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Wednesday, February 09, 2011 

A mug's game: analysing why it's kicking off everywhere.

I've come to a conclusion: trying to predict or work out where the Egyptian intifada is heading a mug's game, and there are a hell of a lot of drinking vessels out there already. One is Peter Hallward, whose article on CiF is slightly unkindly headlined Egypt's popular revolution will change the world. It isn't quite as bad as the sub-editor has tried to portray it; he has however been caught up in the fervour of the moment and forgotten the history of any number of uprisings past:

For whatever happens next, Egypt's mobilisation will remain a revolution of world-historical significance because its actors have repeatedly demonstrated an extraordinary capacity to defy the bounds of political possibility, and to do this on the basis of their own enthusiasm and commitment. They have arranged mass protests in the absence of any formal organisation, and have sustained them in the face of murderous intimidation. In a single, decisive afternoon they overcame Mubarak's riot police and have since held their ground against his informers and thugs. They have resisted all attempts to misrepresent or criminalise their mobilisation. They have expanded their ranks to include millions of people from almost every sector of society. They have invented unprecedented forms of mass association and assembly, in which they can debate far-reaching questions about popular sovereignty, class polarisation and social justice.

All of these things can be said of almost any people powered revolution of the past 200 years; the one area where it might perhaps be close to setting a precedent is the absence of any formal organisation, leading party or uniting opposition figure, and it could be argued that Twitter and Facebook have helped in this regard. This however ignores that the ultimate unifying figure is Mubarak himself, and that as long as he stays it seems so will the people.

While comment and "what this means" pieces, many written without the first clue have been plentiful, what really has been lacking is proper, rigorous analysis not just of the forces at work in Egypt and across the Middle East, but flowing across Europe and even America since the beginning of the financial crash. Newsnight's Paul Mason's twenty reasons why it's kicking off everywhere is at last a start on something resembling a condensation of the factors behind the various protests, replied to excellently by Richard over at the Third Estate. While it certainly is glib and facile to directly compare the student protests here with the genuine shaking of the very foundations of society over in Tunisia and Egypt, the differences and similarities are worth dwelling on.

One thing that seems to have been either glossed over, at least when it comes to the student protests, is class, and as 1-Speed-Bike put it, any movement that forgets about class is a bowel movement. Sunny is probably being slightly premature in declaring the student movement essentially dead, but one of its failings that he doesn't dwell on, other than how certain sections are still relying on the National Union of Students and the laughable Aaron Porter to organise things is that it comprehensively failed to attract, with some notable exceptions anyone other than those you would expect: it was thoroughly middle class, and to generalise, the upper or comfortably off middle class were over-represented. This didn't stop things from kicking off, yet it's notable when the protests were broadened to involve those protesting against the abolition of the Educational Maintenance Allowance, affecting many of those that will be even further deterred from attending university by the increasing of tuition fees that they were positively energised as Paul Mason noted. It was these kids from our equivalent of the Parisian
banlieues, expressing their anger in terms far beyond the politeness of their peers, dancing to the grime and hip-hop they pumped out (Mason probably erred in terming it the dubstep rebellion) and completely prepared to meet violence with violence that made things truly exciting and different from what had gone before.

There was never enough momentum in simple opposition to the rise in fees, especially as the government was savvy enough to bring the vote forward to the first possible opportunity to build any wider resistance to the cuts agenda, although as Mason sets out, those truly involved from the beginning have migrated since to the UK Uncut protests and potentially even to Tahrir square. The biggest failure however has been to build on that final student protest, hindered as it somewhat was by the level of violence and the attack on the Royal shagging wagon. This is partially because the middle and working class kids don't only lead separate lives offline; they also do online. They're all on Facebook and some are probably also on Twitter, although Twitter is certainly more bourgeois than Facebook, it's that politics as we do it is of little to no interest to them. Without wanting to generalise too much and pick on easy targets, something like Netroots is completely alien, as is the point scoring nature of so much of the discourse on Twitter. Even taking into account the unifying nature of having a common enemy like Mubarak, our middle class activists, these "graduates with no future" couldn't even begin to hope to rally the sort of mass support the 25th of January movement has marshalled seemingly effortlessly.

I don't pretend to have an answer as to how the two can meet, or what either side should be doing to even facilitate such a thing. We don't however yet know just how radicalised some are going to become as a result of the cuts. While as Sunny argues most battles against them are going to be fought locally, David Seymour is right in saying that the government and Cameron especially doesn't have a vision for what the country is going to look like by 2015: today's PMQs (yes, I too go off into alien territory) showed just how intellectually threadbare he is when challenged even slightly on the bullshit of the "big society". Egypt should teach us, as if we needed to be reminded, that the possibility of a brighter tomorrow that transcends the wider social dynamic is everything.

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