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Students and Youth in the Egyptian Revolution

Egyptian Youth in Revolt

The Middle East and North Africa are currently in the midst of a surge in youth population: a baby boom started in the late '70s through the 1980s means that a huge proportion of these countries' populations are under the age of 30. As we saw in Iran in 2005, in Egypt in 2008 (the April 6 general strike) and across the North African nations this past month, youth are a destabilizing influence on the sclerotic and brittle institutions of authoritarian political and economic rule. Almost two-thirds of the Egyptian population are under the age of 30.

Beyond their numerical presence, other factors in the region have been threatening to light this powder keg for years. Youth unemployment across Arab nations is much higher than in other regions; even in the relatively calm economic waters of 2005, average unemployment among youth was 26%. Unemployment among 18-29 year-olds in Egypt right now stands at 25%.

As the population grows, so do those attending higher education in Egypt. While there are expensive private institutions, public universities in Egypt are largely free, save for registration fees. Egypt's largest universities are truly staggering in size: Alexandria University boasts 175,000 undergrads; Cairo University has 200,000; and Mansoura University in Mansoura City has over 300,000 students.

This combination of a well-educated and economically disadvantaged population means trouble for autocrats everywhere.

Unfortunately, English-language sources of information of what's going on at the Egyptian universities are very hard to come across. One article that stands out is a report from a professor at the American University in Cairo, via Al Jazeera:

LSE is Occupied! An Interview

2010 LSE Occupation

On December 2nd, students at the London School of Economics and Political Science occupied the Old Building on campus, demanding the Administration take a stand against the looming education cuts coming from Parliament. I chatted with occupying LSE students Isla Woodcock ('11), Emma Kelly ('12), and Alice Stott ('13).

FSP: So first off, what's the overall mood in the building right now? What are folks doing?

LSE: Very positive. The events team are drawing up a schedule for the week, others are drafting our statement.We're all ecstatic about getting official union backing this afternoon after a vote!

FSP: Yes, I read that! How much organizing for the occupation itself was done under the auspices of the student union? Or was it more of an independent grouping of student activists?

Support the Millbank Demonstrators - from the comfort of your own home!

The Telegraph is now asking for people to send in e-mails identifying student rioters at Millbank. The Social War Protetection Agency says 'hella fuck that'. We are asking anyone with free time to send an email, or ten emails, or hundreds of emails, or thousands of emails to studentriots@telegraph.co.uk with the name of your favorite imaginary persons. Keep homies out of jail. Jam! Jam! Jam!

I got this message forwarded to me via email. We all have at least one email account, and I'd wager most of us have quite a few! Now's the time to use them! A few tips:

Malcolm Gladwell's Soft Authoritarianism

Malcolm Gladwell has folks in a bit of a tizzy over his latest New Yorker essay, "Small Change: Why the Revolution will not be Tweeted." A lot of excellent writing has come out as a result. Zeynep Tufekci makes a whole slew of good points, especially with her analysis of strong and weak ties. My friend Angus Johnston over at Student Activism offers a corrective to Gladwell's narrow understanding of 1960s history and expands the notion of "social networking" to come to more interesting conclusions about activist organizing, past and present. There's also a great discussion going on in the comments section of thisAtlantic review of the essay.

In the interests of not reinventing the wheel, I'd like to do my part by taking a crack at one aspect of the essay I haven't yet seen anyone specifically take on, and it goes to the core of many of his assumptions about the nature of humanity and society.

In "Small Change," Gladwell presents us with a classic logical fallacy: the false dilemma. Inside the historical picture he paints, we can only choose:

  1. Decentralized networks, which are only good at tinkering with the system, or

  2. Top-down, hierarchical structures, which are all that can work if you want fundamental social change.

This, sadly, is all too expected for a writer like Gladwell, who cut his chops in large newspapers covering business news. (Imagine if this topic was written about by someone whose 10,000 hours were actually in social change organizing.) He constantly switches between critiquing social media and critiquing decentralized organizing, conflating them: he talks about Twitter in one moment and the PLO in the next. This allows him to construct some straw men that actually look like very convincing arguments, buttressing an altogether shaky proposition:

The drawbacks of networks scarcely matter if the network isn't interested in systemic change—if it just wants to frighten or humiliate or make a splash—or if it doesn't need to think strategically. But if you're taking on a powerful and organized establishment you have to be a hierarchy. [...]

