Transcript: Mark LeVine on the Egyptian Revolution

The following interview was conducted by Suzi Weissman for her program "Beneath the Surface" on KPFK, August 11, 2008. Transcribed by Meleiza Figueroa. This interview was published in Against the Current 151, March-April 2011.

Suzi Weissman: Well, there's a fresh air blowing on the planet now; let's hope it blows in all directions, and let there be a thousand Tahrirs. That's my editorial statement. I'm very pleased to have with me - from Tahrir Square, and actually just right up above it – Mark LeVine. He is a professor of History at UC Irvine, and a senior visiting researcher at the Center for Middle East Studies at Lund University in Sweden. He's also a musician and he's bringing us music from Tahrir Square that was recorded yesterday. Mark speaks Arabic, Hebrew, Turkish, Persian, Italian, French…well, he's a polyglot and an accomplished rock guitarist, and an accomplished observer and writer. He's blogging at An important book of his is An Impossible Peace: Oslo and the Burdens of History, and Heavy Metal Islam: Rock, Resistance and the Struggle for the Soul of Islam. Mark, I'm so glad to have you on BTS.

Mark LeVine: Well, it's great to be back on KPFK.

SW: You’re now at the square in Cairo, it sounds like you're next door. Tell us, tell the listeners - we're all just in jubilation today, as the news that not only did the Mubarak regime have to go with their tail tucked under, but that we've heard now that martial law has been lifted in Algeria. Are all the dictators quaking in their boots?

MLV: Well, I think the most important thing about this revolution - and it was clear even from days ago, from when I first got here - that this is not just an Egyptian revolution, this is a world revolution. This is really the first revolution of the age of globalization. In many ways, 1989 was a revolution that closed the book on a previous era, and this in some ways takes us back to 1789, it's really at that level of importance. When the news came, there was just such an incredible sense of jubilation. There were Italians and Greeks and Portuguese and Lebanese, and everyone was just saying “we won.” It wasn't just Egyptians who won, even though certainly it is their revolution, but for them to defeat this system, which so many countries have invested so much in maintaining - I mean, think about the state of all the European leaders, and then Obama's waffling, and then Israel, and then all the Arab countries who were all supporting Mubarak - for this victory to happen completely nonviolently is really the most important example to the world that I can think of in my lifetime.

SW: And I'm glad that you put it that way, because I always think of the 1917 revolution, almost 100 years ago in Russia, as opening the epoch of revolution. And it's very clear that this Egyptian revolution has now changed the course of the 21st century. And as you say: it doesn't belong just to Egypt, it belongs to everybody. It's amazing, when you listened to Suleiman chide the people the other day and tell them to go home to their families, and another day that he said that Egyptians weren't ready for democracy, and here Egyptians are showing the world what democracy looks like. What is the mood on the street and how did they manage to be so disciplined in the midst of this festivity?

MLV: Well, this is really a story that I think remains to be understood. I can say that - I left the Square around 7 this morning, after I don't know how long…I had to take a shower and get some food. And I went back to a nearby neighborhood, where my hotel is. And when I left, I was nervous, and when I came back, I was very nervous because of the threats that Suleiman, and certainly Mubarak and his police force, had made. People here were ready for a bloodbath. And they were prepared, but the most interesting thing was when I came back and it was during the noonday prayer, there were imams on the street just urging the people to stay peaceful. That was the message: no matter what happens, don't succumb to the violence and the provocations. And the fact that there wasn't a provocation was an absolute miracle, because it would have been so easy for someone to come in here with a bomb, or to come in with a gun and just fire a couple of shots, and that would have led to a stampede that could have killed I don't know how many people. And yet it never happened, and people just kept taking care of each other, and keeping it peaceful. And that is absolutely the reason for this victory. And it is absolutely a lesson for everyone. I mean, the first group that comes to mind is clearly Palestinians, because they've been shown a way to end the occupation in as quick a time as the Egyptians that ended their oppression. It really is amazing, and the nonviolence is absolutely the key. And I guess it's hard for people who weren't here to understand how difficult it was to pull that off, because everyone really thought that today was going to be a day that was going to end in misery for hundreds of thousands of people.

SW: Well, you just mentioned the Palestinians...when you mention that anyone could have shown up with a bomb, it seems like what happened today made bombs superfluous. And I'm just wondering if we may see the end of the era in the Middle East of the suicide bomber.

