Monthly Archives: October 2012

The Army and the People are NOT One Hand: Neoliberal Hegemony and the Armed Forces in the Arab Spring

(paper delivered at DePaul University’s ‘Revolution: Past and Present’ conference, March 31, 2012)

In 1982, Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher sent England’s national military overseas to wrest from Argentina ownership over the largely insignificant Falkland Islands, and, with her population distracted by wartime nationalist sentiment, imposed drastic neo-liberal structural adjustments upon England’s economy. Two years later, when the miners’ trade union called a widespread strike to protest the disastrous effects of market deregulation upon the working class, Thatcher’s response combined strike breakers, informants, infiltrators and police brutality with all the gusto of a military operation, and she justified her crackdown with the now-infamous saying- “We had to fight the enemy without in the Falklands. We always have to be aware of the enemy within, which is much more difficult to fight and more dangerous to liberty” (Wilenius).

In every country touched by the Arab Spring, the national military is called away from its traditional defense of the country’s borders against the ‘enemy without’, and deployed on the streets, alongside the national police force, to crush the ‘enemy within’. This peculiar contradiction- that an armed body, whose supposed purpose is to protect the freedoms of its people, is suddenly pitted against the democratic will of the people in a life-or-death struggle- exposes, behind its veil of patriotic nationalism, the true function of the army as an instrument of class warfare, integral to the solidity of the hegemonic fabric of the nation-state. This torsion in the body of the armed forces- from national borders to city streets, from national bodyguard to public enemy- echoes and reflects the trembling fault lines of a more fundamental political confrontation between the entrenched authority of the State and a popular uprising which asserts a new political voice, and confirms the assertion of Mao Zedong, found in the Little Red Book, that “according to the Marxist theory of the State, the army is the chief component of state power. Whoever wants to seize and retain state power must have a strong army.”

The army’s authority over the general public, in every country touched by the Arab Spring, is ultimately autonomous of the whims or commands of the executive sovereign. Whether it decides to suppress or to support the popular uprising- whether it stands beside, or turns against, the country’s dictator- the national military in each case yields an exceptional monopoly of force, extending, under the banner of martial law, above and beyond the executive sovereign, to seize and determine the articulated contours of the balance of power that popular protest seeks to re-negotiate. Thus on November 19, 2011, a day when more than 400 military troops defected from Yemen’s Republican Guard, President Ali Abdullah Saleh, anxious, in the face of fragmenting national loyalties, to ward off a military coup, visited, along with senior government officials, thousands of stationed Republican Guard troops, assuring the soldiers that the country’s leaders are “willing to sacrifice [themselves] for the sake of the country, but you will stay. You will remain here even if we let go of authority because you are the authority…Yemen will not collapse. Yemen is steadfast due to its people and military” (Almasmari).

Faced with variegated torrents of popular unrest, the national military, in every country touched by the Arab Spring, is entrusted, as much by the particular commands of their dictator as by the general interests of the international community, with the stabilizing role of maintaining order in the midst of chaos, protecting citizens from the security vacuum, and preserving public and private property relations within their country. Should the dictator’s regime crumble, a transitional military government is then charged, in the November 2011 words of Yezid Sayigh, senior associate at the Carnegie Middle East Center in Beirut, with the crucial task of “‘holding the stick in the middle’” so as to “balance emerging political currents and social forces”, and assuring, through the gradual withering away of military rule, an “orderly transition” into a secure, democratic process. However, as the Second Egyptian Revolution demonstrates, behind the transitional military regime’s facade of disinterested, democratic preservation of the functions of administrative governmentality, there often lurk the familiar puppet-strings of the old regime, which mask in turn the imperial interests of global capital.

In the final instance, the success or failure of each Arab Spring revolution hinges on the political mood of the army. In Tunisia, it was not the widespread strikes and demonstrations that ultimately forced 24-year dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali to resign on January 14, but the refusal, a day earlier, of Army Chief Rachid Ammar to obey Ben Ali’s orders to shoot civilian protesters. In Egypt, when dictator Hosni Mubarak, amidst mounting tensions and rumours of a military coup, left without comment for his home by the Red Sea in Sharm el Sheik on February 11, appointing military leader Mohamed Hussein Tantawi as prime minister in his place, protesters, who throughout much of the 18-day revolution were protected from riot police violence by army forces, celebrated side by side with military soldiers on the streets of Cairo, chanting ‘The Army and the People are One Hand’. As long as he has the backing of the armed forces, the dictator’s seat is secure. Without the strong arm of the military, he finds himself powerless and empty-handed.

In his history of the 1905 Russian Revolution, Leon Trotsky, who led the insurrectionist Bolshevik Red Army through both its overthrow of Tsarist dictatorship and its establishment of a post-revolutionary military regime, speaks of this centrality of the political mood of the army to the revolutionary process, calling it

that great unknown of every revolution…[which] can be determined only in the process of a clash between the soldiers and the people…the mass of the army will be swayed in favor of the revolutionary class only when it is convinced that this class is not merely demonstrating or protesting, but is actually fighting for power and has a chance of winning…only when the soldiers become convinced that the people have come out into the streets for a life-and-death struggle- not to demonstrate against the government but to overthrow it- does it become psychologically possible for them to ‘cross over’ to the side of the people.

At a certain tipping point in the ‘clash between the soldiers and the people’, when the latter made irrevocably clear their demand, not for reform, but for fundamental regime change, the military commanders of Egypt and Tunisia, inspired by a mixture of sympathetic identification with the protesters and their own desire for power, decided to facilitate this regime change, to complete rather than to resist, to co-opt rather than to combat, to translate and transubstantiate the passions of the uprising into the foundation of their own military regime. On the other hand, the uprisings in countries such as  Syria, Libya, Yemen and Bahrain split the army’s allegiance along tribal, religious and economic fault lines, plunging the country, torn between the preservation of the old and the destructive creation of the new regime, into total civil war.

