Saturday, March 19, 2011

After the revolution

As I write these final notes from the Egyptian revolution on my way back to Germany, I once again curse my amazingly bad timing regarding key events of the revolution. I arrived in Egypt on my first visit three days after the Friday of Anger, the dramatic key moment that made the old system lose its balance. I left five days before Hosni Mubarak resigned. I arrived on my second visit one day after Essam Sharaf’s caretaker government took over. And I am leaving in the early morning hours of the constitutional referendum that will determine which way Egypt will be going in the coming months.

This decisive moment is just one of the many that Egypt has seen and will continue to see during this year. But as it is the moment when I leave Egypt, I seize it to offer some preliminary conclusions about the Egyptian revolution and the social and emotional dynamics it has released. I make no pretensions to neutrality. My account of the Egyptian revolution is an extremely partisan one, and I would consider it a failure if it weren’t so. There are times to look at things from a neutral distance, and there are times to take a stance. But while taking a stance, I have tried to be fair towards those whose views and actions I do not agree with. It has been difficult.

In November 2010 I spoke with the Egyptian journalist Abdalla Hassan who told me that there will be a revolution in Egypt soon. I replied him that there is no way there will be a revolution in Egypt, and in any case, I find a revolution a bad idea because in revolutions things get broken, people get killed, and in the end the wrong people seize the power. I was obviously wrong about the point as to whether there will be a revolution in Egypt or not. However, at the moment it looks like that all my three reasons to be opposed to a revolution are turning out to be true. And yet I continue to think that the revolution was a good thing, one of the best things that have happened to Egypt since a long time.

To start with, things don’t look too good to be honest. There is strong mobilisation for a “No” vote for the sake of a new democratic constitution to finish the job of the revolution. The activists of the “No” vote who for too long a while were focussed on demonstrations, the press and the Internet, have finally taken to debating and spreading leaflets in the streets. But they are facing a much stronger mobilisation by an unholy alliance of Mubarak’s National Democratic Party, the Muslim Brotherhood, and the Salafis, for a “Yes” vote, with tacit support of the army. A “Yes” vote will mean a consolidation of what remains of the old system, and it will mean early elections that are likely to be dominated by an alliance of the old system and Islamists. In Cairo the “Yes” and “No” campaigns appear to have approximately equal strength, but in Alexandria, where the Salafis are especially strong, they have been not only speaking out loudly for their point of view, they also quite reject the possibility of there being a different point of view. According to newspaper reports, they have been aggressively trying to prevent the “No” campaign from spreading its message in Alexandria. Despite the widely publicised measures to guarantee a transparent election, there are already reports of vote-rigging on the countryside and in Upper Egypt. The odds are at the moment that the “Yes” vote will prevail due to a mixture of trustful expectation of a quick return to normality among a very large part of Egyptians, the organising power of Islamist movements, the tacit “Yes”-campaign by the state media, and some fraud. But the outcome is not certain, and that in itself is a major progress in Egypt. (For more details on the arguments for and consequences involved in a “Yes” or “No” vote, see my previous post)

I spent yesterday, my last day in Egypt, from the morning until the evening meeting my friends in Cairo. They represent a very particular selection of Egyptians. They are all going to vote “No”, and they all think that Egypt needs more social and gender equality, more freedom, and a civil state ruled by a democratic government, without the Muslim Brothers if possible. But their assessment of the situation is different, each coming up with a different scenario of Egypt’s future.

My friend from southern Cairo is the most pessimistic one. She sees that the Muslim Brothers and the Salafis are about to take over, be it directly or indirectly, and that there is a grave danger that the promises of democracy and freedom will be betrayed by a conservative religious turn that will put an end to the little bit of freedom there was for different ways of life in Egypt under Mubarak. In her view, the nationalists and leftist were very naive to join the Muslim Brotherhood in the temporary alliance to overthrow Mubarak because the Muslim Brothers are the ones who will profit now due to their superior organisation. She argues that since the system was so weak that it fell after less than three weeks of demonstrations, it would have been very well possible indeed to gradually reform it. A gradual reform of the old system, she argues, would have been better because it would not have given the Islamists the chance to dominate which they are offered now. Maybe, I say, but now things are as they are. So what to do now? She does not have a plan, but she points out that whatever its political consequences, the revolution has released a longing for freedom and unsettled the logic of gender relations. This shift can substantially change Egyptian society in the coming years, but it needs to get the chance to evolve.