Because networks don't have a centralized leadership structure and clear lines of authority, they have real difficulty reaching consensus and setting goals. They can't think strategically; they are chronically prone to conflict and error. How do you make difficult choices about tactics or strategy or philosophical direction when everyone has an equal say?

Gladwell meant for that question to be a rhetorical one, but it's a question that gets answered every day by activists and organizers across the globe. It's a question I've had the privilege of answering with a dozen friends and comrades in cramped church basements, in huge meeting halls with hundreds of people, over email lists, and via phone.

Examples abound of powerful and often successful social movements that rely on decentralized and non-hierarchical structures. Stretching back in history:

  • The 2001 revolts in Argentina, which resulted in the toppling of three governments in as many weeks and the popular seizure and takeover of factories by their workers;
  • The 1999 Seattle WTO protests, which were successful by just about any measure (they shut down the WTO meeting and landed the first serious blow against the Washington Consensus);
  • The Zapatista revolution in Chiapas, Mexico in 1994, which was fundamentally opposed to hierarchical models both in the society they desired and in the groups they used to fight for it;
  • The massive, nationwide strikes and protests in France, May 1968, which caught all the hierarchical standard bearers of social change by surprise (the French Communist Party and the trade unions), and used the social media of the time (broadsheet newspapers and short-range radio) to coordinate the actions of tens of thousands at a time;
  • The Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) in the 1960s, which, unlike King's SCLC, made decisions democratically among its members, using consensus process;
  • The early labor movement, which won great victories without any large institutional foundations or centralized leadership; and
  • The Underground Railroad, perhaps the best and most iconic counter-argument to Gladwell's insistence on the easy infiltration and defeat of decentralized networks.

Not only are there examples of democratic, decentralized social movements that succeeded, there are many counter-examples to Gladwell's paean to hierarchy. Just sticking to the Civil Rights movement: the Black Panther Party, which grew out of SNCC, was easily infiltrated and undermined in large part because of its rigid internal hierarchy and the secrecy among group elites that came with it. Gladwell's insistence that top-down is the only way to go has implications that reach far beyond the immediate subject of his essay. If the only functional organizations we encounter and participate in are hierarchical, then it's no surprise that we think such a model is a prerequisite for getting anything done. However history has also shown that anti-democratic means rarely result in democratic ends. How we organize is just as important as what we're organizing for, and thankfully we have plenty of more liberatory and empowering options than taking orders from the top.

I think Gladwell gets it right when he says that the revolution will not be tweeted. He is spot on when pointing out the media fabrication of the recent "Twitter revolts" in Iran and Moldova. Twitter and Facebook are tools that activists can use to supplement the tried-and-true tactics and strategies that have won victories for social movements in the past. They are a phenomenal way to access and augment the myriad weak ties that connect each of us to so many others. Any successful social movement will use these tools.

The revolution may not be tweeted, but I'm sure we'll get at least a few clever hashtags for it.

x-posted all over.

Toward a Student Unionism: New Pamphlet and Interview with Jasper Conner

Jasper Conner is an organizer with the Southern Appalachian Mountain Stewards, and a former SDS organizer at George Mason University and in DC. Jasper has just released a new pamphlet on student unionism. From the pamphlet:

If we are to address our common crisis as students, as current and future workers, as people living on this planet, we need to focus on building our power. Students are fighting amazing campaigns, but if we want to hold onto these changes, we have to organize beyond individual policy changes at our respective schools. We must organize for institutional power over our universities and create a way of holding onto that power.

