The popular revolts for freedom and democracy in the Mid-East have some lessons to teach us here in the US about democratic city making. While US electoral participation wallows in pathetic lows, the people of the Arab world (and beyond) are remaking their cities, governments, and societies in directly democratic ways. As part of their uprisings, the Egyptian, Tunisian and Libyan peoples are running their own municipal affairs from the bottom up, often in the face of horrendous violence, with remarkable success. And this from a people for whom democratic principles and structures were supposedly too foreign to be seriously attempted; they could only be imposed by the force of American bombs and occupying soldiers.
Once the uprisings began in January, the Egyptian people began constructing their own free and democratic society in Tahrir, the main square in Cairo that became the focal point for the demonstrators. To support the continuous, round-the-clock demonstrations, protestors made a free Egypt, a commune in the square. Demonstrators organized food distribution and sanitation, and phone and internet services out of abandoned nearby businesses. Once internet and phone services were suspended by the government, regular leaflets kept the crowd abreast of national developments. And when the Tahrir demonstrators were attacked by police thugs, medical clinics were established to treat the wounded. The minority Coptic Christians, long a persecuted group, and victims of a devastating New Years church bombing, showed their solidarity with Muslim demonstrators by forming human barricades to protect Muslims during daily prayers. Women took a prominent role, organizing and leading the demonstrations. Indeed, it was the brave public stances of women organizers that initially spurred the revolt. This level of openness and equality was remarkable. “It felt like it had become a different society – there was one Egypt inside Tahrir and another Egypt outside,” organizer Mona Seif told Al Jazeera.
More than this, people all over Cairo began to organize municipal functions that were falling apart as the uprisings unfolded. Most simply, Egyptians cleaned and cared for their city; teams of citizens washed and scrubbed the streets of the city. People took over police functions too – streets and neighborhoods organized patrols, checkpoints and watches. At checkpoints people were searched for weapons or other dangerous material. Egyptian born American journalist Sharif Abdel Kouddous reported that his family members, young and old, participated in these efforts. Meanwhile Tahrir square’s subway station was blockaded with car frames, and the station platform turned into a holding cell for the scores of thugs captured by the democracy activists, many of whom had their police identification cards seized. In tents and makeshift structures, as well as the public services assembled by the people, Tahrir demonstrated a budding popular power and dedication that would prove difficult to break. When the government switched to frontal assaults on the activists, it was these structures that enabled the Egyptian people to fight on.
In Libya the popular democratic structures were even more impressive. In the city of Benghazi, municipal councils began to run all the affairs of the city. These included the prisons, police, courts, media and communications, electricity stations, the port, and the airport. The councils were run by representatives of the forces in open rebellion, tribal heads and elders, judges, emerging political leaders, and army units refusing orders. The council model spread over most territories in rebellion, and local councils federated into a National Council, established to better coordinate efforts, force Gaddafi out, and assert popular power. Met with some of the most violent repression of any of the current revolts, the democratic forces have now attempted to take the capitol of Tripoli, Gaddafi’s last stronghold, by force. This as the remnants of the governments coercive apparatus have, in the words of Middle East scholar Juan Cole, “opened the gates of hell” on the protestors.
Throughout the upheaval, the US has been working to control and limit the dimensions of the uprisings. It seems likely the US was behind Mubarak’s choice of Omar Suleiman as vice president. Suleiman has run the US torture and rendition program in Egypt since the Bill Clinton era, often taking a direct role in torturing detainees like alleged al Qaeda commander Ibn al Sheikh al-Libi and Shia cleric Abu Omar, abducted from the streets of Milan by the CIA. (Al-Libi’s tortured testimony was used by the Bush administration to justify the invasion of Iraq in 2003. And according to ABC News, Suleiman once offered to deliver Omar’s arm to US officials when they asked for a DNA sample.) Suleiman’s brutality and his loyalty to the US made him a perfect candidate for transitional figure in Egypt. In a Wikileaks-released State Department document from 2006 an unnamed official wrote “Our intelligence collaboration with Omar Soliman [sic], is now probably the most successful element of the [U.S.-Egypt] relationship.” While the US and Suleiman’s role in the coming period is yet to be determined, US choices and allies demonstrate their commitment to democratic participation.
On the domestic front it doesn’t look much better. US democratic structures are hardly functioning, at both national and local levels. In the last presidential election, marked by the supposed upsurge in popularity of Barack Obama, turnout barely reached 56%, a one percent bump from the Bush election of 2004. In non-presidential years turnout is closer to 35%. At the municipal level the rates are much worse, around a quarter of the eligible population. For decades polls have explained the results; the public feels that the government is run “by a few big interests looking out for themselves,” with little space for democratic participation. Overall the lessons are not hard to understand: attacks on public services for the poor, eviscerate education, dismantle unions and the working class organizations, while the nation’s richest reap record profits and historic low tax rates. For those who do vote, not many bother to take the time to cut through the fog of media obfuscation to discover who the candidates are, or what they stand for; a majority of Bush voters thought that Bush supported the Kyoto protocols for example. And the deception has continued under Obama, whose 2008 presidential campaign won Advertiser Age’s campaign of the year, their highest marketing award. It speaks volumes that our policy makers are sold to us like toothpaste and automobiles.
The lessons seem pretty clear; in the US democracy is a foreign tradition, with elections and the government run by a few big interests, and little reason for the population to participate. To the people of the Middle East this might sound familiar. Based on their example there’s at least one path forward; they have set an excellent precedent for the rest of us.