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Arab Spring protest in S.F.: unexpected twist ending

June 16th, 2011 - 3:33 pm

Whenever I attend a political rally, I almost always know ahead of time whether or not I’ll agree with the protesters. The flyers or online notices usually make it very clear where on the political spectrum the organizers stand and what their stated goals are.

But last Saturday was different: A rally was scheduled for San Francisco’s Civic Center, and for the first time in a long while I didn’t know whether or not I sympathized with its intent.

The Facebook page announcing the event called it “San Francisco Rally and March for Democracy in the Middle East,” with a tagline that said,

Protest and march to stand in solidarity with the people of Syria, Libya, Yemen, Bahrain, and other countries in the region as they struggle against dictatorships and repressive governments.

Democracy? Opposing dictatorships? What’s not to like? So my first urge was to sympathize with the protest.

But then again…I scan the news each day, and I’ve read many essays from American analysts and pundits who worry that the “Arab Spring” may only serve to open the door to Islamic extremists seeking to seize control of various Arab countries. In other words, the revolutions wouldn’t necessarily get rid of totalitarian government as a concept; they might only replace one form of totalitarianism with another.

So, if the Arab Spring revolutions were successful, they could have two possible outcomes: “democracy” (assumed by most analysts to mean moderate/secular/flexible elected leadership); and “Islamic fundamentalism” (i.e. religiously based and inflexible).

I diagrammed the two possible options like so:

So I thought my task would be simple enough: attend the rally, and look for any evidence for Islamism. If they had flags/signs/chants or speeches championing Hezbollah or the Muslim Brotherhood or the like, then I’d have to conclude that the protesters were in favor of the fundamentalist outcome, and I’d be disappointed; but if they focused on the secular, then I could join in the protest with a clear conscience.


When I arrived, I was pleasantly surprised. There was no mention of Islam at all; just calls for political freedom and for overthrowing the Middle East’s various dictators and strongmen.


And it wasn’t focused on any one nation or region: There were flags and signs about Libya, Egypt and Tunisia in North Africa; Syria and Iraq in the Middle East; Yemen and Bahrain on the Arabian Peninsula; and others as well.


“Freedom, Justice, Democracy.” Hey, can’t argue with that.


“Stop Genocide”? Can’t argue with that either.


The rally was pretty small; somewhere around 100-200 people was my estimate. And most of the people in attendance were Middle Easterners themselves. And my first impression was that they wanted the same thing I do: a democratic and secular Arab world.


This impression was strengthened by the presence of Westernized young Arab women, such as the protester shown here on the left, who wore form-fitting clothes, sunglasses, smoked cigarettes, etc. — the kind of attitude that would be anathema to Islamic fundamentalists.


Even the young women who wore traditional head-coverings also wore makeup and tried to “look good” in the way that young women do in any secular society. And so I concluded: No way these people are Islamists. So the only other option is that they favor pro-Western democracies.

And here’s where our story takes an unexpected turn.


Not everyone at the rally was Middle Eastern. Around the periphery was a smattering of various non-Arab types, such as this schmuck showing off his hammer-and-sickle shirt.

And he wasn’t the only one.


Soon Code Pink showed up and attached themselves to the rally, unfurling a “Democracy Now” banner.


But then they flipped it around to show their true colors: “Thank You Wikileaks.”


The parade of parasitical leftists was just getting started. The International Communist League strolled around hawking their Workers Vanguard newspaper.


In fact, the more I looked, the more I saw non-Arab socialist/communist/leftist types hovering around the fringes. And I thought to myself, “Damn, these people are so annoying; they’ll show up at any rally, uninvited, and contaminate the proceedings with their leftist claptrap.” And I wouldn’t blame the Arabs for secretly resenting these political remoras.

At small rallies like this, I quickly run out of interesting things to photograph. And so, as often happens, I turn my camera to secondary, less noteworthy subjects, just so I don’t feel like I’m standing around passively while I ought to be doing something. Usually such second-tier images end up getting deleted when I’m back at home sorting through the pictures, but this time around, one of my most boring time-filling pictures turned out to be the key that unlocked the mystery of the whole rally. Here it is:


As you can see, for lack of anything better to do, I snapped a picture of some Middle-Eastern flags that the rally’s organizers had piled up on the ground. I was about to delete the image when something caught my eye: The flags all said “Please return – AROC.” Curious, I Googled AROC.

