“Freedom as an inner capacity of [humanity] is identical with the capacity to begin” (Hannah Arendt).
The year 2010 C.E. marked a point of human history characterized fundamentally by profound historical negation and regression; in many ways the year constituted a catastrophe of barbaric proportions. Shortly after the year began an earthquake struck Haiti’s capital city of Port au-Prince, killing an estimated 300,000 people, leaving hundreds of thousands of others injured and maimed, and provoking the mass-destruction of city infrastructure, from housing units to medical clinics and hospitals. Faced with this cataclysmic event, the U.S. government promptly intervened and with its military took over the Toussaint L’Ouverture International Airport, located in the capital city, where imperial controllers subsequently prioritized the landing of military hardware designed to pacify the traumatized local population over the arrival of desperately needed humanitarian aid-shipments; the U.S. Navy and Coast Guard was dispatched to the waters surrounding the island that Haiti shares with the Dominican Republic to ensure that no mass-exodus of impoverished, desperate Haitians take place.1 To date only a small fraction of the billions of dollars promised by donors for reconstruction efforts in the country have been made-available; instead, a million and a half persons remain homeless as a cholera epidemic that has claimed the lives of thousands has raged in recent months, while parliamentary elections held on 28 November from which the populist party Fanmi Lavalas was excluded have been widely denounced as illegitimate.2 The failure of rains in the western Sahel in June of last year moreover set in motion famine conditions in the countries of Niger and Chad that threatened to take the lives of millions, while unprecedented flooding last summer in Pakistan displaced 20 million people, killing an estimated 2000, and highly disrupted agricultural production over much of the country, particularly in the Sindh province. Fires in central Russia resulting from heatwave conditions not seen according to one estimate for the past millennium wiped out a third of the country’s grain crop last summer, leading its leadership to indefinitely ban grain-exports; the effects have been profound in food-importing countries such as Afghanistan and several African states.3 In September, the U.S. government finalized the single largest arms-deal in history, whereby $60 billion in warplanes and helicopters would be sold to the Saudi monarchy.4 A report published in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health in July found astronomically high rates of cancer and birth defects among the residents of Fallujah, Iraq, a city subjected to a frightful assault by U.S. forces in November 2004; the U.S. military’s use of depleted-uranium (DU) rounds in the attack has been blamed by many observers for the conditions observed in the report.5 Drought conditions reported in Brazil in October saw the Rio Negro, one of the Amazon’s primary tributaries, at its lowest levels in a century; billions of trees of the Amazon rainforest are said to have died as a result of the drought.6 The year closed with a decidedly catastrophic meeting of the Conference of Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) in Cancún, Mexico, at which the privileged and powerful worked to ensure that no agreement remotely approximating a reasonable response to the horrors promised by climate destabilization would be considered, let alone enacted.
The enormity of negation experienced across much of the globe last year—a constant throughout much of history, though one that was particularly acute in the period under question—recalls the imperative that thought “be woken one day by the memory of what has been lost.”7 An answer to this call may well have been come by means of the radical praxis of subordinated ordinary people across much of the Arab world over the past two months. The so-called Jasmine Revolution that began in Tunisia at the close of 2010 and has carried on into the present has seen the remarkable entrance of disaffected populations into the public sphere; aroused by the self-immolation of 26-year old vegetable merchant Mohammed Bouazizi on 17 December, mass popular mobilizations across Tunisia succeeded in driving long-time dictator Zine el-Abidine ben Ali into exile in Saudi Arabia in less than a month. This ousting of a tyrant, itself a highly significant event, has since met with the efforts of the old guard to live on after the dismissal of the dirigente, and while mobilizations against the RCD (Rassemblement Constitutionnel Démocratique, ben Ali’s party) and other reactionary institutions have continued in the weeks following ben Ali’s flight, they have seen less success in realizing their demands. The Tunisian événements have been replicated across much of North Africa and the Middle East: sustained protests in Jordan against inflation and governmental corruption have resulted in King Abdullah’s dismissal of his prime minister and the cabinet, while thousands of people have been rallying in Yemen for the resignation of U.S.-aligned President Ali Abdullah Saleh. Protests against Sudanese leader Omar Bashir have even been reported in Khartoum.8 Yet the example of Tunisia has been taken up in no other country more than in Egypt, where millions of Egyptians have taken to the streets in the past two weeks to demand the end of the three-decade reign of Hosni Mubarak, successor to Anwar Sadat and a key ally to the U.S. and Israel.
