Arab Spring and the New Left

The Voice of the Workers Will Rise. Cairo, 2011.

Eighteen months ago, we flooded public squares across the Middle East. We sought to situate ourselves against the old order, en-nizaam – the regime. En-nizaam meant more than just Hosni Mubarak and the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces. It referred to an entire way of doing things, one that mired the region in dysfunction when the old empires finally collapsed. 

Our euphoria proved to be short-lived. I was nearly assaulted in Tahrir Square in June, while my Fair Observer colleague, Natasha J. Smith, was raped. This was, as I learned, nothing new. Moufida Tlati’s 1994 film The Silences of the Palace presents a 25-year-old woman in revolutionary Tunisia who is abused by her husband, a former revolutionary leader. She returns to the harem in which she was raised and is confronted with violent memories of past abuse, all of which failed to be confronted in the “New Tunisia.” These reflections discuss the feminist disappointment of the region’s earlier anti-colonial revolts that occurred in the 1950s.

We too must go back. The Silences of the Palace is especially timely post-Arab Spring because its discussion of feminist disappointment in the anti-colonial movement speaks equally to the political failings of the pro-democracy movement. The persistence of such regressive sexual politics is especially disturbing, because of how they undermine the promise of empowerment synonymous with real democratization. Civil rights are not specified by gender. They are universal. I am reminded of the debates that took place following the western revolts of May 1968. Crackdowns on the New Left, for example, were unwittingly aided by its own reactionary tendencies. I drink my mango juice.

“I’m really not convinced that the crackdowns of 1968 combined with COINTELPRO to destroy the New Left,” I say into my mobile phone. “I remember this from when the FBI starting showing up. What, was I going to become cynical and less of an activist just because they started harassing me? At the end of the day, that is what they do. That is how the institutions are. They were built for their own self-interest. The Supreme Council of the Armed Forces is going to assault Tahrir Square with bullets and tear gas because that is how they are. That isn’t enough to destroy the movement. I think that what actually happened is that racial and sexual hatred was so advanced that no one could outmaneuver them. Sexism is already worse than racism because of how often it happens from the people you trust, so why should it be different with a movement you trust?”

 “I think you’re completely right about this,” my woman friend responds. “If you read about how certain groups of people were treated in those movements we all cherish now, it is actually disgusting. Yeah! Dr. King cheated on his wife repeatedly! But not only that, one of his right hand men actually molested his daughter. And the Black Power movement? Oh my God, what went on there! And you don’t even have to go back that far. I am almost positive that a girl got raped at Tent State a few years ago. And this whole thing with that senior male leadership always having to have this no-nonsense attitude that is totally stripped of emotion, there has always been something so masculine about it. I’ve always felt like it totally leaves out female voices and those of more sensitive men. It made it so easy to dismiss you from senior male leadership in The Movement. And like, if there’s anything that makes me lose hope, it’s all of that. It’s just, I don’t know.”

1968 was a turbulent year that witnessed the evisceration of various groups comprising the New Left. The United States saw violent crackdowns, the excesses of COINTELPRO, and the assassinations of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Robert Kennedy. The failed strikes of May 1968 in France, in which 22% of the economy was completely halted, led to a strengthened Charles de Gaulle rather than his downfall. Failure after failure led to a victory of the old order, and the relegation of radical politics to boomer nostalgia.

The Revolution Will Not Be Tweeted. Cairo, 2011.

However, crackdowns are only part of the story. The problem appears to be one of historical memory. Images such as of bloody protestors at the Democratic National Convention have dominated our memories of the year. Subtler arguments regarding why the crackdowns succeeded are rarely posited in mainstream discourses about the period.

Let us be clear: by 1968, none of the trends blamed exclusively for the year’s infamy were anything new. The fact that progressive movements were unable to remobilize again is what concerns me. One may argue that cynicism and apathy became impossible to overcome after the year, but the crackdowns could have easily been seen as acts of desperation rather than a victory of en-nizaam. There are two dominant reasons why the New Left collapsed:

1) Excessive drug use symbolized the inability of leftists to fight for real social change. Timothy Leary’s catchphrase of “turn on, tune in, and drop out” meant that many activists thought the world could be transformed by the countercultural lifestyle options of the era as much as through traditional political engagement.

2) Racism and separatist political violence combined with sexism and gendered violence to divide the New Left from within. Activists were primarily responsible for this situation.

The New Left was undone by its own reluctance to live up to its revolutionary aspirations. While its leadership and many of its followers would superficially espouse the doctrines of feminist and minority liberation, they were clearly engaged with sexualized and racist violence. By 1968, the New Left was clearly dominated by males with no real interest in challenging the hateful dynamics they inherited from the societies that raised them.

Although it would be comforting for minority activists to state that this was mainly seen among white progressives, the truth is different. Minority liberation movements were among the worst perpetrators of racism and sexism. The Black Power movement was often violently misogynistic, as activists such as Angela Davis have confirmed. It also conflicted with other ethnic groups within the left’s ranks, because its members believed that racism in the United States only targeted African Americans.

Tahrir Square is no different. Tahrir, which means “liberation,” has quickly come to mean “liberation for us.” That “us” is clearly sexually conservative, and male. I was attacked in downtown Cairo because I was seen as a Pakistani faggot who needed to be shamed for his slim-fitting clothing and uncertain gender identity. When I returned to the United States and read Natasha’s blog post, I was forced to once again confront along with many activists whether “liberation for us” is worth our time. This is exactly the problem.

Leftists always believe they have the solution to social failures. Tahrir, to wit is seen as a revolutionary utopia that can undo the failings of en-nizaam. Experiencing sexual violence especially has the effect of linking revolutionary utopia to the dystopia of en-nizaam.  Just as in 1968, it weakens the activist base along lines of material and social violence. When discussed in addition to other divisive trends, such as the splintering of youth groups, the ominous rise of the Muslim Brotherhood in post-revolutionary institutions, and continued strategic failures in Egypt’s left, it is particularly problematic.

If Tahrir is cleared, it will be the same case as in 1968: violence within the movement made it unable to resist violence against it. I drink my mango juice.

Photograph #1 courtesy of Nora Shalaby. Photograph # 2 courtesy of Hossam el-Hamalawy. Published under a Creative Commons license.

1 comment

  1. this reductionist analysis assumes that if women queers and the various colors of the rainbow had been included in white male revolution 68 would not have been crushed


    i sense a history rewrite from the identity politics perspective

    the heirs of radicalism that led to incluso-mania

    and how depressing it continues to be

    predicting the end of radical politics

    reaffirming itself as the only legitimate picture of justice

    calling for a return to depression

    just in case white males lead the charge

    the fag flag flies over the empire

    marching to corporate tunes

    as guilty as any group

    stinking of self righteousness

    pretending to man the barricades

    while taking bri bes

    grants and funding


    the path of false resistance

    false radicalism

    false analysis

    abandon tahrir

    justice for us

    us getting smaller and smaller

    yet proclaiming a false universality

    upon which this amalysis depends

    the secret armies the left abandoned with its white male-ness

    still secret armies

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