Could We Please Have the Next Capitol Climate Action in Cairo?


“We are the ones we’ve been waiting for.” -Judy Bonds

Pay attention. A critical learning moment for the climate and environmental movements is unfolding before us in cities across Egypt.

Egyptians are taking their country back. Hundreds of thousands are sick of the strong-armed 30 year bullshit rule of faux pharaoh Hosni Mubarak and the Egyptian ruling class. Sparked by the Tunisian revolt which ended a 23 year old US backed authoritarian regime weeks ago, the youth-led protests have taken over the streets of Egypt and are close to toppling Mubarak.

The majority of the secular pro-democracy demos have been mostly peaceful with relatively low numbers of casualties after less than a week of revolt. (Note: It appears that Egyptian government forces are beginning to use deadly force more often.) They have not taken offensive action against police and military forces that are mostly comprised of poor conscripts. Most of the clashes have happened when police attempted to disperse the crowds or force them from bridges and spaces they are determined to hold. But the crowds only have grown larger and more defiant. In fact, in some cases, the opposite is happening, in scenes reminiscent of the film V for Vendetta, police officers have been seen laying down their batons, stripping off their uniforms and joining the protesters. Soldiers are joining hands with protesters saying “The army and the people will purify the country.

The rising tide of a people’s movement, like in Egypt, seeking justice and democracy is not an uncommon global phenomenon in the past 20-plus years, but the question for those of us seeking climate justice and climate action: How do we build North American People Power to dismantle the fossil fuel economy like the Egyptians are dismantling Mubarak’s dictatorship? How do we organize a hundred Capitol Climate Actions democratically, from the bottom up, with effective mass direct action and sustained momentum like Egyptian comrades are doing today?

Video of Egyptian Pro-Democracy Protesters Forcing Riot Police to Retreat on Cairo’s Kasr Al Nile Bridge

via understory.ran.orgA few quick lessons from Egypt come to mind:

  • Be Realistic, Demand the Impossible. Egyptians are demanding an end to Mubarak’s rule. Nothing less. A pretty big demand for a strong man who has ruled for 30 years and gets $1.5 billion annually in U.S. military aid. Yet, they seem to be on track to getting it. Why isn’t the climate movement organizing masses into the streets with strong demands for action on coal and oil, an end to the corporate rule that protects them? Demand the abolition of mountaintop removal, not increased regulation of it. Don’t just regulate greenhouse gas emissions; demand the dismantling of the existing coal plant infrastructure. Demand a corporate “death sentence for criminal companies like Massey Energy and BP. Demand a reallocation of resources from fossil fuel companies to communities poisoned and destroyed by fossil fuel extraction and combustion.
  • If People Power leads, than the “leaders” will follow. Political parties and non-profits are NOT driving the Egyptian uprising, it’s People Power. Youth, elders, middle class, poor, religious and secular. The established opposition groups only joined in after the masses took over the streets in Cairo, Alexandria and Suez calling for Mubarak’s ouster. In North America, Corporate America, the political establishment and the media has convinced us that national politicians and well paid non-profit staff are the change agents we’ve been waiting for. They aren’t. Thus far, they’ve only delivered epic failures in Copenhagen and Washington D.C. Don’t let the priorities of big well resourced institutions trump planetary or community survival.
  • Make direct action the organizing strategy, not just a tool in the toolbox. I’m pretty sick of hearing how direct action is just a “tool in our toolbox.” It’s quite apparent that Egyptian youth have taken on an organizing strategy of “mass confrontational non-violence.” Now hundreds of thousands are involved. Similar to other mass movements in Serbia (ousted Milosevic,) El Alto, Bolivia (booted out Bechtel,) and the WTO in Seattle (shut them down and sent them into a tailspin,) mass sustained direct action is a strategy we use to build real movements, change power dynamics, shift societies and remove governments. Today, direct action groups on the ground in West Virginia, Alberta, Idaho and Montana are waging sustained direct action campaigns against coal and oil. They are the building blocks for a massive direct action movement on climate justice. Let’s help them build power.
  • Let the internet be the means, not the end. Egyptian organizers initially used Facebook and Twitter as tools to turn people out until the government shut down large portions of the internet nationwide. Now they are using old fashioned face to face organizing, flyers and zine style direct action handbooks. Regardless of the tool, the story of an oppressive regime was widely known and resonated with millions; at that point people just need to know where to show up whether it is via the internet, phone call or carrier pigeon.
  • And finally, tell us a story. Grassroots movements tell their best stories through action. Egypt has told the story of a corrupt repressive U.S. backed regime through the actions of hundreds of thousands. My friend David Solnit writes: “The Zapatista uprising of 1994 was an incredible and contagious story that re-defined the post-Cold War reality. The Seattle direct action shut down was another powerful story whose significance is constantly under attack from The New York Times and the forces of corporate reality.” Anti-mountaintop removal activists tell their stories through tree-sits on strip mined mountains and climbing on top of earth destroying draglines. A people powered climate movement will tell that a story of dismantling fossil fuel infrastructures and seeking justice for frontline communities.

