A few hundred protestors toppled the 30 year-old Mubarak regime in less than three weeks.
Those who started the protests took big risks. They faced the same police torture chambers that earlier anti-government protestors had endured. They persevered. Those who came out a few days later faced the loss of their jobs and status in the society, and didn’t go home when the police and army told them to. By Thursday of last week, Mubarak brought his thugs to beat the protestors, but the protestors stayed in the streets. When Mubarak announced yesterday that he would remain in office, they stayed in the streets in ever greater numbers, until the government was finally toppled. They are now singing and dancing in the streets, victorious.
Given that the army is now in command, they would be fools to leave the streets now. They need to stay in the streets until their demands for major restructuring social restructuring and democratic reforms are met, and until a free election occurs.
What does the Egyptian experience mean for us?
First, our “intractable” social and economic problems are really not that intractable. We sometimes convince ourselves that we can’t achieve major progressive reforms to our energy, gun, civil justice, immigration, or other policies. We tell ourselves that filibustering Senators, a conservative Supreme Court, and a new and reactionary House majority backed by now-uncontrolled rivers of corporate cash are obstacles too large to overcome. However, Egyptians long-suppressed by torture chambers, giant police and security services, and government-controlled media were able to topple their regime in three weeks. They did it by simplycoming together and staying for several weeks in ever larger protests.
Who doubts that tens and hundreds of thousands of protestors gathering for three weeks consistently in streets and public squares across the country to protest the domination of our oil, insurance, weapons and banking oligarchs would have a huge impact? After all, a few thousand tea party activists in each state had a huge influence on the last election.
Given what the Egyptians faced, the obstacles to major social and economic change in our society are relatively minor. We can communicate quickly and freely with one another via the internet. We can gather in large groups without fear of violence or reprisal. We do not have our leaders jailed. Our political system is responsive to large, well-organized groups of voters.
Then what are the obstacles we face? Apathy. Energies focused narrowly on doing our jobs and making money. Ignorance of the issues. Disorganization. These were the precise problems that held the Egyptians back for decades, probably even more than the secret police.
The election of Obama was our closest analogue to the Egyptian revolution. We were furious with what we felt was an undemocratic Bush regime. We wanted change. Tens of thousands of volunteers dedicated their energies in the Fall of 2008 to electing Obama. When Obama was elected, we went home.
Going home was our mistake. Our networks of activists withered, along with our political energies. As a result, we were lucky to get watered-down health care and financial reform. There has been no change to our archaic, irresponsible, and dangerous energy policy. No immigration reform. The tax and budget situation is worse. Our country is still laboring under the burden of profound misallocation of resources.
After the election, the entrenched powers quickly regrouped, deftly manipulating their financial strength and popular economic frustration and dissatisfaction with the status quo into support for candidates who support policies favored by our economic oligarchs. They engineered a takeover of the House, and are gearing up to take back the presidency and Senate.
The 2012 election season will spark a revival of political interest. We need to capitalize on it, not only to re-elect Obama and a progressive Congress, but also to establish networks capable of maintaining the energy and focus on the key issues: good health care for all, converting to a fossil-free economy, narrowing of the gap between rich and poor, immigration reform, and the right of workers to organize freely. The question isn’t whether we can make these changes. The question is whether we want them enough to stay in the streets until we do make these changes.