Sunday, December 11, 2011
First of all, thank you very much everybody for coming here. I had no way to expect if I would get an audience of two or twenty, and it turned out to be more than twenty. I’m very happy about that. Thank you very much to Joyce Dalsheim and Gregg Starrett for inviting me here. And thank you to the University of North Carolina, and the Department of Anthropology and the Department of Global, International and Area Studies. This is a wonderful occasion to try to make some general sense of something which is very confusing: anthropological fieldwork in times of political and social transition. I have been writing a blog, and in every blog entry I have been presenting a different theory that has contradicted the previous day. It is very difficult to make any general kind of theory these days, but I’ll try to take the challenge offered to me in the shape of this presentation, and do some of that.
I’ll start with a little jump to history, because I think that the question which I try to tackle, which is that of the possible - the question: What is to be done? What can one do? Can what I do make a difference? Do I have a choice, and what kind of choices do I have? - is a question that was perhaps theoretically developed in relation to the revolutions more than hundred years ago by Vladimir Ilyich Lenin, the to-be leader of the Russian revolution, who in 1901 wrote his very influential pamphlet What is to be done? It is an interesting book to read for various reasons, and I want to open up with it, because he really poses the revolutionary question about the possible in a sense that deals with the tactics, and the conditions one must be able to create to change the paths of action.
Lenin’s book is basically a critique of the social democratic movement, it’s all about polemics against other socialists, and as such it is not very interesting for readers of our times. But it becomes interesting when he argues why the social democratic movement needs a vanguard of professional revolutionaries - because that is Lenin’s answer to the question about hat is to be done: In order to have socialism one must be able to create a vanguard of professional revolutionaries who are able to spread propaganda to all sorts of classes, and when the breaking point of the system comes, they are there, ready to take over. But Lenin also says is that this is a dream. This is a wildly unrealistic, fantastic kind of expectation: to have an all-Russian socialist newspaper, and a secret party apparatus that is there everywhere. But he says: It is a dream, and a revolutionary movement must be able to dream. If it doesn’t, it will become the victim of its own caution.
Lenin’s pamphlet is worth reading also in 2011, the year of the Arab uprisings, for various reasons. One reason is that he was successful. His plan actually worked out. And second, because his success was a terrible one. Lenin offers us a key question: What is to be done? - and a key clue, which is dreaming, fantasy. But he also offers us the historical case of a successful revolution that resulted in a devastating civil war, and, less than twenty years later, in the mass terror by Stalin that killed tens of millions of people. So it is also a very good reminder not to be too romantic about revolutions.
There are moments when revolutions are necessary, and in the Middle East it has come to this point. But even when they are necessary and justified, they are terrible. Things get destroyed, people get killed, and in the end the wrong people seize the power. This has happened in Egypt. The economy is at a standstill. At least a thousand people have been killed. And there seems to be no immediate end to the violence as long as the country is ruled by a military dictatorship that is very brutal in the ways it deals with protests. And it looks like Egypt will be governed for the next couple of years by an uneasy alliance of military rule and Islamist parties. All in all it would look like one should make a sceptical assessment of the current state of the revolution. At the same time, I must add that as a researcher I am a very decided supporter of the Egyptian uprising - so much that in my own work this year it has become very difficult to distinguish between ethnographic analysis and revolutionary propaganda. But I do not support the idea of the Egyptian revolution or the Arab uprisings for their own sake. There is nothing in revolutions that would be valuable for their own sake. They are valuable only insofar they open spaces that didn’t exist before: space to think, to say, to pursue things, to realise things that were inconceivable, or at least unlikely or frustrating just a year ago. And this has definitely changed.
This year in Egypt has been a time of transition when all kinds of people have been struggling with this question, which in Arabic is actually a proverbial question: eh il-‘amal? What is to be done? It is a vast field but I will take us through three concrete case studies which I run through quite hastily: One is revolutionary action; the other one is the dream of the Islamic state; and the third one is literary fantasy. They are all related in quite interesting ways.
Revolutionary action is the one which you probably all are better informed about, because it has been very present in the media in the shape of Tahrir Square, in the shape of witty revolutionary activists who speak good English and very capable of conveying their message to the world audience - an important role! It has now become fetishised, it has become copied by various kinds of social protest, it has become a tourist product. The American University in Cairo Press is selling not less than three different glossy coffee table books about the revolution. But it is important to remember that when it originally happened, its power was in its surprising nature. It took everybody by surprise. It took the government by surprise, it took ordinary people by surprise, it took - and this is the most interesting thing - the revolutionaries themselves by surprise.
People went out on the streets not knowing what would happen, not expecting what they could possibly accomplish (inspired and hopeful, however, by the example already set by the Tunisian revolution), but simply angry and frustrated about years and years of social experience that offered them over and over again great expectations of good life and over and over again had disappointed these expectations. People were combining an extreme sense of anger and frustration with a very simple step to occupy the streets that had not been possible in Egypt before. The moment it became possible, the entire picture changed. It required very little in material terms. It required simply the possibility of enough people to occupy streets and to hold out against the police - which had been impossible since 1977, when there was the last uprising in Egypt, which failed. This very moment created a completely new situation, so much that it has become a sort of fantastic, utopian, almost religious moment. Ever since the protesters were able to occupy Tahrir Square in Cairo and other squares across the country, this moment of standing in the square has developed into something that now is an essential part of any idea of changing the country by means of revolution.
When I talk about revolution, I refer specifically to a group of people whom I describe as radical revolutionaries, those people who expect the country to fundamentally change, the people to change, the way the country is governed to change. It is not necessarily related to a political agenda. Most people who feature as radical revolutionaries would in Egyptian terms be liberal or left, but there are also Islamists among them who believe in religious government but don’t believe in the established Islamist parties. This radical revolutionary group, which is a small minority - I think the active core is maybe tens of thousands in a country of 80 million people, and its wider supporters may be about a quarter of the population - has turned this moment of standing in the square into a dynamic continuously surprising momentum that has at the same time amazing powers and deep limits.
Its primary power lies in its spontaneous and surprising nature. We saw this in the 18 days of the revolution in January and February when this ongoing pressure from the street made any attempt to strike a nice neat deal between the government and the opposition impossible, because there was nobody to speak to. There was no revolutionary leadership that could sell the revolution. The movement could not be betrayed by its leaders because it did not have any. This has repeatedly happened, most recently in the events this November, when very brutal violence by the Military Police did not crush the revolutionary movement. Instead of running away and being scared, people flocked into the square. There was again a spontaneous reaction. This has created a form of spontaneous resistance that is able to thwart any attempt of authoritarian restauration, over and again.
However, we should be very careful not to glorify this standing on the square too much. When I speak with people there, there is sometimes this idea that this square is what it’s all about. In order to change the country we need to have revolution, we need to have more revolution. It becomes limiting. When we go back to one year ago, nobody could really even dream of this moment. Now that it has become not only possible but material, it has gained such power over the radical revolutionaries’ imagination, that it has become difficult for them to think of any other way of changing this country.
This has become very evident in the elections where the revolutionary fraction received a fraction of the vote that is actually less than their already small numbers. Most of the revolutionaries failed (or refused) to participate in any kind of election campaigning because they were distrustful of the parties, considering all the parties corrupt and interested in sharing the cake of power and not interested in what the people need - which is all true. If you distrust the Islamist parties in Egypt you should see who is running Egypt’s liberal party: Egypt’s second richest man. There is not much to be expected from that side either. But this distrust also means that there is an incapability of taking to the streets outside the square. It is related to the difficulty of organisation, it is related to lack of funds - for example, certain groups have huge amounts of money. Other groups don’t. When it comes to spreading leaflets, you need to print them and you need to pay money for that. It becomes quite a concrete problem.
Occupying the square is a very ambiguous form of social protest and of changing the country. This was very much seen in the events of the end of November when at first, a new uprising took surprised everybody. Friday 18th of November witnessed big demonstrations which were lead by Islamist parties who were using these demonstrations in order to strike a better power sharing deal with the military, in which they seemed successful. These were cautious demonstrations, and the supporters of the Islamist parties were not making any chants aimed directly against military rule, only against certain ministers. That evening, I was in Alexandria, and some of the young leftists - who had also been in the demonstration but had left it early because they found that the Salafis, the radical Islamists, were dominating it - were very pessimistic. Their sensibility was that the revolution had now really lost. Next day, one hundred and fifty people staged a sit-in in Tahrir Square. The police came to break the sit-in with force, but these one hundred and fifty people were enough to create a momentum where thousands of angry people flocked into Tahrir Square, entered a days-long fight with the police whereby more than forty, possibly one hundred protesters were killed, and forced the Military Council to change the cabinet (even if that of course means nothing). There was a huge breakup of the situation, everybody was shaking - end then the elections came.
This time, the protesters were surprised. They had surprised themselves, surprised the government, surprised the Muslim Brothers who had become very defensive. They had seized the momentum, they had once again half a million people on the square, then came election day. The revolutionaries had thought that the elections will fail, that the Military Council doesn’t want to let them go through anyway, that they will sink in a wave of violence, that the elections are pointless. The elections were successful. There was a 62% voting turnout in the first round, which in Egypt is a historical record - usually the voting turnout been more like 6,2%. It broke the neck of the new uprising because people were suddenly happy. They were happy that they could vote. And in order to have an uprising you need people to be angry.
So again, there was a new surprising moment which showed that the way to the square lacked the capacity, the imagination to go other ways. The revolutionaries standing in the square at that moment actually lacked the fantasy to realise what the elections could possibly mean for Egyptians.
The elections are now bringing a landslide victory of Islamic religious parties. I was just reading the results of the first round - we don’t have the final results because the elections take place in three rounds, different provinces voting at different times (the electoral law requires every polling station to be supervised by a judge and there are not enough judges in the country). One third of Egypt’s provinces have voted now. The results show that about sixty per cent of the vote of the party lists go to two Islamist party alliances, one of them the Muslim Brotherhood who are conservative, and one of them the Salafis who are badass fundamentalists. This has completely surprised some people, but anybody who has actually been following the situation in the streets has not been surprised at all. Actually the Muslim Brotherhood got less votes than one would think. With 36% of the vote, they actually did badly. They should have gotten 50%.
