SYNDICATED COLUMN: The Failure of Tahrir Square 2011

Not a Revolution, Just a Useless Protest

Two years ago, when I was in the Occupy movement, my comrades and I argued about revolution. Was revolution necessary? What is it? The split that destroyed our movement — as it did the Left during the Sixties — pitted revolutionaries against reformists. The most frustrating part of the debate, however, wasn’t ideological. It was linguistic.

Even on the Left, few Americans know what revolution is: the violent overthrow of the ruling classes. In a revolution, everything — beginning with the power structure — changes.

The Tahrir Square encampments that led to the ouster of Egyptian autocrat Hosni Mubarak were a huge influence on Occupy. But we couldn’t agree about what they meant. Was Tahrir a “revolution”?

No doubt, the 2011 Arab Spring was a powerful mass movement. Everyone agreed about that. For reformists — people who want to fix the system rather than replace it — Tahrir Square was a perfect example to emulate: a peaceful people-power transition that changed things for the better without shedding blood. Cut-and-paste the same phenomenon from Cairo to the United States — convince millions of peaceful demonstrators to camp out in American cities to demand change — and you’d get similarly dramatic results, reformist Occupiers urged. “Egypt had a peaceful revolution,” they said.

Revolutionaries — people who want to get rid of the existing system and start from scratch — countered that the Arab Spring uprisings were not revolutions at all and were thus insufficent. “Tunisia and Egypt,” I said, “were merely personnel changes.” The system, the way society, politics and the economy are organized, remained unchanged.

As recent events prove, the resignation of a president does not a revolution make.

In all the ways that matter, post-Mubarak Egypt remains the same. Those who were rich before are still rich; the same-old poor are the brand-new poor. Egypt’s generals, awash in billions of barely-audited American taxdollars and high-tech military hardware, continue to call the shots.

Egypt’s military brass is a canny lot. Corrupt and autocratic, they tack left and right along with the winds on the dusty streets. When Tahrir got big, they called back their rapists of demonstrators and told Hosni it was time to take a powder. When Mohammed Morsi won the election, they golf-clapped — until Mo’s numbers fell. Then it was his turn to vanish into house arrest.

The crowds in Tahrir cheered as fighter jets streaked overhead. Applauding their own oppressors.


The proles get their concession. The figurehead performer everyone thinks runs the show, the big star who plays Mr. President on TV, gets fired after he turns stale. Yet, no matter how chaotic the politics, regardless of how much blood flows (spilled by projectiles made in the U.S.A.), the real bosses — the military, their business cronies, the publishers and owners of state media outlets — remain in charge.

Which now is plain as day.

General Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, who overthrew Morsi in a coup that dare not speak its name (in Western countries, whose quaint 20th century human rights laws would otherwise require the severing of lucrative weapons contracts that benefit major campaign donors), has apparently gotten so caught up in the serious business of slaughtering members of the Muslim Brotherhood that he’s completely forgotten to pay lip service to restoring democracy.

In the ultimate symbol of restoration (or feeling so confident they feel free to tip their hand), the military’s old friend/employee Mubarak is out of prison and may soon be released.

As two visiting U.S. senators recently witnessed firsthand, power has gone to al-Sisi’s telegenic little head. This isn’t a crackdown, but rather an attempt to grind the Muslim Brotherhood into oblivion. Al-Sisi’s soldiers have arrested the Brotherhood’s spiritual leader, Mohamed Badie, on brazenly trumped-up charges. And his fellow coup leaders are gearing up for a fascist-style ban of the party — another return to the Mubarak era.

As usual, Western liberals are smart enough to foresee future blowback from the Egyptian junta’s brutal campaign. “Attempts to exclude a party with the level of support recently secured by the Muslim Brotherhood will simply prolong Egypt’s agony. That is a tragic lesson from the history of Algeria in the 1990s,” Douglas Alexander writes in The Guardian.

