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Cover Story - Hidden Lessons in the Arab Democratic Revolt - The African World - By Bill Fletcher, Jr. - Editorial Board

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The breathtaking Arab democratic revolt has been moving at such a pace that it is difficult to stop at any one juncture and analyze what is unfolding. At the same time, simply broadcasting the facts is not enough since, among other things, the facts never speak for themselves: people speak and, indeed, the facts can be interpreted in a number of ways. With that in mind I want to offer a few observations for your consideration.

First, it is worth repeating time and again that the revolt did not appear out of nowhere. While it is absolutely the case that few, if anyone, expected the revolt to erupt now, this was not an uprising that appeared out of a vacuum. What has been largely unreported, and in some cases (particularly from Western sources) misreported, is the fact of the long-term organizing that has been taking place in each of the countries where these democratic movements have appeared. This organizing, however, must be distinguished from nationally-coordinated efforts. If you look at Egypt, for instance, the Western media would lead you to believe that the only opposition that faced ousted President Mubarak was from the conservative Muslim Brotherhood. This is very far from the truth. An independent labor union movement has been operating beneath the surface of Egyptian society for years. In the final days of the anti-Mubarak uprising, the impact of their organizing could be seen in the strikes that spread across Egypt. Yet, with the exception of noting the strikes, little else was said. It is also worth mentioning that the labor movement in Tunisia also played a key role in the uprising in that country.

By way of summation, while these revolts, and especially the Egyptian revolt, may be revolutions without leaders, we should be clear that they are NOT revolutions without organization. Whether one is talking about the Egyptian youth movement (April 6th Movement), the unions, or for that matter Islamist groupings, organization has been very much part of making these revolts happen.

Second, while the Internet has been essential, the revolt in Egypt demonstrated that action could progress when it was shut down. The use of the Internet, particularly social media, has made these revolts possible on the scale that they have been operating. The ability for social forces to follow developments in other countries and to quickly learn certain lessons cannot be overstated. At the same time, it is striking that when the Internet was shut down in Egypt, the movement continued to gather steam. The people did not miss a beat but continued to organize. This should be a very important lesson to us in the USA who have come to rely on the Internet, often to the exclusion of face-to-face organizing.

Third, the USA remains at a loss as to what to do. The Arab democratic revolt challenges the rhetoric of the USA in its fundamentals. At the beginning of the revolt in Egypt, the Obama administration was quite prepared to assert the strength of Mubarak. Events quickly overtook this stand. But now the USA finds itself in the position of having to renegotiate its relationship with the Arab World. The terms of such a renegotiation remain unclear because the political character of the post-tyranny regimes remains up in the air. It is quite possible that non-authoritarian but nevertheless pro-Western regimes could solidify, but other outcomes are also possible.

A final point. While it is correct to speak of an Arab democratic revolt, in each country, there are specifics that observers must better understand. Algeria is not Egypt and Egypt was not Tunisia and none of them are Yemen. While there were and are similarities, everything from the demographics to the political forces differs dramatically. While Tunisia, and now Egypt, have inspired the Arab World (and quite possibly inspired the non-Arab World, such as Iran), the revolutions cannot succeed based solely on inspiration. The questions of organization, history of struggle, popular support and, yes, cracks in the respective regimes will all be critical in how, when and where events will unfold.

That said´┐Żdamn this is inspiring! Editorial Board member, Bill Fletcher, Jr., is a Senior Scholar with the Institute for Policy Studies, the immediate past president ofTransAfricaForum and co-author of, Solidarity Divided: The Crisis in Organized Labor and a New Path toward Social Justice(University of California Press), which examines the crisis of organized labor in the USA. Click here to contact Mr. Fletcher.

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Feb 17, 2011 - Issue 414
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