The recent uprisings do not exist merely in a historical vacuum, but must be considered within a geopolitical context.
Since the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, four transformative events have reshaped the global setting in enduring ways. When the Soviet empire collapsed two years later, the way was opened for the triumphalist pursuit of the American imperial project, seizing the opportunity for geopolitical expansion provided by its self-anointed global leadership - as 'the sole surviving superpower'.
This first rupture in the nature of world order produced a decade of ascendant neoliberal globalisation, in which state power was temporarily and partially eclipsed by passing the torch of lead global policymaker to the Davos oligarchs, meeting annually under the banner of the World Economic Forum. In that sense, the US government was the well-subsidised sheriff of predatory globalization, while the policy agenda was being set by bankers and global corporate executives. Although not often identified as such, the 1990s gave the first evidence of the rise of non-state actors - and the decline of state-centric geopolitics.
The second rupture came with the 9/11 attacks, however those events are construed. The impact of the attacks transferred the locus of policymaking authority back to the United States, as state actor, under the rubrics of 'the war on terror', 'global security' and 'the long war'. This counter-terrorist response to 9/11 produced claims to engage in preemptive warfare - 'The Bush Doctrine'. This militarist foreign policy was put into practice by initiating a 'shock and awe' war against Iraq in March 2003, despite the refusal of the UN Security Council to back American war plans.
This second rupture has turned the entire world into a potential battlefield, with a variety of overt and covert military and paramilitary operations launched by the United States without appropriate authorisation - either from the UN or by deference to international law.
Aside from this disruption of the liberal international order, the continuing pattern of responses to 9/11 involves disregard for the sovereign rights of states in the global south, as well as the complicity of many European and Middle Eastern states in the violation of basic human rights - through engaging in torture, 'extreme rendition' of terrorist suspects and the provision of 'black sites', where persons deemed hostile to the US were detained and routinely abused.
The response to 9/11 was also seized upon by the neoconservative ideologues that rose to power in the Bush presidency to enact their pre-attack grand strategy, accentuating regime change in the Middle East - starting with Iraq, portrayed as 'low-hanging fruit' that would have multiple benefits once picked.
These included military bases, lower energy prices, securing oil supplies, regional hegemony - and promoting Israeli regional goals.
The third rupture involved the continuing global economic recession that began in 2008 - and which has produced widespread rises in unemployment, declining living standards, and rising costs for basic necessities - especially food and fuel. These developments have exhibited the inequity, gross abuses, and the deficiency of neoliberal globalisation - but have not led to the imposition of regulations designed to lessen such widely uneven gains from economic growth - to avoid market abuses, or even to guard against periodic market collapses.
This deepening crisis of world capitalism is not currently being addressed - and alternative visions, even the revival of a Keynesian approach, have little political backing. This crisis has also exposed the vulnerabilities of the European Union to the uneven stresses exerted by varying national domestic capabilities to deal with the challenges posed. All of these economic concerns are complicated - and intensified by the advent of global warming, and its dramatically uneven impacts.
A fourth rupture in global governance is associated with the unresolved turmoil in the Middle East and North Africa. The mass popular uprisings that started in Tunisia have provided the spark that set off fires elsewhere in the region, especially Egypt. These extraordinary challenges to the established order have vividly inscribed into the global political consciousness the courage and determination of ordinary people, particularly the youth, living in these Arab countries, who have endured intolerable conditions of material deprivation, despair, alienation, elite corruption and merciless oppression for their entire lives.
Resisting the status quo
The outcomes of these movements for change in the Arab world is not yet knowable - and will not become clear for months, if not years, to come. It is crucial for supporters on the scene - and around the world - not to become complacent, as it is certain that those with entrenched interests in the old oppressive and exploitative order are seeking to restore former conditions to the greatest extent possible, or at least salvage what they can.