Also as usual, Western liberals are too stupid to push for a stronger remedy than wouldn’t-it-be-nice hoping things will magically feel guilty and stop mass murdering. “The Muslim Brotherhood needs the opportunity,” Alexander continues, “to ‘get out of the streets and into the voting booth.’ Yet to do so, its supporters must believe there is a viable democratic path.”

Which of course there isn’t.

Which brings us back to Tahrir Square 2011. What should Egypt’s proto-Occupiers have done instead?

If their goal was actual change rather than new window-dressing, the protesters at Tahrir shouldn’t have settled for a personnel change at the pseudo-top. Mubarak’s departure wasn’t enough.

If you want to eliminate oppression, you must eliminate the oppressors. In Egypt, that would have meant rounding up every major official in the military as well as the government, and seizing control of the nation’s economy. Everyone who was anyone, rich and/or powerful, should have been imprisoned.

This would, of course, have required violence.

Revolution isn’t pretty. But as we’re seeing now in Egypt, neither is the alternative.

(Ted Rall’s website is Go there to join the Ted Rall Subscription Service and receive all of Ted’s cartoons and columns by email.)


28 thoughts on “SYNDICATED COLUMN: The Failure of Tahrir Square 2011

  1. Who cares.

    I don’t give a damn about this middle east shit, and neither should ANY American. We have enough problems here. I don’t give a shit about Hosni Neferrak and Hosem Middleheim and Riffifi Tofuko and every other name I’ve never heard of and don’t give a shit about.

    All this “here’s what Western liberals” have to say about the Muslim Brotherhood, and Egypt Rising, and Arab Spring, and Arab Summer, and Arab Fall and blah, blah, blah …. is total, 100% unadulterated bullshit. Know why? I’ll tell you:

    Ask the average Egyptian what he or she thinks about fracking in the US.
    Ask the average Egyptian what he or she thinks about drug laws in the US.
    Ask the average Egyptian what he or she thinks about bailouts in the US.
    Ask the average Egyptian what he or she thinks about the tax code in the US.

    Here’s their answer: I couldn’t give a fuck.

    Know why? It’s not their country. They don’t care, nor should they. Why not? Because they have zero influence.

    We all hear about how US government should stop meddling in the Middle East. What goes unsaid is that the so-called liberal intellectual intelligencia should stop discussing it as well. It’s tiresome, elitist, and most of all — totally 100% fucking useless and ineffective.

    If I’m wrong, then prove me wrong. I’ll make it easy. Name just one major thing Noam Chomsky has changed in the middle east in fifty fucking years of babbling on about it. Just one.

    • I’ll agree with @ex that no one should discuss any topic, including the Middle East, if their policy prescriptions are same old, same old.

  2. Looks like ex missed the point. This is about what softy liberals and really all Americans should have figured out awhile ago: what a revolution doesn’t look like and that nothing short of one will do. Tahrir Square is just the recent example Ted is using to demonstrate this. Solid column…thanks.

    Besides that, Egyptians don’t need to give a fuck about the US because we’re the superpower meddling in their affairs!

    And really? Making fun of foreign names? Have some class.

  3. First, wiki claims that over 800 died in the 2011 “Egyptian spring.” So claims that it was bloodless are simply incorrect.

    The question is posed: “What should Egypt’s proto-Occupiers have done instead?” They should have done what the US Occupiers should have done – rid themselves of their oppressors. On that project, they seem to have about the same chances as we do, although they seem detectably more serious about it. The chances are equally small for the same reason, massive entrenched military/police power and the willingness to use it on the non-subservient.

    The hand wringing in the US over the situation in Egypt would be hilarious if it were not so tragic.
    No thirty+ year dictatorship is swept out of power cleanly or quickly. WHY isn’t that obvious?

    Of course, WE, having allowed our tax dollars to validate, install, encourage, support and strengthen said dictatorship, are directly responsible for it, its horrors while in power (e.g. subcontracting US torture among many others), and the horrors of trying to eradicate it.

