Lessons from Egypt on Organizing the Resistance

BY KELLY COGSWELL | Six years ago last week, on January 25, 2011, mass demonstrations began in Egypt that would topple the corrupt, brutal regime of Hosni Mubarak. Following the lead of Tunisia, demos were at first just inspired by, and reported on, social media. After a couple days, they became so big even Egypt’s official radio and TV were forced to acknowledge them.

Inspired by hearing about the huge crowds, even more protesters joined in, demanding “Bread, Freedom, and Social Justice” and the end of the regime. A few weeks later, protesters had taken to the streets in such vast numbers, everything ground to a halt, and Mubarak stepped down.

The lesson here, if we hadn’t learned it before from the Tea Baggers or the black Civil Rights Movement or a host of others, is that resistance doesn’t require political savvy or pollsters, just large numbers of pig-headed participants willing to face down the state again and again. Already, after two days of mass protests in airports all over the country, and some brave judicial rulings, Trump was forced to reverse at least part of his executive order banning Muslim immigrants.


This gives me hope that we may actually be able to fend off the worst under Trump and Pence if we’re on the streets every day for two years, for four, for eight, saying no to everything. Making nuisances of ourselves. Trampling Trump even if he miraculously promises to undo trade deals we don’t like, suddenly reverses himself on walls, makes the trains run on time. We have to stand in the way, literally.

But we also have to start thinking of the future. Because if Egypt teaches us about the effectiveness of protest and direct action, it also warns us to be prepared not just for disaster, but victory. There, where it came so quickly, demonstrators were taken by surprise. Young activists and bloggers didn’t have either the skills or desire to become parliamentarians. No central unifying figures emerged, and the military quickly moved into the power vacuum and seized control.

While the US doesn’t necessarily face a military dictatorship, we do face a profound crisis of leadership among both conservatives and progressives. Neither seems able or willing to stand up to Trump. And if we don’t have a plan, and participants, to repair our damaged country, another radically far right win is not just possible but inevitable in the long run, with even more disastrous results.

This time, even a moderate Democrat as POTUS won’t be enough. Obama’s election did end eight years of a torture-apologist, Constitution-eroding Bush, but did little to restore our civil liberties taken away under the guise of security, little to reverse the gerrymandering of election districts. Neither did it end dirty votes in places like Florida, which was what put Bush in the White House to begin with.

Queers were as bad as anybody. We breathed a quick sigh of relief then pushed successfully for our legal rights like marriage. We did too little of that grassroots organizing that is essential in building broad movements and giving social change deep roots. The faces of our organizations remained far too white, far too cis male. We understood “inclusive” as an advertising concept, not something that ties us to other communities and makes us strong.

Activists, too, sometimes seem to misunderstand “intersectional,” as the obligation to make laundry lists that just produce new pecking orders. To survive this time, we have to truly understand — beyond emotions and ideology –– how we’re in this together, how we’re all relying on the health of democratic institutions for the basic tools of social change, like free speech and assembly, voting, the judiciary. No more asking what’s the difference between Hillary and Trump? What are a few Supreme Court nominees?

As a result of our short-sightedness (and a lot of help from Putin and Assange), we find ourselves facing a total breakdown of democracy, from attacks on an independent press to the dismantling of our procedural safeguards, with no real opposition in sight. For the moment, New York’s Kirsten Gillibrand is the only senator voting against all of Trump’s nihilistic appointees, whose mission is not to administer departments, but to dismantle them.

If we want to save our country, we have to quickly identify candidates who don’t need to register a certain number of phone calls to know that bans on Muslim immigration are moral, legal, and security disasters. That the head of the Justice Department should care about justice. That the head of the Department of Ed should know something about education. Or that the head of the Environmental Protection Agency should accept scientific fact and consensus just like Mike Pence accepts Jesus Christ as his lord and savior.

Any congressmember willing to collaborate with these anti-immigrant, anti-queer, anti-education, anti-science, white Christian nationalist monsters needs to be sent home on the next bus. And if we can’t find enough candidates, we have to be willing to run ourselves.

Kelly Cogswell is the author of “Eating Fire: My Life as a Lesbian Avenger,” from the University of Minnesota Press.