Daily News Egypt
Egyptian anarchists seek self-governed society
January 20, 2012
CAIRO: They do not believe in governments, they boycotted the elections, they demand “direct democracy” and they’re associated with chaos and have been targeted by the military and some Islamists.
Egypt’s anarchists are anticipating a crackdown before the first anniversary of the January 25 uprising. They are perceived as seeking chaos; villains who want to bring down the state, defy authority and spread lawlessness.
The word ‘anarchy’ in Greek means "no authority." Anarchists’ central belief is that “no man is good enough to be another man’s master,” and that “good people do not need laws to tell them to act responsibly, while bad people will find a way around the laws.”
Anarchy became the new bogeyman — a place once reserved to the Muslim Brotherhood under the Mubarak regime. Many believe that this ideology is dangerous to Egypt.
“Egypt, the homeland, is not the same as the system or the state or the government. The people called for the overthrow of the regime and this means to bring the current system or the state down, as it happened before with the Abbasids, Ayyubids, Ottomans and others whose state was overthrown, but Egypt was not harmed,” said self-proclaimed anarchist Yasser Abdel Kawy, an artist, photographer and graphic designer.
The state, according to Abdel Kawy, is a means to practice authority which is why it needs to be replaced with a self-governed society. “I have no fear or worries about what may happen to Egypt if the state is gone. We don’t have this sharp division or difference when it comes to ethnicity or religion,” he added.
Egyptian anarchists established their first entity, the Libertarian Socialist Movement (LSM), in May amidst a global revolutionary wave that included tens of activists all calling for direct democracy as opposed to parliamentary democracy.
In direct democracy, decision-making comes from the people directly without mediators like members of parliament.
Similar protests and occupy movements known as “Take the Street” evolved in different parts of the world like the United States, Spain and Italy.
“It is true that much of the ‘Occupy’ movement can be traced to Anarchist ideals. This can't be explained by anarchist propaganda but more by the failure of the current system of capitalism and parliamentary democracy,” said architect Tamer Mowafy, who describes himself as an anarchist.
People feel vulnerable to the incisive attacks on their standards of living and no longer believe that politicians will help them, Mowafy said.
Leftist parties and the democrats in the US proved themselves useless. On the other hand, traditional Marxist alternatives have been discredited beyond reclamation after 1989, he said.
“It is evident that people taking part in the ‘Occupy’ movements almost spontaneously embrace anarchist principles. The movement is leaderless, all decisions are made within a general assembly, and instead of majority rule consensus is always sought,” he added.
“Anarchism means struggling against the authority of the state and capitalism; that’s why if you’re not a leftist, you can’t be anarchist,” said Yasser Abdullah, a freelance translator. Anarchism is a socio-political movement that mobilizes society without seeking power, he added.
Instead of vertical authority, anarchists call for horizontal cooperatives organized “by the people, for the people”. Supporting multi-independent syndicates is one of their goals. They support the idea of workers taking over factories and companies which will be self-managed by elected workers committees.
Abdullah gave the example of the Ultras, Egypt’s organized football fans. These groups are horizontal networking movements with grassroots support. They are leaderless and have joined the revolutionaries in the common fight against police brutality, and so they share common ground with anarchists.
Abdullah belonged to a communist entity before embracing anarchism. His father, he recalled, “was one of the workers who made the real wealth of Egypt for 42 years until retirement, but never tasted it.”
The fear of anarchism, Abdullah explained, stems from the “fear republic we live in.”
Egyptians have been practicing various brands of anarchism not related to politics unknowingly, the most popular example of which are the monthly co-ops, a communal money saving system which is entirely managed by the individuals in the group, replacing banks.
“In the past, people governed themselves when there was no government. However, we do not mean that we’ll restore the tribal system or go back to pre-modern times, but we seek more developed forms of ruling based on cooperatives, volunteerism and no central authority,” Abdullah said.
Even in times of natural disaster like earthquakes, he said, people self-organize and divide tasks between them.
There are no holy texts or models to follow in applying anarchism. It is open to new ideas and is tailored to the needs of diverse societies.
“In some areas, an anarchist model would include some centralized authorities when it comes to foreign representation and the military,” Abdullah said. “As long as there are foreign threats, the army can be kept as it is … as an institution.”
There’s no defined vision for how the society would look like. Yet, there are some basics like having no authority but voluntary cooperatives, syndicates and a general assembly that comprises of all citizens to ensure the maximum level of rights and freedoms in a society where all people are equal.