We’re racing against time. Big Oil and King Coal are waging war on our planet and its people without mercy and without quarter. In contrast to Mubarak, they are the global oppressors holding back our future and it’s time to rise up against these corporate megalomaniacs. A global movement of climate justice organizers and direct actionistas has been building People Power against the root causes of climate change.

Let’s take Egypt’s struggle global. Who’s with us?

(Disclosure: I am employed by a not so small green NGO, but have been rooted in grassroots direct action movements for justice, equality and environmental sanity for over ten years.)

7 Responses to “Could We Please Have the Next Capitol Climate Action in Cairo?”

  1. 1 Joe Rinehart Jan 29th, 2011 at 9:53 pm

    All good points but the very real difference between any possible climate oriented actions/uprisings here and Egypt is that they have what is in fact a relatively simple (if demanding) ask. “Put in place the preexisting theoretical framework for our system of governance”. They are in fact using direct action to make space for a system to work the way it is already supposed to. They want representative democracy and capitalism, a system most of the world already has. This system will not in fact serve them well in the long term (and given the example of South Africa possibly not even in the short term).

    Any ask in terms of climate must necessarily be much, much more complex. Either the technically difficult (impossible) but socially simple “construct an economy that provides us with our current level of consumption without causing climate change” or the socially complex (and desirable) and technically doable “construct a society that meets our non-material needs through non-material ends and therefore massively cuts consumption to end climate change.” Both of these are far more long term struggles that can’t be accomplished via short term popular uprising. While it is amazing to watch how quickly the belief in apathy fades away (I look forward to seeing this example being quoted by the Insurrectionists soon) we should remember that different asks mean differently shaped struggles.

    The challenge here lies in your question “How do we build North American People Power to dismantle the fossil fuel economy.” Simply put we don’t. If one dismantles a system without putting a new one in place the same types of systems simply flow back into place, leaving the same elite groups in power. The Capital Climate Action is a great example. It by now should be evident that that was no “victory” for the climate movement. Changing Mountain Top Removal for Fracking is no victory, only a movement of fossil fuel based oppression underground, to the rural rather than mountain poor.

    In order to build a victorious movement for climate justice we must build a movement for direct, local, democratic control of our economy, of our land, of systems of governance. The extent to which we separate the struggle to defend our communities from a struggle to control our communities is the extent to which both struggles can be co-opted and made useless.

    “You never change things by fighting the existing reality.
    To change something, build a new model that makes the existing model obsolete.”
    — Richard Buckminster Fuller

    p.s. I’m loving all the great footage and hope of a popular uprising in Egypt as much as anyone, but I also am worried that when the tear gas clears they will be no better off than we are in America, stuck with a representative government controlled by elites. Developing world struggles aimed at moving countries toward emulating our model can only be of limited use to those of us who know how useless it really is.

  2. 2 Scott Jan 30th, 2011 at 4:07 am


    Egyptians already have capitalism, that’s why they have an alienated middle and upper middle class in the streets with the poor, that’s why the ruling class is flying to Dubai and Europe to escape the unrest and that’s why western tourists go there every year to see the Pyramids and spend money. as to your other assertion, what is this “representative democracy” that you speak of?

    Currently, they don’t have a representative democracy ruled by elites, they have a benevolent dictatorship ruled by elites. My question is when you are sitting on the opposite end of a gun, what’s difference? the US has spent 1.5 billion a year for the past 30 years or so on Egypt. it’s been military spending and they haven’t even been at war. do you think the CIA and the Defense Dept. is gonna walk away from that? representative gov’t or dictatorship, the US will still call the shots. it’ll be a bloodbath before it becomes a real democracy that kicks the US out.

    We can debate the finer points of the next moves of the climate justice movement next time we see each other in person.

    My biggest frustration is why aren’t you on this blog sharing your brilliance with us on a regular basis?

  3. 3 Jasper Jan 31st, 2011 at 2:26 am

    Good article mr sparki

    I hear where yr coming from Joe, this revolt definitely seems to be aimed at establishing some sort of representative democracy that will co-opt this mass movement, a democracy that capital will learn to use to deepen and strengthen its exploitation of working people. but at the same time, representative democracy is better than dictatorship. Also, mass political education takes place in instances like this, once they oust Mubarak and establish some parlimentary system that leaves them just as poor, a lot of people will shift to the left and start questioning the existence of classes and the need for a state.

    I think Ashanti Alston has it right with the title of this article he wrote, “Beyond nationalism, but not without it.” This won’t solve all the problems, or even most of them, but its a step and this step has tons of lessons for the people taking it to learn from and expand their praxis.

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Scott Parkin is a Senior Campaigner with Rainforest Action Network and organizes with Rising Tide North America. He has worked on a variety of campaigns around climate change, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, mountaintop removal, labor issues and anti-corporate globalization. Originally from Texas, he now lives in San Francisco.

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