F.E., a long-standing socialist activist, is much more optimistic. “Whatever the outcome of the referendum, we have already gained a lot.” Many socialist and communist movements that were previously working in illegality are now working publicly. Some of them are well connected with the new free trade unions in Egypt’s industrial centres. Left wing parties and organisations are mushrooming. The crucial issue, in F.E.’s view, is to create a functioning network to facilitate their work to compete with the Muslim Brotherhood and the NDP. In F.E.’s view it is in a way good that the Muslim Brotherhood decided to join the “Yes” campaign because by doing so “they have proven to everybody what we already knew: that they are a part of the system”. In F.E.’s view, there is a likelihood that the Muslim Brotherhood comes to power in alliance of parts of the old system. But it won’t be a disaster since it will only be making official what has been unofficially going on since the 1970's. With the gradual withdrawal of the state from its role as a service provider in the course of economical liberalisation, the Islamist movements and religious actors in general were given the role of non-governmental service providers in the new neoliberal system of governance. Due to this deal, F.E. says, the Muslim Brothers have a societal advantage which the socialists and the labour movement now have to catch up with by entering the streets and the popular neighbourhoods and defeating the Islamists in their home ground. A part of the plan is to raise lawsuits against Muslim Brotherhood-dominated charities which often link their services with ideological conditions, which is against the law on charitable institutions (F.E. is lawyer by training, he knows). But the crucial point is to be there for the people, to offer services and to be socially active: “The poor people cannot afford to be ideological. If you go to them and offer them assistance, they take it. It doesn’t take much ideology to tell the difference between one loaf of bread, and two loafs.” In F.E.’s view, right now is the finest hour of the Muslim Brotherhood, but their days are counted because in the end they are a part of the corrupt old system, and will not be able to solve the problem of social inequality - the issue that took the people to the streets.

W., also a long-standing socialist and since years a cultural activist, is a little less enthusiastic about the networking capacities of the leftist movement. He, too, has been intensively involved in the revolution, and as I meet him in the evening, he is exhausted. Not only has he been participating in a number of cultural activities and a leaflet campaign on the eve of the referendum, he is also a member of the citizen’s checkpoint in the area of the cultural centre where he works. Yesterday he attended the founding meeting of yet another socialist party. He is not so worried about the splintering of leftist parties, however. What troubles him is that trade unions are at the moment so busy presenting their demands to the ministries that they have no concentration for the wider political situation. These demands, which typically involve improved pay and a change in management structures, are known in Egypt currently as “the demands of professional groups” (matalib fi’awiya), which has become something of a curse word. For activists like W, they are an ambivalent business, partly a crucial part of political action, partly detrimental to coordinating the pursuit of more general objectives.

Dr. A., a psychologist concerned with the spiritual aspect of religion as a way to help people find agency in their lives, says that he is neither a pessimist or an optimist: Pessimism and optimism, he argues, are attitudes of the time before the revolution, now is a time to work. He says that when people discuss the referendum with him, he doesn’t say what he will vote, but only encourages them to vote and take the decision in their own hands. He will vote “No”, he says, but what is more important for him is the level of political consciousness and spontaneous activity by young people who never had that experience before. “When I was at the Friday prayer today, after the prayer there were people spreading ‘Yes’ leaflets and others spreading ‘No’ leaflets, people whom I had never before seen being socially active. I went to the guy with the “No” leaflets and thanked him for just that.” We discuss what will happen to this drive of activity if the majority vote will be a “Yes”. I’m concerned that a victory of the “Yes” vote, which would be the first major setback for the revolutionaries (excepting, of course, the Muslim Brothers who go for “Yes”), will cause a major wave of frustration and make many people give up again. The question, Dr. A. replies, is about turning the spirit of revolution into experience. The revolution is an emotional state, and as such it is transient even if it leaves a strong trace on one. But it also comes with a practical experience, and that practical experience is changing a significant part of Egypt in these very days.

