Protesters in Egypt’s 2011 uprising included many women — despite the Mubarak regime’s best efforts to intimidate them.
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Chief among these is precisely the technique that such elites use to retain power in the first place: the millennially ancient divide et impera (divide and rule) used to such effect by the Roman Empire and later by its British and American successors. The working and middle classes, exercising little or no political power, far outnumber the elite and its stooges, but like all such complex majorities, they are made up of many disparate groups; these the elite conspires to remake as mutually distrustful and antagonistic factions to be pitted against one another for the ultimate benefit of those in authority.
So far, prominent among the targets of this tactic in Egypt’s khamis wa-3ashrun yanayir (25 January) uprising have been women participants; and shamefully, some male protesters now creating a new blueprint for Egypt’s government and institutions — thanks presumably to cultural traditions that expect a more passive role for women in Egyptian society — have been complicit in this exclusion. Means used to dissuade them are various, but perhaps the most egregious is that addressed in the present report: Army personnel are detaining women on Tahrir Square, taking them into custody, and administering “virginity tests” in the humiliating presence of male soldiers; if the women “fail,” they are often charged with prostitution. And to “interrogate” them, torture is routine.
This not only seeks to intimidate women and keep them out of the protests, but, by making soldiers parties to their humiliation, it may tend to cement the allegiance of such soldiers to the oppressive authority whose pawns they are. Surely such psychological strategems are not new: Hitler’s army used similar methods to render its soldiers callous in the face of the agonies that the Third Reich called upon them to visit on the “inferior beings” across Europe whom the Nazis set out to destroy. It was proverbial among such soldiers that the first time they machine-gunned a row of innocent people into a trench for mass burial was wrenching, but after that, each successive such atrocity grew a little easier until they learned to torture and kill with an indelible smirk graven on their faces.
Revolutions are made up of people, and people are psychologically complex, defined by internal contradictions and differing motivations, needs and ideals. Ruling elites know this, and are prepared to be very patient (as they were in 1848) and ultimately very brutal in the means they use to regain power.
If, therefore, the revolutions of today are to succeed where those of eightscore years ago failed, they must learn from their antecedents’ history. As the first article cited above makes clear, they have not only to preserve their integrity and resolve, with still more patience than the elites display in seeking to undermine them, but they must also refuse to trust any element of the former regimes, and they must seize the instruments and institutions of state power as well as the levers of the economy.
“A revolution,” as Mao Tse-Tung once quipped, “is not a dinner party.”
Only with stern fortitude and patience extending over not months but decades can democratic forces gain a permanent ascendancy in any society long controlled by a pathocratic elite. Long after the shouts of jubilation have died in Tahrir Square and across the Middle East, the grim confrontation between the agents of human values and those of sadistic oppression will continue. It will play out in secret meetings between representatives of the elite and leaders of manufactured factions among the people, in midnight knocks on protesters’ doors, in the passing of cash and the making of promises and separate peace agreements. And it will not end until either the elite smashes, for a time, all aspirations toward a better society on the part of the people, or until the last fingerprints of the elite have been forever wiped from the instruments of power.