The last few days in Egypt have been marked by a move from revolutionary tension to a rather contradictory normality and entirely new issues and problems. The question now is: How to change the society, and in which direction? The views go far apart.
What to write?
On Saturday 12 March I met in a little bookstore in Alexandria with a group of young literates and literature enthusiasts to discuss the motivations to write. It turned into a discussion about the shared concern of all the people present: how writing can change the world.
Next autumn, I plan to come to Egypt for a new fieldwork to do research with people who write - poetry, short stories, blogs, novels, social satire. It is a project still in the stage of early development about writing itself as a social and imaginative practice, about its significance as a daily practice and the relations young beginning writers build through their writing. One of the people with whom I have been discussing the theme previously is Z., a female schoolteacher from alexandria who also writes short prose. She offered to organise a meeting with some of her friends who are also interested in literature, and on Saturday noon we met in a small bookstore near the university. Not surprisingly, the revolution was in everybody’s mind, but rather than talking about the events of the revolution itself, we discussed at length the question how writing can change the world, and what one can write about now. There has been a flood of books critically describing the social situation in Egypt in the past years, most notably in the form of a new genre of social satire, and of best-seller novels like those by Alaa El-Aswany. These books are often written in accessible style and many literates look down at them (Aswany is not considered much of a novelist on the high standards of Arab literary critique), but they have contributed to a great increase in readership and publication. To make a long story short: social critique has been a key theme of writing in the past years, and this puts these young writes into a position where on the one hand what they do is extremely relevant, but on the other hand they have to reposition themselves.
Amr Izzeddin who has written three collections of social satire says that right now he faces the problem that he will have reorient. He has been critiquing the system in its everyday implications, but now he wants to find ways to build. Islam Musbah who has written two novels, the first one of them about a violent and bloody revolution in Egypt, says that “the revolution has stopped the market for my writing. Now I don’t know what to write.” Shamei Asaad has published a book based on a blog, with the aim of making the everyday life of Christians known to Muslims who often know very little about Christians. His focus is on the details and relations of daily life, and since the issue of Muslim-Christian relations is now more urgent than ever, he has enough stuff to write about. Husam Adil, a student who had written a collection of short stories that focus on the little interactions of daily life, tries to offer moments of constructive moral critique. Mukhtar Shehata has published one novel and has another one as a manuscript, but after the revolution began he has postponed finishing the manuscript, and is looking for entirely different media to express his concerns.
The original question of the motivations, grounds and experience of writing remains marginal in the discussion, which is about changing the world. The agreement is that any writer wants to change the world even if only to a limited extent. But a writer first of all changes her- or himself. The question is, how. What most of the people in the circle share is the look at everyday social relationships rather than the big picture or dramatic events, in Shamei’s words: “changing things from the base and not from the top.” Relate this to the way the Egyptian revolution emerged: as a popular movement with no charismatic leadership. It was a revolution directed against the top of the system, but its movement was bottom-up. Relate this to the way the change in expectations and moods precedes and is a condition of institutional change. These writers are from different angles touching upon a key moment, but at the same time their own uncertainty as to what to write now shows how open the situation is. As the revolution is turning into a period of transition, the question is, where to? Revolutions often bring forth strong transformations of literary and artistic production, and I’m curious to see what kind of answers to that question young writers will be providing in the next years.
Remembering the dead
On the evening of Saturday 12 March the good news reached me that Aly Subhy and three others held by the military had been declared innocent and released. This made my spirits rise greatly, although the destiny of a great number of others detained remains open. For the first time since a few nights I slept well.
