated position on the electoral process.

If consensus within the movement is to shore away from conventional politics, as Robert Jensen has argued in, based on the opinion that electoral choices are not democratic and/or policy making is a centrifugal force to the right of the center and/or the electoral mandate is hijacked by the 1 per cent. Or whatever the valid reasons may be, the movement should not pretend that the elections are not happening – as many disillusioned and disenfranchised have been doing in northern countries for the past decades. The movement should boycott the elections – and in a way that educates and mobilizes citizens for more democratic systems of governance.

If those involved in the movement want to participate in the electoral process, then organize, not into the grave of national parties that win elections and nearly always disappoint, but for a new party or new bloc or coalition.

Whether participating or boycotting, the electoral outcome in the short and medium term is likely not promising for those advocating systemic, progressive change. Revolutionaries throughout the Arab world are confronting this reality now. Groups that were for and against the uprisings, participating when it suited them and refraining when it didn’t, like the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, look to be making considerable ‘wins’ in the elections. The capture of the electoral process by conservative forces is not a complete loss, however. By taking an active stance in the electoral process, the Occupy movement can raise awareness about policies and politics, public demands for representation, new frameworks for policy debates – and the list of democratic gains in the long haul is long.

This is our moment to re-shape the electoral process in our shallow democratic societies and the undemocratic world order.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Demands remain unmet, the death toll rises – and the uprising rises again

This is the third day of a renewed uprising in Egypt. It seems that many of us were waiting for it to happen. And why now, just days before parliamentary elections?

Many demands remain unmet: The emergency laws are still in place, the military council holds on to power (and there was disbelief that it would in fact relinquish it, elections or not), a set of constitutional principles has been written undemocratically, and on and on. The uprising rose again when the protestors found themselves before a violent security state, once again. As the death toll has risen across the country, the protests have intensified.

Should it be surprising that the ruling military council has employed some of the same tactics in response to the uprising as the Mubarak regime did in January-February 2011?

When the protests began to heat up, after the police violently removed protestors from Tahrir square, a spokesperson for the Supreme Council of Armed Forces (SCAF) publicly declared that the protestors were thugs, unlike the ‘noble revolutionaries’ of the 25 January Revolution. They were troublemakers trying to destabilize the country. Then, the following day as protests spread another member of SCAF spoke publicly declaring that the military will protect the people from the police.

At the time of the 25 January Revolution state forces immediately launched a propaganda campaign branding the uprising as one propagated by ill-doers, foreign agents. And then when the regime removed the police after the street wars on the 28th of January, Mubarak publicly spoke, declaring that he stood with the military to protect the people from the police.

And of course since taking over the country SCAF has been employing many of the same tactics as its predecessor – branding the revolutionary groups as foreign agents, jailing protestors and trying them in military court, and the litany of abuses goes on.

And the revolution must go on. When lives are lost, there is no turning back. When people feel their freedom in open protest, there is no turning back. Justice will be realized.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

The Non-Conspiracy of Conspiracy

Conspiracy theories are commonly believed, or at least circulated, among the Left in the industrialized North and seem to be even more commonly held, across the political spectrum, in the ‘developing world’. It is only after living in Egypt for three years have I come to see how widespread the language of ‘conspiracy’ is here. And it on the 10th anniversary of the September 11 attacks in the United States that a discussion of conspiracy theories seems appropriate.

Conspiracy theories of the alleged terrorist attacks in the United States on September 11, 2001 are appealing for two reasons, not least of which is the US government’s use of the attacks for imperial undertakings abroad and the solidification of a ‘state of exception’ at home. (‘State of exception’ refers to the exceptional and provisional becoming part of the normal apparatuses of governance. What we may simply refer to as institution of constitutional dictatorship within the US. See Agamben 2005) The human and financial costs of the War on Terror are huge, immeasurable – and there is no doubt that the events on 9-11 proved to be a very convenient modus operandi for heightened control over citizens, economies and minds around the world.

A second reason for the appeal of conspiracy theories that tell of US government’s role in the attacks is that the federal investigations of the attacks were neither transparent nor thorough. The 9-11 commission in charge of the primary investigation was not a democratic entity, was not held accountable by the public for its work, and has been routinely criticized for its lack of comprehensiveness (for example, by not even addressing the collapse of Tower No. 7). Since there was not a thorough investigation nor a vibrant public debate about how to respond to the attacks, there is reason to question the official story told.

When the US government again decided not to be transparent about its alleged assassination of Osama bin Laden a few months ago, many today question that bin Laden was actually killed. Just today I saw a show on Aljazeera English, during which Pakistanis were interviewed who witnessed the US military coming into their town (where bin Laden was allegedly in hiding) and who still do not believe that the military found and killed bin Laden. Why? Because the US military has never furnished evidence of the assassination. As soon as he was allegedly killed, his body was brought aboard a military ship and thrown overboard.

So, yes, it is reasonable indeed to question the official story told. It seems much less reasonable to believe the official story when there is no formal, open inquiry through which one may be able to come to an educated opinion about what happened on 9-11 or the day that bin Laden was allegedly killed.

But this does not mean that it is reasonable to believe the conspiracy theories surrounding the 9-11 attacks. As Noam Chomsky has argued, most conspiracy theories put states in a potentially very precarious position, taking a very heavy risk. For instance, if the US government was in some capacity behind the attacks, then people within the government would have to know, and the chances of a leak are there. Any chance is too heavy a risk for a government in that it would lose all its legitimacy before the people.

More than this, though, conspiracy theories reveal that people feel impotent. And at the same time, I would argue, they construct a powerlessness among people. They create a story that makes states and influential groups omnipotent – and themselves ‘the victims’. As soon as protestors stormed the Israeli Embassy in Egypt this past Friday, and ‘threw out’ the Israeli ambassador, rumors spread that the Egyptian government was behind the embassy attack. According to the rumors, it was all part of the government’s plan to have an excuse to control protest activity even more – and within hours the SCAF (Supreme Council of the Armed Forces) did just that, by activating its emergency powers. The delayed response on the part of the military to the protestors’ attack may be suspicious, but arguing that the government was behind the attacks amounts to erasing from the historical memory those who participated. What about the risks they took? The burden they bore? The real reasons they had for kicking out the Israeli ambassador?

Conspiracy theories in a way nullify these questions. And the same for 9-11. There are real reasons why people would want to attack the United States. It is not a benevolent player in the international arena. It does things – like invade countries – that create enemies. On the anniversary of the tragic events of 9-11 it is important to publicly come to terms with the ways in which the US has created enemies – and how the government’s very responses to the attacks has done so.

More than this, the events of 9-11 – and this past Friday in Egypt – illustrate that one of the techniques of governance is the use of tragedy and dissent to consolidate power. This is not a conspiracy but a modern technique of state power. In places where states have so little legitimacy, it is no wonder that conspiracy theories thrive. And in places where people believe what their governments tell them, circulation of conspiracy theories can do some good.

Agamben, Giorgio. 2005. State of Exception. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.