Thursday, February 10, 2011

Wednesday 9 February: "It's now cool to be a revolutionary"

By European friend "H"

Yesterday I promised Samuli to contribute to this blog in a way or another. I keep my promise, but at the same time state that these are not my diaries in full. The latter would be too detailed and personal accounts of everyday trivialities, feelings and debates with old and new friends to be of anyone’s interest but mine, an aspiring anthropologist with a thesis in the pipeline, in shaa Allah. Thus I will pick each day a topic (or two) and connect it to the Egyptian revolution we are witnessing right now. Several news reports have commented on the shifting moods of the Tahrir protesters and, also, praised how well organized the everyday affairs at Tahrir square are. I just want to make a few comments on these two issues.

Liberated Area of Tahrir #1 : A note on changing character

Not only a physical space but also a mental state, the Liberated Area of Tahrir – as I like to call it – is naturally by no means static but keeps on evolving on a daily basis. When me and Samuli first got here, it had already witnessed major stages of struggle between the pro-democracy activists and the (then) paramount police state of Egypt. Especially the Friday 28 January had been a crucial victory for the protesters, albeit the hundreds of killed and injured not only on Tahrir square in Cairo, Alexandria, Suez but all over the country. That weekend, the military stepped in and the police forces went underground, and the down-town Cairo we arrived into was pretty much governed by the revolutionaries and/or their sympathizers. The One Million March on Tuesday 1 February marked the one of the most impressive pro-democracy demonstrations thus far in Cairo. Protesters talked openly about “popular revolution” and made references to the events of 1919 Revolution against the British, with the high hopes that this critical mass would have encouraged Mubarak to leave. It was a day that exceeded everyone's wildest dreams and, at the same time, full of anticipation. Mubarak’s partial concessions and otherwise disappointing speech later that day divided the protesters into two camps, those who were satisfied with the gained concessions, and those who were even more determined to stay over until Mubarak he does Ben Ali and leaves. The sinister attacks of “NDP-thugs” (a generic term for all sorts of shady groups) on pro-democracy protesters later that week largely shifted the reformists' sympathies to the side of the pro-democracy protesters. The foreign journalists and foreign-lookalikes also had their share of NDP-thuggery. At the time, several local defense committees in down-town areas like down-town, Abdeen and elsewhere in Greater Cairo area were cooperating with the Military Police (shurta al-geesh) under Umar Suleiman, bringing in activists and foreign journos for detention or, at least, unpleasant investigation procedures. Following the public remembrance of the 25 January martyrs on Friday 4 February and, at the latest, after banks, restaurants and shops gradually re-opened due to a relaxed curfew on Sunday, the Liberated Area of Tahrir has changed its character once again. Now it is a place of curiosity for all kinds of people who have kept inside for days on end, who have never yelled an anti-Mubarak slogan in their lives, who gradually realized that the state-owned print and broadcast media had lied about what’s really happening in this country.

Today at Tahrir square, I talked with a R. – a 30-year-old teacher in an exclusive language school – who had participated in the protests almost non-stop since Friday 28 January. Many of her friends had been injured, and some acquaintances killed, during the clashes with either the police forces or, later on, NPD-thugs. Her brother had also arrived to the scene for a few days, only to return home with a panic attack a week ago, following the hellish clashes with NDP-thugs rushing into the crowds on horses and camels and others sniping away protesters with a rifle and a pistol from the nearby 6 October bridge. Like many of her friends who had been through it all, she felt today somewhat frustrated by the newcomers who flooded into the square in increasing numbers during the past few days. Already two days earlier she had confessed to me that she felt like an animal in the zoo as people – curious as they are – came in to see and photograph who these “Tahrir people” really are. Yesterday’s new sight was the growing number of street-sellers all around the square with an extensive variety of goods from koshery, youghurt, cigarettes, chocolates, popcorn, and the like. She told me that the organizers had kicked most of them out today. Why? I pressed on the positive aspects of swelling numbers and continued protests, and she replied:

“Well, I suppose it is good that there are more people coming in. At the same time, I think that at least half, or maybe 20 percent, of them are undercover agents. They are not active, just watching out. People come to our tents and take photos, or just sit down and listen and try to get an idea of what’s been planned for tomorrow. And I think it’s Suleiman’s plan to make this whole protest look more like a carneval, and not like a revolution.”

As we talked, sitting in a tiny area squeezed between three different tents, a man from the protest organizers enter R. and her friends’ encampment and asks if the women and men are sleeping in separate tents “as they pretty well should”. Apparently there are rumors of mixed gender tents going around. This of course would be a moralist argument at the hands of those entities, including the remaining NDP-loyalist media, that still wish to wage new smear campaigns against the Tahrir protesters.

