Abandon All Hope Ye Who Protest Here
What Hong Kong's Occupy Central can learn from the Tahrir Square uprising.
The nine-day-long protests for more democracy in Hong Kong are starting to lose steam, but hundreds of occupiers remain on the streets. As one of the so-called "voices" of the January 25 uprising, I can’t help but notice how similar the images coming out of Hong Kong have been to those produced by Cairo’s Tahrir Square uprising during those 18 days in 2011.
Inspirational panoramic shots of massive protests; youth in revolt using Twitter and Facebook to get the world to hear their voice against a repressive regime; and scenes that were sometimes celebratory and festive (in both cases, including at least one wedding). While both situations couldn’t be more different in terms of background, stakes, and goals, they do share one element: Both are largely dominated by passionate youth who are laying it on the line for a better future against insurmountable odds.
They say failure is the best teacher. Although we managed to unseat the dictator Hosni Mubarak, his regime stayed intact, and after the Muslim Brotherhood’s disastrous one-year rule, it now sidelines all conversations about freedom of speech and democracy. Given how spectacularly Jan. 25 failed at reaching its goals of social justice and human dignity, here are some lessons one hopes are useful to the tens of thousands of brave souls who protested in Hong Kong.
1. Do not count on the international community’s support.
Receiving international support for your cause is always nice, but counting on it to actually help is wishful thinking. The international community espouses many platitudes it never actually enforces or backs for all sorts of realist considerations — and being on China’s bad side is something no American leader can countenance. Even Egypt, with its reliance on U.S. aid, massive debt, and dependency on Western tourism managed to get its way despite international pressure.
Nations of the world are far less willing to offend China than Egypt. This is not only due to economic considerations, but also because of the lack of any real or effective measure they could actually take against China even if they wanted to. No one loses a strategic ally for a bunch of protesters. Know that.
2. The world’s attention span is very limited.
Just like the world is watching Hong Kong now, the world also watched the drama of those 18 days in Cairo unfold across its television screens. It was — as an American friend put it to me — "mighty good TV." And then it was over. Some people still cared, but as time went on and brutality increased — the burned churches, the football riots, the mass sentences — everyone else changed the channel. You have the world’s attention now. Soon very few people will care. Now is the time to communicate your message.
3. Do not allow the government to manipulate you.
Governments stay in power through the manipulation of their citizens, and that holds true from Norway to North Korea. Holding giant protests and sit-ins without a proper leadership structure makes you vulnerable to government manipulation and character assassination: If you can’t define who you are, the government will define it for you. They will try and turn the most obnoxious and radical of protestors into the face of your movement.
This becomes especially true if your protest drags on, inconveniencing the same people whose support you desperately need. You then lose control of the message — and it’s surprisingly easy for the government to shift focus to a side issue the government created or is happy to exploit.
The moment in 2011 when the goal of "ending military rule and cleaning the state from corruption" became "ending military trials for civilians," marked the moment that Jan. 25 was effectively over. Four years later, there are no military trials for civilians, but there are civilian trials for civilians — like the one that issued 529 death sentences in March 2014, something no military trial judge ever did.
Another favorite government tactic is publicly calling for dialogue, while simultaneously arranging for mobs to physically attack protestors — thus forcing demonstrators to refuse dialogue and appear unreasonable, as seemed to happen on Oct. 3 in Hong Kong. The government looks reasonable, and you look unreasonable and thuggish.
4. Know who is with you on the local level.
I’ve been in dozens protests and sit-ins, all mobilized through social or regular media. Being able to mobilize through media is great, but being able to mobilize without media is even better. One of the problems of the Jan. 25 movement was that its leaders didn’t bother to find out which locals — people living in the same building, or on the same street — supported their cause.
Knowing who in your area is with you enables more efficient mobilization, and allows better opportunities to persuade doubters to join your side. That’s the difference between "moving the street" and "moving in the street" — the former has the power to get people into protests, the latter only has power if people are already doing the former. We depended on the latter, and that’s why our influence quickly evaporated.
5. Do not allow internal or external forces to separate you from the people.
While you may be fighting for the rights of Hong Kong citizens, many of your fellow citizens might not want to fight. The government will use that to paint you as "different," "foreign-funded," or "extremist," to create a divide between you and the rest of the people.
Deriding those who won’t join your cause is the easiest way to lose unity and foster discord, and it becomes second nature the more escalated and emotional the battle gets. If you are living under an authoritarian regime, your people are already disrespected on daily basis — disrespecting them further will alienate them.
6. Do not count on your opponent to think rationally.
The articles that discuss how much the Chinese government has to lose if they violently crush your protests are as reassuring to you as they are useless. Sure, massacring you in the streets may mean that they could lose face and tarnish their reputation, but Beijing will do whatever it needs to maintain power in Hong Kong, just like the military did in Egypt, even when it cost the regime billions of dollars in aid. Intelligence is not a dependable countermeasure to brutality.
7. Abandon all hope.
Unlike what common wisdom would suggest, hope is not useful in the battle you are fighting. Hope is fleeting and going into battle with a heightened sense of expectation is a surefire path to defeat. Determination wins wars, not hope. And whether you like it or not, yours may end in a week, a month, even a decade. So please, stick to determination, it will get you further than hope ever will.
8. Aim for more, but know what to settle for.
It becomes second nature to raise the stakes in order to maintain momentum. If you have to do so, remember what you say you want, and to know what you will settle for.
Don’t be ashamed by settling; it’s better than losing everything.