From Tahrir Square to Euromaidan
It is just three short years since January 25th 2011 and the first dizzying days of the mass protests at Tahrir Square in Cairo. Since then we have seen a worldwide uprising sweeping across entire continents from Tunisia to Thailand, from Bosnia-Herzegovina to Venezuela. In many ways these events have altered the political landscape more rapidly than anyone had previously thought possible. However, it is now time to ask the question ‘What really has changed?’ as the popular demonstrations in Kiev’s Maidan have now developed into a distinctly Cold War-esque scenario with the same old East-West power blocs squaring up for old fashioned military conflict.
Back in the beginning of 2011, I wrote a piece for Reality Sandwich called ‘Revolution 2.0’ in which I pointed to Egyptian Google executive (and short-term political prisoner) Wael Ghonim, who was credited with creating the first facebook page to promote the protests in Tahrir Square. In a CNN interview on February 11, 2011, he coined the term ‘Revolution 2.0’ to describe the ‘Internet’ or ‘facebook’ revolution that was in the process of sweeping the Mubarak regime from power in Egypt. At that moment there was a palpable sense of optimism and opportunity provided by the newly widespread tools of mass peer-to-peer communication. Ghonim passionately articulated the view that social media would lead to a fundamental change in the ability of oppressive regimes to control the populace by controlling their media. ‘If you want to free a society, just give them internet access.’ said Ghonim.
This claim wasn’t without substance. Ghonim’s Facebook page ‘We are all Khaled Said’ mobilised hundreds of thousands of young Egyptians in a way that was previously considered impossible. The sheer force of numbers took the Egyptian regime by surprise and the heavy-handed repression that followed was immediately visible on the world’s media through the eyes of thousands of phone cameras. Revolution 2.0 seemed full of promise, especially for the potential for non-violent struggle being possible through sheer people power. It felt like a ‘V for Vendetta’ moment when the people rose up as one and overwhelmed the impotent forces of the police and army unwilling to fire upon their own people.
Now in 2014, that picture looks a little different. The popular uprisings in Damascus against the Assad regime that started shortly after those in Egypt didn’t lead to a quickly toppled regime running scared with its tail between its legs. Within the first month in Syria, more than 170 were dead, and by the end of that year more than 5,800 had been killed. In a country that was already divided by sect, it led to one of the ugliest, bloodiest, and remorseless civil wars in modern history.
The Assad regime proved willing to use not only guns against its own citizenry, but also barrel bombs, artillery, and possibly chemical weapons. The armed resistance that followed also led to massacres being committed by opponents of the Assad regime. To date, there have been at least 140,000 deaths. In the light of the civilian and social carnage in Syria, the simplistic and utopian politics of the early days of Tahrir Square have been submerged into the murky waters of mass murders, summary executions, the systemic torturing of prisoners, and even the eating of the flesh of the dead. ‘Revolution 2.0’ had gone from dream to nightmare, in which all meaning seems to have been lost. Even the most enthusiastic and idealistic leaders of the Syrian uprising have now succumbed to their dreams being reduced to a brutal battle just simply to survive. With rebel factions divided, and fighting between Islamist sects alone leading to over 3,000 deaths in recent months, twitter and facebook seem utterly irrelevant.
Meanwhile in Egypt, the political convulsions after Tahrir Square led to a revolution, followed by elections, followed by a counter-revolution. The situation at the moment is that Egypt remains under a military regime with Presidential elections probable in April of this year. The current Defence Minister, Field Marshal Abdel Fattah al-Sisi has been ‘given permission’ by the military council to stand in the elections and is expected to win. What is remarkable about al-Sisi, who serves in the government of prime minister Ibrahim Mahlab, a former leading member of Hosni Mubarak’s ruling party, is that he looks strikingly like a younger version of Mubarak. The message is simple: ‘Revolution 2.0’ has failed. It is back to business as usual in Egypt and any gains that were made in the popular uprising have largely been swept away by a military power base reluctant to give up its long-held control.
