The streets are filled with volunteers

February 3, 2011

Zach Zill looks at the self-mobilization as ordinary Egyptians take to the streets.

THE EGYPTIAN revolution continues to confound and befuddle America's leading conservative halfwits. While the racist, Zionist idiot Richard Cohen bemoans the march of democracy in the Arab world and neo-con scumbag Elliott Abrams tries to paint George W. Bush as an Egyptian freedom fighter (both, incidentally, in the op-ed pages of the Washington Post), the Egyptian people themselves march defiantly forward.

Reports from recent mass rallies suggest that upwards of 4 million people have taken to the streets of cities across Egypt, with 2 million in Cairo alone. Surely we are witnessing the final moments of Hosni Mubarak's 30-year reign.

But there's more: we also are witnessing the tremendous blossoming of human self-activity that all great revolutions bring forth. As one Egyptian says in Judith Orr's brilliant reporting from Cairo, "Here are the people in all their inventiveness. It's magnificent."

The socialist axiom that ordinary people can run society for themselves, without the profit motive or the incentive of money, is coming to life in Egypt before our very eyes.

While the old order convulses in its death throes, and as U.S. and Western imperialists frantically try to arrange a stage-managed transition to a harmless new regime, the Egyptian street is quietly and humbly giving birth to a flourishing of human creativity and intelligence, and a flowering of new forms of popular power.

"As revolt sweeps Egypt, so does volunteerism: a newfound pride in a country that protesters say, now belongs to them," reports the news video above. It depicts an amazing scene: Egyptian people filling the streets of Cairo, but not just to protest. No, these people are also cleaning up trash voluntarily. They are handing food out to people. They are setting up volunteer medical stations to treat patients. They are protecting museums and neighborhoods from looters, many of whom have been proven to be Egyptian police trying to discredit the protests.

In short, ordinary Egyptians are taking their very first steps in learning to run society for themselves, without their rulers or their bosses. They are doing so at this moment mostly out of necessity--these are things that have to be done in order to keep the protest movement going, in order to force Mubarak from power. But it's easy to see how the revolutionary enthusiasm quickly raises people's horizons beyond the immediate question of Mubarak.

As one Egyptian interviewed says, "This has charged us with positivity. We can do more; we can help our country to be better."


THE NEW York Times describes the same phenomenon happening in Alexandria. There, new organizations calling themselves "Peoples Committees" have sprung up. In addition to the "Popular Committee for the Protection of Properties and Organization of Traffic," there are other branches organizing cleanup and emergency response.

The Mubarak regime surely is unaware of this, as its sole concern now must be self-preservation. It's unlikely that the imperialists are paying much attention, either, as they preoccupy themselves with rearranging the chairs at the top and getting back to "stability" and business as usual.

They consult with the generals, they confer with the big businessmen, they seek advice from the Israeli government. Their worldview assigns almost no importance to the intelligence and initiative of the little people on the streets.

The Western media, too, have a hard time understanding what's happening, of conceiving this as anything other than "volunteerism." But what this term does not quite convey is the way in which all this "volunteer" labor that's being done flows from the democratic initiative and self-organization of the people themselves--not at all directed from above. This is not me going down to the soup kitchen, where a staffer tells me what to do. This is the people themselves deciding what needs to be done for the benefit of all, and then doing it.

This dynamic exerts itself so powerfully in revolutionary situations that it becomes apparent to any observer, even non-socialists. Perhaps most striking was an Al Jazeera correspondent quoting Marx while describing the scene in Cairo: "The people are working together, 'from each according to their ability, to each according to their needs.'"

There is a telling exchange at the end of the above New York Times article. It at once illustrates both how incomprehensible this whole situation is to those for whom politics necessitates leadership by rich elites; and how embryonic are the new forms of street organization, how newly politicized are those participating in them.

The reporter asks one of the "volunteers" if he will run for political office. The volunteer, puzzled, responds that no, he's just a "normal guy." The reporter sees the People's Committees as inherently political organizations, and thus tries to conceptualize them in the only way Americans understand politics: electoralism. Though right to see the "volunteer's" actions as political, he is quite wrong in assuming that the democratic politics of self-organization and self-activity are not valid political acts in their own right.

The Egyptian "volunteer," on the other hand, still sees himself as just a "normal guy" doing what needs to be done for the movement; it's possible he does not yet even understand the vast political implications of the Popular Committees.

It is these ordinary Egyptians, many of whom are impoverished and illiterate, in whose hands the fate of the revolution lies. Clearly, some of them are already aware of the lasting significance of their actions. Another Egyptian interviewed in the video says, "I'll tell you something, these six days will impact Egypt for the next 50 years." Referring to the strength and organization of the people in the streets, he says, "Any ruler will think a hundred times before making a decision, because he will always remember what happened on January 25, 2011."

One crucial test facing the revolution in the coming days will be whether the self-organization that is blossoming on the streets can make its way into Egyptian workplaces. Should that happen, especially if it happens in the mass textile factories of Mahalla, or in the steel mills, or in the ports of Alexandria and Suez, then the movement will become incomparably more powerful; its implications for the current social setup, all the more ominous.

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