Egyptian Anarchy

The unfolding Egyptian revolution is anarchic. Represented in the Western media as recently as last Saturday as a chaotic uprising with menacing bands of roving looters and criminals (anarchy in the pejorative sense), the Egyptian revolution is largely self-organized by the popular masses.

Not only have the large crowds gathering in Tahrir (Liberation) Square in the heart of Cairo been peaceful despite being assembled spontaneously and without any coordinated direction by a particular political party or leader.  In addition, neighborhood watch groups formed throughout Cairo and other Egyptian cities to maintain law and order over the weekend after the dreaded security police – minions of the Mubarak regime – withdrew from the streets following Friday’s dramatic confrontation between police and masses of people in Cairo.

For a very thoughtful discussion of the national-popular and the current wave of uprisings in the Arab world, see this interview with historian Vijay Prashad.

The bankruptcy of U.S. policies of supporting autocratic Arab regimes in the name of fighting Islamism is now apparent for everyone to behold.  Mubarak is not the first dictator to be driven out of office in the Maghreb, and will probably not be the last.  This is an Arab revolution many decades in the making.

The main question now is what will come after the revolution.  Will the self-organizing forces that made the Egyptian and Tunisian revolutions be contained or co-opted?  Or will genuinely new forms of egalitarian social and economic structures be assembled?

The history of the IMF-uprisings chronicled in John Walton and David Seddon’s Free Markets and Food Riots is instructive here.  Back in the late 1980s and early 1990s, in response to austerity policies imposed by the International Monetary Fund, popular uprisings exploded around the world, often sparked by precisely the same issues that lie behind current demonstrations: revulsion against authoritarian rule and anger over spiraling food prices.  In those cases, political reform did not lead to significant economic reform.  Precisely the opposite: newly installed democratic regimes implemented the most draconian austerity packages advanced by the IMF and World Bank.

Let’s hope we don’t witness a replay of that history. Surely the great difference between that period – the triumphant inauguration of the post-Cold War Washington Consensus – and the present, when the intellectual and practical bankruptcy of neoliberalism is plainly evident to everyone, surely this difference should spell a very different and more positive denouement.

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