In a country that just had a revolutionary uprising against a corrupt system that was not an uprising in religious terms but one in terms of social justice, or freedom, or human dignity, why did people vote for Islamic parties? One of them, the Muslim Brotherhood, supported the revolution (but sided with the Army very soon afterwards), the other, the Salafis, were actually supporting Mubarak. Why did people vote for them?
The first thing to remember is of course, again, that the revolutionaries are actually a minority in Egypt. The majority of people were never quite that enthusiastic about the revolution. They were enthusiastic once it was successful, but as long as it was still happening they were rather afraid. But there is more to it than that. It is important to realise that this sort of revolutionary enthusiasm and action was not the only thing that has been going on in Egyptian society. Lots of other things have been happening.
One of the things that have been happening for decades is a sense of a moral crisis. Of course, moral crisis is nothing special. People who study morality say that they have never encountered any society that does not have a moral crisis of some sort. Describing things as being in a crisis seems to be essential to moral imagination. But I would say that there has been a serious moral crisis that has to do with the fact that traditional Egyptian conservative, very family-oriented, very much relying on patriarchal alliances, clear hierarchies of age and gender, has become more and more destabilised, first by Arab socialism in the 50's and 60's, and then in a more subtle way by consumer capitalism since the 1970's. It has made people to live more individualised lives, and it has made people’s livelihood in most cases immoral, illegal, and against Islamic principles: stealing, taking bribes, cheating, all kinds of questionable stuff. This is a society where there has emerged an enormous expectation for something that is morally sound. And Islamists can offer that promise. They offer a God-fearing government, a government that is morally sound and does not steal from its citizens.
This is another great dream, one that has not been so much the dream of the people who went out to the streets against Mubarak, but the dream of a much vaster part of the population: Can’t we just have a leadership that is good? Can’t we have a pious, decent person running this country? This is a different kind of dream as compared to the revolutionary dream of transforming the ways in which the country is governed (one focussing on the process and practice of government, the other on the characters of the people in the government), and it leads to different consequences. One of the major consequences is that Egyptians who would not be Islamist radicals in any proper sense, who would think about life in very pragmatic terms, who would be sometimes more conservative and sometimes more liberal, would nevertheless in doubt cast their vote for a religious candidate because they think: We want to give them a try.
The Islamist parties have played their cards very well. The revolutionary fraction, including also breakaway Islamists, has huge problems to compete with these large organisations that have huge amounts of money, that have social welfare projects, and that speak to the people. How do we actually struggle with this? This struggle has so far brought a very important lesson: If you don’t want to just change the government but if you actually want to change the way society works and the way people think about society, if you want to win elections, if you want to have majorities behind you, it is necessary to have something which people cannot disagree about.
This is the power of the Islamist movements in Egypt. Most people think of them as politicians. They don’t actually have full trust in them. As said, their support of an Islamic government is a conditional one. They know that politicians lie. Islamist politicians lie, too. There is no question about that. Many think that they are too extremist, too uptight, but they cannot disagree that these are pious people and that they speak the word of truth. They speak about Islam, and that is true. I don’t like you, but what you say is true. This seems to be crucial when we once again ask Lenin’s famous question: What is to be done? A crucial answers to that question is to be able to develop an ideological standpoint that stands beyond critique in a specific social setting.
The revolutionaries actually have a couple of these. One is the hatred towards all kinds of governmental oppression. This is something on which they rely all the time. One is the promise of dignity and freedom. Right now the Muslim Brotherhood has been able to rally on this promise. It depends on their ability to deliver whether the more radical fraction will be able to reclaim it from them. One in particular has tremendous power: The blood of the martyrs of the revolution is an enormously important asset for the radicals.
We have learned to think of Egypt’s revolution as a peaceful one. It was peaceful because the protesters didn’t carry weapons. But it was not peaceful in the sense that nobody would have gotten killed. A thousand people got killed, and the fact that a thousand people got killed has become the primary power and asset of any radical revolutionary action. Whatever there comes a tactical politician or a Salafi, the radicals can say: Where were you when the martyrs got killed? This is very consciously employed now by the radical fraction which last Friday staged a symbolic funeral for the people who had been killed most recently. And this is once again a reminder not to romanticise revolutions. It is easy to romanticise revolutions, and it is even easier to romanticise peaceful revolutions. But peaceful revolutions, too, need people getting killed.
The question that remains now is: Why could the Islamists in particular seize the day in the elections, and why could the radical revolutionaries not? Why could they, in turn, seize the day and surprise everybody on 20th of November but then lose the momentum? This is a question about what kind of actions are conceivable, and how one can actually change the scope of conceivable actions. What kind of actions have people learned to be good at, and how can people in such transitional state try to learn different kind of actions?
I take quite a detour and turn to literary fantasy. The revolutionary year of 2011 is a year that constantly runs ahead of fantasy. Things happen, and people keep getting surprised, sometimes for the better, sometimes for the worse. Sometimes it’s a disaster, sometimes it’s fantastic. It is interesting to go after the issue of fantasy itself, because literature has a lot to do with this uprising.
The ground has been prepared, especially for the more educated parts of the population, by a growing wave of socially critical writing. Blogging has been studied most intensively but actually blogs are just one part of a big scene of people exchanging facebook posts, publishing books, reading poetry in cafes. I recently saw some friends of mine sitting in Tahrir square - they were protesters camping there since a week - and reading from a poetry collection by Amal Dunqul who at the moment has become one of Egypt’s most famous poets. He wasn’t quite that famous before last year. Amal Dunqul (1940–1983) was a communist poet who in the 60's and 70's wrote extremely pessimistic and critical poetry. He was against everything. He was against the Camp David Agreements two years before they were signed. He was against any kind of concession to power. He the was the personified refusal. He had one of these famous lines opening one his poems: “Glory to Satan who said no in face of those who said yes.” (Last Words of Spartacus, 1962) In a very religious society like Egypt this is a dramatic way of thinking. Now, people frequently cite this verse.
I had a meeting with a group of teachers in a poor neighbourhood of Alexandria who were writing poetry, and we started talking about this. - This is actually my new fieldwork, which is not about revolution, it’s about writing. I hop I can get rid of this revolution stuff and back to the issue of writing... - We started talking about Amal Dunqul. What did this verse (and others) by Amal Dunqul do, what did it accomplish? There emerged two competing theories. Of course, I lean for the other, but it is important to cite both theories.
One of the two theories was argued for by the poet and teacher Hamdi Musa who said: Literature changes nothing. Look, Hamdi says: Every other cafe in Egypt has Qur’an recitation running on all the time, but the people sitting in the cafe are not getting any more pious from it. If the word of God doesn’t do it, how could my writing change anything? He says that literature is only about immediate personal pleasure. If it is transformative in any way it is transformative to myself. But then others argued: No, that’s not true. Literature changes one’s outlook at the world. It offers something to think about. In the first theory, literature changes nothing, and we are now in Egypt reading Amal Dunqul because something happened and he gives a voice to something that was happening anyway. The other theory says: Because we have been reading Amal Dunqul we think about the world differently, we value protest, which we wouldn’t do if we hadn’t read Amal Dunqul.
My good friend and research assistant Mukhtar Shehata turned the second theory into a dialectical model of fantasy, dreams, and decisions. ( http://www.facebook.com/note.php?note_id=284111558280237) Fantasy, he says, is a space of freedom, completely free from any need to realise it. It depends on what we know and our material conditions; it is not free in the sense we could imagine anything. But it is a space of freedom where we can think up something and we don’t have to worry whether it can happen or not. Fantasy, Mukhtar says, is the ground from which we develop dreams (ahlam in Arabic), in the sense of aspirations. A dream is something that calls to be realised: It is my dream to marry, it is my dream to become a university professor, it is my dream that the world will be a peaceful place - it is all something that calls for realisation. Dreams, then, become something that guide people’s actions. Because they guide people’s actions they make people find themselves in situations where they have to make decisions.
His example is private tutoring. In Egypt, private tutoring is the main income of teachers who are very badly paid. So for everybody who goes to school, the actual studying takes place in the evening in private tutoring, which costs a lot of money. He gave up private tutoring after the revolution. On one occasion, he was speaking with another teacher about it, and his point was that you first have to think, imagine that there could be something else than private tutoring. That is the first step. Second, you have to start to desire it: If only I could live without private tutoring! The third step is that of decisions, of it leading you to moments where you can actually say: No, I’m not going to do it. I do something else. - And this, then, changes the material ground of reality because you make certain choices, and these choices bring you new experiences, and these new experiences create new grounds of fantasy, and the circle goes on.
This could, of course, be easily put into the shape of a liberal or neoliberal idea where everything is about choices, decisions, character, building my capacities, etc.
This calls for caution. When we talk about decisions and choices, we also have to talk about the inevitable. You cannot study the possible without thinking about the inevitable. In Egypt, when you talk about choice, people start talking about destiny (nasib). It’s not in my hand, it’s in God’s hand: I want to marry this girl but in the end I marry somebody else and I accept it. In Egypt, the inevitable usually takes religious shape as the will of God. But no matter what theoretical shape we give to the inevitable, be it the will of God or if it is the material conditions of production in a Marxist theory, the fact is that any sort of choices and decisions have to reckon with the inevitable. We live in a world where our character is cultivated and our choices made under specific conditions that direct and encourage what we can do. But the trick is that our own fantasy is one of these material conditions. Fantasy is not something that is fundamentally different from the ground I am standing on. It is part of these conditions that direct what I can do.
This leads us back to the question about why some people could seize the day in certain moments, and not in other moments.
We are talking here about choice and freedom as limited freedom. Maurice Merleau-Ponty, a phenomenologist philosopher argued in the 1940's that Human freedom exists only within limitations. Limits are not against freedom. Freedom is only there because there are limits against which we experience our freedom. In Egyptian Arabic this is described with the verb yitsarraf, which means to manage in circumstances that are not of your own making. This is the condition of any answer we give to the question of what is to be done.