While many troops, officers and entire regiments of each country’s armed forces deserted their dictator and created organizations, such as the Free Syrian Army or Libya’s National Liberation Army, dedicated to revolutionary regime change, many other segments of national armies remained loyal to their ruler, anxious to preserve their favored position in long-entrenched relations of economic, political or tribal dominance. In these cases, the tension between those forces that seek to perpetuate, and those that seek to supersede, the old regime’s monopoly on power, degenerates into a struggle over power itself, where the fission of the once-unitary armed forces replicates, and re-articulates itself over, the battle contours of  the greater societal rupture. Trotsky outlines this chaotic process-

The army’s crossing over to the camp of the revolution is a moral process; but it cannot be brought about by moral means alone. Different motives and attitudes combine and intersect within the army…Guerrilla fighting on the basis of a revolutionary strike cannot in itself lead to victory. But it creates the possibility of sounding the mood of the army, and after a first important victory- that is, once a part of the garrison has joined the insurrection- the guerrilla struggle can be transformed into a mass struggle in which a part of the troops, supported by the armed and unarmed population, will fight another part, which will find itself in a ring of universal hatred…when the class, moral, and political heterogeneity of the army causes troops to cross over to the side of the people, this must, in the first instance, mean a struggle between two opposing camps within the army….thus an insurrection is, in essence, not so much a struggle against the army as a struggle for the army.

If, in these cases, the fabric of society is further rent by a national army fallen short of a complete ‘crossing over to the camp of the revolution’ and unable to effect a full upheaval of the old regime, then surely the ripping-away of dictatorial rule, and the restitution of social cohesiveness by a transitional military regime, in early-2011 Egypt and Tunisia represents the successful fulfillment of this process. The Second Egyptian Revolution of 2011, in contrast, offers the unique and paradoxical instance of a popular revolutionary impulse that, after first toppling a dictator, re-turns against the transitional military regime that stepped in to fill the power vacuum, raising its fist anew against the very army with which it used to declare itself united as ‘one hand’. The Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, realized those protesters who returned to Tahrir Square, did not ‘cross over to the camp of the revolution’ as part of any ‘moral process’, but to maintain the oppressive structures of the old regime. Here, the enemy is no mere dictator; rather, long-entrenched dictatorial rule is peeled away, to reveal a teeming underbelly of long-cultivated, institutionalized hegemony atop which such dictatorial rule was mere surface puppetry. The revolutionary impulse thereby re-articulates itself in a purer and finer expression, directed not merely against the Master-Signifier who sits as sovereign atop the chain of power, but against the hegemonic system in its entirety, a system in which the national army shows itself to be intrinsically embedded.

To understand that military-political hegemonic nexus against which the  Second Egyptian Revolution struggles- a timely task of vital importance for any revolutionary praxis seeking to trace the contemporary contours of global Empire- we must examine the historical genesis of the Egyptian Army in the context of the power structures of the Egyptian nation-state. Like most post-imperial Third World nation-states, Egypt won its freedom of self-determination through military struggle. Since 1952, when the nationalist, pan-Arabic, anti-imperialist Gamal Abdel Nasser led the Free Officer’s Movement in a military coup against King Farouk’s Britain-backed regime, the Egyptian army has been firmly inscribed in the pride of the origin, indissolubly wed to the fabric of the body politic, secure in its national role as founder and guarantor of the independent, modern Egypt. Until the mid-1970s, the Egyptian military was the strongest institution in a nation that, up to the present day, has seen all its presidents, and many cabinet and senior governmental representatives, descend from military officer ranks.

LTC Stephen H. Gotowicki of the U.S. Army, in his 1994 paper ‘The Role of the Egyptian Military in Domestic Society’, explains that “as Egypt has democratized, the Egyptian military’s involvement in matters of national politics has declined, as has its direct involvement in matters of state”, while “at the same time, its involvement in Egypt’s national life and economy has expanded.” Beginning in the late 1970s, the Egyptian military, descending from the political into the civic sector, gained control of anywhere from 10 to 40% of the economy through heavy investments in burgeoning security, defense and civilian industries,  national infrastructure, and agricultural production, and proved itself to epitomize what MIT Comparative Politics professor Lucian Pye, in his 1961 essay ‘Armies in the Process of Political Modernization’, called the natural role of a modern military establishment- to come “as close as any human organization can to the ideal type for an industrialized and secularized enterprise”.

This domesticization and corporatization of the Egyptian military, says opinion columnist Walter Armbrust In a February 24 piece for Al-Jazeera entitled ‘A Revolution Against Neoliberalism?’, went hand in hand with the “crony capitalism of the Mubarak era”, where the “unfettering of markets and an agenda of privatization”, though considered by the developed world “to be at the forefront of instituting neoliberal policies in the Middle East” and “lauded by institutions such as the International Monetary Fund as a beacon of free-market success”, exacerbated Egypt’s structural and systematic inequalities, and brought to its population “stagnant or falling wages relative to inflation”, widespread unemployment, the fierce suppression of organized labor, and the gutting of “the public education and the health care system…by a combination of neglect and privatization”. As the Egyptian population suffered, military commanders were awarded lucrative positions at the head of major national corporations and important seats  in the higher echelons of government administration, occupying a central decision-making role in the corporate-political nexus.

