chapter  12
The Egyptian revolution and the problem of international solidarity
Pages 20

At the beginning of July 2013, in the midst of widespread debate about how to understand and respond to the aftermath of the 30 June uprising in Egypt, the Egyptian journalist and activist Hossam El-Hamalawy tweeted his very clear response to certain leftists who had been weighing in on events from the US and Europe: ‘The last thing I need is advice from US and European leftists over the Internet. Plz shut the fuck up and go make ur revolution in ur countries’.2 I am taking El-Hamalawy’s formulation as a point of departure for a number of reasons, not least his status as a commentator whose analyses have been widely read and admired by many of the leftists to whom he was responding. But my primary reason for beginning with this tweet is because it encapsulates many of the complexities, not only of this particular conjuncture in the larger course of the Egyptian Revolution, but also of the very notion of ‘international solidarity’ in our current moment. One of the most crucial of these complexities, which relates very directly to the events ongoing in Egypt as I write this, has to do with the problem of nationalism – and, by extension, of national revolution. If ‘international solidarity’, by definition, involves identifying a struggle being carried out by ‘others’ with whom ‘one’ stands in solidarity (the most common way of phrasing this is ‘their fight is our fight’), must this boundary be drawn along strictly national lines?3 To take the particular case of the Egyptian Revolution: if the founding statement of a form of solidarity to be practised by those outside Egypt were to be something like ‘the Egyptian Revolution belongs to the people who have made the Revolution’, then what would be the concrete nature of this solidarity, as compared to, say, a more abstract expression of general support or sympathy (or worse, as ElHamalawy complains, simply the unsolicited offer of ‘advice’)? If solidarity goes beyond mere sympathy to imply an active participation in the struggle, then does it not, in a best-case scenario, make all those involved in this struggle into stakeholders with shared interests and risks? But if we are invested in imagining this kind of solidarity with the Egyptian revolution, how can this solidarity, when it is being operated from the US and Europe, at the same time avoid those imperialist tendencies that feed into what Paul Gilroy has called postcolonial melancholia (Gilroy 2005)? Is solidarity necessarily and fatally tainted by the well-intentioned but very real currents of imperialist thinking that still haunt the

left in the US and Europe? If so, should solidarity abjure the notion of active participation in the struggles of distant others? Should true solidarity instead take the form, as El-Hamalawy implies, of making the revolution where you are, with the hope that local/national uprisings will find their natural linkages organically as they occur, or will inspire ‘revolutionary contagion’ elsewhere, in that way that the June 2013 Gezi Park uprisings in Turkey provided a form of inspiration for subsequent popular uprisings in Brazil (Yoruk 2013)? I do not pretend to have answers to these difficult political questions, which present themselves not only around the issue of international solidarity with the Egyptian Revolution but also around many of the ongoing global struggles and uprisings of this moment. Nevertheless, I do think we must do our best to address some of these complexities, as a way to begin to invest the notion of ‘standing in solidarity with’ struggles in Egypt (and elsewhere) with some sort of concrete political meaning. As a way to begin unpacking these questions, I will start by analysing the positioning and practices of political movements based in New York, specifically the Occupy movement, towards the Egyptian Revolution – or, to put it more poetically, I will think through the ways that the occupiers of Liberty Square tried to take up the challenge of joining the struggle that emanated from Tahrir Square. I am focusing on New York as a specific site, in part to avoid some of the common over-generalizations that are sometimes made regarding ‘Occupy’ as a global movement, but also as a gesture towards thinking solidarity along ‘translocal’ rather than ‘transnational’ lines. Here I am borrowing again from Gilroy’s terminology, since I share both his impulse to reinvigorate the very idea of global solidarity and his desire to avoid smuggling national boundaries back into the concept of solidarity, in the way that a term such as ‘transnational solidarity’ inevitably does. Gilroy diagnoses our moment as one in which solidarity has become suspect in many circles, ‘tainted’ as it is by symptoms of ‘imperial arrogance’ and ‘ethnocentrism’; as he notes, it has often come to be seen as the impulse ‘to make everybody essentially the same and in doing so, make them all “western” ’ (Gilroy 2005: 63). El-Hamalawy’s retort is aimed at least in part at this strand of imperial arrogance, which has underwritten many responses from the United States and Europe to events in Egypt, especially since 30 June 2013, with the clear implication that Egyptians need to be schooled in the importance of (Western) ideas of democracy. Gilroy certainly recognizes this undercurrent of imperial nostalgia that is so dominant in our political moment. But he refuses to give up on the internationalist underpinnings of the left, even as the failures of actually-existing internationalism continue to haunt the present. For Gilroy, the continuing promise of socialist, feminist, anti-racist and decolonizing social movements is that ‘they fostered a degree of disaffection from those who were close by but whose economic and political interests were at odds with their own’ and ‘turned away from the patriotism of national states because they had found larger loyalties’ (Gilroy 2005: 5). The seemingly paradoxical but ultimately promising premise of the term ‘translocal solidarity’ is that it contains within it a sense of other-thannational loyalties that are simultaneously smaller and larger than the nation-state;

it thus holds the potential to undermine ‘national belonging’ in favour of other forms of loyalty. So my analysis of the points of contact between movements in New York – specifically Occupy Wall Street (OWS) – and the uprising in Egypt will take New York and Cairo as two points of potential translocal solidarity, rather than dividing these two sites along national or ‘East-West’ lines.