In this regard, it would be a naïve mistake to think that transformative and emancipatory results can come from the elimination of a single hated figure - such as Ben Ali in Tunisia or Mubarak in Egypt - or their immediate entourage. Sustainable, significant change requires a new political structure, as well as a new process that ensures free and fair elections and adequate opportunities for popular participation. Real democracy must be substantive as well as procedural, bringing human security to the people - including tending to basic needs, providing decent work, and a police force that protects rather than harasses. Otherwise, the changes wrought merely defer the revolutionary moment to a later day, and the ordeal of mass suffering will resume.
To simplify, what remains unresolved is the fundamental nature of the outcome of these confrontations between the aroused regional populace and state power, with its autocratic and neoliberal orientations. Will this outcome be transformative, bringing authentic democracy based on human rights and an economic order that puts the needs of people ahead of the ambitions of capital? If it is, then it will be appropriate to speak of 'The Egyptian Revolution', 'The Tunisian Revolution' - and maybe others in the region and elsewhere to come - as it was appropriate to describe the Iranian outcome in 1979 as the Iranian Revolution.
From this perspective, a revolutionary result may not necessarily lead to a benevolent outcome - beyond ridding the society of the old order. In Iran, a newly oppressive regime resting on a different ideological foundation emerged, itself challenged after the 2009 elections by a popular movement calling itself the Green Revolution. So far this use of the word ‘revolution’ expressed hopes rather than referring to realities on the ground.
What took place in Iran - and what seemed to flow from the onslaught unleashed by the Chinese state in Tiananmen Square in 1989 - was ‘counterrevolution’ - the restoration of the old order and the systematic repression of those identified as participants in the challenge to power. In fact, the words deployed can be misleading. What most followers of the Green Revolution seemed to seek in Iran was reform - not revolution - changes in personnel and policies, protection of human rights - but no challenge to the structure or the constitution of the Islamic Republic.
Reform vs counterrevolution
It is unclear whether this Egyptian movement is at present sufficiently unified - or reflective - to have a coherent vision of its goals beyond getting rid of Mubarak. The response of the state, besides trying to crush the uprising and even banish media coverage, offers at most promises of reform: fairer and freer elections and respect for human rights.
It remains unknown what is meant by - and what will happen during - an 'orderly transition' under the auspices of temporary leaders closely tied to the old regime, who likely enjoy enthusiastic backing from Washington. Will a cosmetic agenda of reform hide the reality of the politics of counterrevolution? Or will revolutionary expectations come to the fore from an aroused populace to overwhelm the pacifying efforts of ‘the reformers’? Or, even, might there be a genuine mandate of reform, supported by elites and bureaucrats - enacting sufficiently ambitious changes in the direction of democracy and social justice to satisfy the public?
Of course, there is no assurance - or likelihood - that the outcomes will be the same, or even similar, in the various countries undergoing these dynamics of change. Some will see ‘revolution’ where ‘reform’ has taken place, and few will acknowledge the extent to which ‘counterrevolution’ can lead to the breaking of even modest promises of reform.
At stake, as never since the collapse of the colonial order in the Middle East and North Africa, is the unfolding and shaping of self-determination in the entire Arab world, and possibly beyond.
How these dynamics will affect the broader regional agenda is not apparent at this stage, but there is every reason to suppose that the Israel-Palestine conflict will never be quite the same. It is also uncertain how such important regional actors as Turkey or Iran may - or may not - deploy their influence. And, of course, the behaviour of the elephant not formally in the room is likely to be a crucial element in the mix for some time to come, for better or worse.
Richard Falk is Albert G. Milbank Professor Emeritus of International Law at Princeton University and Visiting Distinguished Professor in Global and International Studies at the University of California, Santa Barbara. He has authored and edited numerous publications spanning a period of five decades, most recently editing the volume International Law and the Third World: Reshaping Justice (Routledge, 2008).
He is currently serving his third year of a six year term as a United Nations Special Rapporteur on Palestinian human rights.
The shaping of a New World Order
If the revolutions of 2011 succeed, they will force the creation of a very different regional and world system.
I remember the images well, even though I was too young to understand their political significance. But they were visceral, those photos in the New York Times from Tehran in the midst of its revolutionary moment in late 1978 and early 1979. Not merely exuberance jumped from the page, but also anger; anger fuelled by an intensity of religious fervour that seemed so alien as to emanate from another planet to a "normal" pre-teen American boy being shown the newspaper by his father over breakfast.
