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.