    Is this what the endless, real-issue-obscuring analysis is meant to obfuscate?

  4. Ex you totally missed the point as Jack said.

    Also it isn’t true that the middle east doesn’t effect us. You should care who runs Egypt. And, you would be shocked how many people in obscure corners of the world care A LOT about who is president of the USA. I travel to construction sites around the world and have Obama president has had a huge impact on how average folks think about Americans particularly in Africa. One of the most common laments I hear from people when politics comes up is that they don’t get to vote in US elections. A lot of people around the world think this is totally unfair because they feel like the US has a huge influence on their lives and think they should have a say in how the USA is run.

    But why should we care about Egypt? It’d be nice if we could ignore them but unfortunately our fellow citizens learned a terrible lesson in WWII. To make sure WWI and WWII are NEVER repeated, Americans decided (I think wrongly), to police the entire world and make sure that not country could ever challenge us anywhere ever again. Police need local people to give them tips. Israel is the first local group to help us police the area and Egypt is #2. Without them our ability to police the middle east is reduced. It actually is that hard to imagine the Middle East triggering a WWIII. It would go something like this: (1) Everyone attacks Israel (2) They somehow lose the battle and Israel decides to expand its borders to create a “buffer zone” (3) The Israels get bogged down (4) Oil stops flowly (5) USA jumps into the fight (6) Russia jumps in on the other side…. and boom WWIII.

    That’s what USA policy makes are trying to prevent. That’s why they care.

  5. A bit of talking past each other here. Ted’s column is well done and academically correct, and Ex’s point is also spot-on; but I would just add that while we are about our not giving a fuck we ought to bring our troops home from Japan (Okinawa), South Korea, Germany, etc. As far as that leading to WWIII, I don’t see it; not in the age of nuclear weapons. Wars, certainly, but the great powers are still subject to nuclear MAD.

    Regarding revolution here in the US, that’s more of a RAD situation. Revolutionaries Assured Destruction. Unless there is some hacker super weapon out there, the government is just too powerful.

    It is possible we could have a military coup, but that would be a Whitey/Christian shindig.

  6. @aaron. Spot on. It is a good column.

    yup wwiii won’t happen unless they get star wars to work. Then I’m not so sure.

    love your RAD concept. Whitey Christian shindig. True.

  7. @Jack: No I didn’t miss the point. As usual, I’m about five steps ahead. That’s all.

    And as for your knee-jerk “making fun of foreign names” dig — eat shit. Thought police are not something anyone should tolerate anymore. We should send you back to the nineties, whatever it takes.

    I’m going to reiterate my last paragraph. Maybe one of you oh-so-righteous liberals will actually address it: If I’m wrong, then prove me wrong. I’ll make it easy. Name just one major thing Noam Chomsky has changed in the middle east in fifty fucking years of babbling on about it. Just one.

  8. @Ex. But, but but…. things must be better over there now, they have twitter and facebook!

  9. @Andy, a technical sidenote, star wars defends against ICBMs, but there are many other ways to deliver nuclear payloads: cruise missiles, artillery shells, man-portables, and good ole timey planes trains and automobiles.

  10. Haha. Good point. Maybe were safe after all although our borders are so secure that I can really see the Russians threatening us with any of those methods except icbms. Maybe the old terrorist sneak would do it but I gotta believe that should wwiii start the border with Mexico would seal up over night.

    ex, Chomsky hasn’t changed shit but the USAF USMC and army have done quite a lot of changing over there. If they were so in different why’d they bother going after the twin towers. People in the middle east care a lot about what we’re doing, and we seem to care a lot about what they’re doing. I think itd be great if we closed all our foreign bases and brought the troops home. But until that happens, were stuck caring about foreign countries cause our soldier are there.

  11. Ex,

    The word Hubris mean anything to you? I’m oh so honored you would deign to respond to a lowly wretch such as I.

