“The funny thing is,” my Egyptian friend told me, “you’ve been doing this so long, you kind of forget that you can win. All these years, we’ve been organizing marches, rallies … And if only 45 people show up, you’re depressed. If you get 300, you’re happy. Then one day, you get 500,000. And you’re incredulous: on some level, you’d given up thinking that could even happen.”
Mubarak’s Egypt was one of the most repressive societies on Earth – the entire apparatus of state was effectively organized around ensuring that what ended up happening could never happen. And yet it did.
So why not here?
To be honest, most activists I know do go around feeling much like my Egyptian friend used to feel – we organize much of our lives around the possibility of something that we’re not sure we believe could ever really happen. Probably nowhere is this so true as in London. When the new government moved to effectively privatize the education system, denying millions of families any dream of higher education, there was, indeed, a kind of uprising. Briefly. Tory headquarters were smashed and occupied, the storefronts of notorious tax scofflaws like Topshop and Vodafone repeatedly blockaded, paint-bombed and defaced. There was a feeling of possibility. But there was also the feeling all this was something of a flicker. The bills passed, with dozens of politicians who had come to power on promises to eliminate tuition fees duly voting to triple them, and now, as the Coalition is moving to effectively annihilate the remaining shreds of the British welfare state, throwing millions out of work – all in the name of a free-market economic orthodoxy no one really believes in anymore – everyone is waiting to see if the mass of the working class will follow the students’ lead … and if riots in the streets finally materialize. Even Mervyn King, the Governor of the Bank of England has declared himself puzzled as to why they haven’t.
Military regimes like Egypt live on fear. Their leadership assume that most of the populace despise them, but people are aware that any attempt at mass opposition will be met instantly by torture and death. For most of those who live under these regimes, “political life” is a matter of continual, barely suppressed rage. The real question is whether people detect an opportunity, a crack in the façade. That is why when soldiers refused to fire on protesters in Tunisia, uprisings in Egypt, Yemen, and Libya followed almost instantly. In modern democracies like the UK, in contrast, political life is organized more around cynicism and despair. You not only have to reveal the system as vulnerable – which the students began to do – you not only have to overcome the endless divisions politicians and media have created between students, trade unionists, immigrants and the unemployed – but you also have to convince people that a social order based on human solidarity and mutual aid would even be possible.
There is only one known way to do that, and that is for people to experience it. This is why, emboldened by the students, grassroots organizations across the UK are planning to respond to the attacks by a wave of occupations, turning every shut-down youth center, hospital or library into an experiment in real democratic self-management. Will it work? Will the bulk of the British working class, battered by 30 years of defeat, finally rally to take back what is theirs? No one knows. But everywhere there are signs, some angry, some whimsical, most small, that this time something really might be different.
Just a month ago I was sitting on the stoop helping guard a student-occupied university building at the School of Oriental and African Studies when a bus driver stopped his vehicle in front of us. Noting the banners, he winked at us and said, only half jokingly, “Say, I was wondering … could you fellows please occupy my bus?”