In the past two days, I have for the first time heard detailed accounts about the events in Alexandria on the Friday of Anger on 28 January, the day when the police force tried to violently crush the protest, and hundreds were killed all around Egypt. D. tells that when he returned to his home in central Alexandria, he saw the entire waterfront marked by fires and smoke in an apocalyptic scene that looked more like war footage from Iraq than anything he had known in Egypt. S. finally comes up with his memories of the Friday of Anger. On that day he told his wife that he is going to work, but instead he joined a demonstration, lead by local Muslim Brotherhood activists, moving along the seafront and gathering more people, until they faced a row of police in Sidi Bishr, which forced them to move to the side streets where they found another row of police attacking them with tear gas and hitting them with iron rods with peaces of concrete on them taken from a nearby construction site. A young man, named Khalid, was hit on his breast by a teargas cartridge from three metres distance. S. and three others took him away from the scene and to take him into a mosque nearby. It was a Salafi mosque run by people who S. - who himself had been attracted by Salafism for some years - knew. The sheikh of the mosque refused to let the critically wounded man in, locked the door, and made clear that he was in favour of the police attacking the demonstrators. Khalid died. S. was hurt on his foot and shoulder by an iron rod, and was carried from the scene by other protesters. Only after a couple of hours did his injured foot carry him enough to return home, without telling his wife or anybody else what he had been through.
My friend R. was in Agami in western Alexandria on 28 January, and arrived on the scene of demonstrations only in the afternoon, after four people had been killed and the police station had already been set in fire. With no television in his apartment, and internet and mobile phones cut off, he had no idea of what was going on, and when he found out what was going on, he couldn’t believe his eyes. Increasing numbers of people were on the streets facing the police, four police trucks were set in fire. After a while the police retreated, R. joined the demonstrators who were waiting for the police to come back, ready to die. But the police didn’t return. R. Describes the contradictory feeling: “I felt that after we had been so long being treated like chickens, Egypt will be a paradise tomorrow. But at the same time I asked: Why burn the police station? It will be rebuilt with our money.” He, too, saw scenes of violence which he had never before seen, and which still trouble him. He saw a man’s hand get broken very badly, and says that it was as if he himself was hit.
Egyptians have every reason to be proud of their peaceful revolution, especially when compared with the terrible and brutal violence which popular uprisings face around the Arab world right now. In most Arab countries, the iron hand of what the West has gotten accustomed to calling “moderate Arab states” is crushing demonstrations without mercy (and I’m not talking about Libya but Yemen, Saudi Arabia, Oman, Iraq, Bahrain). But the terrible death toll of 28 January reminds me that also the Egyptian revolution only became peaceful after an attempt by the government to turn in into a bloodbath. Along the Corniche in Alexandria there are photos of martyrs of the revolution - there are altogether 83 of them in Alexandria. In central Alexandria there is a temporary monument guarded by volunteers, with a list of the names of everybody who was killed during the revolution around Egypt. Yesterday night I read on the internet about the brother of L whom I met on the plane to Cairo on 31 January. She was travelling to Egypt to search for his brother Ziyad Bakry who was missing since 28 February. On Friday the news reached me that his body was found on 10 March in a mortuary where is body had remained unrecognised for more than a month. He had been shot twice in the head on the night of 28 February. I have a heavy heart when I think about these people, most of them very young, who had to die because of a regime that had the arrogance to shoot at its citizens because they wanted to be treated with respect and dignity.
As Egypt remembers the martyrs of the revolution these days, it is rather oblivious of other things. While the bigger part of the population is enjoying the pleasure of freedom and new hope, steps have been taken that clearly aim at silencing the most active parts of the revolutionary movement. As the military government is releasing political prisoners who were detained for years, it is at the same time detaining activists of Egypt’s peaceful revolution in downtown Cairo. Not only do many people detained earlier remain in custody, but on Friday 11 March several more people were arrested in downtown Cairo, this time in an action more evidently targeting activists. Twelve names of people detained have been confirmed, and there are others detained whose names are not known yet. There is no information about their whereabouts. A lot of people here do not want to believe that the army could be involved in detaining and torturing peaceful protesters. While some people I have met see the alliance of the revolution with the army as a purely tactical one determined by necessity, and have no illusions about the army being a morally superior instance, others hold tight to the slogan that the people and the army hold together, and do not want to consider that this may not be the whole story.
So much has been made possible, so much has been changed, but the success has been partial, and the price has been terrible.
What to build?
