Tahrir Square, London?

Like most people with a computer and in interest in events beyond the end of my road, I’ve been following the uprisings, protests and nascent revolutions in the Middle East and North Africa.  A lot of interesting things have been said about the protests there, notably in two excellent Plant Money podcasts (the word excellent should always precede the words Planet Money podcast) on the economic power of the Egyptian military and its reluctance to shoot on its customers (the people) and on the differences between the diverse Egyptian economy and the rentier state of Libya.

Slightly less informative, but at least vaguely thought-provoking, is a piece by Laurie Penny under the title ‘Is it crass to compare the protests in London, Cairo and Wisconsin?’, with the equally stunning subtitle ‘The difference between Tahrir Square and Parliament Square is one of scale, but not of substance.’

In a way, she is right. There is inequality, there is a feeling that the government is not doing the will of the people.  Also, there has been no clear leader of the protests in either country – there’s no 2011 Scargill (certainly not Aaron Porter).  Actually, some of these points come from another piece:

It would, of course, be absurd to compare the oppression suffered by Egyptians to the grievances against which [these anti-government protestors here] direct their wrath, but the dynamics of both movements can be compared relative to their own societies.

The most striking similarity is both are leaderless movements, and that makes it very difficult for conventional politicians to understand or deal with them. Individual figures in both movements have been sources of inspiration, but in neither case has that individual taken upon himself to become the spokesman for the group or the individual empowered to speak for it or to act as its negotiator.

Oh, I should probably mention that this was from a piece entitled ‘Twins: Tahrir Square and the Tea Party’ on an opinions page of USA Today.

I’m not saying this to equate the UK student/anti-cuts protests to the tea party per se.  They are protesting for wildly different things.  The point is that they are similar and those US protestors (no less than in Wisconsin, where the protest is more like the student sit-ins in the UK) probably feel solidarity with those in Egypt.

The reason that they are similar is that they are modern protests. They have used the internet, they have no specific leaders, they have broadly by-passed traditional political party structures – the Republicans are riskily trying to incorporate the energy of the tea party movement but the movement is not strictly Republican in itself, the UK protesters are from a range of groups that include many in the Labour camp but it is not akin to the Labour party (indeed there would be protests at the levels of cuts Labour would have had to make too).

The are also similar in some respects because of their place within the current economic crisis, as Laurie Penny notes – the difficulty of getting work, and of getting by, are behind all three, albeit with vastly differing specific circumstances, grievances and responses in the US, the UK and Egypt.

But they are not the same, because of these specific circumstances.  In Egypt, there has been a repressive regime that stole elections when it deigned to hold them.  It was a brutal regime, as another blogger has expressed far more vehemently than I have. Whatever you think of the UK ‘police state’, control orders (which are used on 5 or 6 people), and the Coalition Government (which was formed entirely in line with our constitution, if very quickly by international standards), these are not the same as the pressures, the corruption and the ‘state of emergency’ that have kept Egyptian protest bottled up for decades and led it to explode this year.

Solidarity does not mean that two (or three) movements are the same. People should take heart from the efforts of Egyptian protestors and be humbled by it as an example of largely-peaceful protest on a vast scale.  We do not know what will come of their efforts yet, the military are still in charge and will not want significant change.  As to the UK, we will have protests again, probably within weeks outside some town hall in London or elsewhere.  Their argument is not less valid because it is not the same as those in Tahrir Square, but it is not the same.

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One Response to “Tahrir Square, London?”

  1. Ken Says:

    Laurie Penny’s piece is incredibly rare. A title that is a question to which the answer is yes!

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