Charting the Wild Winds of Change in 2011
The article originally appeared at TomDispatch.com. To listen to a podcast in which Solnit discusses both revolution and disaster, including the recent earthquake/tsunami in Japan, click here.
Revolution is as unpredictable as an earthquake and as beautiful as spring. Its coming is always a surprise, but its nature should not be.
Revolution is a phase, a mood, like spring, and just as spring has its buds and showers, so revolution has its ebullience, its bravery, its hope, and its solidarity. Some of these things pass. The women of Cairo do not move as freely in public as they did during those few precious weeks when the old rules were suspended and everything was different. But the old Egypt is gone and Egyptians’ sense of themselves—and our sense of them—is forever changed.
No revolution vanishes without effect. The Prague Spring of 1968 was brutally crushed, but twenty-one years later when a second wave of revolution liberated Czechoslovakia, Alexander Dubcek, who had been the reformist Secretary of the Czechoslovakian Communist Party, returned to give heart to the people from a balcony overlooking Wenceslas Square: “The government is telling us that the street is not the place for things to be solved, but I say the street was and is the place. The voice of the street must be heard.”
The voice of the street has been a bugle cry this year. You heard it. Everyone did, but the rulers who thought their power was the only power that mattered, heard it last and with dismay. Many of them are nervous now, releasing political prisoners, lowering the price of food, and otherwise trying to tamp down uprisings.
There were three kinds of surprise about this year’s unfinished revolutions in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya, and the rumblings elsewhere that have frightened the mighty from Saudi Arabia to China, Algeria to Bahrain. The West was surprised that the Arab world, which we have regularly been told is medieval, hierarchical and undemocratic, was full of young men and women using their cell phones, their Internet access and their bodies in streets and squares to foment change and temporarily live a miracle of direct democracy and people power. And then there is the surprise that the seemingly unshakeable regimes of the strongmen were shaken into pieces.
And finally, there is always the surprise of: Why now? Why did the crowd decide to storm the Bastille on July 14, 1789, and not any other day? The bread famine going on in France that year and the rising cost of food had something to do with it, as hunger and poverty does with many of the Middle Eastern uprisings today, but part of the explanation remains mysterious. Why this day and not a month earlier or a decade later? Or never instead of now?
Oscar Wilde once remarked, “To expect the unexpected shows a thoroughly modern intellect.” This profound uncertainty has been the grounds for my own hope.
Hindsight is 20/20, they say, and you can tell stories where it all makes sense. A young Tunisian college graduate, Mohammed Bouazizi, who could find no better work than selling produce from a cart on the street, was so upset by his treatment at the hands of a policewoman that he set himself afire on December 17, 2010. His death two weeks later became the match that lit the country afire—but why that death? Or why the death of Khaled Said, an Egyptian youth who exposed police corruption and was beaten to death for it? He got a Facebook page that said “We are all Khaled Said,” and his death, too, was a factor in the uprisings to come.
But when exactly do the abuses that have been tolerated for so long become intolerable? When does the fear evaporate and the rage generate action that produces joy? After all, Tunisia and Egypt were not short on intolerable situations and tragedies before Bouazizi’s self-immolation and Said’s murder.
Thich Quang Duc burned himself to death at an intersection in Saigon on June 11, 1963, to protest the treatment of Buddhists by the US-backed government of South Vietnam. His stoic composure while in flames was widely seen and may have helped produce a military coup against the regime six months later—a change, but not necessarily a liberation. In between that year and this one, many people have fasted, prayed, protested, gone to prison and died to call attention to cruel regimes, with little or no measurable consequence.
Guns and Butterflies
The boiling point of water is straightforward, but the boiling point of societies is mysterious. Bouazizi’s death became a catalyst, and at his funeral the 5,000 mourners chanted, “Farewell, Mohammed, we will avenge you. We weep for you today, we will make those who caused your death weep.”
But his was not the first Tunisian gesture of denunciation. An even younger man, the rap artist who calls himself El General, uploaded a song about the horror of poverty and injustice in the country and, as the Guardian put it, “within hours, the song had lit up the bleak and fearful horizon like an incendiary bomb.” Or a new dawn. The artist was arrested and interrogated for three very long days, and then released thanks to widespread protest. And surely before him we could find another milestone. And another young man being subjected to inhuman conditions. And behind the uprising in Egypt are a panoply of union and human rights organizers as well as charismatic individuals.