Revolutions are a tricky business. They take place in moments when a gradual change is made impossible, and the only way out is to overthrow the system in order to break out of the stalled situation. Because of this, revolutions initially break more than they build. That is what they are good for: breaking the “knot of fear” of the citizens towards the government, breaking the power of the system, breaking the narrow closed circle to which people’s action was limited. By breaking the narrow circle, people undertaking a revolution are able to open up a new world of possibilities, and the immediate act of going out and saying “No”, the revolution has created in those people an enormous sense of empowerment and a completely different outlook on what they can do. But what exactly can one do? What will Egypt`s future look like? Key issues these days are economy, religion, and the constitution - and from a more long-term perspective, the expectation of a deeper social change.
On Sunday I took it easy in the morning until in the afternoon S. and I took the minibus to downtown Alexandria. On the way, we looked at all the wall paintings and graffiti along the seaside, some of them spontaneous writing on the wall, some sponsored wall paitings celebrating patriotism and the revolution, some banners sponsored by local businessmen in the style of the old Mubarak age, welcoming the police back in the streets, some political slogans of different colouring. S. tells me how these streets looked like in the days of the mass protests, before the campaign to paint everything in red white and black began after 11 February. Months before the revolution somebody had sprayed a verse of poetry by Amal Dunqul all over the corniche: “Don’t dream of a better world / after every dead emperor comes a new emperor”, a verse in a striking way expressing the political sensibility of the past years. As the demonstrations began, spontaneous graffiti with slogans such as “down with the system”, “down with the tyrant”, “no to Mubarak” rapidly spread all over the city. Some were painted over by Mubarak’s supporters, some were covered by the new wall paintings that spread after the revolution. In side streets they can still be spotted. At the site of a demolished building in central Alexandria there is a large graffiti saying: “demolition order of the system by the people of Egypt, in force by 25/1/2011” There are numerous shops that have spontaneusly changed their names into “Revolution market”, “Martyrs café”, “25 January jeans”, etc., usually employing the colours of the national flag which are all over the place these days. But there is also an emerging wave of stickers that do not employ the national colours. These are stickers by the Salafis who have started a big campaign for Egypt to be an Islamic state. And as one moves out of the city centre, they get more and more numerous.
From central Alexandria I continued to Agami, an area in the far West of Alexandria where I met my friends R. and Y. Like most of Alexandria, Agami is split into a wealthy seaside and a poor inland area. The part where R and Y (they are brothers) live belongs to the poor inland side, at the border between a 1970's government housing area known as Masakin Siniya (Chinese Housing, called so because it was built as a cooperation project with China), and a hillside owned by Bedouins who are the original inhabitants of the area. R. and Y. have put together the family savings and built a small house there. Other houses are being built right now - while Egypt’s economy has otherwise come to quite a standstill due to the revolution, construction is running well. In the absence of police and government inspectors one can build for half the price because there are no bribes to be paid. I’m curious about what happens when they come back.
Half as a joke, half seriously Y. explains to me that a major contributing reason to the revolution was a severe shortage of hashish. A few months ago, a major drug dealer who until then had closely collaborated with the police got into disfavour with the ministry of interior after a police officer was shot dead by drug dealers. In result, the police who until then had covered him, closed the supply of hashish, and for a few months, it was exceedingly difficult to buy hashish. Y: You know how people live in Egypt: They get up, they go to work, they go shopping, they come home, they eat, and in the evening they get stoned. When the supply of hashish was cut, they couldn’t take it anymore.” Ever since the revolution began there has been good supply of hashish again, however.
R. and Y. were of quite different minds as to whether they should be optimistic or pessimistic these days. R. told that he had been really happy all the time until the past few days, when he had started to feel that the army wasn’t much of an expert in managing the country, and that many things will not change, that there will still be bribes to be paid and politicians stealing the people. Y., in contrast, was rather optimistic. He had just been in central Alexandria to meet a girl in the university institute where he had studied. The students were holding a demonstration demanding, among other things, that the student union should be dissolved. In Y’s view things were in movement, even though there was in his view still much too little political consciousness among the people.