Any specific answer, any specific trajectory relies on its own material means and possibilities - the Islamists having vastly more money, for example, and the radical revolutionaries being very well connected to the international media. You have different material advantages that make it possible to do something. But it is also fundamentally related to having learned to anticipate certain kind of situations and to master them well. In a very short time the radical revolutionaries have learned to occupy Tahrir. They have learned to do it so well that in this November they just mastered it. It is a most amazing example of self-organisation. Without any leadership, actually even prohibiting parties and speakers’ stages, they managed to make a much better organised uprising than they did in January. But at the same time, it means that they are really bad at anything else. If you look at the Muslim Brotherhood, they have for decades mastered tactical manoeuvring between an authoritarian government and citizens who want to have a good religious government and society. They have been so good at this manoeuvring that when these elections came and they seemed to win with 36% of the vote but actually lost because they should have gotten 50%, this was because of their mastery of tactical manoeuvring. For the radical revolutionaries, even of Islamist leanings, they became unelectable because they showed absolutely no backbone. A big part of people with Islamist leanings in Egypt who really wanted to have a religious government didn’t vote for the Brotherhood because they thought: We really don’t know what these guys are going to do. (This was a reason for many to vote for the more radical Salafis instead, whose stance and programme are quite clear) Their particular knowledge and imagination of what could be done got them a very strong popular support but also brought specific limitations.
The really interesting question, then, is: How and when can people adapt their knowledge and imagination? My conclusion, a very short one, is that the really revolutionary task is to accomplish a shift in the way people look at the world and understand the scope of what they can do, which leads them to act in a different way. This shift requires fantasy. It requires a kind of active fantasy: not just the kind of passive fantasy of imagining whatever one already was used to, but rather a continuous engagement of going beyond the limits. This is why the Egyptian revolution was possible in the first place: because this shift happened. But its future will very much depend on how different actors in the scene will come to develop their expectations of what is possible (and what inevitable), that is, come up with new answers to Lenin’s question about what is to be done.
Tuesday, November 29, 2011
The first day of the loooong Egyptian Parliamentary vote has ended. And this long vote is only the beginning of an even longer Continuous Election season that would, according to the plan laid down by the (Transitional?) Military Council, take us through, after the Parliamentary vote (over 1 month), elections for the Shoura Council (another month), then Constitutional Referendum (again!), and eventually Presidential Elections (promised by the Militaries to be finished by those magic six months (again!) from now…
My conclusion of this first day of Election season brings some bad news. But also much good news. In fact, at the end of the day, Good seems be taking a democratic lead.
Let’s start with a piece of good:
The general voting atmosphere is positive. In the first elections after the January 28th revolutionary burning of the headquarters of Hosny Mubarak’s civil organisation – The National Democratic Party, counterpart in supporting his version of Military rule– the behaviour of the different campaigning entities, parties and individuals, has been close to exemplary!!
Yes, there are reports on infringements on behalf of several campaigners. Unlawful campaigning tactics outside and inside polling stations, providing transport for people to the places as long as they vote “right”, buying votes, and fighting in some places with white weapons and cut bottles, etc. But this is nothing!
The general voting conditions are much improved in comparison to Mubarak days: now when the campaigning entities have entered a healthier field of true and relatively transparent competition, they have proved to be pretty well behaved.
This is a victory of the Revolutionary movement. Before, when there was no real competition, the level of violence in elections was horrendous. On the one hand against opposition, they were simply not accepted. But also between the corrupt criminal elements of the System itself: “maslaha” (partisan interest) vying for a piece of the cleptocracy cake.
(Of course, the above judgement decent behaviour might be premature, and I could be proven to be terribly wrong at any time! There is still more than a month to go, and many things can either go wrong by situation. Or go wrong by intentional sabotage…Ma3 3aleina)
Actually, something I take as good news too: it seems that in the present more democratic set-up, the elements that are most guilty of infringements of regulations are the parties that have most appetite to now cut new pieces of advantages in the New Parliamentary power play. And such partisan interests behaviour will be taken a lot less lightly by big numbers of voters who feel empowered to have the right of institutional, law-based, government.
Yes. To be governed by law and by credible and efficient institutions, this IS really an issue at this point. The story that started today is the beginning of a long election season. Sure. And the week that passed before it was a very long week. As it happened, still early in it and it feels like ages ago, (on Sunday as it was, less than 24 hours into the bloody battle against the Ministry of Interior, just hours before the ferocious combined Interior Ministry forces and the Military attack on Tahrir happened, which ended in big numbers of people getting killed, injured and other arrested and subsequently abused) I had to make a trip to the deeper neighbourhoods of the Pyramids area, al-Talbiya district. I went with companion Shaker to check up on some places we had previously contacted to set up the Community Theatre Play called “Going to the Neighbours House”, which talks about the situation of Refugees from several African countries and from Iraq who live in Cairo.
During our trip in the neighbourhood of al-Talbiya – an extremely dense informal area of unpaved streets, high-rise housing built breaking all terms of urban regulations, and extreme high-piched everyday human interactions – at one point we took a run-down microbus to get out to Pyramids street (asphalted of course: after all it carries international tourists towards the Heritage site of the famous Giza Pyramids). We jumped into the microbus and found three other persons sitting in the front coach. They were all men, looking around 40 or 50 years old, but they might as likely have been just around 30. As it turned out, these men belonged to the society of the extreme poor in Egypt. They were recent immigrants from the Upper Egyptian town of al-Minya. Day-workers, which means people who sit out in the street each morning, waiting for any “patron” to come and pick them up to do a day of labour (most commonly in construction). And concerning the age that appeared reasonable from looking at their faces, I have since long given up trying make a clear guess: 45 or 30 … Real poverty carves life experience into the faces of who carries it far too quickly.
In the bus, Shaker asks me what is going on Down Town (we had coincidentally been together with other companions of that same Refugee play at the by-now-famous-Mohammed Mahmoud-street the afternoon before, Saturday 19th, as we were supposed to have a rehearsal for it in the American University campus, at the very moment (early afternoon) when all hell broke loose there, and we spent the rest of the afternoon and evening in the area doing anything else but constructive theatre work). I answered that the “all hell” continued. At this point, one of the day-worker passengers turned and looked at us. “Really” he says “the fighting goes on?” I answered positively to the question, but tried to do it in a diplomatic way, not showing any particular attachment to the event in one way or the other, being conscious of the possibly “foreign” looking aspect of my face and dialect, and more conscious even, of being close to “camel” neighbourhood (yeah – this was my prejudice!)
The man turned back to his friends, and was silent for a while. Then he turned back to me and he said: “Well, but don’t you think it is our right to fight them?” Again I was non-committal in my answer. But the man was fully committed in his solidarity with the boys fighting the Police. Then my companion Shaker asked “But then why are you not there fighting with them?” They answered they would have liked to, but how, since they spend some 14 hours out working each day just looking to take care of their families.
Shaker then asks about the elections, will they go back to al-Minya to vote? The same man answers “No. Why would I go to vote? The people who present themselves to elections only do it to advance their own interests (maslaha) – I vote for this guy, and all he’ll do when he wins is to put the son of his cousin in this position, and some uncle in another… No, I don’t care for that. What I want is a government that rules by law and gives to each citizen his rights. When I feel this is what I vote for, I will vote”.
And between himself and his friends, and us, we broke into a conversation about social justice, workers rights, a social insurance system that protects families from individual accidents of providers, etc… Until we reached the paved Pyramid Street and all of us went different directions.
And this type of consciousness of what the issues are really about will not only be found among these three men in the Talbiya microbus. It is a lot more widespread than that.
Then, what is Bad News?
Well, the whole day has been bad news somehow. The absurd theatre play of the Institutions of “Security” – the Military and the Police of the Ministry of Interior – guaranteeing peaceful and orderly elections, only days after the same two institutions were responsible for the murder of over 40 young men, most under 20 years of age. It is totally absurd! It is over 40 people! It must be an issue. And the deepest absurdity and the deepest feeling of sadness arise when the whole country somehow accepts to play in this charade. What more striking image of total corruption? Not only institutional corruption, we know that one, and expect it. But the corruption of society itself…
This was a sad feeling today.
But then again, I really doubt that this “social” corruption IS that deep any more. I have felt in so many encounters lately that the past ten months of upheaval is really challenging people to question the past political experience. If people in February were only talking about 30 years of injustice, and people who tried to give another discourse were silenced, now it is a wholly new field. After a period when people were very tired of the “instability of revolution”, they are now also realising that it is a question of being ruled by an entity that does not have nor the qualification nor the legitimacy of ruling a nation. Someone – not at all a Tahrir revolutionary, but a common 14 hour/day working family father – explained to me recently, actually as recent as during the last days of intense fire in front of the Ministry of Interior: “I want the military. Sure, I want them: on our borders. I am happy if they protect us there. But if some of them are going to come also to the capital and tell us how we are going to run the country, well, then let them leave their uniforms and weapons there on the border. And they come and discuss with us here in the city, them like us, no difference. It’s been 60 years now. Naser, then Sadat, and Mubarak. Does this al-Mushir (Field Marshal (Tantawi)) want to try it too? No way.”
A companion of mine, Diana, who teaches at the University of Minya – as she frames it, after all a second rate public university combining youth from all Egypt, from Alexandria to Aswan, all from middle class or lower class backgrounds and representative of a “silent majority” – feels very clearly how the consciousness among students has changed from November a year ago until today.
And finally, in Port Saiid last night, on the eve of elections, friends I have, all over 60 years old and common people, workers in the declining harbour business of the city, were spreading the word of a “blank vote” alternative, wanting to dis-own all participating political forces, Islamic, Old-guard, or “Liberal”… Their intention to just give a revolutionary statement that nothing of what is presented in the political theatre at this point responds to their true aspirations and intentions.
