Leaning on the Party
The left must organize around clear goals, or else we will be sidelined. As readers are no doubt aware, since 2011 there have been numerous urban uprisings across the globe. A recent tweet from a BBC Newsnight presenter , Paul Mason, asserted that in a year there will be "2 categories: riot news and other news." While the optics of people marching the street may be similar all over the world, the actual circumstances are often very different. The purpose of this article is to examine three social uprisings in the US, Brazil and Egypt. The focus will be on the number of participants, class composition, political programs and the role of the security services.
Number of Participants
During 2011, there were over 600 Occupy protest sites in the United States. Estimating the total number of participants is of course difficult. However, large marches and/or camps were found in New York, Boston, Chicago, Washington, D.C., Pittsburgh, Oakland, Los Angles, Davis, San Francisco, Portland, Tampa and Seattle. Thousands participated in marches, with numbers reaching into the tens of thousands in New York, Oakland, Portland and Boston. The population of the United States in 2010 was approximately 308 million.
Starting in early June of 2013, urban protests took off in Brazil. By 14 June 2013, crowds of thousands were taking to the streets in Sao Paolo, Rio de Janerio, Brasilia and other cities. Less than a week later, Reuters estimated that approximately 1 million people across Brazil took to the streets. Rio de Janeiro and Sao Paolo each had well over 100,000 participants. Protesters briefly occupied the roof of Brazil's national legislature. Brazil's total population was estimated at approximately 194 million in 2012.
Egypt has experienced routine social uprisings since 2011. During 2011 Tens of thousands have filled Tahrir Square in Cairo. There have also been significant strikes and marches in Suez, Zagazi and Ismaila. Even after the fall of Mubarak, protests continued regularly, as elections and provisional governmental arrangements proved unsatisfactory to the populace. After the election of Mohamed Morsi, unrest continued, with several hundred thousand people marching against him in Cairo. By June, the estimates were as high as 14 million people participating, including thousands on strike from textile factories in the Nile Delta. Egypt's population in 2011 was estimated as approximately 80 million.
Class and Demographic Analysis
Although comprehensive survey data for overall US participants in Occupy is hard to come by, researchers at CUNY interviewed and surveyed participants in New York City during 2012. They found that participants were "disproportionally highly educated, young and white, with higher than average household incomes," especially among those who considered themselves actively involved. Significant numbers were enrolled at or had graduated from elite institutions. Despite their elite educational attainment, at least a third had experienced job loss, and high debt loads. Overwhelming numbers had participated in the Obama campaign during 2008 by phone banking, donating money and knocking on doors.
In other words, they were disaffected members of the bourgeoisie.
Anecdotally, there was also significant participation in the Occupy camps by homeless people and low level street criminals, people at the very margins of society. In the author's experience in Oakland, these individuals were able to sustain a high level of involvement because they had no day job and found meaning and inclusion in the camp community. While Occupy was not a union organized event, the various Occupy camps did see significant actions of solidarity and support from organized labor (the Oakland teachers' union funded portable toilets at the camp), and in some cases, (Seattle/Oakland) worked synergistically with the longshoreman's union in their disputes with management.
Statistical survey data for the Brazil protests is more difficult to find, though media coverage is significant. The Brazilian protests were initiated by student activists who had been organizing for free public transit, but grew to include tens of thousands of trade unionists from sectors such as bus drivers, metalworkers, stevedores, civil servants and shopkeepers. There were also reports that conservative/nationalist elements had taken to the streets and attacked leftist marchers. As of early August, even professional groups had taken to the streets, as some physician groups had begun protesting plans to bring in foreign doctors to address a shortage of medical services. Whether Brazil's situation will build to a revolutionary uprising is unclear at the time of writing.
In reference to the French Revolution, Marx said that "[e]very party kicked out behind at the party pressing it forward and leant on the party in front, which was pressing backwards." This seems to be the trajectory of the 2011 Egyptian Revolution A study conducted by researchers at the University of Michigan interviewed 3,010 Egyptians, finding that 59% did not participate in the revolution of 2011. Researchers asked individuals to rate their participation in the revolution as low, medium or high. Roughly 18% said low participation, with 14.6% saying medium participation. Only 8.2% claimed high participation.
The study found that "people who were male or single, experienced their impressionable years under President Mubarak, belonged to a higher socioeconomic status, and lived in urban areas participated in the revolutionary movement more often." Those who were well off and who should have benefitted economically from the Mubarak regime were the ones rebelling. Well educated urban liberals received much foreign media attention, because they had access to the various social media tools. The 2011 Egyptian revolution also had the participation of factory workers ,who struck by the tens of thousands, in factories, domestic transport, banks and the canal.
Although they were not among the planners of the initial 2011 Egyptian protests, it was the Muslim Brotherhood that rose to power in the first post-revolution elections, electing the now-deposed President Morsi.