That change will be a contradictory one. A revolution is a sledgehammer, good for breaking the walls of oppression and frustration. It is a way of changing things that causes a lot of damage, it is risky, and there is no way to tell how things will eventually turn out. One can draw so many comparisons to the Iranian revolution 0f 1979, to the Russian revolutions of 1905 and 1917, to the revolutions of the Eastern Block in 1968 and 1989, and the youth revolution in western Europe and Northern America in 1968 - but the only thing that one learns is that revolutions are fundamentally unpredictable. Afterwards, we will be able to name the actors, the groups, the dynamics, and the decisions that determined the course of events. But beforehand, nobody knows.

What I do know is this: Egypt’s revolution of 25 January built on a number of social dynamics that were present in Egypt already years before, and which have now been partly magnified, and partly transformed.

Number one is the reintroduction of capitalism since the 1970's after a period of Arab socialism, and the enormous social impact of neoliberal governance that gave enormous wealth to a political-economical elite, some wealth to a new middle class, and an enormous gap of promises and reality to the biggest part of the population. Egypt in the age of Mubarak was a liberal dictatorship, with vast opportunities for investment, beautiful new malls and resorts, space for different lifestyles on the condition of sufficient funds, an extremely stratified class society, and a brutal and arrogant security apparatus that treated citizens like criminals and had criminals on its paycheck. As Walter Armbrust (http://www.jadaliyya.com/pages/index/717/the-revolution-against-neoliberalism) has argued in an early and very fitting analysis, the revolution of 25 January 2011 was directed first and foremost against this conglomerate of big money, class and family privileges, and everyday oppression, and whether and to what degree this conglomerate will change in favour of ordinary Egyptians, will be the primary measure-stick on which the people who undertook the revolution will measure its success.

Number two is the wave of a very particular kind of religious conservatism that Egypt has been experiencing since thirty years. In the past decade this religious conservatism took a markedly unpolitical, primarily socially engaged shape, but it now turns out that this was very much due to the constraints of the Mubarak system that worked systematically to depoliticise social movements. Now religious conservatism has become an openly political (and so have left wing cultural projects, by the way) again, thus also creating new kinds of divisions. Some of my colleagues have argued that the revolutionary protest has offered a new language of dissent, a new logic to think about the relationship of state, society, religion, and the individual which is “asecular” in the words of Hussein Agrama (http://blogs.ssrc.org/tif/2011/03/11/asecular-revolution/), because it stands outside the contrast of the secular and the religious. This could indeed be the impression if one focusses on the utopian moment of revolutionary protest. But that was, indeed, the utopian moment of a revolutionary protest and now we are entering the period of transition. The shared spirit of protest has become impossible to hold once the common goal was reached, although it is likely to have some positive effects on Egypt’s politics in the next years. The political developments of the transitional period are providing for a spectacular comeback of that contrast in new forms, most disturbingly in the shape of the Salafis with their rejection of the very idea of democracy as un-Islamic, but also in a less destructive way in the way leftist and nationalist political actors are now rearranging their ranks to face the alliance of the old system and the Muslim brotherhood. Applying Agrama's analysis of secularism to its opponents, I argue that re-politicisation of religious conservatism is providing not so much specific norms - after all, Egypt is for the biggest part a conservative and religious society anyway - than specific questions that it obliges Egyptians to ask and answer (I am thinking for example, about the discussion about the Islamic state between R. and Y. in my note from 15 March).

But more important than who will run the country in the next four or eight years is the peculiar nature of this religious conservatism as an integral part of the neoliberal system of governance as F.E the socialist pointed out. The power of Islamist ideals of politics and society over Egypt is interlinked with the experience of an increasingly amoral society moving away from a conservative communal experience towards a competitive, fragmented social experience where morals are learned from the book. The power of the Islamist promise of good life rises and falls with the neoliberal capitalist utopia/dystopia. While I am not much of a socialist myself, I therefore think that socialists and the labour movement may have more to say in future than may seem right now.