Elizabeth Jelin, in her essay ‘Memories of State Violence: The Past in the Present’, traces a similar institutionalization of the armed forces in the developmentalist military juntas that ruled the Southern Cone countries of Brazil, Chile, Uruguay and Argentina throughout the 60s and 70s. After seizing power, these transitional military regimes “stressed their ‘heroic’ role, as…eternal defenders of the fatherland…and the ultimate guarantors of the continuity of the nation”. Later, transitions into civilian governments from the 1980s onwards “involved the retreat of the military, and thus their Salvationist discourse lost ground (perhaps with the partial exception of Chile). The military receded into their own institutional spaces, to reaffirm their identities and justifications there”.

Like the post-revolutionary neoliberal dictatorships of the Southern Cone, Mubarak’s Egypt, along with its army, became a regional favorite, not only of the IMF, but of the U.S., from whom it received, second only to Israel, over $1.3 billion dollars of aid annually. In 2008, U.S. ambassador to Egypt Francis Ricciardone favorably described both dictator Hosni Mubarak and Field Marshal Mohamed Hussein Tantawi- leader of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, a close friend of Mubarak and Egypt’s Defense Minister since 1991- as men “focused on regime stability and maintaining the status quo through the end of their time”, who “simply do not have the energy, inclination or world view to do anything differently” (CBC News). Since the 1970s, domestic corporate, military and dictatorial power structures, intermingled with global imperial interests, have come to striate the Egyptian body politic as indissoluble, metonymic links of a diffuse chain of hegemony.

Doctoral researcher at the Middle East and North Africa Research Group Keonraad Bogaert, in an essay entitled ‘Global Dimensions of the Arab Spring and the Potential for Anti-Hegemonic Politics’,  links this trend in Egypt to the deepening neoliberal reforms of the larger Arab world.

Neoliberal politics in the Arab region meant an attack on the achievements of the developmental state that experienced its heyday in the 1950s and the 1960s…the systematic rollback of the developmental state through structural adjustments, austerity measures, and privatization meant that the middle and labor classes in the Arab region came increasingly under pressure, mainly due to the cutback of income redistribution mechanisms and rising job insecurity…these neoliberal reforms were at the basis of the motivations of ordinary people to come out into the streets en masse in 2011 and overthrow authoritarian leaders…what started in Tunisia has now created space on a global scale to question and contest neoliberal hegemony.

The evolution of the modern Egyptian nation-state, characterized by the deepening interpenetration of Egypt’s military into its civil and economic sectors, can be read as a metaphor for the modernization process of developing countries worldwide during a 20th century in which, as Paul Virilio says in Speed and Politics, “history progresse[d] at the speed of its weapons systems”. As the military-industrial complex became the driving socio-economic engine of development and self-determination for a nation-state fabric rife with military coups, the armies of developing nations, possessing an  organizational structure sufficiently capable to conduct the affairs of state, manage national projects and resolve political chaos, spurred on the process of national modernization at the political, civic and economic levels.

The army of the developing nation-state enforced and maintained sovereignty through a sometimes-deployed, but always-threatened, monopoly over the unilateral use of violence, inscribing upon the body politic the spectral fist of martial law epitomized in the dictum of Carl Schmitt- ‘sovereign is he who decides on the exception’. This omnipresent state of emergency, effective in Egypt since 1967, served the interests of developing and developed nation-states with equal efficiency, and proved itself, as Irish scholar and human rights advocate John Reynolds says in his essay Emergency, Governmentality and The Arab Spring, to be “a constant presence through shifting contextual sands of Third World liberation movements and decolonisation, ideological Cold War totalitarianism, military dictatorships, separatist conflicts, economic shock policies and national security doctrine”.

As Woodrow Wilson said in The State: Elements of Historical and Practical Politics, “the authority of all governors, directly or indirectly, rests in all cases ultimately on force…government, in its last analysis, is organized force.” Throughout the modernization process of First, Second and Third World countries alike, the national army and police force, as the backbone and guarantor of the law-making and law-preserving violence proper to the state, helped guard, gird and facilitate the growth of what Michel Foucault called ‘governmentality’- a “triangle- sovereignty, discipline, government- which has as its primary target the population and as its essential mechanism the apparatuses of security”, an “ensemble…formed by the institutions, procedures, analyses and reflections, the calculations and tactics that allow the exercise of [a] very specific albeit complex form of power”. The weaving of the political, economic and military web of globalized governmentality into a rosary of First, Second and Third World countries proceeded, throughout the last 150 years of the nation-state world system, not evenly and equitably, but through the dominance of the First over the Third World, a dominance exercised- first through political imperialism, and then through its surrogate, economic neoliberalism- in the name of global capital.

For capital, the army and the state-form are inseparable, and developed of necessity alongside each other. Friedrich Engels, in his 1884 treatise The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State, emphasizes that a decaying pre-capitalist feudal social body, already striated by irreconcilable class antagonisms, could not possibly accommodate a freely self-acting, self-organized and self-armed population without such a population annihilating itself in open class warfare. The capitalist state, therefore, secures its hegemony through “the establishment of a public power which no longer directly coincides with the population organizing itself as an armed force”, a public power which “exists in every state” and “consists not merely of armed men but also of material adjuncts, prisons, and institutions of coercion of all kinds, of which gentile [clan] society knew nothing”.

In his 1917 State and Revolution, Vladimir Lenin develops Engels’ concept of a “special, public” state power, which through the  “development, perfection, and strengthening of the bureaucratic and military apparatus…arose from society but place[d] itself above it and alienate[d] itself more and more from it” as a surplus of striated control, an institutionalized and normalized parasite. “Two institutions most characteristic of this state machine,” says Lenin, “are the bureaucracy and the standing army”, and the bourgeoisie are connected with these institutions “by thousands of threads”.