As for Wael Ghonim, three years later, he lives in exile in the United Arab Emirates and is staying away ‘as Egypt no longer welcomes those who are like me’. The pro-regime television channel, al-Kahera Wal Nas, recently targeted Ghonim in an attempt to discredit him and the popular uprising of 2011 by airing recordings of his private phone conversations, claiming he used ‘Revolution 2.0’ for his own gain. According to a report in the Guardian on January 9 of this year ‘Ghonim returned to Facebook this week to condemn the broadcast, which he said “violated the laws and constitutions of any country in the world”.’
In November of 2013, Egypt’s interim president, Adly Mansour, enacted a new protest law dramatically curtailing the right to demonstrate in an attempt to prevent a repeat of any possible mass gatherings at Tahrir Square.
Meanwhile in Ukraine, the popular uprisings in Kiev’s Maidan have led to a remarkably swift series of events that have seen the previous president Viktor Yanukovych deposed, a new government formed with a new acting president in Kiev, and then the annexation of the Crimea by Russia. The politics of Ukraine are just as complicated as those of Syria or Egypt.
The ‘Euromaidan’ movement began in November when President Viktor Yanukovych decided not to sign a political association and free trade agreement with the EU and instead chose closer ties with Russia. This led to outrage amongst much of the population of Western and central Ukraine, who are traditionally see themselves as part of Europe. The same modus operandi was seen at the Maidan that has followed on in direct succession from Zuccotti Park and Tahrir Square to many other locations over the last three years. We could call this the ‘Occupy’ meme. It follows the same repeated pattern of a people’s occupation, then the creation of a tent city, a stage, media centre, and now, barricades.
However, in Kiev, this was not just a simple question of the people against a tyrant. The volatile situation also permitted a fracturing of Ukraine’s fragile unity along traditional ethnic and political lines, with one half looking to Europe and the other half to Russia. While there were many ‘ordinary people’ in the Maidan, there was also the presence of Right Sector, a far-right nationalist group that was very active in the ‘defence’ of the Maidan. Things have changed since the heady early days in Tahrir Square, when it was possible to believe that change wouldn’t necessarily involve bloodshed and while there were many peaceful protestors in the Maidan, there was also a significant presence that was overtly prepared to use violence to achieve their goals from the very outset. The moral high ground in this evolving situation is now more difficult than ever to find. It is clear that we are seeing a repeating pattern worldwide of genuine popular sentiment against repressive, or unrepresentative, government swelling up into action on the streets and the occupation of public spaces. What happens after this phase, however, is more difficult to predict. In Ukraine and Egypt, the initial toppling of a dictatorial leader happened relatively quickly. In Syria however, it descended into bloody tragedy and impasse.
Clearly there is more at work here than the ubiquitous nature of social media liberating people from state repression. What we are seeing is a dynamic and evolving situation where technology and the internet are only one of many factors. What is noticeable now is that in none of these protests has there been a repeat of the crude attempt to cut off the internet that was seen in Egypt in 2011. In 2014, geopolitics at the highest level is now carried out on twitter. Both John Kerry, the United States Secretary of State, and William Hague, the British Foreign Secretary, used tweets to state their positions against the Russian military incursion into Crimea. The internet is a now a fact in global politics, but unfortunately, Ghonim’s prediction of a free society has yet to follow. What has happened is that dictators and democracies alike have adapted their strategies to include the reality of social media. It can even be more than a propaganda tool, for example when a Ukrainian Navy base in the Crimea was surrounded by ‘Pro-Russian’ armed soldiers, they used facebook to check if a rumor they had been directed to surrender was true. It wasn’t.
In a post-Snowden world, the view that technology itself is a force for revolutionary change is no longer credible. While peer-to-peer communication may still be socially transformative, we also now know that is tool of state surveillance on an unprecedented scale. So what now? Despite the fact that the global ‘Occupy’ meme has been co-opted into politics as usual, the profound desire that many millions of people have for a more just and equitable society is very real. Can we take and transform that energy into a constructive force for good? Or will we just see one form of repressive government, quickly replaced by another, perhaps even more repressive?