It also works for a fair distribution of wealth from a leftist point of view. Not a single group of people would who have the upper hand in the society, whether businessmen, politicians or members of parliament.
Laws are what people decide according to the norms and traditions, but each case would have a different ruling based on the circumstances.
“The ideology is ideal and unpopular in Egypt. It seeks a utopian society where there are no social class differences and no authoritarian state as in the police or the army, which is difficult to achieve”, said Dr. Mostafa Kamel El-Sayed, leftist political science professor at the American University in Cairo.
Only small communities around the world find their inspiration in anarchism, but historically, it’s hard for people to live outside the context of the state, he believes.
“They are not dangerous, however. They do not pose a security threat. Bringing the state down doesn’t mean using violence against some people in particular. This is the leftists’ rhetoric and it should be clearly understood to the society,” he added.
A decade ago, Dr. Heba Raouf Ezzat, political science professor at Cairo University, wrote an article titled, “Anarchism: The philosophy that translation was unfair to”. The Islamist academic explained how anarchism’s accurate translation is more close to “state-less society” rather than “chaos”.
“As the national state finds itself in a growing crisis amid globalization, anarchic ideas on how to manage a society without a state gains attention if developed more,” Raouf wrote. Recent developments like global networking, rise of the civil society and growing democracy in a way that fosters localities have common ground with anarchism according to Raouf.
For Mowafy, Anarchism is an international movement that seeks a unified self-governed humanity. At this final stage no armies are needed.
“However, within the current context, nobody in his right mind can ask for the army to be dissolved,” he noted. The army, like any other national institution, should be under the control of elected civilians and its budget revised by people's representatives to protect national security, he added.
Viral Nassar, an Egyptian-French, believes in the ladder theory. "It will be pointless to spread anarchism now in Egypt. People don't understand basic politics to grasp the most infamous system ever and adapt to it,” he says.
"Democracy with all its deceits will let people know how ugly and bloody democracy is," he added.
Anarchic models include Christiania, the Freetown of Denmark. It’s an example of how a society can rule itself with no supervision from the municipality of Copenhagen which the town belongs to geographically. Only nine rules govern Christiania, some of which are: no weapons, no hard-drugs, no violence, no bulletproof clothing, no sale of fireworks and no stolen goods.
Michael Lund, journalist at Denmark Radio, said that Christiania has developed as a unique experiment where nobody owns land or homes and everything is decided by debating until everyone agrees. It has produced artists, new designs of everything from bicycles to clothes and is one of Denmark’s biggest tourist destinations.
“However, there are also problems. The idea of no leadership and everyone having to agree on everything has made it very difficult for the inhabitants to make fast decisions about anything. Also, Christiania’s belief that cannabis is not illegal has attracted gangs that sell hashish,” said Lund who lives less than 2 km from the “free city” and passes by it regularly. He has also visited it numerous times.
The people of Christiania, who often don’t trust the police, have not been able to keep these gangs out, which has let to violent incidents between different gangs, Lund said.
“There’s also a critique that Christiania has become a closed society, where only people who know somebody there can live — which is actually opposite to the original idea of the free city”, he said.
Although the January 25 revolution was leaderless — which is favored by anarchists who prefer to be unknown as soldiers in the life battle or “anonymous” as they prefer to call themselves — Abdullah stressed that the revolution found anarchy by itself and it was not anarchists who made it.
“It’s a disgrace to say that anarchists are behind the revolution because if we were, [the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces] wouldn’t be ruling. We should have never left after Mubarak stepped down. Unfortunately, the people like to re-invent the wheel and fall into the same mistakes of other revolutions,” Abdel Kawy noted.
According to anarchists, anarchism can never be imposed from above. The real bet is the people who will realize the flaws of parliamentary democracy and choose direct democracy.
“We seek to build libertarian constructs within the current society, mainly cooperatives, labor unions and syndicates. Lower levels in the society as in localities are the most jammed because as you go smaller, more issues become common to inhabitants of such localities. Once people become confident of their ability to manage their own affairs democratically, they will seek to extend the space where they can practice self-management,” Mowafy said.
How would a country of nearly 80 million govern themselves making decisions altogether?
“Think outside the box,” said Abdullah. “Voting can be on Twitter.”
*Photo courtesy of the Associated Press, Tara Todras-Whitehill