People today however went to vote. And in the greater picture I think they had good reasons to. First of all, many were hoping to bring peace to the country, feeling understandably tired and fed up with the deaths of young people. Many hoped to participate for the first time, in any election at all (people in Egypt did simply NOT vote before). And many were hoping to give a vote that would count in an empowering way. Many were totally lost anyways, not having clear alternatives (here is also a failure of “new” political forces). Many have stated that they would give their votes to the Muslim Brotherhood, just because they seemed to be the only force they could recognize, more so than necessarily for a true ideological commitment to the group. And the Muslim Brotherhood – partisan interest (maslaha) apart – have to be given a big credit for the basic organisational and mobilising work they actually manage: it is a path for any serious political movement to follow (in the essential sense, discarding only the old-style election dodging ways of old-System players that they are also guilty of…) Many voters were even that lost that they were on the streets looking for their balloting place just out of worry about the 500 LE fine the Military Government has threatened to impose on anyone who does not vote (great Stalinist democratic election standards).
But now, let’s get back to some really good news again. The real “infringements” on elections. It seems these were caused by pure incompetence of the present authorities. The elections, Field Marshal Tantawi had promised, would be ensured by SCAF and the Ministry of Interior. Good. Through the day no major eruption of violence happened. But as I claim above, it is not really due to the institutional backup of military and police, but to the contrary: that the competition is done between more independent, more accountable and therefore more responsible political forces now.
The only really serious election problems today have been caused by purely institutional failure. The incompetence of these mentioned institutions to guarantee the very infrastructure of the vote is what has produced all major instances of disturbances. Some polling stations did not open in 7 hours because of one or another missing ingredient (no boxes; boxes without a lock on it; not enough ballots; unstamped ballots; no ink that voters should dip their fingers in; no presence or late arrival of supervising judges, etc.) This type of failures has led to real public order problems: angry voters invading polling stations, some cases of supervising judges being kidnapped (!).
This chaos is likely to continue. This will be contrary to the hoped for gaining of good-will of the military government. Framed in a PR stunt as the elections for “Revolution Parliament” and being elections people really had hopes in, actually it might very well happen that they contribute to an even deeper popular resentment of the situation, when people experience the continued institutional management failure of the SCAF government. This would further undermine the crumbling popular and always officially manipulated idea that “the Military is the only capable institution of the country”.
It can backfire in a situation where more and more people are realising that military training might not be the best qualification to sound state management skills.
And then, the results… Well, the Muslim Brotherhood will without doubt be the greater beneficiary of the parliamentary game. And for sure, there is no doubt that their capacity for institutional management is highly superior to the past and present military governed system. However, the only thing we can actually be sure of is that these elections will create yet another political force that has a say and a stake in the turmoil. But nothing more than that. The Brotherhood might, ideally, have capacity to really improve everyday life conditions of many citizens. But then, what practical capacity will they have when the actually ruling institution might not be supportive of such positive change, but could instead be countering it?
The struggle is unpredictable, and prone to constant change. The Revolutionaries do not change much. Nor the military. But the other forces will be swinging in and out of “Tahrir”. Depending on how well they present their cases, they will or will not be welcome to pass the checkpoints of the Square.
There will still be many developments to the ongoing Continuous Revolution – Until Victory.
Friday, November 25, 2011
Today was a new day of mass protests against military rule in Egypt. While the attention of the media has focused on Tahrir Square, large protests have taken place in several cities around the country. Daniela and I travelled to Alexandria where protests have been going on in front of the regional military headquarters and the security directorate since Sunday. We arrived in the early afternoon to join the march that, as customary, was heading from al-Qa’id Ibrahim mosque to the Northern Regional Military Headquarters. The march was very large, and very different from the one dominated by Islamists one week earlier. It gathered a large following, somewhat more than last week’s march, and this time there were many more women among the protesters, and only few men sporting Salafi style beards. Also Alexandria has witnessed ongoing violence by the police force as well as civilian thugs against the protesters, mainly at the Security Directorate in Sumuha, and this violence has also contributed to discrediting the protests among a big part of the inhabitants of the city who are concerned about the destruction of property and fear chaos. It was therefore very important for the protesters to stage a large and peaceful march, and in this they were very successful. The protesters filled the streets in excellent mood, chanting against military rule, and the people we met were all happy about the large numbers and determined to continue the struggle, knowing that the Military Council is not giving in to the pressure easily (In fact, the instatement of Kamal al-Ganzouri, a veteran politician of the old system who already served as prime minister under Mubarak, is the opposite of any kind of concession towards the protests).
They have revived the spirit of action and optimism among many of those who had become increasingly frustrated, and thus passivised, in the past months. While the protests are not carried by the majority of Egyptians, their power and persistence is also a sign of a growing wider discontent with the military rule. Also those who are skeptical about the protests, are often equally skeptical about the military. As one friend put it, there is a growing consciousness that there is more that matters than the proverbial “wheel of production” that “must turn again” which opponents of protests often cite: “The people have learned not to take shit anymore.” The new uprising is also telling of a growing competence of people in organising spontaneous resistance. The field hospitals in Tahrir Square has offered probably some of the best free health care in the country for the last days, and The Military government is now acting under heavy pressure, and unlike the cabinet of Essam Sharaf which was hailed as a revolutionary cabinet when it was instated on March 8, the new cabinet of al-Ganzouri is facing wide-spread refusal from its first day. The protesters have grown extremely critical at attempts to coopt their movement (which is why party leaders are not permitted to give speeches). Most importantly perhaps, I often encounter a realistic assessment of the difficulty of the task that the protesters have taken, combined with a strong optimism born from out of the spontaneous power of the new protesters. These protests, many have told me, are only the general probe for the next uprising to come. Those involved in the revolution in the spring and this new wave of protests are learning political action by doing, and they are developing a greater degree of persistence. But while the supporters of ongoing revolution have become very good at occupying the squares and enforcing public attention, they still have to face the bigger task of turning this momentum into more permanent forms of social and political organisation.
The problem of social organization and outreach remains unsolved, but what is emerging are shapes of a formative generational experience among young participants in the protests. Also among those who have never participated in the protests, the revolution year has come up with a different experience and outlook of life, with people extremely politicized, not only speaking about freedom but also acting it out. It has also affected older people, and I have heard from some people that their parents’ way of relating to their children’s expectations of life has also changed. The experience has been especially dramatic for those have actively taken part in the protests in the last days that have been marked by a continuing violence that is comparable only to the days from 25 to 28 January.
Many of my friends in Alexandria have been participating in the protests at the Security Directorate in Sumuha where they have been teargassed, shot at with rubber bullets, and attacked by thugs in civilian clothes. Two people have died during the protests there. On Wednesday night, they were attacked with a very aggressive gas that had much more severe effects than ordinary teargas. This experience has created an enormous sense of determination among them, and they speak in very different tones than they would just a week earlier. “You don’t think about yourself and the danger in that moment,” one friend tells. In unison people say that after so many people have died across the country, they feel obliged to continue their struggle. And they enjoy it. They have grown fond of tear gas. R., a woman in her twenties, has been out in the street in Sumuha every night since Sunday and was injured by a rubber bullet. She says that when she returned home and her mother washed her clothes, she realized that she was missing the smell of the gas on her clothes. Tear gas is an extremely ineffective means to break up demonstrations. It makes people run away and immobilises them for a short moment, but it also makes them very angry, and in fact the continuing teargassing the protesters in the past days has given them a much greater degree of determination than they might have otherwise had.
Longing for the smell of tear gas is the olfactory embodiment of radical action and determination. It is an experience that may not influence the immediate course of Egypt’s politics because most of the people who share in it are young and still in the beginning of their personal, professional and political trajectories. But for better or worse, it is creating a class of people with a history of activism, many of them with high education and active cultural trajectories, who are rather different in their way of thinking about their role in the world from the apolitical generations that were socialized between 1980 and 1990. They are few but in their future careers they will be culturally and perhaps also politically influential. As such, they may well be compared with the 1968 generation in Europe and Northern America – also there a minority involved in radical political action and cultural critique gave their stamp to an entire generation. I say for better or worse, because while most among them while most will choose for constructive, peaceful, and effective paths, some may go for more destructive paths. There is a dangerous beauty and intensity to struggle.
The dangerous side of the struggle with the police in Sumuha is recognised by many protesters, and at the demonstration in front of the Northern Regional Headquarters, many were arguing that the protesters should withdraw from the Security directorate and focus on the Headquarters. They said that the ongoing confrontation was doing more damage than good, offering the government a handy pretext to accuse the protesters of being thugs and wreckers. But there were some who insisted that the confrontation must continue with the aim of occupying the Security Directorate, and after the demonstration at the Headquarters many protesters headed for Sumuha to join the sit-in there. We did not follow them, because the presence of foreigners might have been misused to further discredit the protesters. But I have been in contact with them on the phone, and new clashes have evolved, teargas has been shot at the protesters again, and thugs in civilian clothes have been attacking the protesters and destroying property. My sympathies are strongly with the protesters who are holding out in Sumuha tonight against the police and the thugs, but it is an ambiguous struggle.
This youtube video shows the protest march on its way to the Northern Regional Headquarters http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jEhCy4sscVQ
This youtube video shows the protesters gathered in front of the Northern Regional Headquarters: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=X02-nEJRAYU
P.S.: I developed many of the thoughts in this and previous notes in conversation with Daniela Swarowsky, to whom special credit is due.
Thursday, November 24, 2011
Today afternoon, Daniela and I decided to enjoy some normality. There is plenty of it, life going on as normal in the rest of Cairo while protests continue in Tahrir Square. We walked through the districts of Sayyida Zaynab and Abdin, met on the way Sheikh N. who was recovering from a serious dose of tear gas in the middle of Tahrir when it was covered in teargas on Tuesday, which hospitalised him for two days. He is full of optimism about a new civilian government of national salvation that will take over from the military, and does not expect the elections to go through. But walking from Sayyida over Abdin to Bab al-Louq, not only did we find life entirely normal, but also the Muslim Brotherhood doing very active election campaigning. It looks like they are going to win this one. The ongoing protests add a complex layer to the events but are unlikely to change the likely election victory of the Brotherhood.
We walked down Tahrir street through the area that until yesterday was right behind the frontline of the protesters, but now calm ever since a successful truce was negotiated and enforced. Now the army stands in Muhammad Mahmoud Street, trying to enforce an impression of the army protecting the citizens and directing the blame to the police and the Ministry of Interior (which, of course, is acting under orders from the Military Council, but right now the military is busy trying to appear as a constructive and protective power). On Falaki Street that had been straight behind the lines of the protesters for several days, some shops were open again, and at a coffee roastery where we got a pack of fresh coffee, the people told that this was the first day when they were open in the evening, and that during the clashes with the police they had been open but had to close around 2 p.m. because of teargas. At the entrance of Falaki Street at Falaki Square, a committee of local residents were blocking the street and politely asking people to continue to the square but not to enter their street.