Many commentators are comparing Egypt to Iran of 32 years ago, mostly to warn of the risks of the country descending into some sort of Islamist dictatorship that would tear up the peace treaty with Israel, engage in anti-American policies, and deprive women and minorities of their rights (as if they had so many rights under the Mubarak dictatorship).
I write this on February 2, the precise anniversary of Khomeini's return to Tehran from exile. It's clear that, while religion is a crucial foundation of Egyptian identity and Mubarak's level of corruption and brutality could give the Shah a run for his money, the situations are radically different on the ground.
A most modern and insane revolt
The following description, I believe, sums up what Egypt faces today as well as, if not better, than most:
"It is not a revolution, not in the literal sense of the term, not a way of standing up and straightening things out. It is the insurrection of men with bare hands who want to lift the fearful weight, the weight of the entire world order that bears down on each of us - but more specifically on them, these ... workers and peasants at the frontiers of empires. It is perhaps the first great insurrection against global systems, the form of revolt that is the most modern and the most insane.
One can understand the difficulties facing the politicians. They outline solutions, which are easier to find than people say ... All of them are based on the elimination of the [president]. What is it that the people want? Do they really want nothing more? Everybody is quite aware that they want something completely different. This is why the politicians hesitate to offer them simply that, which is why the situation is at an impasse. Indeed, what place can be given, within the calculations of politics, to such a movement, to a movement through which blows the breath of a religion that speaks less of the hereafter than of the transfiguration of this world?"
The thing is, it was offered not by some astute commentator of the current moment, but rather by the legendary French philosopher Michel Foucault, after his return from Iran, where he witnessed firsthand the intensity of the revolution which, in late 1978, before Khomeini's return, really did seem to herald the dawn of a new era.
Foucault was roundly criticised by many people after Khomeini hijacked the revolution for not seeing the writing on the wall. But the reality was that, in those heady days where the shackles of oppression were literally being shattered, the writing was not on the wall. Foucault understood that it was precisely a form of "insanity" that was necessary to risk everything for freedom, not just against one's government, but against the global system that has nuzzled him in its bosom for so long.
What was clear, however, was that the powers that most supported the Shah, including the US, dawdled on throwing their support behind the masses who were toppling him. While this is by no means the principal reason for Khomeini's successful hijacking of the revolution, it certainly played an important role in the rise of a militantly anti-American government social force, with disastrous results.
While Obama's rhetoric moved more quickly towards the Egyptian people than did President Carter's towards Iranians three decades ago, his refusal to call for Mubarak's immediate resignation raises suspicion that, in the end, the US would be satisfied if Mubarak was able to ride out the protests and engineer a "democratic" transition that left American interests largely intact.
The breath of religion
Foucault was also right to assign such a powerful role to religion in the burgeoning revolutionary moment - and he experienced what he called a "political spirituality", But, of course, religion can be defined in so many ways. The protestant theologian Paul Tillich wonderfully described it as encompassing whatever was of "ultimate concern" to a person or people. And today, clearly, most every Egyptian has gotten religion from this perspective.
So many people, including Egypt's leaders, have used the threat of a Muslim Brotherhood takeover to justify continued dictatorship, with Iran as the historical example to justify such arguments. But the comparison is plagued by historical differences. The Brotherhood has no leader of Khomeini's stature and foreswore violence decades ago. Nor is there a culture of violent martyrdom ready to be actualised by legions of young men, as occurred with the Islamic Revolution. Rather than trying to take over the movement, which clearly would never have been accepted - even if its leaders wanted to seize the moment, the Brotherhood is very much playing catch up with the evolving situation and has so far worked within the rather ad hoc leadership of the protests.
But it is equally clear that religion is a crucial component of the unfolding dynamic. Indeed, perhaps the iconic photo of the revolution is one of throngs of people in Tahrir Square bowed in prayers, literally surrounding a group of tanks sent there to assert the government's authority.