    Discussions should have parameters. Childish bigotry is never useful.

    I don’t identify as a liberal. I’ll answer your question with one of my own: in all the years of people complaining about young people, governmental overreach, corruption, military-industrial complex, erosion of civil rights, prison overcrowding, unfair tax code, policing the world, crony capitalism, corporate welfare…you get the idea…what good has all YOUR and your kind’s babbling been? The effect of criticism or discussion is beside the point clearly. Issues still have to be talked about if they are ever to be resolved even if nothing good has come of it yet. Why else would you discuss so many things we have not changed in so many decades, hmmm?

  12. Stop for a moment and think – If we can’t even get our government to focus and deal with domestic issues in a sane and positive manner, then what the heck can you expect the government to do with its foreign policy? If we can’t devote resources to dealing with poverty and injustice domestically, then what is the government doing with the resources it has at its disposal? I agree with ex to a certain extent and I get what he means about the names – I am constantly assaulted with strange names that are foreign to me, which illuminates the fact that we aren’t taking care of our own affairs first. Sometimes this becomes irritating and frustrating. Chomsky pontifications may be spot on, but he can’t get through to the sheeple – sometimes his meanderings are simply too long and introspective.
    The Middle East is a huge tar-baby bee hive, and we should give them the time to go through the same transitions America did, whether civil war or decades of fighting for rights and less discrimination. Send billions in bribes and “aid” to foreign nations, or initiate a jobs program and help failing communities and poverty in the USA? Easy decision for me – F*#k the Middle East and the constant focus on Hosem Dhjakar and Riffifi Killallyu.

  13. For the record, discussion and action have lead to a couple of notable domestic reforms lately: Medical Marijuana (with actual legalization in Colorado and Washington), and Gay Marriage.

  14. @ex

    It sounds like you do indeed give a fuck. Namely, you emphatically wish for the US (diplomatic service et al.) to become utterly disengaged in Egypt (and presumable elsewhere). Of course you have said you want people to stop talking about it, but of course, the choice of whether or not to talk about it is taking a very definite position, and it is not at all clear that that position is consistent with your wider wish for the US to become disengaged abroad.

    And without investigating, we really have no way of knowing whether pursuing something like international labor cooperation is more worthwhile in this “global” age than just battening down the hatches. While the latter would be my instinct, leaving the whole world open to marauding corporations so that they can build up huge deposits of wealth with which to eventually reverse any progress gained in their home country doesn’t seem like a tasty prospect to me.

  15. The problem with revolutions is that they are won by people who have guns and aren’t afraid to use them to achieve and maintain power. The problem with less-violent approaches is that they are won by the people who have wealth and aren’t afraid to use it to achieve and maintain power.

    However, I’d rather fight the money tyrants economically than fight the gun tyrants violently. Although imperfect, our economic safety net has been steadily improving over the decades, and more and more of us have increased economic freedom. That is, the process is slowly but surely spreading the power derived from wealth.

    It is not at all clear to me that the power of guns is spreading to an increasing number of people. Rather, it seems to be concentrating. Our military can take on pretty much any other military on earth, and wouldn’t have to blink if its opponent were mere citizens, no matter how many AK-47’s were in hand. Remember how our military killed tens of thousands of well-trained, elite Republican Guard in a single day in Iraq? Why would you want to give them an excuse to consider you expendable?

    • @Lee,

      Your take on the safety net is, to say the least, not held by many other Americans. For example, pensions are completely gone – so retirement is finished. That’s really scary.

    • Also, the state always has superior firepower. Yet revolutions do sometimes succeed. If no one had ever been willing to overthrow tyrants – even at the near-certain risk if death – we would still have slavery. We owe future generations the same sacrifice that we have benefited from in the past.

  16. Lee,

    They already consider us expendable. And you need to check your facts: our ‘safety net’ has been steadily DIMINISHING over the decades. Probably the last thing the common person is doing is winning the economic fight!