At Tahrir Square, the atmosphere has changed a lot since Monday when the mood was more one of anger and resistance, with chants against the military to be heard all over the place. Now it was more of a mixture of a youthful celebration with firecrackers on the side streets, and of countless political discussions about the elections and the shape of a civilian government with full powers that the protesters are demanding to replace the Military Council. There were also many discussions about who was to blame for the violence against the protesters. Those who had lived through it were arguing to new-comers that even if it was the police firing at the protesters, it was the Military Council that was to be held responsible.
The Military Council, after failing to suppress the protests with force, has resorted to a tactics of appeasing the protests, trying to show itself again as the protector of the people (it is amazing how many people still are willing to buy this story after all that has happened) and putting the blame on the police and the Ministry of Interior. It is likely that the Kamal al-Ganzuri who served as prime Minister under Mubarak but had to leave office become he was becoming too popular was will be named the new prime minister, and all in all the army is clearly intent at appeasing the protests without making any serious concessions. The numbers of protesters tomorrow, and the degree to which the protesters will be united or disunited about their opposition to the Military Council, may be decisive about whether the Military Council can go ahead as they are trying to or whether they will be compelled to further concessions. In any case, they seem absolutely determined to go ahead with the elections as planned, and they have the determined support of the Muslim Brotherhood which has every reason to expect an election victory. Almost all other political groups have turned to support the protests, most lately Egypt’s third most important Islamist group al-Gama‘a al-Islamiya. Tomorrow, there will be big protests, but the tactics of appeasement by the Military Council will have make them less sharp in anger, determination and unity than the demonstrations on Tuesday were.
My guess is that these protests will not change the course of the elections, nor will they have a major effect on their outcome. On the short term, they will force the Military Council to some concessions, but in all likelihood the elections will go through, an uneasy alliance of the Muslim Brothers and the army will be ruling the country. But on the longer term, these protests show that they are going to face ongoing and wide-scale resistance. A big part of Egyptians have grown used to a state of revolution, so much that after less than a year after 25 January it is hard to imagine Egypt without the condition of uproar and uprising. There are many who complain about chaos, but also many who rather enjoy the state of uprising; on the one hand they are angry and determined enough to risk their lives, on the other hand they have arranged themselves well enough with the state of uncertainty and uproar to give any future government of Egypt serious trouble. During the latest protests, popular districts have sent groups of youths to the square as a kind of competition in who are the bravest, a flourishing trade in snacks, food, cigarettes, and protective gear has developed around Tahrir Square, there is a makeshift bus station serving the protesters at the Egyptian Museum, and unlikely in January and February, the protests now rather neatly fit to the ongoing flow of life in the city. Revolution has become part of the way of life in this country. Egypt may not be on as smooth a path to democracy as Tunisia is, but it will also be rather resistant to any attempt to get things under control. It’s going to be a long one.
Greetings from Egypt in revolt!
Wednesday, November 23, 2011
But while the protesters are getting more strategic, the Military Council is resorting to new tactics. But there has been a strange turn in the square tonight, a rather clever move by the government. Late in the evening, a group of young men gathered at the corner of Talaat Harb street, a little far a way from the main concentration of the demonstration, and started calling for the establishment of popular committees to protect the street. A young man standing on the fence told that they want to keep the peace, and “if anybody throws a stone, we catch him”. Somebody else fiercely opposed him, and a debate evolved. Later, just before leaving Daniela and I took a look again at the beginning of Tahrir Street where the medical service was expanding to the street and treating a continuing stream of people suffering from the effects of gas. There, we ran into a young man whom I had met the previous night while buying cigarettes in the district of Kitkat on the other side of the Nile. Back then, he had expressed his strong disapproval of the revolution and argued that under former minister of interior Habib al-‘Adli there were no thugs on the street like now. I wondered what he was doing now in Tahrir, and he explained that he was upset about Egyptians fighting Egyptians, and had come here for the sake of the peacefulness of the event. In his view (congruent with the view spread by state television), all violence was caused by radical protesters attacking the police that was only acting in self-defence. People with such views were not the majority in the square, but there were quite a few, like there also were others who did see the police as responsible for the violence but still trusted that the army would not attack the protesters. A man standing at the corner of Tahrir Street was lecturing to them: “Of course it is the army that is attacking us! Who else has the power in this country? It’s the army that is sending them.”
The ongoing clashes go back to the excessive brutality of the police force (the pile of bodies on Tahrir Square on Sunday should be a good enough reminded). But the determination of protesters to face the police all the same is employed by state media to quite some effect to depict the protesters as rioters and wreckers, glossing over the fact that tens of protesters have been killed by the security forces and the military police since Saturday, mainly through live ammunition and effects of tear gas. There have been several fires, and the state media has accounted this to the protesters. To my knowledge, based on accounts from the streets where the fighting takes place (I have not been there myself), the fires that have broken out hear and there yesterday and today have been caused by the gas grenades fired by the police. A friend showed me a mobile phone image showing protesters putting out a fire in the second floor of a building at the corner of Falaki and Muhammad Mahmoud Streets. At the same time, many of the protesters are determined to fight and do search confrontation.
Tonight, the Military Goverment appears to be making tactical use of the riot imagery in a way to subvert the protests. While a member of the Military Council offered his excuses for the violence on television, the Ministry of Interior has warned called “the youth on the square” to protect the buildings around the square from “counter-revolutionary elements” may be trying to enter the buildings to attack the protesters from above. Coming from Egypt’s most important counter-revolutionary element itself, the executive organ of a massacre against the protesters in the last days, such warning sounds questionable to say the least. But quite a few people seem to have followed this call, believing that they need to protect the square from what they believe wreckers rather than from the police - despite a flood of contrary evidence. Their presence in Tahrir tonight to is creating a complicated and potentially dangerous situation.
I have no predictions to offer. I did not expect the January 25 Revolution, and I did not expect this uprising either. When D. three weeks ago told me that he puts his hopes into a new revolutionary uprising, possibly on 25 January 2012, I told that there is not enough anger in the country for that. I was wrong, he was right. But where the paths is leading to now, neither of us can tell.
Greetings from the Egyptian revolution!
This short film shows effects of tear gas on protesters at Tahrir Street on the evening of 23/11/2011, as they are treated in the first aid service at the corner of Tahrir Square. The film is edited from material from two separate events around 22:00 and 00:30, respectively.
Monday, November 21, 2011
At the outskirts of an uprising
One of the most bitter lessons learned by those who whole-heartedly support a revolutionary transition to a new, democratic Egypt in the past months, is the realisation that they are a minority in Egypt. Many more fear and suffer from chaos and hope for a quick stabilisation of the situation, and many of those who look forward to a political transition are going to favour Islamist parties whose relationship with the revolution is rather ambiguous. This has lead to a very widespread sense of frustration and disillusionment among those who demand a quick and complete political transition and oppose the ruling Military Council. In result, the more radical revolutionary forces became up extremely passive on the eve of the upcoming elections. Many people I know say that they don’t know whom to vote, find all parties corrupt and don’t trust any of them. Many expect that there will be massive vote-rigging and violence from the part of some candidates. Some are arguing to boycott the elections. The calls to boycott the elections have been coming primary from among those who either do not see their views represented by any of the candidates or who expect their point of view to be at the losing end, while in particular the Islamists who have good reason to expect a major election victory, are doing a very good job at campaigning for their candidates, and they have been able to convince a lot of people.
On Friday 18 November, the first major demonstrations since early October took place in Cairo and several cities across the country. The Friday demonstrations always have a name, and this one was called “Friday of the one single demand” - a title not void of irony, since it actually united political forces with very different demands. The main force behind the demonstration were Egypt’s three main Islamist movements: The Muslim Brotherhood, The Salafis, and the Gama‘a al-Islamiya. They have been on friendly terms with the Military Council throughout the year, refusing to participate in demonstrations against the military rule, looking forward to an election victory and hoping for a good power sharing deal with the army. In early November, however, they rose in protest against a document detailing the outline of Egypt’s future constitution. Presented by the vice prime minister al-Silmi (therefore known as the Silmi Document), the document states that Egypt will be a civil (that is, not theocratic and not military) state, outlining a constitutional assembly where only half of the seats would be made up by members of the new parliament, and giving the military almost complete autonomy regarding budget, organisation, jurisdiction, defence policy, and even a right to veto a declaration of war by the parliament. The Islamist parties, recognising that this document was an attempt to limit their ability to turn their parliamentary power into political power and to formalise indirect military rule, called for large-scale demonstrations against the Silmi Document. One part of the liberal and left-wing political forces decided to join the call for protests, congruent as it was with their opposition to military rule, while many others decided to abstain because they saw the demonstration as election tactics that would only serve the Islamists.
The demonstrations were large and successful. In Cairo, the Islamist parties transported busloads of supporters to from different parts of the country for a demonstration of strength in Tahrir square, and successfully so, filling the square to the limit. In Alexandria, Daniela and I followed a smaller protest that started at al-Qa’id Ibrahim Mosque and headed for the Northern Regional Military Headquarters some kilometres to the east from city centre - both customary sites for protests in Alexandria ever since the revolution. Also in Alexandria, the protest march was dominated by Islamists, but not the exclusion of others. The protest march, which included perhaps some ten thousand people, possibly somewhat more, was made up of three quite distinct blocks. It was lead by Salafis holding banners against the Silmi Document and chanting adapted revolutionary slogans such as “The people demand: Down with the document” (derived from “The people demand: Down with the system”. It was a weird and disconcerting performance because during the revolution the major Salafi groups had all sided with the Mubarak regime and called for people to abstain from demonstrating. Also now they did not chant against the military, but only against the vice prime minister. The Salafis were followed by a large block of supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood but without any visible symbols of the movement (the Brotherhood had decided to only appear with their symbols on Tahrir Square), and this block was followed by a block of leftist and liberal protesters who, rather than opposing the Silmi document were chanting against the Military Council and against Egypt’s interim leader Field Marshall Tantawi. The three groups were approximately equal in size (the Salafis perhaps somewhat larger than the others), but very different in appearance. The Salafis had a very unified style, with few individual self-made signs or banners. The Muslim brotherhood supporters were also fairly uniform in style. The leftist revolutionary block was much more heterogenous in appearance, with many more people carrying hand-written signs, different groups (notably the 6th of April and Kifaya movements) carrying their symbols, and many more women among the protesters.
