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

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.