by Jerome Roos, RoarMag.com, January 28, 2013
The media may be puzzled by the emergence of anarchists in Tahrir, but the truth is that anarchism was behind the insurrectionary impulse from the start. When tens of thousands of Egyptians swarmed back into Tahrir Square on Friday to commemorate and continue the revolution that started two years ago, a remarkable and unexpected spectacle began to unfold itself. After two years of broken promises and continued state violence, a group of activists – vowing to protest fellow protesters — positioned themselves at the barricades dressed in black from head to toe, brandishing improvised flamethrowers and clubs, and wearing self-made security force uniforms.
When approached by journalists, the masked activists said they refused to talk to the media, but mysteriously “mentioned anarchism” as a source of inspiration for their tactics. A day before, the Associated Press already reported the emergence of a “previously unknown group calling itself the Black Bloc,” who had warned the Muslim Brotherhood not use its “military wing” to crack down on protesters and who claimed responsibility for recent fire-bombings of Muslim Brotherhood offices.
So what is the Black Bloc, and why is it suddenly emerging on the streets of Cairo? While commonly reviled by the liberal and conservative media as a hardcore wing of violent thugs, the Black Bloc is in reality not a clearly defined group but rather a tactic of direct action, whereby (sometimes militant but oftentimes peaceful) activists dress in similar clothing in order to present themselves as a unified front and to not be recognized by security forces. While most participants in Block Bloc actions explicitly oppose violent acts against people, targeted property destruction is one form of direct action that makes up the arsenal of their ‘diversity of tactics’.
In this respect, Egypt’s anarchists are clearly inspired by some of the Black Bloc tactics we have seen elsewhere: from the German autonomist Left of the 1970s to the alter-globalization movement and the Battle of Seattle in 1999, on to the more recent 2008 youth uprising in Greece in response to the police killing of 15-year-old Alexis Grigoropoulos. But while inspiration from movements elsewhere certainly played a role in the Black Bloc’s recent emergence in Cairo, the truth is that anarchism is not new to Tahrir. Indeed, anarchist activists, ideas and practices have been at the heart of Egypt’s leaderless popular uprising from the very start.
Many of the politicized football fans – the so-called ‘Ultras’ who gave the militant impetus for the overthrow of Mubarak – have long identified with anarchist ideas, while anarchism was one of the main sources of inspiration behind the April 6 Youth Movement, whose solidarity action with a factory strike in El-Mahalla El-Kubra in 2008 is commonly cited as an important antecedent of the 2011 uprising. The ranks of these movements have recently been strengthened by disillusioned youths who fought in the front-lines against Mubarak’s security apparatus, only to encounter the same state forces under Islamist rule. As one activist put it, “We are only ruled by bastards.”
Now that the Muslim Brotherhood has effectively halted the revolution’s “long march through the institutions”, and now that opposition parties have amply demonstrated their woeful inability to pose a credible counterweight to the forces of fundamentalism, many young Egyptians have simply lost their faith in the ability of representative institutions to realize the revolution’s demands for bread, freedom and social justice. In this era of shattered illusions, many of these young revolutionaries find that anarchism – with its radical emphasis on direct democracy, horizontal self-organization and mutual aid – provides the only hopeful alternative to further tyranny.
It is here that the struggle of the Egyptians begins to visibly connect with the ongoing struggles in the West. While Egyptian anarchists are taking an active stance to stamp out fundamentalist rule and state violence more generally, their counterparts across the Mediterranean are now one of the last remaining bulwarks against the spread of anti-immigrant violence in the streets of Athens. Members of the neo-Nazi Golden Dawn party have recently been implicated in racist attacks on non-Greeks, including Egyptian fishermen. But while the state sits back and allows Golden Dawn to infiltrate the police force, the anarchists have chosen to fight. Raiding Golden Dawn offices and riding through poor neighborhoods in thousands-strong anti-fascist motorcycle rallies, the Greek anarchists are now greeted as heroes by the city’s terrorized immigrant minority.
And what about the unmistakable anarchist roots of the most spectacular social movement to have emerged in the West in recent decades? As numerous observers and activists have noted, the refusal of Occupy Wall Street to make demands on the political class, its commitment to horizontal modes of consensus-based decision-making, and its emphasis on prefigurative politics gave Occupy not only its innovative character, but also made it resonate with frustrations about the crisis of representation elsewhere, allowing it wash across the globe like a tidal wave of popular indignation.
Unfortunately, there are still those who somewhat naively emphasize more old-fashioned, party-based and state-oriented models of political activism. Putting their faith in elected representatives or placing all their hope on abstract theories about the inevitability of some cataclysmic future Event, these ‘revolutionaries’ continue to rely on others to make the revolution for us. But as Tahrir transforms itself once more into the world’s forefront of popular resistance, an important message is clearly being driven home to us: in the globalized struggles of the 21st century, it is the anarchists who are carrying the revolution forward.