R’s sense of disillusionment is related to the general shift in the situation from a revolutionary state with enormous emotional intensity and rapidly changing news to a period of consolidation and transition that is marked by less dramatic but more contradictory developments. Egypt has changed, but not in every respect. People can demonstrate freely, but demonstrations are sometimes forcibly removed and people arrested - most recently today when the army removed a week-long demonstration mainly by Christians in front of the television centre. The police returns to the streets in Alexandria in a mixture of watchful control and discussion on the one hand, and sponsored banners greeting them exactly in the way banners were used to celebrate the government in the days of Mubarak, on the other. There are huge question marks about Egypt’s future and much discussion about where to go from here. One of the most urgent ones regards the Salafi movement, that promotes an extremely rigid reading of Islam as the total way of life to solve all problems.
In the Chinese Housing, there was a public meeting organised by the Salafis who are very strong in this area. Y., R. and I went to see them but arrived too late, finding them already packing the tent where the meeting with the title “Values and Concepts” had been held. But the Salafis, most of them from the area, had left behind a huge supply of stickers which were now decorating half of the shops in the area, in glittering green, declaring: “Life is transient, everything is transient, only our Islam is solid: Don’t touch the article 2. of the constitution,” “Islam is religion and state: Don’t touch the article 2. of the constitution,” “The law of God and not the law of tyrants: Don’t touch the article 2. of the constitution.” (The article 2. of the constitution states that Islam is the religion of the state and that Islamic law is the source of positive law.) These and similar posters with slogans such as “Islamic Egypt” or “Separating religion and politics is the shortest way to unbelief” are present all over Alexandria, but in the West of Alexandria they dominate. Unlike on the Corniche, there is little in terms of any competing discourse in the posters and wall writings, except for that of the Muslim Brotherhood that uses slogans that are less divisive, calling people to build their country and overcome corruption in a common effort.
Alexandria is the most important centre of Islamist movements in Egypt, and both the Salafis and the Muslim brotherhood enjoy more support and have a stronger social base here than anywhere else in Egypt. And they are at their strongest in the eastern and western outskirts of the city. The Muslim Brotherhood is a bunch of experienced politicians cleverly searching for influence in a way that unites rather than confronts. The Salafis are pursuing a very different, much more radical and divisive path. Unlike the Muslim Brotherhood which is quite credibly committed to democracy, the Salafis want to establish an Islamic emirate, and they go for radical and wholesale demands of subjecting Egypt under a very rigid moral regime of a very strict interpretation of Islamic law.
Right now, the Salafis are emerging as the surprise player of the beginning transition. Before the revolution they presented themselves as an unpolitical piety movement exclusively concerned with disciplining oneself, one’s wife and one’s children to a dedicated life for God only. Now it turns out that they were doing this in part of an agreement with Egypt’s secret police that allowed them to spread their message (and by doing so limit the influence of the Muslim Brotherhood) on the condition of staying away from politics. They fulfilled their part of the deal very faithfully, and during the mass protests they were busy telling that protesting against the ruler is forbidden to Muslims. But after the fall of the Mubarak and the suspension of the State Security, the Salafis are developing extremely quickly from a piety movement into a political one.