Secured by the national army’s monopoly over lawmaking and -preserving violence, this administrative apparatus of capture was able not only to guard and expand physical territory but also to foster national pride, all the while encasing and nurturing, within the body of the State, the budding mechanisms of capital accumulation. As Opello and Rosow explain in ‘The Nation-State and Global Order: A Historical Introduction to Contemporary Politics’,

the organizational and technological innovations in warfare during the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries gave a war-making advantage to the form of politico-military rule that had access to large volumes of men (for soldiers)…capital (money to pay, equip, and arm them)…[and] a coherent collective identity (i.e., a sense of nationhood) that overrode regional, class, and tribal loyalties.

Out of the soil of the economic and bureaucratic structures of capitalist accumulation and technological modernization, arose the gleaming image of a strong, proud and loyal army as sign, seal and signet of national identity, a rigidly organized, bureaucratic, hierarchical microcosm, within the State, of the ordered beauty of the State-form itself. Hans Von Seeckt, military officer and organizer of the Reichswehr-the Weimar-era German Army which, through the suppression of Spartacist Bolshevism and the fusion of the country’s military and civilian sectors into a totalitarian military state, formed, according to volume 3 of Purnell’s monumental History of the Twentieth Century, “the only consistent bedrock element on, and above all behind, the German political scene” after the devastation of the First World War- expresses this nationalist military ideal with his guiding principle that “the Army should become a State within the State, but it should be merged in the State through service; in fact it should become the purest image of the State’” (Finer). This transcendental perch befits an army which, in a revolutionary crisis, returns to the barracks when it has successfully secured public order, an army which, in the words of Antonio de Oliveira Salazar, conservative Prime Minister and dictator of colonialist Portugal from 1932 to 1968, “lives apart from politics, subjected to a hierarchy and discipline, serene and firm as a guarantee of public order and national security” (Finer).

Since the fall of Mubarak, the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces has manipulated popular motifs of a nationalist, a-political and civically responsible standing army as a means to consolidate imperial, neoliberal and, ultimately, dictatorial hegemony over the will of the Egyptian people. For example, on February 14, two days after the fall of dictator Hosni Mubarak, Egypt’s transitional Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF), in response to a general strike held by thousands of state employees demanding better pay and conditions, re-imposed martial law and issued a statement urging all citizens, in the interests of “the legitimate demands [of the people] for a true democratic environment…[to] work together to stabilize the country” and to end strikes and protests that, blocking the “positive progress and the efforts of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces to realize the ambitions and aspirations of the people”, were “harming national security by disturbing all the institutions and the agencies…[of the] production and operations” of the state. This marked the first divergence of interests between SCAF and the revolting people, and the latter would soon realize that, far from intending to facilitate a ‘civil democratic process’, the military junta, like Mubarak’s regime, would not hesitate, in the words of Egyptian-American Cairo-based activist Sarah Hawas, to “rapidly devolve” Egyptian society “into a hotbed of naked fascism” under “the deafening silence of the international ‘community’ that continues to tolerate- indeed, goes out of its way to legitimize– the status quo”.

The Second Egyptian Revolution of 2011 shows that the myth of a benevolent, politically neutral military force is shattered when the army is deployed, not on the borders of the people it is sworn to protect, but on the city streets to suppress the resistance of a broad-based, rhizomatic body of citizens united against the sovereign power of ruler and regime alike. Where once the emperor’s army stood proudly before their people in royal battle garb, here what Lenin calls “the naked class struggle” becomes clear as day, as “the ruling class strives to restore the special bodies of armed men which serve it”, and “the oppressed class strives to create a new organization…capable of serving the exploited instead of the exploiters”.

Against an oppressive apparatus of governmentality indistinguishable from neo-imperial hegemony; against the unilateral re-instatement of a three-decades old martial law which the military junta had promised to abolish; against, in the December 22, 2011 words of the Revolutionary Socialists of Egypt, “a state which has looted and stolen from the poor to increase the wealth of the rich…a state for whom the power of capital is more important than the authority of the judiciary”- against the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, the Second Egyptian Revolution is, in the final instance, a revolution against neoliberalism as such. Herein can be found the universal value of an uprising that, bringing the domestic politics of Egypt to their logical conclusion, reaches beyond national borders and challenges a global fabric of power. The international hegemonic apparatus of late capitalism, in the face of the worldwide Arab Spring and Occupy movements, takes on the variegated forms of fascist dictatorship and repressive military-police apparatus, struggling to maintain its hold on power as the human multitude awakens.

Works Cited

Almasmari, Hakim. “Hundreds Defect from Yemen’s Military.” Featured Articles from CNN. CNN,

19 Nov. 2011. Web. 28 Jan. 2012. <http://articles.cnn.com/2011-11-19/middleeast/world_meast_yemen-unrest_1_unarmed-youth-protests-government-troops?_s=PM:MIDDLEEAST&gt;.

Armbrust, Walter. “A Revolution against Neoliberalism?” Al Jazeera English. Al Jazeera, 24 Feb.

2011. Web. 20 Jan. 2012. <http://www.aljazeera.com/indepth/opinion/2011/02/201122414315249621.html&gt;.

Boegaert, Koenraad. “Global Dimensions of the Arab Spring and the Potential for

Anti-Hegemonic Politics.” Jadaliyya. Arab Studies Institute, 21 Dec. 2011. Web. 10 Jan.   2012. <http://www.jadaliyya.com/pages/index/3638/global-dimensions-of-the-arab-spring-and-the-poten&gt;.