Despite heavy rain soaking the people at about half of the way, the march proceeded in good mood due to the large numbers it had been able to gather. But as it arrived at its destination in front of the Northern Military Headquarters, the Salafis who had been in the front of the march put up the centre stage, and the speakers soon shifted from criticising the Silmi Document to demanding for Egypt to be an Islamic state. At this stage, most of the leftist and liberal protesters left the demonstration. At a cafe two blocks away we ran into some people we knew, taking cover from the rain and very unhappy about the Salafi dominance. For them, it was a mixed experience, on the one hand it had been a successful demonstration, but on the other hand, it seemed to serve powers they did not want to align with. They were pessimistic, but said that they hoped that there will be new surprises. D. called me from Cairo (he goes to every Friday demonstration in Tahrir) where he had arrived at a late hour and said that he was “frightened” by the Salafis who dominated the square with slogans like “The people demand the Law of God.” He was very worried about the prospect of the Military Council falling only to be replaced by the Islamists. “What slogans can I use against them?” D. asked. “They legitimise themselves through religion, and if I chant against them they tell that I am chanting against religion.” Thus the left wing revolutionaries went to sleep on Friday with the uncomfortable feeling that the revolution might be about to result in the victory of the wrong people.
The next afternoon I ran into W and R., a man and a woman in their early twenties involved in Alexandria’s cultural scene. As we were about to sit down in a cafe in downtown Alexandria, the phones started ringing, and the news spread that the security forces of the Ministry of Interior were attacking the protesters in Tahrir (what I did not know at that moment was that a small sit-in of 200 people in Tahrir had been attacked already in the early morning hours, and that a much larger crowd of protesters had returned to the square in the noon). Spontaneously, numerous people stood up from the cafes and started walking in rapid pace towards al-Qa’id Ibrahim Square. Daniela and I followed them a little later, finding a a crowd of about fifty people were debating what to do and whether to protest at the Military Headquarters or at the Security Directorate in Sumuha, an up-market districts further away from the city centre. There were few people, much disagreement, much talk against the military, the parties, the Muslim Brotherhood, the corruption, but little sense of concerted action. R. and W. left feeling that there was no point to it, and also Daniela and I could not avoid feeling the sense of a defeated revolutionary movement, split in factions, disorganised, and too busy with matters of principle to undertake strategic action.
It was with this sentiment that I spent the rest of the evening at a lecture in an art space and at a private party, only marginally aware of what was evolving in Cairo and in other parts of the city. D. called me and told that he had arrived in Alexandria in the early evening and gone straight to the Northern Military Headquarters where a group of protesters had gathered. He was angry and looking for confrontation, showing his shoe as a way of insult and verbally confronting the army special units guarding the military area. Other protesters called him to calm down and mind his manners, he felt that they lacked courage and left. But he also said that the events in Tahrir the same day had given him back the revolutionary spirit, and he felt that also if the Muslim Brotherhood and the Salafis seize power, the Egyptian people will arise against them. If the demonstration would continue the next day, he said, he would go back to Cairo.
On the afternoon of the next day, Sunday 20 November, the ongoing demonstration in Tahrir Square was attacked with extreme force by the Military Police. In Alexandria, all I could do was watch the events on television. It was becoming clear that something big was going on. But I got back to work. In the evening, I returned to my fieldwork in al-‘Asafra in eastern Alexandria and spent the evening with a long an interesting discussion with poets and teachers about the reasons to choose for different styles of poetry. While protesters at Tahrir were being shot dead, and while protesters in Alexandria were facing the army and the police, life went on in very ordinary ways around the city.
These days, Everybody is speaking about the events in Tahrir Square and at the Security directorate in Alexandria, but the views go far apart. Sunday night, returning on a minibus from Asafra to Downtown Alexandria, a passenger and the driver were discussing the situation. The passenger had just received the news on the phone that the police was shooting at protesters at the Security Directorate and that the protesters had set cars in fire. He and the driver saw in the events an attempt to prevent the Muslim Brotherhood from gaining power through elections. And indeed, the Islamist parties who dominated the demonstrations on Friday, have distanced themselves from the spontaneous demonstrations since Saturday, calling for restraint and insisting that the elections should take place as planned. They are the likely winners of the elections, and people have good reasons to vote them. The minibus driver was highly critical of the many independent candidates as well as those voters who still think about elections in the logic of the Mubarak era as a way to channel resources, a clientelistic business of providing jobs and services to the supporters of a candidate, rather than as a responsible business that is about finding the competent people to run the country. “Me, my wife, and children, we will all vote for the Muslim brotherhood, because they have spent years listening to us; they have patience with the people.”
Also among people who are not confident in the Muslim Brotherhoods capacity to run the country, there is a lot of doubt and worry. The cleaning lady in the hotel where Daniela and I stayed argued that “the protesters are too much in a hurry. This country needs to be transformed, but you can’t jump to the top of the ladder like that, it has to be done step by step.” But if many people are sceptical of the new protests, it does not mean that they support the Military Council. At a small bookstore, I met the owner and her circle of friends, all very worried and sceptical about the situation. One of the people was very worried of the destruction of property. He told that protesters had set a gas station in fire in Sumuha (his family owns a gas station, too, but theirs was not damaged), “the most beautiful and cleanest part of Alexandria” in his words, a place that should be cared for and not wrecked. But he also had no belief whatsoever in the Military council. Their time is over, he says, but at the same time he wonders what to do. He, and like him the owner of the bookstore want to participate the elections, they do not share the radical view of those who think of the elections as a fake bare of all legitimacy. It is a matter of having a say or not having a say, they argue, even if the elections are not fair and clean. But there is a big question mark. “What is to be done?” Asks the owner of the bookstore. She says that she really does not know. Something has to be done, but what?
For those who believe in the revolutionary momentum more than the elections, the answer to the question is a simple one: stand up and fight. The waiter in a café makes this very clear to me. He tells me that the army is using a new, more aggressive kind of tear gas against the protesters: “After February, they put us all to sleep and bought new weapons from the Americans, but now the revolution is awake again, and we will win.”
Back at Tahrir
It was in this contradictory mood that Daniela and I left from Alexandria for Cairo where we are supposed to have meetings for collaborative research and art exhibition project, well knowing that most of our appointments are likely not to take place. As we arrived in the house of a friend in Imbaba, we again saw the live footage from Tahrir, showing more and more people gathering in the square. The news reached us that the interim government has stepped down, which doesn’t make much difference because they never had any power anyway, acting merely as the executive organ of the Military Council. I called some friends and they told that the mood there is excellent, and I decided to go there.
Tahrir Square tonight was one of the weirdest things I have experienced. It was filled with people, well comparable to the days of the revolution. No speakers stages this time, however. All presidential candidates and party chairmen trying to enter the square in the past three days have been refused entry by the protesters. It is a genuinely spontaneous gathering, collecting very different kinds of people: youths from popular neighbourhoods on motorcycles, leftist activists, middle-class couples, Salafis (the Salafi organisations are against the protests, but there are individual Salafis who think otherwise), you name it. At the centre of the square, the mood was quite festive. Most people there were firm supporters of the revolution who had come to reclaim the square, revive the revolution, and to demand proper change. Groups of people chanting slogans, a poet reading out a revolutionary poem, flags, and discussions were accompanied by a very lively trade of tea, snacks, sweets, cigarettes, souvenirs, flags, and protective glasses and masks. Next to the Egyptian Museum, a temporary minibus and taxi stand had emerged serving the people coming and going. At the same time, ambulances were continuously passing through the crowd, there was a bitter taste to the air from tear gas. While on one side of the square there was an almost party-like atmosphere of celebrating the revolutionary spirit, in the side streets leading to the ministry of interior, people were getting killed.
Confronting the police there, the protesters are trying to keep the police as far away from the square as possible, but also trying themselves to get closer to the Ministry of Interior, the old foe of the revolutionaries. My friends and I spoke with a man from a village in the Nile Delta who had just come to have a break from the street battle. He was wearing swimming classes, a construction helmet and a painter’s gas mask, and he told that the situation in Muhammad Mahmoud Street was terrible. They were being shot at with rubber bullets and with live ammunition, and the police was using a new kind of aggressive tear gas that could not be washed away with water like usual tear gas, but instead needs to be treated with a solution of bread yeast and water (it is US produced CR gas, classified in the United States as a chemical weapon). He had left his wife and children at home and told them that he was going to work. He said that he could not do otherwise than come here, to fight for the sake of a better future of his country.
Having at first encountered the festive side of Tahrir Square, it was frightening to realise that just a block away people were being killed. Even more frightening was to hear how big the real death toll appears to be. The official figure by the Ministry of Health is that 33 people, all of them protesters, have been killed. But a friend whom I met at Tahrir told that the doctor running one of the two field hospitals has a list of names that is close to hundred, and it only covers the bodies at his field hospital. Since Sunday I had heard nothing of D. He returned to Tahrir on Sunday and his mobile phone has been off ever since. I was already about to go searching for him in the field hospitals, but I just received a facebook message from him. He has been wounded by gunshots on his shoulder and foot, but he is alive.
On strategy and spontaneity
A big demonstration is announced to take place tomorrow. It is likely to gather a large number of people, but the situation will be very different from what it as during the revolution in January and February. If in many ways the situation appears similar to what happened last spring, with terrible violence by the security forces, angry protesters taking over Tahrir Square, and the cabinet stepping down as an attempt to calm down the people, in other respects the situation is completely different. Parliamentary elections are scheduled to begin in exactly one week (they will take quite a while, involving several rounds and different voting times in different provinces), and the revolutionary coalition of the spring is now split into those who expect their side to win the elections and look forward to push for their visions through the parliament, and those who don’t expect much from the elections and put their hopes in a continued revolutionary uprising.
