I still want Dirty Wars to win the Oscar, but The Square is a documentary worth serious discussion as we hit the three-year point since the famous occupation of Tahrir Square in Cairo that overthrew Mubarak — in particular because a lot of people seem to get a lot of the lessons wrong.
I suppose some people will leave Dirty Wars imagining that we need clean wars, whatever those would be. But too many people seem to be drawing from The Square lessons they brought with them to it, including these: Thou shalt have a leader; thou shalt work within a major political party; thou shalt have an identifiable group of individuals ready to take power. I don’t think following these commandments would have easily changed the past three years in Egypt; I don’t think they’re where Egyptians should be heading; and I’m even more confident they’re blind alleys in the United States — where they serve as supposed remedies for the supposed failings of Occupy.
Many lessons that might be drawn from The Square seem right to me. Did the people leave the square too early? Hell yes. Was the movement divided when the Muslim Brotherhood sought to claim victory exclusively for itself and not for all of the people of Egypt? Of course it was. Let that be a lesson to us indeed. We agree, virtually all of us in the U.S., on a lot of needed reforms. We’re all getting collectively screwed. But we divide ourselves over stupid petty stuff, irrelevant stuff, secondary stuff — cultural issues, ideologies, superficial identities, and — yes — big-name leaders (think how many opponents of militarism and Big Brother you could agree with if they weren’t “Ron Paulers”). Preferring one tyrant to another because of their religion or race is not a flaw the Egyptians have a monopoly on (think of all the Christian support for Bush and African-American support for Obama).
Was trusting the military a horrible idea? No. It wasn’t a horrible idea. It was the most catastrophically stupendously stupid notion ever to enter a human skull. Militaries don’t support people. People support militaries through their useful and exploited labor. Costa Rica had to disband its military to stop having coups. When a military exists, appealing to the humanity of its individual members is wise indeed. But expecting the military as a whole to be democratic to the point of handing over power before it’s compelled to do so is decidedly foolish. None of which is to say the Egyptians have had much choice or that their project is yet completed. Between them and us the question of which group is learning faster is no contest at all.
Do the people of Egypt need a Constitution rather than a pharaoh? Yes, absolutely. Does the Occupy movement need demands? Yes, of course it does. Must we all create an ongoing culture of nonviolent action? Yes, sir-ee. While The Square doesn’t explicitly make the point, would better nonviolent discipline help? Undoubtedly. Is the key lesson to never give up? Indeed. All of these lessons should soak in deep.
But other points are less clear, in both The Square and common discussions of Egyptian revolution. Tahrir Square didn’t begin in 2011, and neither did the Muslim Brotherhood. The foundations for the popular movement and for the religious party were laid over a period of years. Foundations are being laid for nonviolent revolution in other places now.
Did the Egyptians fail? And did they fail because they are great protesters but bad democrats who should be condescended to by enlightened Americans? No. First, it isn’t over. Second, the United States has a failed system of government itself, as 80-90 percent of the people here have been telling pollsters for years. Third, although I caught only one very quick little hint at it in The Square, the major financial and military backer of the brutal, corrupt regimes in Egypt — before Tahrir and since — is the United States government. To the extent that Egyptians have failed they’ve failed with our help. And whether we’re unaware of the billions of dollars of our grandchildren’s unearned wages that we give to Egyptian thugs to assault the Egyptian people every year, or aware and unable to do anything about it — either way, our democracy hardly shines out as a model for the world.
A leader would have divided the Tahrir movement or the Occupy movement. That we don’t think of ourselves as having leaders is a function of the corporate media giving no microphones to people who favor major improvements to the world. Ironically, just like coverage of New York Police Department brutality, this helps us to build a stronger movement. That is to say, it helps us in so far as it allows a movement not focused on a leader. Yes, we’d be much stronger with major media coverage, but the possible development of leaders recognized and named as such would be a downside. And a successful movement behind a leader would only be able to put that leader into power if it succeeded far beyond where Egypt arrived in 2011 — and it would only be able to get that leader back out of power again if it succeeded even further.
Is the lesson of Tahrir that Occupiers should back candidates in the Democratic Party? Is an organized party that can challenge the Muslim Brotherhood or the Democrats the answer? Not within a corrupt system it isn’t. When our goal is not a better regime but something approaching democracy, then what’s needed is the nonviolent imposition of democracy on whatever individuals are in power, and the development of a culture of eternal vigilance to maintain it. You can’t elect your way out of a system of corrupt elections. You can’t impose a group of populist leaders on a government by coup d’etat and then write a democratic constitution afterwards.
No, that is not what happened in the United States, and not just because the old government got on ships and sailed away, but because the Constitution was fundamentally anti-democratic. The United States has gained democracy through nonviolent movements of public pressure, imposed reforms, amendments, court rulings, and the changing of the culture. Reforms are needed more badly than ever now, and whether they’re imposed at the federal level or through the states or through secession, they must come through popular nonviolent pressure, as bullets and ballots are virtually helpless here.
The lesson I take away from The Square is that we must prevent the operation of business as usual until the institution itself, not its face, is fixed. We can put up giant posters of a black man followed by a white woman followed by some other demographic symbol, but the posters will still be on the walls of prisons, barracks, and homeless shelters, unless we fix the structure of things. That means:
- Rights for people, and for the natural environment, not for corporations.
- Spending money on elections is not a human right of free speech.
- Elections entirely publicly financed.
- The right to vote, to have time off work to vote, and to vote on a paper ballot publicly counted at the polling place.
- Free air time, ballot access, and debate participation to all candidates who have collected sufficient signatures of potential constituents.
- A citizens branch and public initiative power by signature collection.
- The application of criminal laws to authorities who commit crimes or abuse their office.
- Mandatory impeachment and recall votes for officials facing prosecution.
- The right to a decent income, housing, healthcare, education, peace, a healthy environment, and freedom from debt.
- The rights of the natural environment to continue and thrive.
- The institution of minimum and maximum wages and a ban on extreme wealth.
- Dismantling of the prison industry.
Give me all of that or give me death. Take your bullshit rhetoric about “liberty” and name a square after it.