R.’s frustration about the current state of affairs on Tahrir square is not uncommon among the “original protesters” and the political activists themselves who were behind the original call for wide-scale public protests on 25 January 2011. In fact, and I’m not being paranoid here, it would be a rather smart move from Suleiman to let this kind of gradual change in the public character of Tahrir to happen. The revolutionary culture is giving in to a festive one which – at least in the eyes of the most committed revolutionares – empties the event of its political content. Another friend of mine observed that, at one particular part of Tahrir square, the scene equals to any public concert or shopping street in Heliopolis where the trendiest upper-class youth come to “only because it’s a cool thing to do”.

I’m still not convinced by the argument that the arrival of newcomers begets necessarily negative effects for the revolution. By all means, it is a popular revolution and the “Heliopolis scene” easily fits the other scenes where munaqqabas, unemployed, children, doctors, students, men and women, boys and girls and people from most, if not all, ladders of society seem to mingle and socialize with one another without any major difficulties. Festive for sure, and laughter and joy can be in themselves political in these circumstances but, at the same time, I do understand her fears of the revolutionary moment's gradual disintegration. But, at this point in time, I am more alarmed by the scenario of 20 or even 5 percent of them being passive undercover agents, stationed there to get gradually inside the gist of things and, as an order comes, take over the whole lot. But I don’t really see that happening either. The protesters, especially the more experienced activists, have learned to be incredibly sensitive of such intruders and infiltration from the outside. They have learned it the hard way, I must say. Now it might be, however, perhaps the most useful lesson from growing up under Mubarak and the watchful eyes of the Egyptian Intelligence Services, long headed by no other than Umar Suleiman.

Liberated Area of Tahrir #2 : Self-organization

First, it has to be said, there is no single person, body or movement coordinating the whole protest event. Secondly, such galvanization of this revolutionary momentum would be somewhat counter-productive as several of the protesters’ advances, such as going to the People’s Assembly and Shura Council yesterday, have been materialized more through spontaneous actions and reactions than well premeditated plans. Moving about hundreds or even tens of thousands of protesters to one or two directions quickly is a huge logistical and communicational effort, if not impossibility.

The political events and claims-making within the Liberated Area of Tahrir seem to involve a dynamic of three different elements. First: There is now a youth coalition called the Youth of the Revolution (shabab as-sawra) that brings together a number of youth groups from different political and ideological denominations. These are, for instance, 6 April Youth, Muslim Brotherhood youth, Freedom and Justice, HASHD, ElBaradei support campaign, Democratic Front Party youth, and We Are All Khaled Said-admins on Facebook. During the past two weeks, different coalition initiatives among the youth groups have taken place and the coordination among them have not been as seamless and systematic as was anticipated, but this is the latest and perhaps the final one of them. Second: There are the official opposition parties and movements – such as the Muslim Brotherhood, the National Association for Change, Democratic Front Party, etc. – whose seasoned opposition politicians do appear on the square and, previously, tried to engage in negotiations with Suleiman’s New Egyptian Regime. The opposition parties can hardly claim to represent the Tahrir protesters, and I don’t really see how they can build their legitimacy at this moment in time. ElBaradei’s leadership has been out of the question from the start as he doesn’t enjoy enough support among the youth groups, nor the opposition forces nor the protesters themselves. The latter, the majority of Tahrir protesters, have not involved in political movements before but got caught by the momentum and their commitment is deeply engrained in the personal. Their strength is their creativity in acting and reacting, the spontaneity. There are several close relatives and friends of those protesters who were killed and/or injured during these tragic days. Needless to say, these relatives’ and friends’ commitment to the revolutionary cause – crystallized as it is now on Mubarak’s immediate departure (as the first step) – is unyielding. The inside developments inside the Tahrir protests materialize through one, or a combination, of these different elements.

Today’s news about the 20 000 workers’ striking in different parts of Egypt will surely add new dimensions to this dynamic. A general strike at this point in time could just be it. But this might be something I write about at a later stage. I’ll just finish out by pointing out to a possible security flaw in the Liberated Area of Tahrir, especially as it comes to its widely praised form of self-organization.

The everyday affairs of the Liberated Area of Tahrir are, to a degree, organized through a voluntary organizing group called the Organization Committee (lagnat al-nizam). They set up check-points at all entrances to the square i.e. check the incomers’ IDs (for possible state security or NDP affiliations), bags and pockets (for knives or any other forms of arms). They also have appointed persons to check foreigners’ passports. Yesterday I was asked if I’ve been to Israel or Iran, indicating that at least some of them are serious about the “foreign involvement” on the square. They also form human chains around some of the military vehicles, so that people wouldn’t mingle around them. The Organization Committee does not have direct links with the political groups and, mainly, consists of friends of friends as well as volunteers who are occasionally called in through loudspeakers. And here lies the risky scenario: The Organization Committee is gradually manned by infiltrators who end up guarding one or several entrances to the square. The natural step would be then to let in those who are not wanted in.

Then again, I am pretty confident that those involved have known these risks from the outset, and I don’t need to know what their counter-strategies are. My best guess is that they have to do with the precious thing called friendship that has proven, for many, to be of crucial importance during these turbulent times.

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