Number three is the strained relationship of ordinary people with the state, which for a long time has been marked by seeking the patronage of the state/business authorities, and cursing the humiliation which one experienced while doing so. Burning the police stations on 28 January was a radical, impulsive reaction against this experience, and it has released highly contradictory dynamics. Until today, there is very little police on the streets of Egypt’s cities, although technically the police should have been able to return weeks ago. Partly it has made things better, as people have to suffer a lot less insults and derision than they used to. Partly it has made things more colourful, with street vendors who used to play cat and mouse with the police now working freely in Cairo’s shopping streets. But for a big part, it is a serious problem in face of the increase in crime - and in fear of crime - that followed the revolution, further aggravated by the large number of police firearms that got into private hands on 28 January. The fear of crime and violence is the strongest argument in the hands of those who want things to get back to as they were. Those who want to push for the sake of continuing revolution tend to place the blame on the police itself, seeing in the delayed return of the police to the street a continued campaign of intimidation. But I think that more is at stake. A main reason appears to be that the police officers are very hesitant to take their new role as servants of the people. There is very strong resistance in the police force against criminal investigations against police officers. In the beginning of this week, police forces in Alexandria marched out of the courts they were supposed to protect in protest against court cases against three police officers accused of killing protesters. This spirit was most arrogantly marked by the video circulating on the Internet in early March, showing a police chief telling the policemen that “we are the masters of the country.” The burning of the police stations has been a traumatic event for the police force, and an ambiguous one for the citizens who note the new politeness of the few police officers in the streets with great satisfaction, but also suffer from the new insecurity of violent crime. The relation of the citizens and the police will remain an open question for a while, and while there seems to be no return to times past, it is unclear whether a new sound base for policing will be found. The relationship will remain strained. And the weapons that moved to private hands will stay that way, and violent crime is likely to become a more permanent menace in Egyptians’ daily life.

Number four is the crisis of patriarchal authority so dramatically marked in the Oedipal father murder which the revolutionaries committed on Mubarak, the clientelistic father-godfather of the nation. I wrote more about this point back in February, at the moment I want to point out that this was by no means a shared undertaking by all Egyptians. A lot of people did not believe that Mubarak would go until he actually did, and did not dare or care to go out to the streets. These people, too, are now claiming the revolution as theirs, but for them it has a different emotional significance. And those who did believe that Mubarak would go and who put their faith into a revolution without visible leaders, had quite different ideas of what would replace the figure of the respected and feared collective father. Things are in the movement, and some are searching for new reliable sources of authority while others are claiming the freedom to speak out what is in one’s heart and yet others are experimenting with non-hierarchical organisation and pluralistic debate. This shift in authority and in the entitlement to a voice will be the biggest and bitterest struggle that Egypt will face in the next decades.

This is why I think the Egyptian revolution is a good thing although things have been broken, people have been killed, and the wrong people are likely to seize the power. Egypt of the past decade was marked by an enormous contrast of great promises and high expectations on the one hand, and a sense of humiliation, depression and frustration. The 25 January revolution opened up a different way to feel about the world, and things got into movement. Some things will get back to the way they were, some will get better, a lot of things will get worse. But they are not just happening to people. One can do something about one’s share in the world. So many people in Egypt felt that nothing can be done, and many of them now feel that something can be done after all. They will do that something now, for better or worse.

Revolution is indeed an emotional state, and it is an intense, nervous and stressful one. One cannot go on that way for very long. The turn from the state of revolution to a state of transition is also a time of exhaustion and bad nerves. R., an artist, is sick with a “post-revolutionary flu” as she calls it. Like many others whom I have met, she is emotionally exhausted, and says that the past month and a half has been the most stressful time in her life. Although I myself have spent only three weeks in Egypt since the revolution began, my nerves are wrecked, too. I have started smoking again, and I sleep very badly. And yet unlike many others, I haven’t been through any really bad experiences. But there is a constant anxiety, and it is of the same kind of the anxiety of M. who found it so wearing to find this country one’s own. Like so many Egyptians who share this feeling, I am anxious because I care. Having lived so long in a country that seemed so stalled, so doomed to face just more and more of the same, it is not a bad thing to be anxious in this way.

Greetings from Egypt in transition!

Samuli

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