MLV: Well, listen, that's very prescient of you to say, because I just came in from being outside a couple of minutes ago, and the most striking thing is that the security cordon is gone. Anyone who's been following the story probably has read about this intense security cordon, about 5 or 6 layers deep, of just volunteers from the square who frisk everyone over and over and check their ID to make sure those thugs of Mubarak can't get back in, or anyone else for that matter who shouldn't be there. And as late as this afternoon, that was still the case, and it took over an hour to get your way in. It was very dangerous while you were waiting there because if someone was walking by with a bomb it would have been a disaster. But now it's gone, and everyone’s just moving completely freely, in and out, climbing on top of tanks, kids are on tanks playing with soldiers. It's really an amazing situation. So, I think this is the hope. This is the hope - as so many friends of mine here said, "this is the true Islam emerging." And that everyone's been waiting for it to emerge, but when you're living under this kind of oppression, it's so hard to have it emerge. Several people said, "This is the real jihad." It was a jihad without violence, and it won, unlike the ones that use violence. So this is an example that hopefully every resistance movement throughout the region can adopt.

SW: I'm speaking with Mark LeVine in Tahrir Square, and we're talking about the joy, the jubilation now that the dictator is gone. But Mark, you're also alluding to a level of organization on the ground - you mentioned that the imams told people to stay peaceful, and that Islam is a part of this. But you mentioned on Jon Wiener's show that there were other groups on the ground, and I wonder - everyone here is saying, " is this a leaderless revolution?" What is this, and can you talk a little about who the organized groups are that are at least keeping the peace?

MLV: I mean, it's a completely “unorganized organization.” I don't know how else to put it, and I don't think the theory has been invented to really understand this yet. In a way, it's spontaneous and so much of it wasn't planned, because it was a response to events on the ground. But in the background, there has been the labor movement; movements of young people who have for years been leading and having study groups and really trying to understand social theory and understand how to apply it in this situation; it's been people who have been strategizing, who come like Wael Ghonim from the high-tech field who have been contributing in that way, but even as important are people who have been doing the hard work on the ground of grassroots mobilization. So, it's a combination of so many different things, and I don't want to overemphasize its leaderless nature, but there's certainly no one leader. And certainly, most of the people who are on TV, other than Wael who was the catalyst for rejuvenating this - all the older people from the previous generation who were trying to negotiate, they really couldn't represent this, and that's probably why while they were in charge of the negotiation, nothing happened - and it was only when the people on the street took control and refused to bow down that this move to a new phase was made inevitable.

SW: Well, I think - we certainly will await, and maybe you'll be part of that group that studies this new leaderless organization, or this "unorganized organization." But it seems, because there are no more mass radicalized, nationalist parties, the left has been so repressed there, that Islam was the only alternative, and yet that's not what characterizes it either.

MLV: No really, it wasn't in fact. The Left - I mean, the Left still remains intellectually fairly strong for a long time, people have said "oh, the Arab Left is discredited," and certainly the older generation that came of age in the 50s and 60s has been utterly discredited. But the younger Left is a Left that we would all recognize from Seattle - the left from Prague, the Left who was a much more mature and sophisticated and progressive Left that is not weighed down by any particular ideology - they have been absolutely crucial. And the Brotherhood in this case - this Left has been showing the way, even to the Brotherhood who everyone said was the organized force. Well, guess what happened at the end of the day - the Brotherhood was basically following a bunch of young longhaired Lefties. And that's the God's honest truth, in the end. So everyone has had to learn, and for years people are going to be trying to figure out how to emulate it. But in the end it's not going to be emulateable, because it's local and came out of the roots here, so each country or each region is going to have to follow its own model.

SW: But on the other hand, there is an infectious quality to it, and it's already got martial law lifted in Algeria. We know the same sort of wind is blowing all over the Middle East. But I want to go back for just a minute to the organization and the groups that are on the ground, and I wondered - we don't know yet about Suleiman. Did Suleiman go with Mubarak, and is the military council - are they making a clean break with the past regime?

MLV: I don't know. No one quite understands it. The assumption is he's probably gone too, but that's just the beginning. No one thinks victory has been won in the long term. There's an incredible party right now but everyone knows tomorrow the war continues, and as many friends have said to me, "we're not going anywhere." They're not cleaning out this square until they know in an absolute, ironclad way, that the military is guaranteeing the reforms that they had said today they would implement.

SW: Mark, do those reforms include the end of the Emergency Laws, the freeing of political prisoners, the end of censorship?