Most importantly the three main Islamist parties, but also the liberal al-Wafd party expect much from the elections. (It is important to note that the political camp is not simply split into Islamists and the liberal-left. There are liberals putting their hopes in elections and appeasing the Army just as well as there are smaller Islamist groups siding with ongoing revolution). Consequently, the three main Islamist parties have been calling their supporters not to participate in the protests. However, there is good likelihood that the Muslim brotherhood and the Salafis will try to join the protest movement, perhaps tomorrow, perhaps on Friday, to push it into a different direction. This already happened in Alexandria tonight. At the Security Directorate in Sumuha, the ongoing confrontation between protesters and the police took a new turn when the Salafis entered the scene. According to W who called me from Sumuha, the Salafis entered the demonstration in great numbers at around 10 p.m. and started shouting “Silmiya” (peaceful) “Al-sha‘b wa al-shurta id wahda” (The people and the police hold together) and attempted to move the protestors away from the Security Directorate, while at the same time the police has continued to fire tear gas, rubber bullets and live ammunition at the protesters. Tomorrow and next Friday will show whether this scenario will be repeated in Cairo. If yes, it will complicate things even more.
But what about the radical revolutionaries? What exactly do they want? This is, in a way, the big and open question of the moment. The demands are simple clear: Removal of the military government and the installment of a civilian transitory government. The new wave of protests has a lot of spontaneous energy, anger and enthusiasm, but in contrast to the actions taken by the Islamists, it appears to have little in terms of strategy. The new uprising that began on Saturday is a spontaneous act of anger that has grown from the increasing frustration of the radical supporters of the revolution. It is what the radical revolutionaries are good at doing, and what they love doing. There is a romantic momentum to revolution that in a certain way also turns it into an end in itself. Such romanticism can be dangerous because it makes it very difficult to act strategically.
Spontaneity and lack of strategy is both a strength and a weakness of the radical revolutionary movement. It is a weakness to start with, because the way the radical revolutionaries have been good in returning to the streets over and again, but very bad at establishing more permanent and socially rooted forms of organisation. While the Muslim Brotherhood has been running a very well organised and financed election campaign, the liberals and left have split into factions, their various parties have quickly lost their credibility in the eyes of their potential supporters, and many radical supporters of the revolution lack a vision of how to change the country after the revolution. In this sense, the return to the streets is a romantic moment of celebrating the revolutionary spirit again, but as a political move it is a blind one, creating a surprising new situation but possessing no means to turn the element of surprise into a long-term advantage.
But the spontaneity and the valuation of revolution for its own sake also has given the new uprising an enormous strength. It is due to this emotional determination rather than calculation that, for better or worse, the protesters have been able to upset the formation of what was about to look like a parliamentary-military power-share deal.
The light side to this power of spontaneous determination is that it means that it will be very difficult for any authoritarian rule to establish itself in Egypt in the near future. Finding an atmosphere of revolutionary celebration in the square after great numbers of people have been killed and while fighting continues in the side streets means that there is a spirit of ongoing resistance that will be very hard to break, and that spirit is urgently needed as a corrective power in the coming years when whoever will run the affairs of Egypt will be tempted to consolidate and concentrate power and wealth.
But the dark side of the power of spontaneous determination is its ambiguous relationship with violence. The protesters are facing a well-armed military and police with stones and makeshift protective gear, and this asymmetry of violence gives them a moral advantage. There also a willingness to sacrifice lives for the sake of the revolution, and the people on the streets have paid a heavy price. But this sense that a true revolution will require a heavy price can easily turn into a celebration of death and blood, and transform the commitment to revolution for its own sake into something more sinister.
At the moment, the situation is simply too complex and confusing to offer any clear conclusion. Rather, Lenin’s famous revolutionary question arises once again: “What is to be done?” What action can one undertake to use the uncertain moment of the transitional period to one’s advantage? The answers in Egypt right now are going far apart (and none of them follows Lenin’s suggestion of a vanguard revolutionary party). The Military Council is resorting to the same tactics that already failed on 28 January. Those parties that expect to win the elections are probably right now trying to decide how to turn the momentum of the protests to their advantage. The protesters on the streets are putting their stakes on a new revolution. People not involved in the events are wondering how the chaos will ever end. But as things stand, nobody knows what will really work.
Tuesday, October 11, 2011
2011, the year of revolutions and uprisings around the Arab world, has been marked not only by an amazing spirit of change, but also by fierce resistance by the ruling elites, and a fear of instability and chaos among large parts of the ordinary people. Some uprisings, most notably that in Bahrain, were crushed with brute force at an early stage. Others, in Yemen and Syria, continue with an uncertain future. Along with Tunisia, Egypt appeared to be one of the lucky Arab nations that were able to realise a relatively peaceful and quick revolution, a turning point towards a better future of justice, freedom, and democracy. This autumn, however, the situation in Egypt raises doubts about that better future.
Returning to a different country
I returned to Egypt on October 2nd, this time not with the aim to follow the events of the revolution but to begin a new ethnographic fieldwork on writing and creativity, pursuing questions about the relationship of fantasy and social change. I found Egypt in a very different state from what it had been when I left it behind in March. Returning here, I encountered an air of freedom, a sense of relaxation and ease, and a strong presence of creativity, discussion, and interest in politics. But I also encountered a fear of economic collapse and a continued sense of turmoil, with strikes (mostly successful) continuing all over the country, a political struggle among political parties to share the cake of elections beforehand through alliances and deals, confrontation between competing sections within the Islamist spectrum (which has much more presence and popular support than the liberal and leftist camp), an increased visibility and activity of what in post-revolutionary jargon are called the fulul, or “leftovers” (literally, the dispersed units of a defeated army) of Mubarak’s National Democratic Party that was dissolved last spring, renewed confessional tensions, and last but not least a military rule tightening its grip over the country.
My revolutionary friends are without exception extremely frustrated about the situation. Some see the revolution in grave danger, others say that it has already failed, that it fact failed on 11 February when the military took over from the Mubarak family. In different variations, they argue that the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) has proven itself as a faithful follower of Mubarak, intent on taking over power through the manipulation of the upcoming elections, if necessary by the way of spreading chaos and terror. Also the Islamists in their different colourings, who until the summer were very supportive of the military rule (hoping to strike a good power share deal), have turned critical of the SCAF, beginning to realise that the army is deceiving them just like Gamal Abdel Nasser did back in 1954 when after a period of cooptation, the Muslim Brotherhood was prohibited and brutally suppressed. But a lot of people (probably the majority) are still trustful in the army, believing what state television says and what public sector newspapers write. And most Egyptians are first of all busy with the economic situation, which is very difficult.
It was in this mixed atmosphere of an air of freedom and a sense of frustration and anxiety about the way things are evolving that I arrived in Alexandria three days ago, after spending a week in Cairo. Alexandria is one of the power bases of Salafis and the Muslim Brotherhood, and their posters and banners are visible all over the city, but not to the exclusion of others: posters of liberal or leftist parties, banners of new parties by the fulul, graffitis by the radical opposition and politicised football ultras.
The massacre at Maspiro
On Sunday 9 October, large-scale Christian demonstrations were organised in several cities around the country in protest against the burning of a church and Christian appartments in Idfu (in the south of Egypt) more than a week earler, and the very inappropriate reaction of the authorities. The governor of Aswan, rather than trying to solve the crisis, had declared that the church had been built without a licence anyway. A sit-in of Christian protesters in front of the state television headquarters at Maspiro (overlooking the Nile in Central Cairo) had been forcibly dispersed and many people had been injured. On 9 October, a large number of Christians, feeling to be under increasing pressure since quite a while, went out to streets in large numbers, and rather than just occupying one place, they took out in protest marches through the cities.
On the afternoon of that day, I was returning from downtown Alexandria to Mandara in the east of the city on a minibus when we entered a big traffic jam on the seafront Corniche road. The minibus driver diverted to the side streets, and after a while we saw that on the Corniche there was a large (a few thousands) march of Christians with lots of crosses visible from afar. Turning left and right on the narrow side streets, the driver managed to get us just ahead of the march, and stopped shortly to pick up passengers, calling them to hurry: “Get in, get in, let’s move before we get beaten up!” He didn’t specify who he expected to get beaten by - in any case, he sensed danger. In Alexandria, the march headed for the Northern Regional Military Headquarters, the standard destination of demonstration marches in Alexandria ever since the army seized power on 11 February (unlike in Cairo where demonstrations are usually stationary at Tahrir Square, in Alexandria they usually march through the city).
At the same time, a similar march was heading to Maspiro in Cairo. The events that followed and the terrible death toll are known, and there is nothing I can add to the many eyewitness reports from Cairo that tell about stones being thrown at the march on its way, the army attacking the protesters at Maspiro with live ammunition, armoured troop carriers crushing people, cars being set in fire, and riots evolving. The bits of pieces from eyewitness reports I get from Cairo tell of a chaotic situation evolving around the centre of the city, with various groups of Muslim citizens, some of them groups of (apparently hired) thugs, others people incited by the state media, going out to the streets, trying to break into Christian shops and institutions, threatening people, stealing things. Things were not everywhere simply a matter of Muslims and Christians, however. In Faggala, one witness reports on Facebook, the standoff was between poor youths and thugs on the one side, intent on looting Christian property, and Muslim inhabitants of the area who were not at all happy about the idea of stealing in the name of Islam.
In Alexandria, the night was tense, fights were reported in some parts of the city, and the protesters at the Northern Regional Headquarters were attacked by civilians, described as inhabitants of the district by news media. But to my knowledge no shots were fired in Alexandria, and nobody got killed.