  17. Jack,

    You make a crucial point when you mention that people aren’t winning the economic fight. The statistics are quite clear on the issue: for years and years, salaries have not increased at the same rate as inflation. As a result, people have scrimped for years and now, arriving at the point where there’s simply no more scrimping left. After rent, utilities, and food, there’s enough for a few odds and ends, and nothing for a 401(k). But the pattern isn’t changing. We’re seeing the warning signs of this already. Millions of people pretty much have nothing set aside for retirement. (A $12,000 retirement fund — unless you’re 25 — is pointless. You might as well just cash that in right now.)

    You want scary? Give it a few more years. When the next “correction” occurs there won’t be any 401(k)s bloated from years of upswing for the majority of people to fall back on. The 2008 crash was like hitting an icy patch at 40 mph and sideswiping a guardrail. The 2015 or 2016 or 2021 crash? That’ll be like hitting an icy patch at 40 mph and going right over the edge because the guardrails were too expensive to put up and maintain.


    Revolutions will start being fought (and won) by what the polisci majors call “asymmetrical” warfare. It worked quite well for the Americas in the Revolutionary War. It worked great for Osama bin Laden’s 19 hijackers. The largest, most advanced military the world has ever seen couldn’t scramble fighter jets in time to stop civilian aircraft from crashing into buildings. Imagine what one assassin with a clear shot at the back of Hitler’s head could have done in 1938. Look at what one radical did in Sarajevo in 1914. Think about the last time you got a piece of grit in your eye. The modern metropolis functions only because everyone agrees (more or less) to follow the rules.

    Give it a few years, we’re going to see further radicalization of the fringe elements. And these won’t be anarcho-terrorists throwing hand grenades at archdukes. These will be 20-somethings with mad computer skillz who can’t find jobs. And they will work the system against itself. It will be terrifying to try to live through.

  18. @Alex. I would not recommend overestimating the power of asymmetric warfare. Sure, it has been effective at points throughout history, especially in creating isolated victories, such as 9/11. But, that is a long way from defeating the US military on US soil in a situation where the US military feels that it–and the US itself–are in existential danger.

    The Iraqis and the Afghanis utilized widespread asymmetric warfare and were not able to militarily defeat the US armed forces. Yes, they had some successes–prison breaks, terror attacks, assassinations, etc.–and they were able to make the cost of further operations irksome, but they did not drive us from the field nor force us to surrender. And this was in their country, where they, for the most part, gave a shit, and we, for the most part, did not.

    You try that shit here. See what happens when our military really gets scared, and has a real stake in the outcome.

    Point taken, cities could be made into no-man’s-lands. Fine. Wall them off. Transportation could be disrupted. True. Implement armed convoys. 20 something hackers could disrupt systems. Certainly, especially civilian networks. But the NSA, CIA, DOD and others have their own, military-grade systems. Do not forget, government has smart guys too, unlimited budgets, and a huge head start.

    Defections and sabotage in the government ranks would certainly be a wrinkle, but I’ll wager that our boys in Washington have considered that as well. In a post-Manning, post-Snowden world, surely systems are in the works that will track and analyze military/defense personnel in sophisticated ways and identify those that are weak links.

    Revolutionaries could cause problems. Revolutionaries could change the US as we know it, maybe even win their “freedom” to live in Gaza Strip style ghettos in the NE coast, LA, and other metros. But to defeat the US military? To quote State Senator Clay Davis (The Wire) “Sheeee-it!”

    • @aaron,

      The Afghans have certainly defeated the US. Not just militarily, but politically. They created enough military mayhem to raise costs of occupation to the point that public opinion turned against the war. Policy makers saw the occupation get expensive.

      Revolutionaries rarely win militarily; they usually win this way, by creating so many problems for oppressors that they are driven out.

