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I suppose it was inevitable. Two years ago, Egyptian youths captured our attention and, for a short time, became the world’s darlings. In the years that followed, though, they were sold out by the military, the parties, the west and most of all, the Muslim Brotherhood who now rule the country. Their revolution had become nothing but a regime change, and they had every reason to be angry.
As the world watched the revolts in Egypt, similar actions began to break out from New York to Hong Kong. Egyptians watched these too, and played close attention. From Athens to Oakland, one group/tactic must have stood out…
As the second anniversary of the revolution approached, something very different emerged on the streets of Egypt. Large groups of masked, black-clad youths began to appear, holding demonstrations, blocking railways, storming government buildings and unleashing a hail of molotovs onto the offices of the Brotherhood. Enter the Egyptian Black Bloc.
News so far has been extremely sketchy, and it seems most of the world’s media still doesn’t know what to make of them. Bloc participants have said very little to the press other than to identify themselves as anarchists and refuse pictures or interviews (good choice). Instead, YouTube video was released a few days ago, introducing the movement with a dramatic soundtrack, riot porn and plenty of Fawkes-masks.
Anarchism in Egypt, is of course nothing new. The first records
date back at least to the 1870s when the country became home to Errico Malatesta and other Mediterranean anarchists (often exiles), who soon became involved in the nascent Egyptian labour movement. More recently, anarchists played a small but notable role in the Tahrir square protests, as did the “ultras”, militant football fans (often with
radical politics) who did much of the front-line streetfighting.
At this point, it’s still hard to tell much about this mysterious movement. Is it a backlash against the increasingly repressive governance of the Muslim Brotherhood? The latest fashion statement by rebellions football hooligans? Or could it be the beginning of something else?
Egyptian Anarchist Movement Emerges with Wave of Firebombings and Street Fights – If Your Voice Shakes (Ryan Harvey’s blog)
A Black Bloc Emerges in Egypt – NYT Blogs.
In the past decade “microcredit” and “microfinance” have taken the world by storm. Particularly since the Nobel Prize was granted to Muhammed Yunus, founder of the Grameen Bank, they have blossomed into a global financial industry. These “micro” lenders now offer small loans to very poor people in all over the planet. At first, this was marketed as a scheme to help lift poor women out of poverty by helping them start microbusinesses and afford necessary items. Quickly, though, the practice took a turn toward loan-sharking, and we’re now beginning to see some truly ugly results emerge.
Parts of rural India have seen waves of suicides linked to these loans. Both community activist groups and leaked internal memos of SKS (“Self Help Society”, the largest microcredit firm in the country) support this. Not only were these lenders harassed, threatened and publicly shamed, but they were often told “only death” could release them from their loans. Other documents from inside SKS show the company transformed when it “went public”, receiving billions in investments and expanding rapidly with little care for proper training of new loan officers. For a while the government and courts stepped in, even going so far as to arrest loan officers, though pressure from the company eventually forced them to back down.
In Egypt, on the other hand, microcredit groups took a different approach – they involved the police. Though microfinance groups began much like in India – promising to reduce poverty, they quickly took a similar turn toward loan-shark banking. Because those they lent to had no collateral, institutions required a deposit cheque which could cash in the event of a late payment – when said cheque bounced, it became a “crime”. As they began to use (corrupt) police to collect debts and punish those who were late for payments (“even for a day”), this evolved into a racket and the police became its enforcers. Frequent, brutal sexualized violence against women and young people became the norm. These tensions, of course, played a large role in provoking Egypt’s revolution last year, and go a long way to explaining why Tahrir Square protesters and others were so hostile to the police.
The Microcredit “movement” sought to re-brand capitalist ideas as some sort of grassroots, Third World anti-poverty struggle. In practice, it turned out like any other banking scheme. These institutions quickly became less like charities and more like payday-loan outlets – a vast and under-regulated network of banking start-ups every bit as corrupt as those at the head of the industry. Rather than lifting people out of poverty, it begun a new phase in the economic and ideological colonization of the Third World. Through institutions like the SKS, international finance can now lend directly to the poorest people on the planet. No longer is it enough to sink the nations as a whole into inescapable debts, but now these institutions seek to establish themselves in every remote village. In this new world, no poor woman, anywhere, should be without the option of getting into debt.
Like all colonialist attitudes, there’s a lot of ugly implicit assumptions here. We’re assured that poor women in African and Asian villages are struggling because they’re not enough like us. It’s assumed that our system works, and that our success has nothing to do with Third World poverty. Left unmentioned is the debt crisis which has gripped these nations for decades, or the long and brutal history of conquest and colonization which came before it. Instead, like always, we’re left with racist mythologies about why these nations are inherently warlike, despotic and poor.
It would be both dishonest and self-serving to pretend that the actions of incomparably rich foreigners in desperately poor communities only ever bring positive outcomes and effects. There’s privilege implicit in every word we speak and every step we take in a place like that. Our dollars are worth truckloads of theirs, we have easy access to media with international reach, and we can be assured that if we go missing or turn up dead, somebody outside the village will care. Even when we simply sit in Canada and invest a few dollars or make a few ill-conceived public statements on foreign policy, those small acts on our part can easily hold more influence than entire communities. Whether we come as investors, missionaries, or aid/development workers, we must always be wary of using poor and vulnerable communities as our playgrounds.