More terrible than the veritable massacre committed by the army at Maspiro was its coverage by Egyptian state media that - this has become very clear in the past two days - openly called “the noble people of Egypt” to come to help the Army against Christians, reported that the protesters killed three Egyptian soldiers (to date it remains unclear whether any soldiers were killed at all), showed clearly dubbed interviews with injured soldiers. We don’t know what they really said, but the dubbed voices told of Christians seizing the weapons of the army, attacking people, stealing their money, beating soldiers to death. Also in the following days, after footage and eyewitness accounts have proven that the official version was not only skewed, but completely false, the state media and a big part of the independent media have continued to spread the version of 23 dead “from both sides,” giving the impression of an equal confrontation. Today, state-owned newspapers have began to distribute new versions of the story, one according to which the protesters stole the armed troop carriers, and another according to which protesters set a troop carrier in fire and killed a large number of soldiers inside it. At the same time, there is no official confirmation of any deaths from the ranks of the army and the police. After the direct incitement by state television in the first hours, the official tone has shifted to expressing compassion with “our Christian brothers” and commemorating “the martyrs from among the army and police.” There is a huge cover-up going on.
A lot of people continue to trust the state media, and especially when the issue becomes mixed with confessional sentiments, it becomes very compelling to believe that version of the story. D., a man from the countryside and very critical of the system since years, told me that he heard the news about the massacre at Maspiro in a cafe in Birimbal. In village cafes, people usually watch Egyptian Channel One which they still trust over other news media He tells that based on the coverage of Channel One, he really believed its account of the events, and thought that if protesters get armed and attack the army, then nobody else than the military can control the situation and that they need to be given the power to do so. Only when he got home an hour later and opened the Internet did he find out that it was the army that shot at the protesters and drove over them with armoured vehicles. No wonder then if others, who are less determined supporters of the revolution and less critical of the army and the military rule, believed - and still believe - what state television said.
Many - if not most - Muslims in Egypt do not have a sense that Christians would be in any way disadvantaged. They claim that there is national unity in Egypt, that Muslims and Christians are united and equal - a powerful fiction that makes it easy to overlook the really existing forms of discrimination. This is the ground from which the claims by state media about armed Christian protesters attacking the Egyptian army could gain their credibility: a sense that the Christians are demanding more than is their fair share anyway, now turned into a terrible union of patriotic militarism with sectarian distrust of the religious other. In the social media, this sensibility is expressed without the veil of national unity and sorrow in the official state media, with comments that range from anger to open aggression towards Christians. For those who never liked Christians anyway but had no good reason for this sentiment, the official story of Christian protesters arming themselves and attacking the Egyptian army offers a legitimate reason to hate.
Sectarian tension has a decades-long history in Egypt, and while it is evident that the army and state television did their best to incite confessional tensions, they were only able to do so because they really are widely shared by Egyptians. While Christians are at the losing end of these tensions due to their smaller number and their lack of presence in key nods of the military-media complex, it does not mean that they would be innocent of sectarian intolerance. There has been a strong turn to religion as the basis of identity and good life among Muslims and Christians alike, and part of this has been an increasing degree of closure towards the religious other. If Egypt were a 90% Christian country, we might have seen Muslim protesters massacred at Maspiro on Sunday.
The success of the media cover-up is far from total, however. It may have been aimed at tightening the army’s control over the country, but rather than creating a unified public opinion, it has deepened existing political splits. A lot of people don’t buy the army’s version of the story, and even many who are sympathetic of the army say that they don’t know what to believe.
One of the paradoxes of the Massacre at Maspiro is that it targeted people who otherwise would have been very likely to be supportive of a military rule that guarantees continuity and stability. Under Mubarak, many Christians would see in the ruling system a protector of Christians against the Islamists, even if they suffered from it as much if not more than everybody else. Last Sunday turned a big part of Christian Egyptians from hesitant supporters of the system into angry opponents of military rule.
Also among Egyptians of Muslim faith, many are putting the blame on the army, the more so after huge numbers of eyewitness accounts and horrible photographs and videos on the Internet and on some television stations have shown the extent of the violence by the army and the outright lying of the state media. The euphoric sense that “the army and the people are one hand” has been shifting more and more towards a distrust in the army’s ability (and good will) to run the country properly. Add the fact that there is not only a lot of sectarian tension in Egypt, but also quite some opposition to it by people who resist the momentum of sectarian closure. Who wants to be informed in Egypt, can be. Those who didn’t trust the military anyway, see in the events at Maspiro is a terrible proof of how much the SCAF, aided by the fulul, is intent to resorting to the tactics of chaos and terror that the Mubarak regime tried in the first days of the revolution last January.
D. sees that there is a plan that is being executed step by step. Not a clever one, and not well implemented, but a plan. The attack at the Israeli embassy in Cairo was one step, a way to exploit nationalist sentiment while inciting fear of unrest. The massacre at Maspiro was another step. The elections will be the next one, and D. expects that they will turn very violent and will be cancelled after the first round. The army intentionally lets the situation deteriorate, to let chaos prevail, the economy collapse, and the worse things get, the more people are willing to accept military rule as a guarantee of stability and security. In 2013 or 2014, D. predicts, an army candidate, most likely chief of staff Samy ‘Annan, will run for presidency, and even if the elections were fully free and fair (which they will not be), he will win.
My friend S. from Alexandria, since long frustrated about the current state of affairs since has strangely enough found new optimism in this moment. He thinks that what the country is going through now may be the birth labours of a better future. He (a Muslim by the way) is teacher at a school that has a large portion of Christian pupils and teachers, and confessional tensions have been very tangible there since long. Today, he gave the daily school opening speech. He started with telling that he saw Hosni Mubarak in a dream, the former president telling him that from his point of view, everything is going exactly as he wants. Calling the teachers and pupils to fight the Mubarak that continues to live inside them, S. concluded with an appeal to humanity and the need of people to recognise each others as humans. The speech moved people to tears, Muslims and Christians, and S. says that it made him feel a lot more optimistic.
A., calling me on the phone from the Emirates where he is working as a migrant labourer, tries to take it with humour: “The solution is that the Muslims burn the churches and Christians burn the mosques and everybody prays at home.”
Revolution as continuity
In Egypt this autumn, what in the way of a bad omen was called the Arab Spring is being crushed under the wheels of a military-media complex intent on employing sectarianism and the fear of chaos to consolidate their hold of the country. There are plenty of reasons for pessimism. Is there reason for optimism?
A few people whom I have met these days express a sense of optimism that they cannot quite explain. There is a sense that something has changed, that there is no return to the past, a sense that the events that we see these days, no matter how terrible they are, may actually be signs of the revolution’s success. Even if it may be a mistaken optimism - revolutions are very unpredictable and dangerous events, and they can go awfully wrong (think of the Russian revolution of 1917) - it is something to take seriously.
Part of this optimism is related to the sense of freedom, the wave of creativity, discussion and communication that goes on in the society. It is related to social dynamics released by the revolutionary momentum that are likely to influence the formation of the coming generation even if the political aims of the revolution may fail. This is what I would like to call the progress theory of the Egyptian revolution, a vision of the revolution creating something new, something that wasn’t there before. It has a grain of truth, but I think that by emphasising the novelty of the January 25 Revolution, it overlooks the history of revolutions in Egypt. To conclude this essay, I try to think about 2011 from the point of view of what I call the continuity theory of the Egyptian revolution. Rather than something completely unprecedented, the January 25 Revolution can also be seen as a return to a historical normality - and it’s a hard landing.
Until this year, Egypt as I knew it was that of the late Mubarak era, one of the most depoliticised times in Egypt’s contemporary history. I first arrived in Egypt in the late 1990's, a time when the de facto civil war between the regime and the Gama‘at al-Islamiya in southern Egypt was ending with a bloody defeat of the Islamist militants. From the 1990's until 2010 was a time when everybody in Egypt, including the Islamists, were compelled to yikabbar, to mind their own business and not get involved. In retrospect, however, the Mubarak era that was Egypt as I knew it, appears as an exceptional one, an interruption in a long history of revolutions and uprisings in Egypt since the 19th century.
The Egyptian book market has been flooded by a wave of books about the revolution, most of them of mediocre value at best. But there are pearls among them, and one of them is Muhammad Hafiz Diyab’s Uprisings or Revolutions in the History of Modern Egypt (Intifadat am thawrat fi tarikh Misr al-hadith, Cairo: Dar al-Shorouk, 2011). Diyab presents a history of popular uprisings, student and strike movements, riots, and full-fledged revolutions that begins in the 19th century and continues throughout the 20th century, with the 1919 revolution against British colonial rule, student protests in 1935, student and labour protests in 1946, the military coup of 1952 and the following revolutionary rearrangement of political and economic power, demonstrations in the late 1960's and early 1970's, and the so-called “bread riots” of January 1977, a wide-scale protest movement involving workers, students, and political activists of different colourings against Anwar al-Sadat’s policies of economic liberalisation. These different uprisings share a number of important features: a key role played by young people (especially students, and since the 1940's industrial workers), significant participation across political and party lines, large-scale demonstrations often focussed on Tahrir Square (formerly Isma’iliya Square) in Cairo, a visible role played by women, and an at best moderate degree of success of the protesters in realising their demands.
The fantastic moment of standing in Tahrir square in January and February 2011 was a moment that went beyond the wildest dreams of those who participated in that moment, a moment of utopia turned into material reality. For those who were there it has gained a quality that comes close to that of a religious belief. That fantastic quality has created two blind spots about the relationship of the revolution with the ordinary world. The first blind spot is a practical one. The reality of social and political change is a lot more difficult, a lot less pure and grand, and comparing it with the fantastic moment of revolution can create a sense of powerless that makes it difficult to make a realistic assessment of what is to be done next. The second blind spot is a temporal one. The fantastic moment of revolution carries an experienced singularity of a once-in-a-lifetime moment that because of its singularity exceeds the imaginable. The January 25 Revolution was not a singular event, however. It stands in a tradition, and without repeating history, it builds on its predecessors and paves the ground for struggles to come, struggles that are now becoming evident.
This, I think, is the source of the inexplicable optimism in these difficult days of what, in Egypt at least, looks like the beginning of an Arab autumn, a period of authoritarian restoration and violent confrontations. January 25th 2011 was not the opening of a new era in Egypt. It was the return to the historical normality of a nation in revolt, the continuation of a state of uprising that began in 1919, or perhaps already in 1881, and that is bound to continue.