Parts 1 and 2 of a talk on Wikileaks, media, and the future of information given at the Toronto Public Library’s “Thought Exchange” program on January 31, 2011.
Most people are interested in something that no one knows or can know: what is going to happen in Egypt? It is difficult to make predictions, especially about the future (that’s from Keynes). There are lessons from past revolutions that might help us understand what is happening, but from where I’m sitting, marveling at Egyptian people’s courage and looking at these utterly unanticipated and amazing events, I haven’t said much because I don’t have much to offer the people whose courage made this happen and whose decisions will determine how this all goes. Still, there may come a time in the near future when we can help, and when that time comes the more we understand about these dynamics the better.
So, parallels. The 1989 Tiananmen Square uprising was definitely the first one that came to mind. One thing to remember on that front, if you are feeling impatient: the protests at Tiananmen started in mid-April 1989, and the big massacre that drove them out of the square wasn’t until early June. It seems to me that everything depends on Egyptians’ capacity to stay mobilized and to keep escalating protests. The other major point is that if they lose now, they really lose – the worst violence is after the big demonstrations, not during them, when protesters and dissidents are hunted down.
One I hadn’t thought of came from Bill Blum, who made the comparison with Portugal 1975 in his “Killing Hope” column:
“The visual symbol of the Portuguese “revolution” had become the picture of a child sticking a rose into the muzzle of a rifle held by a friendly soldier, and I got caught up in demonstrations and parades featuring people, including myself, standing on tanks and throwing roses, with the crowds cheering the soldiers. It was pretty heady stuff, and I dearly wanted to believe, but I and most people I spoke to there had little doubt that the United States could not let such a breath of fresh air last very long. The overthrow of the Chilean government less than two years earlier had raised the world’s collective political consciousness, as well as the level of skepticism and paranoia on the left.”
“Washington and multinational corporate officials who were on the board of directors of the planet were indeed concerned. Besides anything else, Portugal was a member of NATO. Destabilization became the order of the day: covert actions; attacks in the US press; subverting trade unions; subsidizing opposition media; economic sabotage through international credit and commerce; heavy financing of selected candidates in elections; a US cut-off of Portugal from certain military and nuclear information commonly available to NATO members; NATO naval and air exercises off the Portuguese coast, with 19 NATO warships moored in Lisbon’s harbor, regarded by most Portuguese as an attempt to intimidate the provisional government. In 1976 the “Socialist” Party (scarcely further left and no less anti-communist than the US Democratic Party) came to power, heavily financed by the CIA, the Agency also arranging for Western European social-democratic parties to help foot the bill. The Portuguese revolution was dead, stillborn.”
Blum has good reason to worry, but events don’t always go Washington’s way. If they did, Egyptians wouldn’t have made it this far, and if they go further and keep their resolve, the US won’t have unlimited options. Of course they’ll try to subvert anything decent – but that doesn’t mean nothing decent can happen.
There’s Iran 1979, which Juan Cole did a good blog about.
There’s Venezuela 2002. This wasn’t a revolution though, to overthrow Chavez, but an attempted coup. What’s interesting here is the contrast in the US reaction. Everybody’s seen “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised”, right? Remember how there was a setup, in which coupster snipers attacked the crowds, killing pro- and anti-Chavez demonstrators, and news companies manipulated the footage to suggest that Chavistas killed the demonstrators? In that situation, the (false) claim that pro-Chavez forces killed 10 demonstrators (a number it seems selected in advance by the coupsters) was enough to convince the US that Chavez was a human rights violator who had to go (the whole movie is on Google Video). Take a look at around minute 30 for the incident, and 49:05 for the White House spokesman’s statement, which is too good to not quote at length:
“We know the actions encouraged by the Chavez government provoked this crisis. The Chavez government suppressed peaceful demonstrations, fired on unarmed peaceful protesters resulting in 10 killed and 100 wounded. That is what took place, and a transitional civilian government has been installed.”
Haiti 1986. Another interesting case, because mobilizations took years before they overthrew Duvalier (Egyptians have actually been struggling for years, but not on this level). I was reading Michel Trouillot’s excellent book about the Duvaliers (Haiti: State Against Nation: The Origins and Legacy of Duvalierism, 1990, pg. 224-5)
“For different reasons, the US government, the CNG, the Haitian urban elites, political parties of all tendencies, and large chunks of the Haitian masses have fancied the assumption that Baby Doc’s departure was a clear step on the march to democracy, an immediate and inevitable consequence of the disturbances and massive riots of 1984-5. To be sure, the riots were a necessary factor in the end of the Duvalier dynasty: had the Haitian masses not defied the army and militia with their bare hands during a month of daily encounters in which many unarmed citizens were injured and killed, chances are that Jean-Claude Duvalier would still be ruling the country. But if the riots were necessary for Duvalier to leave, they certainly were not a sufficient condition for him to depart the way he did. It took something else to orchestrate his departure at that particular time, under those specific circumstances, and with a no less specific aftermath… Two series of events occurred on February 7, 1986: first, the departure of Duvalier; second, the takeover of the state machinery by a group of apparently disparate individuals, civilians and career army officers… For what Haitians witnessed on February 7, 1986, was not the disorderly escape of an ‘entire leadership’ pushed out by popular pressure… but a transmission of power, orchestrated with absolute order – albeit against the background of a pouplar uprising.”
Trouillot refers (on pg. 226) to “one crucial fact: Jean-Claude Duvalier was brought down by a high-level coup d’etat executed with international connivance.” The coup prevented the complete uprooting of the structures of the dictatorship, and a series of dictators continued to rule the country for years, a scenario many, like Samir Amin, have foreseen for Egypt.
Of course, the best thing about this situation is that it isn’t a repeat of anything that has happened in the past. It is the Egyptians’ moment, and they will make it.
Justin Podur is Toronto-based writer.