Protests erupted in Egypt on 25 January, a holiday established by Mubarak in 2009 to celebrate the country’s police forces. Demonstrations have gripped the cities of Alexandria, Suez, and Cairo; hundreds of thousands have been reported as mobilizing in the former locales, while Egypt’s Tahrir (Liberation) Square has been re-appropriated by crowds numbering into the millions. Clashes between demonstrators and Mubarak’s police forces have been fierce, with hundreds killed and thousands injured: the continuous occupation of Cairo’s central square, dubbed by some the ‘Tahrir Commune,’ was subject last week to violence on the part of pro-government agitators, some of them riding on camels and throwing molotov cocktails. The U.S.-financed Egyptian military, which deployed itself in Cairo shortly after the onset of the mobilizations, has been largely ineffectual in protecting protestors against such groups, its patriotic pledges not directly to use force against the crowds notwithstanding. Successive mobilizations planned to take place on the two Fridays since 25 January that have sought to compel Mubarak to resign and/or flee the country have not succeeded in their aims. Instead, Mubarak has appointed Omar Suleiman, former head of the secret police, as vice president and has pledged to enact reforms before exiting the stage following elections slated for September. Much like Nicholas II and other hegemons to be found throughout history, Mubarak has noted that he fears the consequences for Egyptian society were he to cede power immediately.9 He seems to share this position with the Obama administration, which has very ambiguously called for an “orderly transition” to begin “now,” as well as the Israeli state, which finds alarming the prospect of a neighboring Egypt not controlled by a friendly autocrat. Suleiman is reported to have initiated back-room talks with a handful of oligarchical representatives regarding the ruling class’ immediate response to managing the situation.10
The machinations of those who would hold prevailing power relations more or less constant notwithstanding, the radical interruption represented by the popular mobilizations carried out and sustained by the peoples of Tunisia and Egypt—and particularly, their martyrs—holds great promise. The material poverty to which the majority of Egyptians are subject is harrowing, unquestionably exacerbated as it has been by the neo-liberal regime administered by Mubarak. Millions of Egyptians find themselves within settlement-communities referred to in the main as slums; in one district of Cairo popularly known as the City of the Dead, the impoverished quite literally reside in mausoleums and other tombs. The need for what Hossam al-Hamalawy has termed a “radical redistribution of wealth”11 is immense in Egypt, as it is more generally. The people of Egypt, indeed, could be well-served by appropriating the estimated $70 billion that Mubarak and his family are reported to have accumulated over the past thirty years.12 Were a power to arise against Mubarak and Egypt’s bourgeois elite, it could perhaps engage in such schemes and enact a more humane policy vis-à-vis Israel/Palestine generally and the Gaza Strip in particular: it could, for example, reverse the Mubarak regime’s co-strangulation of the people of Gaza by affording the resumption of trade and the provision of necessary goods and perhaps even provide the people of Gaza a haven into which they could flee were Israel to engage in a brutal assault of the territory reminiscent of that engaged in by Israel in winter 2008-2009—an eventuality, it should be added, that has been contemplated by the Israeli military in the two years that have passed since that massacre.13
Constituted power is quite clearly mobilizing to stifle the expression of the revolutionary dreams of the subordinated and oppressed, both in Egypt and elsewhere. It is to be hoped that the efforts of the Tunisian masses and the Tahrir Commune can succeed in deposing tyrants together with the life-negating systems they represent and further, but it must be stressed that any Marxian faith for a rational outcome cannot be justified. The projection of people’s power against the Soviet Union in 1989-1991 was followed by the imposition of the brutality of neo-liberal capitalism, with decidedly negating results; the revolutionary efforts taken by slaves themselves directly against the institution of slavery in Saint Domingue/Haiti were cruelly punished by imperialism, directly responsible as it is for the current devastation suffered in Haitian society. Hopefully the Egyptian Revolution—if that is what it is to be termed—can serve as something more significant than a historical example of resistance to negation, or a demonstration of such. The need for popular mobilization in favor of radically reconstructive political projects is presently dire: the suffering of the starving in Sri Lanka, Mozambique, India, Yemen, Somalia, and elsewhere can never be justified; it must quite clearly be overthrown.
3Katie Allen, “Afghanistan and African nations at greatest risk from world food shortages,” The Guardian, 19 August 2010
5Patrick Cockburn, “Toxic legacy of US assault on Fallujah ‘worse than Hiroshima,’” The Independent, 24 July 2010
6Tom Phillips, “Drought brings Amazon tributary to lowest level in a century,” The Guardian, 26 October 2010; Damian Carrington, “Mass tree deaths prompt fears of Amazon ‘climate tipping point,’” The Guardian, 3 February 2011
7Adorno, Minima Moralia, 81 (trans. modified).
11Qtd. in Max Ajl, “Egyptian Protests Grounded in Decades of Struggle; Portend Regional Transformation,” Truthout, 3 February 2011
12Philip Inman, “Mubarak family fortune could reach $70bn, say experts,” The Guardian, 4 February 2011
13Jason Ditz, “Cable: Israel Planned Another ‘Large Scale War’ in Late 2009,” Antiwar.com, 2 January 2011