The Eros Effect Comes to Cairo

By George Katsiaficas


Two months ago, the prediction that Hosni Mubarak would be compelled to end his pharonic rule over Egyptians would have been regarded as ludicrous—or wishful thinking. Yet today Mubarak’s demise is only a question of time. Whether he leaves tomorrow or in September, he—and his son who would be king with him—have already been banished to the dustbin of history.


The chain reaction of events set off by the suicide of Mohamed Bouazizi, a rural vegetable vendor in neighboring Tunisia, quickly sent that country’s long entrenched dictator into exile (along with his powerful wife and as much of the country’s wealth as she could ferret onto a plane). Besides at least eight other self-immolations in Algeria, Mauritania and Egypt, the powerful grassroots response to Bouazizi’s sacrifice caused Yemen’s president Ali Abdullah Saleh, in power for more than three decades, to promise to leave office. Jordan’s king Abdullah, fearing for his country’s stability after thousands marched in Amman, appointed a new cabinet.


Suddenly, everywhere in the Arab world, dictators tremble and governments rush to implement reforms. In this moment of optimism, powerful forces seek to constrain the movement’s potential impact. From the halls of power in Cairo and Washington, as they debate the use of murderous force to quell the unrest, ruling elites simultaneously attempt to channel the popular energies in the streets into streamlining the present structures. Through mere changes of the faces of the rulers—not transformation of the system that empowers the wealthy to rule—they hope to make the existing system more efficient, more profitable for investors and corporations.


Despite its appearance as an Arab phenomenon, the eruption of uprisings that has overnight awakened people flows from a global source. We saw similar waves of transnational people power in 1989 in Eastern Europe, when without warning, Communist regimes were erased from all but memory. Although not as well known, a concatenation of revolts swept East Asia years before, beginning with the 1980 Gwangju Uprising in South Korea and spreading like wildfire to the Philippines, Burma, Tibet, China, Taiwan, Nepal, Bangladesh, and Thailand. In six short years from 1986, dictators in Manila, Seoul, Dhaka, and Bangkok were disgraced and sent into exile, some eventually imprisoned for years. While grassroots power of the people has finally arrived in the Arab world, to limit comprehension of the phenomenon sweeping the region to its own parochial history constitutes a misreading of recent history—and limitation of the movement’s potential.


Rapid and unanticipated political change is increasingly a fact of life in the 21st century. In the past 50 years, high-tech media have united the planet as never before, and people have realized the power of synchronous popular actions to overturn governments. By occupying public space without anyone telling them to do so, people have mobilized revolts that spread from one city to another and from country to country. The first such instance of spillover of mobilizations into a global uprising occurred in 1968. After years of research into that period, as I pulled together my empirical studies, I was stunned when I comprehended the spontaneous spread of revolutionary aspirations in a chain reaction of occupations of public space—the sudden entry into history of millions of ordinary people who acted in a unified fashion, intuitively believing that they could change the direction of their society. From these case studies, I uncovered the “eros effect,” moments in history when universal interests become generalized at the same time as the dominant values of society are negated and long-entrenched rulers forced from office.


While the stories in the mainstream media today mainly involve the machinations of Obama and Mubarak or the positioning of spokespersons like Clinton and Suleiman, the real story is the transformation of people from passive recipients of dictatorial commands to active creators of momentum for change. The handwriting is on the wall. The multitude of Cairo has appropriated the lessons of Bangkok’s Red Shirts and Yellow Shirts, of Manila’s yellow confetti (that toppled Marcos) and of China’s occupiers of Tiananmen Square (who failed to accomplish their goals). It would be nothing new if the US chooses to sacrifice yet another of its pet dictators on the altar of “progress.” What is newsworthy now is that People Power has become embraced by the Arab masses. Whether or not the protests in Cairo succeed, the emergence of an activated citizenry is key to escaping the rut of absolute rule—and of elite small-group forms of resistance to it, as opposed to vibrant protests as are now daily occurrences in Tahrir Square.


The real question posed by protesters is not who is in power but the form of power itself. The ultimate goal of people power is the institutionalization of popular forms of decision-making, which involves taking power from the elite and reconstituting it into grassroots forms. This radical potential of the movement is precisely why the political elite today scurries to implement the appearance of change—not system transformation but only rotation of personalities at the apex of power. It matters little whether Mubarak or his secret police chief Suleiman runs the country.


The young activists in Cairo have made Mubarak’s ouster their starting point, but they know well that freedom is not simply replacing him with someone else. What they need is a wholly new form of justice, recovery of the people’s wealth that has been so scandalously appropriated by the rich, and punishment of those responsible for decades of torture and dictatorship—to say nothing of the recent slaughter of dozens of unarmed citizens in the streets.


It remains unclear who will emerge victorious in Egypt—whether people peacefully protesting will hold sway and move the society to a higher level of democratization, or as seems more likely, that American and Egyptian politicians will decide to send in the army. Another possible outcome, that both protesters and elite will be mollified by Obama's end game of preserving the status quo ante minus Mubarak, would mean that the current possibility for a leap into substantive democratic change would have been missed.


February 8, 2011


George Katsiaficas, whose mother was born in Cairo, is a professor of humanities at Wentworth Institute of Technology in Boston. He is currently completing Asia’s Unknown Uprisings, a study of recent People Power uprisings.