This is a radically different image of Islam than most people - in the Muslim world as much as in the West - are used to seeing: Islam taking on state violence through militant peaceful protest; peaceful jihad (although it is one that has occurred innumerable times around the Muslim world, just at a smaller scale and without the world's press there to capture it).
Such imagery, and its significance, is a natural extension of the symbolism of Mohamed Bouazizi's self-immolation, an act of jihad that profoundly challenges the extroverted violence of the jihadis and militants who for decades, and especially since 9/11, have dominated the public perception of Islam as a form of political spirituality.
Needless to say, the latest images - of civil war inside Tahrir Square - will immediately displace these other images. Moreover, if the violence continues and some Egyptian protesters lose their discipline and start engaging in their own premeditated violence against the regime and its many tentacles, there is little doubt their doing so will be offered as "proof" that the protests are both violent and organised by the Muslim Brotherhood or other "Islamists".
A greater threat than al-Qa'eda
As this dynamic of nonviolent resistance against entrenched regime violence plays out, it is worth noting that so far, Osama bin Laden and his Egyptian deputy, Ayman Al-Zawahiri, have had little - if anything - of substance to say about the revolution in Egypt. What they've failed to ignite with an ideology of a return to a mythical and pure beginning - and a strategy of human bombs, IEDs, and planes turned into missiles - a disciplined, forward-thinking yet amorphous group of young activists and their more experienced comrades, "secular" and "religious" together (to the extent these terms are even relevant anymore), have succeeded in setting a fire with a universal discourse of freedom, democracy and human values - and a strategy of increasingly calibrated chaos aimed at uprooting one of the world's longest serving dictators.
As one chant in Egypt put it succinctly, playing on the longstanding chants of Islamists that "Islam is the solution", with protesters shouting: "Tunisia is the solution."
For those who don't understand why President Obama and his European allies are having such a hard time siding with Egypt's forces of democracy, the reason is that the amalgam of social and political forces behind the revolutions in Tunisia, Egypt today - and who knows where tomorrow - actually constitute a far greater threat to the "global system" al-Qa'eda has pledged to destroy than the jihadis roaming the badlands of Afghanistan, Pakistan, or Yemen.
Mad as hell
Whether Islamist or secularist, any government of "of the people" will turn against the neoliberal economic policies that have enriched regional elites while forcing half or more of the population to live below the $2 per day poverty line. They will refuse to follow the US or Europe's lead in the war on terror if it means the continued large scale presence of foreign troops on the region's soil. They will no longer turn a blind eye, or even support, Israel's occupation and siege across the Occupied Palestinian territories. They will most likely shirk from spending a huge percentage of their national income on bloated militaries and weapons systems that serve to enrich western defence companies and prop up autocratic governments, rather than bringing stability and peace to their countries - and the region as a whole.
They will seek, as China, India and other emerging powers have done, to move the centre of global economic gravity towards their region, whose educated and cheap work forces will further challenge the more expensive but equally stressed workforces of Europe and the United States.
In short, if the revolutions of 2011 succeed, they will force the creation of a very different regional and world system than the one that has dominated the global political economy for decades, especially since the fall of communism.
This system could bring the peace and relative equality that has so long been missing globally - but it will do so in good measure by further eroding the position of the United States and other "developed" or "mature" economies. If Obama, Sarkozy, Merkel and their colleagues don't figure out a way to live with this scenario, while supporting the political and human rights of the peoples of the Middle East and North Africa, they will wind up with an adversary far more cunning and powerful than al-Qa'eda could ever hope to be: more than 300 million newly empowered Arabs who are mad as hell and are not going to take it any more.
Mark LeVine is a professor of history at UC Irvine and senior visiting researcher at the Centre for Middle Eastern Studies at Lund University in Sweden. His most recent books are Heavy Metal Islam (Random House) and Impossible Peace: Israel/Palestine Since 1989 (Zed Books).
These both seemed like good opinion pieces about what's going on in Egypt now with a more global focus. The second one is a few days old, but it seemed relevant.
...And, negl, I still twitch any time I see Foucault's name. I was not expecting a Foucault reference, lol.