CBC News. “Egypt’s Military Flexes Its Muscle.” CBC News. 11 Feb. 2011. Web. 16 Jan. 2012.

<http://www.cbc.ca/news/world/story/2011/02/11/f-egypt-military-tantawi.html&gt;.

Engels, Friedrich. The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State, in the Light of the

Researches of Lewis H. Morgan,. New York: International, 1942. Print.

Finer, S. E. The Man on Horseback; the Role of the Military in Politics. New York: Praeger, 1962.

Print.

Foucault, Michel, Graham Burchell, Colin Gordon, and Peter Miller. The Foucault Effect: Studies

in Governmentality : With Two Lectures by and an Interview with Michel Foucault. Chicago: University of Chicago, 1991. Print.

Gotowicki, Stephen H. “The Role of the Egyptian Military in Domestic Society.” Foreign Military

Studies Office. U.S. Army, 1994. Web. 28 Jan. 2012. <http://fmso.leavenworth.army.mil/documents/egypt/egypt.htm&gt;.

Hawas, Sarah. “Please Bear Witness to the Unceasing Violence against Unarmed Egyptian

Revolutionaries.” Mondoweiss. 22 Dec. 2011. Web. 21 Jan. 2012. <http://mondoweiss.net/2011/12/at-holiday-dinners-bear-witness-to-the-unceasing-violence-against-unarmed-egyptian-revolutionaries.html&gt;.

Jelin, Elizabeth. “Memories of State Violence: The Past in the Present”. Human Rights Institute,

University of Connecticut. 2006. Web. 15 Jan. 2012. <http://humanrights.uconn.edu/documents/papers/ElizabethJelinStateViolence.pdf>.

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2012. <http://www.marxists.org/archive/lenin/works/1917/staterev/&gt;.

Opello, Walter C., and Stephen J. Rosow. The Nation-state and Global Order: A Historical

Introduction to Contemporary Politics. Boulder, CO: Lynne Rienner, 1999. Print.

Pye, Lucian W. “Armies in the Process of Political Modernization.” European Journal of

Sociology (1961). Print.

Revolutionary Socialists of Egypt. “Yes … We Do Want the Downfall of the State of Tyranny,

Poverty and Dependency.” Jadaliyya. Arab Studies Institute, 21 Dec. 2011. Web. 20 Jan. 2012. <http://www.jadaliyya.com/pages/index/3701/yes-…-we-do-want-the-downfall-of-the-state-of-ty&gt;.

Reynolds, John. “Emergency, Governmentality and the Arab Spring.” Jadaliyya. Arab Studies

Institute, 10 Aug. 2011. Web. 11 Dec. 2011. <http://www.jadaliyya.com/pages/index/2357/emergency-governmentality-and-the-arab-spring&gt;.

Sayigh, Yezid. “Armies and Civilians in the Arab Awakening: An Inevitable Compromise?”

Carnegie Middle East Center. Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, 27 Oct. 2011. Web. 25 Dec. 2011. <http://carnegie-mec.org/publications/?fa=45839&gt;.

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Forces.” Egypt State Information Service. 14 Feb. 2011. Web. 15 Dec. 2011. <http://www.sis.gov.eg/En/Story.aspx?sid=53727&gt;.

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Print.

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Remembrance

(poem [my first- forgive me if it’s terrible] published in the Journal of Interdimensional Poetry, a poetry journal affiliated with the ‘Psychedemia’ conference held at the University of Pennsylvania, September 2012.)

 

REMEMBRANCE

 

On the eighteenth day,

Of the eighteenth month,

On the banks of the river of accumulated knowledge,

Where lay scattered in scraps

The sharpened instruments of scholars, tried and tattered-

We reached you.

Amidst traces and remnants

Of living endeavors

Our mothers, and fathers,

And their mothers’ mothers

Had weathered-

We reached you.

We cast our bodies to the ground,

And battered our heads,

And standing, stood beside ourselves-

And wept.

 

What hides behind the eye, that gives it sight?

What nestles in the crevice of the ear, that we may hear?

What flickers before the thought,

What cradles the tongue to speak?

Oh gasp, that thickens in time-

How can our breath give thanks to the wind that quickens the breath?

 

On the eighteenth day,

Of the eighteenth month,

We arrived,

Hands heavy with seeking.

We placed our senses before you,

And you said-

Speak to me not of repetition,

But of that which has not begun.

There,

Before the origin,

It eclipses, it remembers itself.

It trickles through our hands.

It spits out bones,

It carves wrinkles into trembling skin.

It sows us into speech, it points beyond; our tongues clatter.

 

On the eighteenth day, of the eighteenth month,

We reached you,

Hands heavy with seeking,

And you said-

Speak to me of the human being who shrivels in skin.

Sing me the creature, help me remember

The teeth of the lover whose shivering skin,

To forget itself,

Repeats itself.

Speak to me not of beyond,

But of the being

Who lives, and breathes,

And moves in time.

Sing the beginning which completes itself.

Take no offering,

Know no temple,

No place.

But time

Give me time to unwind the generations.

Time, in which, to speak,

I speak again.

Sing for me these knotted hands,

This gasp of flesh.

Speak to me of remembrance.

Listen.

 

It occurred! There, in history!

We saw it with our own eyes!

Branch of no planting,

Work of no hands,

Spring from no source!

Where we write, it glows!

Where we speak, it sparks!

Oh gasp, that quickens in time-

 

On the eighteenth day,

Of the eighteenth month,

We left you,

And you said-

There is something that remains.