Evolving the Revolution
The first things we need to address are the fundamental reasons why people show up to protest in the first place. Two reasons are very common, people want to be free to live in manner that they chose and they want to feel represented. Unfortunately, these two desires may be fundamentally incompatible. Gregory Sams has written an excellent critique of this situation in his new book, The State is Out of Date, published by Red Wheel Weiser and available now as an ebook on Amazon and iTunes and in print from April. Sams applies the principles of Chaos theory to show that state control is no panacea for all of our ills, in fact it is state control itself that is responsible for many of them: liberal/ conservative, small government/big society, left wing/right wing, democracy/dictatorship, Pro-Europe/Pro-Russia, in practice it essentially makes little, or no difference which variety of government it is. It is government itself that is the problem. While some governments are more abusive than others, all governments work in many ways against the interests of both the individual and society as a whole and principally serve the interests of the politicians themselves and their need to stay in power at whatever cost.
Chaos theory’s ‘butterfly effect’ shows that the slightest action in a whole system effects everything else: the flapping of a butterfly’s wings in one part of the world can lead to a hurricane in another. When government increasingly intervenes in our lives, it is operating on the principle that control of a complex system with many variables is possible by adjusting just a few- and usually by force. The consequences of this kind of reductionist thinking are hence usually counter-productive and just led to more and more artificial prohibitions and regulations in a futile attempt to control the uncontrollable. Or as Greg Sams puts it ‘Chaos theory removes the foundations from the deterministic system of government upon which we have sought to rely for several thousand years’. I strongly suggest reading Greg Sams book to get the full picture and I think it is essential reading before we start ‘Revolution 3.0’.
Let’s be clear, if we want freedom, asking for better government is asking for the wrong thing. What we actually require is to be freed as much as possible of the dictates of the state. It is true that greater responsibility then rests with the individual and the collective associations that individuals naturally form, but this co-operation already happens regularly in real life on an everyday basis. Farmers markets and buying and selling on internet sites eBay are just two examples that proceed with little, or no need, of central control; this is ‘anarchy’ in practice. Our fears of ‘chaos’ without government are somewhat misplaced, because at least one half of the current conflict is coming from the actions of government and its institutions.
If we proceed in life organically from the ground up, rather than the state down, agreements and institutions form naturally that need minimal, if any, central government. The sacrifice of lives in a violent struggle for the right to swap one form of central control for another, possibly on a very temporary basis, if at all, is a very high price to pay for a cosmetic reshuffle and possibly a new flag. The new revolution should be against the need for central governance at all. And obviously, that means that the new revolution must take a very new form from the old. Nobody wants to replace government rule by mob rule, but the essential difference is in the sophistication of their weaponry, not their fundamental principles. They are both based on coercion at their core. A non-coercive revolution must start with local roots and a progressive process of disengagement with central apparatus of control, whilst at the same time enabling and promoting community structure in their immediate and living forms, not as its toxic mimic; the state. The next revolution will not only be global, it will be local too.
Just as the macro-political response to social media has evolved to co-opt the global ‘Occupy’ meme, the meme of revolution now needs itself to evolve, in order to break free from a downward spiral of deepening violence and division. The most promising avenue I have seen is the growth of ‘sacred activism’, a term pioneered by Andrew Harvey, the founder of the Institute of Sacred Activism. Sacred Activism is ‘the product of the union of a profound spiritual and mystical knowledge, understanding, and compassion, peace and energy, with focused, wise, radical action in the world’. This is spirituality, not as a rarefied pursuit divorced from the world, but practised in the world and dedicated to ‘hands-on realistic social, economic, and political engagement’. The Sacred Activism movement sees itself as the intellectual heir of the legacies of Ghandian non-violent direct action and Martin Luther King’s contribution to the Civil Rights movement. Obviously, this is a lofty goal and a million miles away from Right Sector battling the Berkut riot police in the Maidan. However, if we seek to evolve, rather then just revolve, the only choice I see as viable is to replace force with source.