Higher Ed Workshops at the 2010 U.S. Social Forum

Student Power: Organizing and Envisioning Democracy in Higher Ed

The 2010 U.S. Social Forum is almost upon us! The USSF is the next most important step in our
 struggle to build a powerful multi-racial, multi-sectoral, inter-generational,
 diverse, inclusive, internationalist movement that transforms this country and
 changes history.

When I first started compiling this list, I originally wanted it to be all student- & youth-related workshops at USSF. Then I looked at the list. There are literally hundreds of workshops that fall under that category: a hassle for me, but a wonderful sign for the left. In the interest of brevity and precision, I've listed here all the workshops that are focused at least partially on higher education issues and organizing.

As you can see, there are workshops looking at higher ed and students from just about every imaginable angle (and sadly you can also see how much scheduling overlap there is).

All the workshops are listed in chronological order, from Wednesday to Friday - the sole exception being the first entry, the Friday workshop I'm co-facilitating (blogmaster's prerogative!). Let me know if I've missed one, thanks!

See you all at USSF!

A Few Thoughts on Student Government Stipends

Most student governments with large enough budgets pay their members - usually executive positions, but sometimes members of the student legislature are compensated too. Their stated purpose is foremost explained as a way to make sure working class students aren't shut out of student government roles. Stipend use is an easy fix, and as with most easy fixes, it's also a shoddy one.

They are usually too small to be effective, and still wind up as play money for elites

Many of the stipends I've seen are entirely too small to replace even one of the several jobs that most working class students have in order to afford school. And even when they are large enough, stipends are never pegged to the office holder's income and wealth - a task that'd just take a stroll to the Financial Aid office to determine. So therefore the upper class kids who have the time and resources to actually campaign for office get this money as just another perk of the office (and for the Future Bureaucrats of America™, that's a lesson they learn quickly). It also means incumbents have yet another material advantage over challengers. If there is a student government that does have a sliding scale stipend, please let me know. I'd love to learn more about it.

Quebec Student Unions: History, Structure, and Strategy

Simon Gosselin, François Carbonneau, Richard Huot & Caroline Bourbonnais came to the Students for a Democratic Society 2009 Northeast Convention to speak about radical student unionism in Québéc.

They make important distinctions between the situations in Québéc and the U.S. - but just as important are the commonalities we all face as students in universities, and it's those commonalities that demand we learn what we can from their past and current struggles (especially because they have a much better knack at winning). Below is the first of 8 segments: you can view them all in a row here on YouTube.

March 4: Quick Update from Berkeley

5:20pm EST: I just got off the phone with a friend on the ground at a march at Berkeley; she's saying several thousand people are marching right now, down to Oakland. There have been lots of flying strikes - spontaneous mini-rallies in auditoriums, halls, and classrooms.

One of the best stories I've heard from the actions today happened during this march. As the students marched past a local middle school, at least a dozen kids ran out (some climbing over the fence) and joined the procession. They said that the protesters are "defending our future," and that risking a 3 day suspension was worth it, because if things keep up the way they are, they won't be able to afford college at all.

I'll post more as I learn more, particularly about the middle school students. I wish I could say I had the cojones to skip out of school and join a march when I was their age.

Photos from UMass Boston Rally & March

Dozens of students, faculty and allies held a rally and march today from Noon to 2:00 at UMass Boston. There was a brief session of speakers on the megaphone, a few rounds of circular picketing, and then the march began.

The chanting crowd snaked through several campus buildings, including the student center and two classroom buildings. While inside the classroom halls students chanted "out of the classrooms, into the halls!" and banged on classroom doors. At least a few students obliged and left their classes, joining the march.

A teach-in on the crisis is being held now, from 4:00 - 6:00.

Find out more about March 4 actions and events happening across the country here and here.

A few workers helped get the crowd energized:

Students protest at UMass Boston

Students protest at UMass Boston

Students protest at UMass Boston

Students protest at UMass Boston

UMass hearts California

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