In the west of Alexandria, one can thus hardly avoid discussing the issue of the Salafis and an Islamic state. R. and Y. are both very critical of the Salafis. R. was himself a Salafi for a year, and used to have a lot of respect for the Salafi interpretation of Islam, but now he is very concerned. He thinks that the Salafis have had an agenda all the time which they now publicly speak out. Y. and R. think that the Salafis will not be able to gain a political majority even in Alexandria because they are too rigid and radical. Most Muslims here respect them as religious people who know Islam (“knowledge” in the sense of textbook knowledge of facts has become the key mode of religiosity in Egypt in the past decades), but wouldn’t want to go as far as the Salafis would. But while the radicalism of the Salafis is not shared by most people, they are very successful in claiming to speak in not in the name of their particular ideology, but of religion as such. This gives them an argumentative advantage which showed in the way R. and Y. struggled with the theme of Islamic state. I. is a man of a very secularist views for Egyptian standards, and likes to draw anything in question and to play with ideas. He challenges R. to say what exactly is wrong with the call for an Islamic state: “I as a Muslim should live according to the commandments of Islam, and therefore an ideal state must be an Islamic one that applies the law of God, which He has wisely designed for our best.” R. tries to slip away from the question of saying yes or no to an Islamic state, but eventually he says: “Yes, as a Muslim I am for an Islamic State, but it cannot be forced upon us at once. It should to happen step by step, and it should come from the people themselves and not be forced upon themselves. Otherwise we will all end up walking with our finger bound to our foot (an expression of being forcibly constrained).” Critical of the Salafis and also of the Muslim brothers as they are, R. and Y. nevertheless find it hard to disagree with the idea of an Islamic state. If Islam stands for the good and for justice, how can you deny the idea of a good and just state? At the same time, Y. is a determined supporter of a secular constitution. He wants to abolish article 2 of the constitution: “If the majority of the people want it, then that’s fine, that’s democracy. But I’m against it because it forces a religion upon the people.”
On Monday, as I met D. in his office at the leftist cultural centre, I shared with him my concern about the Salafis who seem to be quite uncontested in the poorer areas of Alexandria. He is less worried because while Alexandria has a strong base of Salafis, most people dislike them because of their rigidity and also because of their collaboration with the secret police. But there is a problem of political consciousness, he agrees, and much too few people still have a proper understanding of what a constitution is about, what democracy is about, etc. Less visible than the Salafis with their stickers, a movement of intellectuals and artists is running a campaign of their own, going to cafes in groups of three and taking up discussions and getting the people involved. But at the moment, their capability of mobilisation remains limited in comparison. In any case, says D., the main issue right now is the referendum about constitutional amendments, backed mainly by elements of the old system and by the Muslim Brotherhood (clearly eager to negotiate a good position in a future government), and opposed by most of the opposition, including all presidential candidates. The referendum, D. says, will be an indication of the popular opinion regarding the parliamentary elections that are due in September. If the majority vote in the referendum is Yes, we can expect a dominance of elements of the National Democratic Party and the Muslim Brothers in the next parliament. If it is No, then we can expect a dominance of other parties and of revolutionary movements not yet organised as parties. “But anyway the issue is not who is going to govern us in the next years,” says D., “and if it is the Muslim Brothers. What matters is that we build a democratic system, and after one term we can get the Muslim Brothers out of the government again.”
As I arrived yesterday for a short visit in a village in central Nile Delta, I encountered two different ways to think about the current situation, quite marked by a generational difference in my host family. As we watch the news about new legal steps against former president Hosni Mubarak, the mother starts a discussion about all the money that was stolen from the people, how to get it back, how the people had to pay too much for food and had too little money under Mubarak. Right now the price for meat has gone down, and the story goes that it is because there is lots of gazelle and ostrich meat derived from a farm owned by Gamal Mubarak that was serving his private receptions. This is a way to talk about revolutionary transition that is highly personified: it is about catching the thieves and getting our money back. Her daughter T. shares the concern with getting the money back, but has other concerns, too. She is also busy with the question what kind of a country Egypt shall be in the future, by what kind of laws it shall be governed, and what kind of freedom will people gain. She has been talking about the constitutional referendum with her brother and asks me for my opinion. Rather than my opinion, I give her my understanding of the arguments for either a “no” or a “yes” vote. T. says: “That’s how I understood it, too. I will vote No. Since we have had a revolution and we want to change things, let’s change them properly.” T. asks me whether the article two of the constitution is also subject to the referendum, and I say no, it isn’t. She says: “Anyway, I’m against Article 2. The constitution shouldn’t force a religion on people. And the Christians must be able to feel that this is their country, too.”