Those of us in countries like Canada can’t pretend we don’t know how capitalism operates. We had to know this would happen. We see it every day,especially in our own poor communities. Even under the strongest watchdogs with a very comprehensive safety net, lending like this generates tiny wealthy elites, large impoverished under-classes and rigid, uncaring bureaucracies to enforce them. Why would we think the result would be any different effect in regions with rampant corruption and no safety nets? Are we so enamoured with the ideals of capitalism that we’re now willing to consider them an act of charity? And what does it say that these ideas have gone so unchallenged (publicly) thus far?
Sorry guys, but investment isn’t charity, no matter how small the scale.
The American Government is now seeking to arrest key players of Anonymous, the global hacktivist collective which has recently targetted the RIAA, Egyptian Government and credit card companies which cut donation access to Wikileaks. A recent report by private security analyst Aaron Barr, who claims to have infiltrated the group online, lays out the hierarchy and plans to shut it down by arresting the “ringleaders”. This is an absolutely typical strategy when it comes to police repression, and it tells us worlds about their mindset and intentions. It completely fails, though, as a means of understanding resistance movements, as well as in attempts to stop them. In my experience, the intricate conspiracy theories which authorities concoct about protesters are no less elaborate or fanciful than those of Alex Jones or Michael Rupert.
Don’t get me wrong – both Alex Jones and Michael Rupert are right about a great many things. But just as often, they miss the point entirely. And exactly the same thing generally happens with these investigations. Problems with the investigators biases and prejudices cloud their views and judgment, as do their own ambitions and deadlines. Resistance movements do not work like governments, militaries or police departments. There is no ‘central command’, no well-defined power structures or clearly laid organizational lines. Vanguardist political parties have played at best a minor role here and abroad for decades (since at least the end of the Cold War) – here and abroad, very few networks, from peace activists to “terrorist insurgents” use those models today.
Decentralized models of organization work. They allow large numbers of people to take part in their own way, without having to fit into precise molds laid out by centralized authorities. Since those leading the charge are often the first to go, decentralized models allow us to continue on without them.
Resistance movements take these structures because they have to. When many sides with conflicting ideas are thrown together with the common task of opposing a government or occupation they must find ways to work together in ways that don’t compromise each other’s autonomy. This is true of major groups (like religious sects in Egypt, or rival gangs in a prison uprising), and it is true of individuals. People do not join campaigns like those waged by Anonymous because of allegiance to founders or leaders – they join because they too have beef with the establishment, and see Anonymous as the best option for actually bringing change. I don’t think I’ve ever been a part of a coalition or group where the people involved weren’t fairly critical of it – however, we can’t all have our own coalition. Only when large amounts of the populace support these kinds of actions can they gain the kind of traction they need to be ‘successful’. And to do that, they must respect the people who choose to join.
From Egypt and Tunisia to the rubble-strewn streets of Europe, and right to the new online battlegrounds, authorities and pundits are struggling to understand how so many people could coordinate themselves without some powerful institution or individuals behind them. Some have concocted elaborate fantasies – such as Mubarak’s claims that the protests are the work of the Muslim Brotherhood. Others see only chaos, assuming that any resistance which lacks a coherent “leadership” must be made up of only mindless “thugs” and “sheep”.
When targeting leaders fails, many in power simply target civilians. It’s a classic terrorist response. By “making an example” of a few “ringleaders” – police and courts can ensure that others are scared off. The fact that these people aren’t actually “ringleaders” is usually common knowledge – but that, too, serves the purpose. If anyone can be targeted as a “ringleader”, then everyone who could in any way be associated has to live in fear.
Activists in Ontario are all too familiar with these tactics after last summer’s clusterfuck at the G20 protests in Toronto. At points, anybody wearing black was arrested, even those who clearly weren’t even protesters. At others, “key figures” were simply locked away, some before protest began, on elaborate charges of “conspiracy” (complete with a court-imposed press ban). For all their “vast knowledge” of anarchist organizers, though, compiled through years of undercover research and billion dollars in funding, they still stood idly by as the black bloc trashed Queen St West. Protection of Starbucks windows was never the point – terrorizing political opponents was. And they did.
Arrest of whichever active members of Anonymous they can find will not stop the movement. It may create martyrs, and it may ruin a few lives (these tactics often do). Such aggression, though, will only enrage those who are already very angry. The collective wrath of Anonymous has been marshaled for so many popular causes, from file sharing to Egyptian freedom, that it’s almost impossible to believe that a few heavy-handed prosecutions could stop it now. “Making an example” of a few people will send a message for sure – but what message will be received is a very different question.
Leaderless resistance is fast becoming a global reality in the brutal world of 21st century politics. People are now far too well-connected and informed to bow down before a few prophets or visionaries. And while the Egyptian experience proves that online resources can be invaluable for those seeking change –it also shows that these networks can still thrive almost entirely offline.
What those in power fear is not that popular revolt will thrust “bad people” like the ,a href=”http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Muslim_Brotherhood”>Muslim Brotherhood into power (cue the racist assumptions). What they fear is that leaderless resistance will lead to a greater decentralization of society. If people are exposed to working models of networked organizations which can hold them together through times of siege, occupation and revolt, they may begin to question whether we need centralized power structures at all. Revolutions don’t stop at single institutions and they no longer appear to stop at borders, either.