 

Image

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New Jewish Agenda(s): An Interview with Rabbi Arthur Waskow

(published in Tikkun Magazine’s ‘Tikkun Daily’ blog, http://www.tikkun.org/tikkundaily/2012/08/27/new-jewish-agendas-an-interview-with-rabbi-arthur-waskow/ )

 

When I sat down to speak with radical civil rights activist Rabbi Arthur Waskow at the Shalom Center in Philadelphia this July, I wanted to talk about the hopes and promises of twenty-first century Jewish activism, Occupy Judaism, and the American Jewish progressive movement. But most of all, I wanted to discuss Ezra Berkley Nepon’s recently published book ‘Justice, Justice Shall You Pursue: A History of New Jewish Agenda.’ This book represents the first serious attempt to comprehensively document the 1980s progressive organization New Jewish Agenda (NJA).

Book cover: Nepon, Justice, Justice Shall You Pursue

Book cover: Justice, Justice Shall You Pursue

Considering itself “a Jewish voice among progressives and a progressive voice among Jews,” NJA was a national, multi-issue membership organization that worked throughout the 1980s and early 1990s to advocate for Middle East peace, worldwide nuclear disarmament, rights for LGBTQ Jews, economic and social justice, peace in Latin America, Jewish feminism, and a variety of other issues in a climate of increasing Reagan-era neoliberalism and Cold War conservatism. Today, twenty years after the group’s dissolution, the book seeks to draw inspiration from NJA’s dedication “to participatory (grassroots) democracy and civil rights for all people, especially those marginalized within the mainstream Jewish community,” at a time when the progressive American Jewish movement is seeking a new voice.

As we reflected on the contemporary legacy of Jewish radicalism in America, we found that we could not talk about the New Jewish Agenda of the past without talking about the new(er) Jewish agenda(s) of the present. We could not talk about progressive Jewish identity and spirituality without also talking about “the heart of the matter- the prophetic vision embodied in Judaism, ancient and modern.” We could not talk about Occupy Wall Street without also talking about “the heart of the Freedom Seder…[the] debate between violence and non-violence.” We could not talk about the diversity of contemporary progressive Jewish activism without also talking about the issue of Zionism, an issue that “becomes legitimate when the society around it discovers it has to live with a spectrum of organizations, people, etc. raising the issue.” We found that to speak of a movement as multi-faceted as New Jewish Agenda, one must also give voice the complexities of the present moment.

We also discussed the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research’s recent conference, entitled ‘Jews and the Left.’ There, voices of lamentation repeated the well-worn mantra that, as Ezra Mendelsohn said, “the Left in general is in eclipse, and the Jewish left is dead in the U.S., an expired product of a past historical epoch … a good chapter in our history, but one which is gone.”

When I repeated this quote to Arthur Waskow, he interrupted me with a bemused look of incredulity…

 

New Jewish Agenda march: Jews for Peace

New Jewish Agenda: Jews for Peace march.

Arthur Waskow: Did they invite anybody who was a Jew on the left?

Ben Lorber: One of the criticisms voiced by many was that the conference was mainly an affair of historians and academics, devoid of past or present Jewish activists.

AW: Well, there’s Tikkun, there’s the Shalom Center, and a bunch of different organizations!

BL: Throughout ‘Justice, Justice Shall You Pursue,’ Nepon celebrates that NJA upheld itself for over a decade as a multi-issue organization, tackling problems of sexism, racism, and classism both inside and outside the Jewish community, along with a critique of Israel, and presenting a united front of Jewish opposition to the mainstream. Today, progressive American Jewish organizations exist across the left spectrum as single-issue advocacy groups, often competing with one another for funds, attention and a seat at the table, and struggling to try to influence the mainstream. Do you see this multiplicity of organizations as a weakness of the contemporary Jewish American left?

AW: There are two images we use about ourselves: one is a tugboat that moves the big ocean liner. The big ocean liner can barely change direction, and to change direction at all it needs a tugboat that can change direction, nudging, nudging, pushing up against it. I think we accomplished that metaphor with the Reform movement during the Iraq war. The Iraq war was historically a total disaster, but it also took some nudging for people to get off their habit of total deference towards any President of the United States, and we did help the Reform movement do that. And the other metaphor we use is the seedbed. We can drop tiny seeds that are very small and don’t require much money, and some of them grow big. We see ourselves that way too.

BL: And in many ways NJA throughout the 1980s and early 1990s conceived of itself as a tugboat and a seedbed, steering the tone of mainstream American Jewish discourse towards the left and sowing seeds of dissent on many critical issues well ahead of their time. Today, the seeds that NJA helped plant–the movement of Jewish feminism, and the movement of Jewish-Palestinian solidarity, to name two examples–have blossomed into the decisive political debates of our community.

AW: The difference is that NJA wanted to be a mass organization. We tried, and we succeeded briefly. We were enormously helped by Ronald Reagan’s election. Our first convention was held in the fall after November 1980, after the election, which Reagan won, and thousands more people showed up then we expected. Part of the reason for that was that people were shocked and horrified by Reagan’s victory in the election.

BL: Has the progressive Jewish movement experienced a similar revitalization since the early 2000s, with the rise of Bush and the American neoconservative movement?

AW: Not the same way in the American Jewish community. I think maybe Occupy is the first stage of re-energizing the American and Jewish progressive movement.

BL: But today, two decades after the dissolution of NJA, do you see a hole or a void in the community of progressive Jewish organizations that NJA used to fill? Across the diverse spectrum of groups, is there a lack of a unifying thread, an absence of a ‘We?’

AW: There are some interesting things beginning to happen. There’s the Jewish Social Justice Roundtable and Green Havurah. There’s a serious attempt to create the beginnings, but the one thing it ain’t is a mass movement. It deliberately is an amalgam of organizations, not of people, so that puts limits on it.