Unlike the Egyptian Revolution of 2011, Occupy famously had no demands, but participants often stated that they were motivated to support Occupy because of economic issues. The top three listed in the CUNY study were inequality/the 1%, money in politics/frustration with D.C., and corporate greed. Although various groups were involved with the first protest site in New York City, the dominant political ideology within Occupy was a highly horizontalist anarchism. Operating in General Assemblies with a consensus process, complete with the easily copied hand signals, Occupy proved flexible enough to gain traction across the United States. A formally leaderless movement presents some analytical problems, in that it is always difficult to say what politics dominate. While there may not have been formal leaders, it was always clear that some people wielded more influence than others. In the author's experience, many people influential in the movement believed that the consensus based process that governed the encampments prefigured the world that we wanted. Politicians and journalists often asked "what is the endgame?" If they had been listening, they would have understood that for many, the desired endgame was revolution. In practice, this proved operationally difficult, and in the end, the security services successfully dispersed the encampments.
In contrast, the 2013 Brazilian protests started with a limited objective, namely, stopping a fare increase on public transit, and eventually ending all transit fares. Like Occupy, however, the Movimento Passe Livre --Free Fare Movement --was organized horizontally, along anarchist principles. While Free Fare Movement members did meet with the Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff (herself a former participant in leftist armed struggle), the organization considers itself leaderless. The Free Fare Movement succeeded in its limited political program, as on 19 June, cities all over Brazil reversed the fare increase. Yet as the Free Fare Movement achieved its goals, the action in the streets seemed to mobilize a vast panoply of other political groups on the left and the right. On the left, the trade unions arrived, as did the existing leftist political parties, along with generalized middle class groupings opposed to government corruption. Naturally, as the national media began to cover the protests approvingly, the forces of the right also made an appearance in the street. The Free Fare Movement notably called off some protests after the explosion of right wing violence against the left. As of this writing, the protesters in the street have dwindled to a fraction of their previous millions, and the only unifying political current seems to be dissatisfaction with the status quo.
During the 2011 Egyptian Revolution, the political program was clear-- remove President Hosni Mubarak from office. A variety of groups took to the streets in protest, and they were successful. Mubarak resigned. However, removing Mubarak from office was only the beginning. The military took power in the form of the Supreme Council of the Armed forces, and set a date for parliamentary elections in June of 2012. The military continued its dominant role in the economy of Egypt. The left proved unable to out-organize the Muslim Brotherhood. The Brotherhood had long organized and provided direct services among Egypt's underclass. While the secular, urban middle class received much media attention, the majority of Egyptians live in rural areas where the Brotherhood has strong support. Despite their strong showing in the elections of 2012, they proved no match for that age old foe of all revolutions, the security services. Working together, the Egyptian armed forces and police staged a coup to remove Morsi and imprison him and his key supporters.
While Occupy (oh so thankfully) did not end in a coup, the security services nonetheless played a significant role. We know now that the Police Executive Research Forum helped mayors co-ordinate raids by state and city law enforcement in 18 cities during Occupy. Typically, the major Occupy sites faced heavy police presence as well as routine arrests and abuse. There were also agents provocateur within the camps; for example, at Occupy Austin, undercover officers organized an action that led to the arrests of the participants.
At the Federal level, the Department of Homeland Security provided intelligence via its nationwide network of Fusion Centers that combine information from various state and federal agencies. For example, journalist Beau Hodai found that the fusion center in Arizona heavily monitored Occupy Phoenix, with information collected to include names, addresses, social security numbers and other identifying information. The Center tracked social media as well. There is also evidence that fusion centers delivered intelligence briefs to some private companies. In light of Edward Snowden's disclosures about widespread NSA wiretapping, it seems highly likely that NSA also directed analysts to monitor electronic communications among Occupy participants.
During the Brazilian Free Fare Movement protests, the uniformed police were an obvious presence, and based on media reports, it was videos of police violence against the Free Fare Movement that galvanized popular discontent with the Brazilian status quo. Intriguingly, there is video footage on Youtube that appears to show police officers joining in with the protesters. As to clandestine surveillance and agents provocateur, there are reports that claim police agents threw Molotov cocktails that served as pretext for a police attack on a crowd of demonstrators. For more details, we will probably have to wait for investigative journalists to dig into the material.
In Egypt, the role of the security services has been so obvious that investigative journalism has not been necessary to see the overall contours of the situation. As the protests against Mubarak reached a crescendo in 2011, the Egyptian Army conspicuously did not attack the protesters. Instead,that job fell to the Egyptian police in all their forms, from conspicuous uniformed officers to the sinister leather jacketed secret police. As the Mubarak regime collapsed, revolutionaries were able to free political prisoners and ransack secret police offices. After Mubarak, the military has returned to its king maker role, by deposing Morsi. He and his followers in the Muslim Brotherhood had long standing antagonisms with the security services. Reports suggest that he was in the process of putting his supporters into key positions within the military and police when the incumbent security services made their move. Any leftist government that attempts to challenge the security services' grip on the economy and political life in Egypt can expect similar resistance.
Political action requires definable goals, whether those goals are as small as stopping a fare hike or as large as removing a sitting president. Moreover, the Egyptian experience illuminates very clearly that post-Revolution, the most organized forces prevail. The security services will do everything possible to undermine or stonewall any true regime change. The lesson for the American left is clear -- be organized or be crushed.