  19. aaron,

    I like your points. They’re good. But I think a couple of additional details should be considered.

    The U.S. has the largest, most powerful, most technologically advanced military in history. Okay? I mean, we can both agree on that, right?

    Would you say that we’ve “won” Iraq? Afghanistan? I say that we’ve not only failed to win — we’ve actually come out the bigger losers in these conflicts because of all the things we’ve lost here, right here in Der Homeland. Random searches of bags on subways? “Officials” running their hands around your kids’ underwear while people just stand there and let it happen?

    I’m sorry. But those planes took down a lot more than two skyscrapers and a fifth of the Pentagon. They fundamentally (no pun intended) altered the psychological nature of the majority. Evolutionarily speaking, it created a bottleneck which allowed for a specific type of political structure to expand into the polibiosphere and flourish.

    What will happen is that the U.S. will continue to have “victories” that are not. We “win” Iraq, but have to keep thousands of “consultants” there. Then we move on to Syria. Another “victory” in which we keep thousands of armed troops, who will continue to be sniped at the entire time they’re there.

    Meanwhile, back home, someone has to pay the freight. The taxpayer. So there goes infrastructure. Roads, sewers, power grids? Unless they’re leading into or out of a military base, it’ll be “take a number.”

    That, of course, will lead to complaints. That will lead to a subtle redefinition of what is an “enemy.” Is your neighbor complaining about the cholera outbreaks? Well, that’s not the kind of talk this nation needs. If you hear someone complaining, you call the Special Hotline and let us know. Don’t worry. We’ll just take him in for a talking to. After all, it’s not like the First Amendment protects free speech. We have Free Speech Zones for that.

    People, for the most part, will not complain about their neighbors disappearing. Why? Because there will be rules that “legalize” it. And this time, when they start hunting for the Muslims, or the illegals, or the gays, or the Japanese-Americans, or the left-handed Basques who think Bigfoot is real, the tech will make it almost impossible for the sympathizers to hide them.

  20. Yes our enemies have managed to inflict pain upon us despite our overwhelming military advantage, but that is not the same as saying that our enemies are better off than they would have been if they had chosen a less-violent approach. If you are considering revolution you must look at it from the point of view of the revolutionaries.

  21. Historically some revolutions made sense. In the modern age we have much better communication and we are better at sharing wealth. At least that is the way I see it. Can you come up with an example in the last 30 or so years where it was the smart thing for voting-enfranchisemed citizens to take up arms against their own democratically elected government?

  22. @Ted. My point is that the conflict in Afghanistan, and any potential revolution here at home, are fundamentally different. Afghanistan was for fun, not for real. In a true fight to the death, here at home, no amount of economic or political disruption would be enough to stop the military. They would have to be defeated militarily. Sticks and stones may break government bones, but government AC-130 gunships are going to rain 30mm depleted uranium shells all over your revolutionary righteousness.

    @Alex. No we did not win Afghanistan or Iraq. Nor did we militarily lose. It got expensive, and we quit. Again, this would not be an option for the military in a domestic situation.

    Don’t get me wrong, I hate it. I hate our policies abroad, and I hate our policies domestically. I hate our loss of freedoms and our growing inequality. I wish we could have radical change. Wishing however, don’t make it so. All I’m saying is, think twice before taking up arms against the mean green machine, them boys don’t play.

  23. @Lee. Good points. And no, it would not make sense for many/most Americans to take up arms at this point. And this is by design, methinks. After all, here I sit under a roof that doesn’t leak, with hot and cold running water, central air and heat, enjoying my beer and porn.

    I think the rulers know that people who truly have nothing to lose are liable to do anything, and that is why they give us the minimum of comforts. Clearly, lately, they have been ratcheting down our luxuries, and our potential for future luxuries, but I doubt that they would truly put our backs against the wall and leave us no perceived option but to rebel. After all, they saw what happened to Louis the 16th, right? I’m sure they took notes.