This is also perfectly aligned to ‘subtle activism’, a term coined by David Nicol, Director of the Center for Subtle Activism at the California Institute of Integral Studies. Subtle Activism is described by The Gaiafield Project, founded by Nicol, as ‘an activity of consciousness or spirit, such as prayer, meditation, or ecstatic dance, intended to support collective healing and social change.’ His Reality Sandwich piece ‘Occupy Gaia in 2012: Subtle Activism Meets Street Activism’ was an excellent analysis of the spiritual activist dimension of Occupy. I believe we are now at a point where we need to move beyond the ‘Occupy’ meme. We did that. It served a purpose, but the problem with occupation, is it then becomes a full-time occupation. The goal here should be liberation, not permanent protest.
Perhaps what we need to do now is to move from ‘Occupy’ to ‘Unify’ as the imaginal cells of the global butterfly begin to join together to create something greater than the sum of its parts and demonstrate our fundamental unity as a single humanity living on a finite planet. unify.org has its origins in a campaign of synchronised meditations and flash mob events around the solstices and equinoxes and is now evolving into a broader movement. Aligning with the indigenous grass roots movement ‘Idle No More’, together they may be incubating the seeds of a potential spiritual activism super-movement. Similarly to Unify, Idle No More’s roots were also in flash mob events where First Nations and their supporters gathered to perform circle dances in public places like shopping malls as a reaction to legislative abuses of indigenous treaty rights by the Harper government in Canada. As well as having similar modes of real world action, both Unify and Idle No More also share a sophisticated use of the virtual world, co-ordinating twitter storms, using social media campaigning as a primary tool and having the kind of decentralised cloud-like structure that only 21st Century use of the internet allows. Perhaps out of this something new might come, possibly the beginning of (R)evolution 3.0. Empowered and co-ordinated by social media, but not defined by it. Based on real world actions, but with an eye to creating something better than resistance. Versed in the principles of non-violent direct action, but not addicted to confrontation. Grounded in the values of protecting the Earth, and agnostic to politics as usual.
A new development in this story is the creation of ‘Operation Mystical Activism’, a Unify project to create synchronised meditations in response to emerging global events. The current one is focused on visualising peaceful outcomes in the Ukraine conflict. Similar to the synchronised heart-centered ‘Care Focus’ pioneered by the the Global Coherence Initiative, the purpose of #OpMysticalActivism is to stabilise the collective field. Although this might seem nebulous and ethereal compared to occupations and demonstrations, there is a growing and substantial body of evidence from the research of the GCI, the Institute of Noetic Sciences, Maharishi University, and others, that meditation can have a direct influence upon external outcomes. Effects have been measured on indexes as varied as crime rates and perceived happiness, even for those not meditating, or participating. It is a long way from making petrol bombs behind a barricade, but in the long run, it may actually be more effective. Revolution 2.0 may have failed, but nonetheless, Ghonim was definitely right about one thing when he said, back in 2011, ‘the revolution will not happen online, it will happen on the streets.’ It’s just that in (R)evolution 3.0, we might be on the streets meditating in a lotus posture, rather than throwing bottles at the riot police.
CNN interview: Wael Ghonim
I’m no traitor, says Wael Ghonim as Egypt regime targets secular activists
Revolution 2.0 the book
Egypt’s interim president Adly Mansour signs ‘anti-protest law’
Timeline of the Syrian Civil War
2014 Ukrainian revolution
The State Is Out Of Date
Occupy Gaia in 2012: Subtle Activism Meets Street Activism
The Gaiafield Project – What is Subtle Activism?
Idle No More
Global Coherence Initiative
The Maharishi Effect
Operation Mystical Activism
Image by sasha maksymenko courtesy of Creative Commons.