Mission & Name
US Foreign Policy (Dr. El-Najjar's Articles)
A Human Spring Without Results
By Uri Avnery
Al-Jazeerah, CCUN, July 11, 2013
A Human Spring
LET ME come back to the
story about Zhou Enlai, the Chinese Communist leader. When asked what he
thought about the French Revolution, he famously answered: “It’s too early
This was considered a typical piece of ancient Chinese
wisdom – until somebody pointed out that Zhou did not mean the revolution of
1789, but the events of May 1968, which happened not long before the
interview in question.
Even now it may be too early to judge that
upheaval, when students tore up the cobblestones of Paris, confronted the
brutal police and proclaimed a new era. It was an early forerunner of what
is happening today all over the world.
QUESTIONS ABOUND. Why? Why
now? Why in so many totally different countries? Why in Brazil, Turkey and
Egypt at the same time?
We know how it started. In the souk of
Tunis, of all places. I have been there many times, when Yasser Arafat was
staying in that city. The market always struck me as a happy place, full of
noise, eager shopkeepers, haggling tourists and local men with jasmine
flowers behind their ears.
It was there that a policewoman
confronted a fruit vendor and overturned his cart. He was mortally insulted,
set himself on fire and set in motion a process that now involves many
millions of people around the world.
The Tunis example was taken up
by the Egyptian masses, who assembled in Tahrir Square and eventually
overturned their dictator. Then it was our turn, and almost half a million
Israelis went out into the streets to protest the price of cottage cheese.
Then there were upheavals in Syria, Yemen, Bahrain and other Arab states,
collectively known as the Arab Spring. In the US, the Occupy Wall Street
movement staged its own Tahrir Square in New York. And now millions are
demonstrating in Turkey and Brazil, and Egypt is aflame again. One may add
Iran and other places.
How did this come about? How does it work?
What is the hidden mechanism?
And especially: why at this point in
I CAN think of two interrelated phenomena in
contemporary life that make the uprisings possible and probable:
television and the social media.
Television informs viewers
in Kamchatka about events in Timbuktu within minutes. The huge
demonstrations in Istanbul’s Taksim Square could be followed in real time by
people in Rio de Janeiro.
Once upon a time, it took weeks for
people in Piccadilly Circus in London to hear about events in the Place de
la Concorde in Paris. After the battle of Waterloo, the Rothschilds made
their killing by using messenger pigeons. In 1848, when revolution spread
from Paris throughout Europe, it took its time, too.
Not any more.
Brazilian youngsters saw what was happening in Gezi Park, Istanbul, and
asked themselves: why not here? They saw that determined young men and women
could withstand water cannon, tear gas and batons, and felt that they could
do it, too.
The other instrument is facebook, Twitter and the
other “social media”. Five young men sitting in a Cairo café and talking
about the situation could decide to launch an online petition for the
removal of the incumbent president, and within a few days tens of millions
of citizens signed. Never before in history was such a thing possible, or
This is a new form of direct democracy. People
don’t have to wait anymore for the next elections, which may be years away.
They can act immediately, and when the groundswell is powerful enough, it
can develop into a tsunami.
HOWEVER, REVOLUTIONS are not made by
technologies, but by people. What is it that arouses so many different
people in so many different cultures to do the same thing at the same time?
For example, the rise of religious fundamentalism.
In recent decades, this has happened in several countries and with several
religions. Jewish fundamentalism is setting up settlements in the Occupied
West Bank and threatening Israeli democracy. All over the Arab world and
many other Muslim countries, Islamic fundamentalism raises its head, causing
havoc. In the US, evangelical fundamentalism has created the Tea Party and
is dragging the Republican Party to the extreme right, much against its own
I don’t know about other religions, but there are news
stories about Buddhists attacking Muslims in several countries (e.g. in
Myanmar- Editor). Buddhists? I always thought that this was an exceptionally
How to explain these simultaneous and parallel
symptoms? Commentators use the German philosophical expression, Zeitgeist
(“spirit of the times”). This explains everything and nothing.
So is the Zeitgeist behind the upheavals now? Don’t ask me.
ARE many curious similarities between the mass revolts in different
They are all made by young people of the
so-called middle class. Not by the poor, not by the rich. Poor
people do not make revolutions – they are too busy trying to feed their
children. The Bolshevik revolution of 1917 was not made by the workers and
peasants. It was made by disaffected intellectuals, many of them Jewish.
When you see a group of demonstrators in a newspaper picture, you do
not know at first glance whether they are Egyptians, Israelis, Turks,
Iranians or Americans. They all belong to the same social class. Young
people alienated by a heartless globalization, confronted by a labor market
that no longer offers the bright prospects they expect, university students
for whose skills there is little demand. People with jobs, but who find it
hard to “finish the month”’ as we say in Hebrew.
causes are varied. Israelis demonstrated against the price of cottage cheese
and new apartments. Turks protest against the plan to turn a popular
Istanbul park into a commercial project. Brazilians rise up against a small
increase in bus fares. Egyptians are now protesting against the efforts of
politicized religion to take over the state.
But at root,
all these protests express a common
disgust with politics and politicians, with a power elite
that is seen as remote from ordinary
people, with the immense power of a tiny group of the ultra-rich,
with a barely understood globalization.
THE SAME mechanism that makes these revolutions possible also
produces their outstanding weakness.
The model was already apparent
in the Paris events of May 1968. These started with a student protest which
was joined by millions of workers. There was no organization, no common
ideology, no plan, no overall leadership. Activists gathered in a theater,
debated endlessly, giving voice to all sorts of possible and impossible
ideas. In the end there were no concrete results.
There was a
certain spirit. Claude Lanzmann, the writer and director of the monumental
film Shoah, once described it to me this way: The students were burning
cars. So every evening I spent a lot of time finding a secure place for my
car. Until I suddenly said to myself: What the hell! What do I need a car
for? Let them burn it!
This spirit lingered for some time. But life
went on, and the great event was soon just a memory.
This may happen
again now. Again the same thing is happening everywhere: No organization, no
leadership, no program, no ideology.
The very fact that everyone has
a voice on facebook seems to make it easier to agree on “against” than on
“for”. The young protesters are anarchist by nature. They abhor
leaders, organizations, political parties, hierarchies, programs,
You can call a demonstration on facebook, but you
cannot hammer out a joint ideology that way. But, as Lenin once remarked,
without a political ideology there is no political action. And he was an
expert on the art of revolution.
There is a great danger that all
these huge demonstrations will fade away some day – Zeitgeist again –
without leaving anything behind, except some memories.
already happened in Israel. The mass demonstrations had some influence on
this year’s elections, but the new parties are indistinguishable from the
old ones. New politicians have taken the place of old politicians. But
nothing real has changed. Neither on the national nor on the social
IN ANY democracy, real change can only take place through
new political parties which enter parliament and make new laws. For this you
need political leaders – now, in the era of TV, more than ever. It is not
enough to generate a lot of steam – you need an engine to make the steam do
The tragedy in Egypt - a country I love – demonstrates
this perfectly. The revolution overthrew the dictatorship, but in the
elections that followed, the revolutionaries were unable to unite, create a
joint political force, elect leaders. Victory was snatched by the Muslim
Brotherhood, who were well organized with a solid leadership.
brotherhood has failed. Power, after decades of persecution, went to their
heads. They threw away caution. Instead of building a new state on
moderation, compromise and inclusion, they could not wait. So they may lose
The democratic revolutionaries have yet to prove that they are
able to lead a country – in Egypt or anywhere else. They may yet launch a
world-wide Human Spring. Or they may leave nothing behind, except a vague
It’s up to them.