BL: An especially powerful legacy of NJA, to me, is its structural emphasis on democratic, horizontal, non-hierarchical decision-making, and organization. These dynamics, with all their pluses and minuses, have re-emerged today most vigorously in the Occupy movement. What does NJA have to teach the present-day Jewish American progressive community in this regard?

AW: I hope, but I’m not convinced, that the Green Havurah model is the most interesting model. It’s kind of a version of NJA’s decentralization, though NJA’s decentralization was geographic, and Green Havurah’s model isn’t geographic as much as it is functional. I don’t know if it makes vigorous action possible. But
it is a different version to preserve a kind of united national body, and to encourage participation and debate.

BL: One of the inspiring things for me about the Jewish Occupy events, such as Occupy Kol Nidre, is this tradition of performing Jewish ritual in public as political action. NJA explored this too–as Nepon relates in ‘Justice, Justice Shall You Pursue,’ during Tisha B’av in 1981, which fell on the anniversary of the atomic bombing of Nagasaki by the U.S. during WWII, NJA held a public ceremony near the White House and the Soviet Embassy in Washington, D.C., calling for nuclear disarmament.

AW: And we addressed universal issues, not only Jewish issues. Interestingly, two summers ago we did Tisha B’Av on the steps of the capital again, but this time it was to focus on the oil spill that had just happened in the Gulf. We asked, “What is the temple today?” Today the temple is the whole Earth. Every culture and every species has the sacred temple of Earth itself, and the Pharaohs of the human race, like the emperors who destroyed the First and Second Temples, are in the process of destroying our temple. And we did this with about 300 people, maybe half of them Jewish, a whole bunch of secular people, and some Christians and Muslims. It was amazing! We chanted, mainly in English, a new version of Lamentations to the melody of Eicha, of Lamentations.

There was a crucial discussion in Green Havurah a few days ago: what does it mean to take inspiration from theology and challenge people into acting? A bunch of us going off and making Shabbot by ourselves has no impact on society. What if we sat down on Shabbot and somehow interfered with work? I haven’t yet been struck with a spark of how to do that. Martin Buber said, “Life is not really in the I, life is not really in the Thou. Life is in the hyphen.’ Between me and Daniel Sieradski (American Jewish writer and activist), life was in the hyphen! I called him up and asked: “What do you think about doing Kol Nidre at Zuccotti Park?’ He said “Arthur, Kol Nidre! We did Erev Shabbot there last week! But Kol Nidre? I gotta think about it.” And he calls me up the next day and says, “Well, I put it on Twitter and there are 500 people that wanna come!” I couldn’t do it alone, and he couldn’t do it alone.

Occupy Kol Nidre protest, November 2011.

Occupy Kol Nidre, November 2011. Credit: Damon Dahlen/AOL.

BL: As NJA sought to be “a Jewish voice among progressives and a progressive voice among Jews,” Occupy Judaism’s motto today is “bringing the Jews to Occupy Wall Street and bringing Occupy Wall Street to the Jews.” What are the parallels between the two? Is it inspiring to you today that in the midst of the rising of a broad-based American social movement, this tradition of Jewish ritual as public protest has re-emerged?

AW: Absolutely inspiring to me, totally! NJA taught us that you can interweave prophetic religious folk and leftist secular folk. I try not to use the ‘left’ label for myself because it has come to mean almost entirely a secular, sometimes even anti-religious outlook on the world. So I use ‘prophetic’ because for me it embodies both a profound religious sense of contact with God–not at all necessarily according to the structures or the strictures of the prayer book,–and vigorous and radical political action.

During most of its history, NJA was able to weave those strands of thought and action together. I think one of the reasons it collapsed was that some mostly secularist folks thought they couldn’t bear working with people who used ‘God’ language. There was a lot of anger and contempt aimed at religious folk, which ended up in the dismantling of the office and the organization. This did not come from any grassroots decision-making; it was made by people in the steering committee. I think that if there had been a consultation of the national membership, people would’ve opposed abolishing the organization. I thought the closure was a serious ethical and political mistake- none of which I think is in the book.

BL: A few years after NJA was founded, Michael Lerner founded Tikkun, and there was a return to spirituality in the American Jewish progressive movement that was, in many ways, a continuation of the Fabrangen and radical Havurah movements begun a decade earlier. Do you think this schism between secular and spiritual currents within NJA reflected the larger tensions between a secular humanist Jewish movement and a Jewish renewal movement?

AW: Yes, I think that’s right. And both trends have survived. The heart of the matter for me is the prophetic vision embodied in Judaism, ancient and modern, all the way to Buber and Heschel and Judith Plaskow. So that strand for me is the point, and acting on that strand for me is not bringing Occupy Wall Street to the Jews, it is bringing Isaiah and Heschel and Lerner and Waskow to the Jews. Here’s an example of the problem and the gift. Occupy Wall Street breaks through in American consciousness to get the notion of the 99% and the 1% across. Brilliant! Terrific! Now, for twenty years the Shalom Center has been talking about the pharaohs of our generation, which I think is the 1% in Jewish clothes (and I don’t mean only governments, but corporations as well). So it’s true that Occupy broke through in a way that, inside the Jewish community, the Freedom Seder did break through- in an unexpected way. [The Freedom Seder] told everyone that we can all create our own liberating seders! And that changed the attitude of lots of Jews towards the existing liturgy.