This has been a great year for the power of the powerless and for the courage and determination of the young. A short, fair-haired, mild man even younger than Bouazizi has been held under extreme conditions in solitary confinement in a Marine brig in Quantico, Virginia, for the last several months. He is charged with giving hundreds of thousands of secret US documents to WikiLeaks and so unveiling some of the more compromised and unsavory operations of the American military and US diplomacy. Bradley Manning was a 22-year-old soldier stationed in Iraq when he was arrested last spring. The acts he’s charged with have changed the global political landscape and fed the outrage in the Middle East.
As Foreign Policy put it in a headline, “In one fell swoop, the candor of the cables released by WikiLeaks did more for Arab democracy than decades of backstage US diplomacy.” The cables suggested, among other things, that the United States was not going to back Tunisian dictator Ben Ali to the bitter end, and that the regime’s corruption was common knowledge.
Martin Luther King and the Montgomery Story, a 1958 comic book about the civil rights struggle in the American South and the power of nonviolence, was translated and distributed by the American Islamic Council in the Arab world in 2008 and has been credited with influencing the insurgencies of 2011. So the American Islamic Council played a role, too—a role definitely not being investigated by anti-Muslim Congressman Peter King in his hearings on the “radicalization of Muslims in America.” Behind King are the lessons he, in turn, learned from Mohandas Gandhi, whose movement liberated India from colonial rule sixty-six years ago, and so the story comes back to the East.
Causes are Russian dolls. You can keep opening each one up and find another one behind it. WikiLeaks and Facebook and Twitter and the new media helped in 2011, but new media had been around for years. Asmaa Mahfouz was a young Egyptian woman who had served time in prison for using the Internet to organize a protest on April 6, 2008, to support striking workers. With astonishing courage, she posted a video of herself on Facebook on January 18, 2011, in which she looked into the camera and said, with a voice of intense conviction:
Four Egyptians have set themselves on fire to protest humiliation and hunger and poverty and degradation they had to live with for thirty years. Four Egyptians have set themselves on fire thinking maybe we can have a revolution like Tunisia, maybe we can have freedom, justice, honor and human dignity. Today, one of these four has died, and I saw people commenting and saying, “May God forgive him. He committed a sin and killed himself for nothing.” People, have some shame.
She described an earlier demonstration at which few had shown up: “I posted that I, a girl, am going down to Tahrir Square, and I will stand alone. And I’ll hold up a banner. Perhaps people will show some honor. No one came except three guys—three guys and three armored cars of riot police. And tens of hired thugs and officers came to terrorize us.”
Mahfouz called for the gathering in Tahrir Square on January 25 that became the Egyptian revolution. The second time around she didn’t stand alone. Eighty-five thousand Egyptians pledged to attend, and soon enough, millions stood with her.
The revolution was called by a young woman with nothing more than a Facebook account and passionate conviction. They were enough. Often, revolution has had such modest starts. On October 5, 1789, a girl took a drum to the central markets of Paris. The storming of the Bastille a few months before had started, but hardly completed, a revolution. That drummer girl helped gather a mostly female crowd of thousands who marched to Versailles and seized the royal family. It was the end of the Bourbon monarchy.
Women often find great roles in revolution, simply because the rules fall apart and everyone has agency, anyone can act. As they did in Egypt, where liberty leading the masses was an earnest young woman in a black veil.
That the flapping of a butterfly’s wings in Brazil can shape the weather in Texas is a summation of chaos theory that is now an oft-repeated cliché. But there are billions of butterflies on earth, all flapping their wings. Why does one gesture matter more than another? Why this Facebook post, this girl with a drum?
Even to try to answer this you’d have to say that the butterfly is born aloft by a particular breeze that was shaped by the flap of the wing of, say, a sparrow, and so behind causes are causes, behind small agents are other small agents, inspirations and role models, as well as outrages to react against. The point is not that causation is unpredictable and erratic. The point is that butterflies and sparrows and young women in veils and an unknown 20-year-old rapping in Arabic and you yourself, if you wanted it, sometimes have tremendous power, enough to bring down a dictator, enough to change the world.