Bingo!

Turns out that AROC stands for Arab Resource and Organizing Center, a local San Francisco Arab political organization that was behind the rally.

What kind of Arab political organization, you might ask? Well, that’s where things get, shall we say, interesting.

No, they’re not Islamist. I was right about that. But a quick survey of their Web site revealed various buzzwords and telltale phrases:

“social justice”
“oppose all war and occupation”
“community organizer”
“LGBT”
“union organizing”
…and so on.

Furthermore, their “values” platform includes:

“1. Challenge the racism and religious discrimination.
2. Work to create an economically just world free from occupation and exploitation.
3. Oppose sexism, homophobia, classism, and ableism within our organization….”
…etc. They’re also stridently pro-Palestinian and demand the “right of return.”

And it dawned on me: These are the exact same phrases one sees spouted by American socialist and communist groups. And so these must be…Arab communists! [Slaps forehead.] Or, more precisely, Arab crypto-communists, since they take great pains in their literature to never say the c-word (or the s-word, for that matter). They say all the wink-wink nudge-nudge code phrases so like-minded far-left activists know how to identify fellow travelers, but keep the verbiage somewhat neutral so that mainstream freedom-minded Arabs might join up without full cognizance of the group’s true political slant.

(As a side note: I noted when I first arrived that the chants at the protest were the exact same chants I hear at leftist rallies, with the same rhythm and structure — but with the words changed. I assumed at first that this was coincidental, but I see now that it was likely intentional.)


So my original impression of the non-Arab leftist hangers-on was incorrect: the various Code Pinkers and communists probably all knew that the rally’s organizers were of a similar political orientation; and the AROC folks were glad to have fellow travelers on board, to at least beef up the protest’s numbers a bit.

But this brought up larger questions. It turns out that the diagram I presented above failed to include one of the options. According to the folks at this rally, there are three possible outcomes to the Arab Spring revolutions:

I distinguish “communism” from “democracy” because communism, by its own definition, is a “dictatorship of the proletariat”; according to theory, once a society goes communist, it never goes back, as other political parties are banned. (In practice, luckily, some communist countries have successfully reverted back to a democratic system. But that’s a different story.)

Of course, my diagram is a great simplification. A few extra steps are left out: What will likely happen, in most cases, is that the revolution will lead directly to simply a different kind of totalitarian government — a military dictatorship, for example. But in other cases, even if there is a brief moment of true democracy, the people may legitimately elect either an Islamist or a communist government, after which all future elections would be essentially cancelled as either Sharia Law or a dictatorship of the proletariat is implemented.

Now, as an aside, we should all remember the epic blunder made by the Iranian communists in the late 1970s. Both they and the Iranian Islamic fundamentalists wanted to kick out the pro-America Shah; but neither were on their own sufficiently powerful enough to get the job done. So the Iranian communists decided to join forces, albeit temporarily, with the anti-Shah Islamists, and together kick him out — on the presumption that when the revolution was over, the communists would either be able to outmaneuver the Islamists and seize complete control, or at worst enter into a sort of joint-rule arrangement that would presumably be an Islamo-communist hybrid.

Well, you know the rest of the story: Ayatollah Khomeini quickly cemented complete Islamic rule, and froze the communists out of power, killing some, jailing others, and driving the rest underground or out of the country.

I fear that Arab leftists may be repeating the same mistake this time around: Joining forces with the Islamists to expel the existing dictators, only to later see Islamic fundamentalists seize complete control, once again suppressing leftist parties even worse than they were suppressed in the first place. Ooops.

This may all be a pipe dream anyway: both my desire for pro-Western Arab democracies and the protesters’ desire for Arab communist states may simply be impossible. According to various political theories, Middle Eastern culture, with its emphasis on tribalist social structures, a fondness for class hierarchy, and an admiration for strength and power, among other attributes, may forever cling to the totalitarian model of government, and be incapable of ever implementing either a compromise-based flexible democracy, or the classless forced egalitarianism of communism.

And so, in the end, even though the San Francisco Arab Spring protesters were not Islamists, I still didn’t agree with them, because they were in favor of a heretofore unacknowledged third possible revolutionary outcome, which to me is only marginally preferable to the Islamist option.

Sigh.


Update:

Ringo experienced a similar dilemma at an earlier pro-Arab Spring rally in Los Angeles back in February.

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