MLV: I mean, this is what people are demanding they include, and they're not going to leave, the majority of people who are organizing this, hope they won't leave in any major numbers, until that is guaranteed. There is no doubt that the military is going to try to pretend to give what they can to get people off the streets, and then backtrack slowly - in a sense, that's what's already happened in Tunisia in many ways, where the repression is continuing and the system is in no way really dislodged. And I've talked to many Egyptians who understand that well, and they want to make sure that this system really is dead. And you know, that's obviously a wise move. And I think - you know, when they were coming back from the Presidential Palace and they walked past one of the main Army buildings, and thousands of people stopped and started chanting to the Army building and the military leaders inside, "We are here, we are here, the Egyptians are here," I saw it quickly on Al Jazeera - that was a statement. Yes, they're supporting the Army sort of, they recognize the army has played an important role, but they're not going to let the army just take over and have a continuation of a military led government. I think the army has to realize that, and I think at some level the younger generation does. And it's going to be a major negotiation going on, because in the end the army has been one of the main beneficiaries of the last 20 years of liberalization, that so-called privatization has really passed a lot of state industries into the hands of senior army people. And they're going to have to give a lot of that up, and no one gives up anything unless they have to. So that's why, in many ways, this is a beginning - a great beginning, but still the beginning of a much longer-term struggle.

SW: But would you say as well - what you're saying is very interesting, Mark, but when labor got on the scene and started striking, it looked like that was really the end, that's when Mubarak realized he couldn't stay.

MLV: I was in the square with one of the main organizers when he started getting the SMS text messages from his colleagues saying, "this is a strike, and these guys are striking, and these guys are striking," and he turned to me and said, "it's over." And we all knew, once that happened, because Tunis was the paradigm for that. Once it moved from a localized strike in Cairo and several cities to countrywide labor strikes, that was it - the system was over.

SW: Well, being that you come from the United States, and even though you speak Arabic, have people talked to you about the Obama administration's 'dual policy' - on the one hand, he says the right thing, but Hilary Clinton's State Department supported the slow transition and Suleiman - has there been any talk about that, or is that just in the background?

MLV: You know, people are utterly disgusted with the Obama administration on the one hand, and on the other hand, they don't care anymore. It's over, they won without it. In some ways, it's better in the long term, and I've been writing very critical things about Obama in my columns, but in some way, in the end, it's almost better they did it without him. Because now it's really theirs. As one friend said, "we did this by ourselves, no one came to help us and stood up for us." And in that way, the victory is that much sweeter. But when the dust settles, if there's really a fully civilian led government of opposition figures, the US and the Europeans are going to have a very hard time having much influence, and their aim to maintain their privileges and their positions are certainly going to be much harder. The main thing is going to be military aid, for example - the military wants to keep all its perks, and all the money, and all the aid that comes to it, and any civilian government, in order to have the kind of redistribution of wealth that will be necessary to have a fundamental change in the levels of poverty here, they're going to have to take on the privileges of the military, and that's really going to be the long-term struggle.

SW: So, this is really just the beginning, you would say?

MLV: Oh, it's just the beginning. It's a big party here tonight, but as everyone's saying, "Tomorrow we start over."

SW: So you're going to stay in the Square? And what do you expect tomorrow? Is it just partying, or is there already some level of discussion and organization about where next?

MLV: A lot of people are partying, people are extremely happy and celebrating, as they should - because, it's hard to imagine what it's like to live on the streets for days and days and weeks and weeks and suffer through Molotov cocktails and snipers and massive attacks with rocks and stuff - and then all of a sudden, you've won. So, I think they deserve a night to party! You know, as one of the older organizers said to me, " you know, I'm quiet. I'm not saying anything, I'm not celebrating, I'm thinking. Because we got a lot of work to do." And everyone knows that. I got an SMS from another friend, one of the major bloggers here, who I was talking to about celebration, and he's like, "Dude, I'm knee deep in politics right now, I don't have time to come up for air!" So, you know, the people who are really the force behind this, they might be celebrating for a few hours, but they're not going to get any sleep in the next few days, because they're going to be doing the hard work of formulating a coherent plan that neither the army, nor the elite, nor the older opposition can hijack from them. That's really the struggle that's going to go on in the coming week or so.

SW: Mark LeVine, thank you so much, and we hope you celebrate well. And we're going to call on you again to hear where it goes from here, and hope - as the Egyptian people have shown the world what democracy looks like - that this will continue.

MLV: Well, I can tell you a whole bunch of people here are hoping to have an axis of justice in Tahrir Square. So that's what all the kids want, so we're going to have to work on that one.

SW: All right, well thanks so much, and we'll talk to you again soon.

MLV: Ok, take care.