But more than constitution, T.’s concern is with freedom: “With the freedom that we have gained with the revolution, are we now really free to say what is in our mind, or are our minds still chained? In our Oriental society (mugtama‘ sharqi) we keep so much to ourselves and don’t talk about it. Shortly before the revolution I was with my brother in Cairo and spoke long about it with him. Why is it that he can call a girlfriend on the phone and I can know it, but if I have a male friend, even if there is no romance in it, I have to hide it from him?” For her, more important than the change of political system is a change in the relationship between men and women, a freedom to express one’s feelings and concerns and to build social relationships without having to expect stupid comments. Hers is a point of view that is at once a conservative one, grounded on ideas of religiosity, marriage, and family which she by no means questions, and a radical one with its demand that freedom is not just political freedom, but a freedom of the heart.
Egypt’s revolution is a politically radical but a socially conservative one. There are far-reaching demands regarding the rule of law, accountability, parliamentary rule, and more. Issues of gender and family relations are discussed much less, and the prominent role of Islamist movements in the religion means also a prominence of conservative gender ideals. And yet while it is clear that the new Egypt will have quite an Islamic and socially conservative colouring, albeit a democratic one, under the surface the revolution has brought up issues of the intimate relationships between people. This will be the slow social revolution that Egypt is likely to experience in the coming twenty to thirty years. It is unlikely, however, that it will lead to western style liberalism. Egypt and other Arab societies in transition may be up to something of their own making, as T. pointed out: “Now we can build our country anew, and we don’t have to look abroad for models. We can do it the way that suits us.”
As Dr. Saad Kamel argued to me last week, patriarchal authority is in crisis. But it is kicking back hard, and we do not know what will replace it. In any case, the social transformation of intimate family and gender relations will be one of Egypt’s key social conflicts in the coming decades. But it will be inherently linked with economical developments, and neither the revolution nor what will follow after it can be understood without taking into account the neoliberal intertwinement of economy and politics. The social conservatism of the Islamic revival that marks Egypt since the 1970's is not by coincidence a contemporary of neoliberal governance in Egypt. There is a link between the two, as religion has emerged as the key site for moral certainty in a society where social relationships are turned increasingly into economical, amoral ones.
On Sunday evening I met with G., a leftist independent artist who was preparing to leave to Jordan to run a workshop where she had been also during most of the revolution. She was in a rather pessimistic mood because she felt that while there has been some real political gain, the key problem of the neo-liberal system of economy and politics is much more difficult to change: “If we have just political change but no economical change we remain turning around in the same closed circle, and the problem is that that’s what the west wants, too.” Shocked by the earthquake in Japan and the nuclear disaster that followed, she is also concerned about environmental issues which hardly anybody in Egypt is speaking about at the moment. G. was in Jordan during the revolution where she was of course very emotionally involved. But she also says that she didn’t need the revolution for herself: “I’m already free. I have liberated myself long ago. I’m a revolutionary since twenty years. To whom this revolution matters are all those people who had no sense of hope, felt that the world was closed on them and cursed that they were born.” The question, she says, is how long it will take for this revolution to turn into substantial social change. The revolution of 25 January emerged from a sense of frustration and anger about the relationship of the citizens and the state. It was not immediately directed at social relationships such as age gender relations, family, class, etc. But with the effect it has had on the young people who took part in it, G. thinks, it will bring about more fundamental changes, but it will take time, decades at least.
As I write these lines on the train to Cairo, I realise how limited the selection of people is with whom I have spoken in the past week and a half. Most of them expect a lot from the revolution, they look forward to a far-reaching political and social change. While the opinions go apart as to how to reach this change, and what its content should be, I have not heard many people who would want things to stay as they were. Almost everybody I have met in the last days is very much in favour of revolution and democracy, busy learning what that means in practice, and often also demanding Egypt to be a religiously neutral state while having strong religious convictions. I wonder if it is because I have unknowingly systematically selected rather open-minded people as friends and contacts across social and regional limits, so that I get a very partial image of what is going on? Or is it that despite the good organisation and big poster campaigns of the Muslim brothers and the Salafis, and the attempts of the old system to ride the wave of revolution in order to limit its extent, there really are a lot of Egyptians who don’t buy any of that anymore, and search for new ways?
Greetings from the Egyptian revolution!