BL: Reading the Freedom Seder today, I was drawn to the debate between violence and non-violence as a tactic for social change. Pacifist quotes by Martin Luther King Jr. are back-to-back with celebrations of the race riot, and quotes by Malcolm X advocating change ‘by any means necessary.’ This seems to be especially pertinent today, as popular unrest in America and worldwide straddles the border between non-violent and violent resistance.

AW: And when I said that the race riots were about the confrontation between the Israelites in the streets and Pharaoh in the army, sure! The heart of the Freedom Seder should be a debate between violence and non-violence. I have since become convinced that King-ian, Gandhian non-violence is far better. I’m not an absolute pacifist, but I think it’s far better except in a very few situations, where there is such a tyrannical thing that the only way to resist is physically. But at the time of the Freedom Seder I was saying: “Let’s have the argument, because we can only gain wisdom from the argument.”

BL: The issue of Zionism has obviously had a huge and polarizing influence of the progressive Jewish Left since the 1960s. How has the discourse on Palestine changed from the 1970s to today on the Jewish Left?

AW: There’s more of a spectrum now. Jewish Voice for Peace (JVP) can exist alongside J Street, and both of them can exist. I think there is a big majority for at the J Street outlook, but it’s interesting- organizations don’t like to confront even small minorities, especially organizations that are feeling that they are barely treated as legitimate anyway. There are two ways to behave if you think you are being treated by the big boys as barely legitimate. One is to say ‘fuck you!’ and do whatever really bold and trouble making stuff you wanna do. The other one is to be very careful not to annoy people. JVP has done the first, and I sort of feel attracted to its tone and method, but I see a problem with its unwillingness to affirm the right of the Israeli people to make their decision about having an Israeli state, and therefore to reaffirm that we can only go beyond a two-state solut
ion if each of the two people says they’re ready to go beyond it. As of now, Israeli society is not willing to go beyond a two-state solution. For me, JVP doesn’t have to say: “We support a two state solution,” but it does have to say: “We support a solution in which the existing state of Israel and its people agree.” And they don’t quite do that. So that’s one of my problems with it, and I think it’s probably a problem with a lot of people who would otherwise feel attracted to JVP. On the other hand, there are a lot of people who do feel attracted to JVP, because they say ‘fuck you’ to the Federation world and all that.

So, the very fact of a more diverse spectrum means that the repression has not been able to succeed as much. In a way, an issue becomes legitimate when the society around it discovers it has to live with a spectrum of organizations, people, etc. raising the issue. It’s easy to polarize and expel, to excommunicate so long as there is a clear separation between viewpoints. But most Americans from Peace Now and J Street bridge the gap enough that it’s clearly impossible now to wipe out that kind of energy, and the greater spectrum means that there are enough Jews who are connected with official Judaism.

I’m not so happy with J Street either, by the way. J Street established this metaphor of itself that it was going to watch Obama’s back. And I ask, “What about his front? What about confronting him when he doesn’t do what makes sense?” Their whole description of their role was that whenever people were beating up on Obama for being too pro-peace or of Israel, J Street would hold his back and argue that he’s okay. But when he insisted on vetoing Abbas’ bid for recognition at the U.N., for instance, J Street was not prepared to say, “Oh, that was a bad mistake.” So I didn’t go to the last convention. If I could wave my wand and there would be an organization that carried out BDS on the products created in the West Bank, period, I would do it. Peter Beinart (an influential American Jewish journalist), Lerner and I are not just liberal Zionists; we’re something more than that. Lerner does try to organize around it and has done more to unite the two than most anybody, including the Shalom Center.

BL: In 2009, you cited five American ‘pro-Israel, pro-Peace’ Jewish organizations that were worth supporting in a context of increasing polarization within the American Jewish community: Meretz USA, Americans for Peace Now, Rabbis for Human Rights, J Street, and Jewish Alliance for Justice and Peace (Brit Tzedek v’Shalom). Daniel Lang/Levitsky stated that since 2009, “U.S. Zionist ‘peace’-oriented groups like Brit Tzedek-v-Shalom, J Street, and the Tikkun Community have continued to decline in influence, visibility, and effectiveness, while non- and anti-Zionist projects from JVP to Jews Say No to the International Jewish Anti-Zionist Network (IJAZN) have steadily grown in both size and strength.” Do you see this trend? Why?

AW: Yes, because people are getting more and more fed up with the ever more disgusting behavior of the Israeli government. The worse it gets, the more people that say I’m not even interested in J Street. So J Street tries to walk this very difficult line, but I don’t think the line has to be as wishy-washy as they make it.

BL: What, to sum up, can Jewish occupiers, and the entire Occupy movement, draw from prophetic Judaism? What can the prophetic Jewish heritage teach us about this imperative to resist, to speak the truth to power?

AW: I know I sort of got imprinted on the Pharaoh model by the Freedom Seder, and you might say I’ve just been reworking that metaphor for forty some years, and in some ways that’s true. And my most recent book with Phyllis Berman, my wife, is about the Exodus and the wilderness at a far deeper level than the Freedom Seder. But I think that’s the master Jewish story, whether its fiction or history. We begin that book, Freedom Journeys, with these three lines: “If the Pharaoh fell in the Red Sea and nobody told the story, did it happen? No. If no Pharaoh fell in the Red Sea but we told the story for three thousand years, did it happen? Yes. Is it still happening? Yes.”

BL: I love Sieradski’s quote, in an article for the Forward in November 2011, where he asserts the direct identity between the values of Judaism and those of Occupy- “In retelling our story (“We are the 99%”), recounting our values (“social and economic justice for all”) and carrying forth our tradition unto the four corners of the Earth (“Occupy Everywhere”) we are empowered to bring the spirit of the occupation into every facet of our lives.”

AW: Exactly!

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