Thursday 24 February 2011

Revolution continues in local politics

The revolution continues in local politics

As I’m getting prepared to get back to Egypt in two weeks, I find myself late for the revolution again. This time it’s a revolution of local politics in a small town in the Nile Delta. Yesterday afternoon got I a text message from B telling that he is in a sit-in demonstration (a technique of protest that has characterised the revolution in Egypt, Tahrir Square being the biggest and most spectacular application of it) at the city hall of Motobis in northern Egypt. I called him, and at first I only heard the loud shouts: “mish hanimshi, huwa yimshi!” (We won’t go until he goes) - the same slogan of the demonstrations to remove Mubarak, that now is the slogan of all the local movements to remove corrupt and authoritarian managements and local politicians. B. told that he and many of our shared friends were at the city hall demanding the mayor to step down.

What happened was this. Two days earlier inhabitants of the village had started a campaign to collect all the garbage that covered the alleys of the village in a big collective effort. Cleaning up the village follows the example of the spontaneous cleaning up during the demonstrations at Tahrir square, as well as the cleanup campaign initiated in Cairo and the big cities after Mubarak stepped down. Now the same technique of collective action was taken to the village level. Some political activists have been a little suspicious about these cleanup campaigns, seeing them as just cosmetic action that potentially distracts attention by making people feel good without changing anything. But I think that cleaning up actually carries a genuine and important revolutionary momentum. It is related to that sentiment so many people told me in Egypt on my last visit: “If Mubarak goes, I can finally feel that this is my country.” Cleaning up one’s street and village is a powerful way to make the place one’s own, it is a case in point of the power of action to shape expectations.

And at least in the case of this village, the cleanup certainly didn’t mean that people would stop thinking about political institutions. Yesterday, the people who had been active in the village cleanup campaign - most of them students, teachers, doctors and other rural middle class - went to the town of Motobis, administrative centre of the district, to discuss with the mayor their concerns and demands that had to do with maintenance of the streets, public utilities, and the black market trade and unfair distribution of state-subsidised bread. The mayor (who is not elected by the inhabitants but appointed by the government) strictly refused to talk to them, saying “You think you can do here what they did in Cairo, no way!” In reaction, the people organised a sit-in in front of the town hall, demanding improvements in local administration, and calling for the resignation of the mayor. The standoff continues as I’m writing this.

In Motobis, the revolution has reached the countryside. What began with the head of the state, now continues on the level of local politics, where it is most urgently needed indeed.

A newspaper report in Arabic about the events can be read here:

Sunday 13 February 2011

Friday 11 February 2011

Power, normality, revolution

Yesterday, I wrote this more theoretical text about the revolutionary spirit. It won't give answers to what will happen today, but maybe some anwers to what has already happened. There is some repetition from my post of 6 February - sorry about that.

It was originally published here yesterday:

Power, normality, revolution

As I write this, the Egyptian revolution of January 25 continues in the streets of Egypt, and anything that is written these days will bear the characteristic traits of that moment, and will be proven wrong in one way or another by the further course of events. This is one lesson academics can take from this and other revolutions: realities change in a way that forces us to change our way of thinking much faster than we are used to, and to recognize how historically specific our theories are. In this essay, I try to offer some preliminary conclusions about how the revolutionary momentum has already changed the way Egyptians view their possibilities of action. To put it in more romantic words, I try to make some preliminary sense of the revolutionary spirit, but also of some of its limits.

Condition: normal?

I flew to Egypt on January 31, 2011, instead of going for holiday in Finland, where I had hoped to work on an article that was to be named in reference to the experience of a friend working as health inspector in northern Egypt. The inspector’s team’s work consisted of going to a state-subsidised bakery once a day, passing in front of the queue, collecting a pile of bread, and signing in the inspection book: “Condition: normal.” My friend pointed out that this doesn’t say whether the condition is good or not, only that it is the way it is. In the article, I wanted to write about this demoralizing experience: finding lofty promises of development and progress surrounded by a mash of nepotism and corruption, and high aspirations of personal advancement countered by repeated frustration. In the past couple of years, I have become rather critical of the Foucauldian approach of looking at religion, morality, government, secularity, etc. from the point of view of governmentality and subjectivation, because I have sensed that these approaches do not explain how it is to live under the conditions they describe. In the article I was going to write, I wanted to develop a more phenomenological approach to great expectations and grand schemes, looking at everyday tactics of evasion that people undertake to find a minimal degree of human dignity in a world that denies them that. This was a tragic undertaking, I wanted to argue, because it was those very tactics of evasion that, at the same time, constituted the system of corruption, nepotism, and shady businesses they tried to evade.

I was wrong. Suddenly and surprisingly—not only to foreign observers but also to Egyptians themselves—a vast part of the population has gone out to the streets and claimed their human dignity by demanding that the entire “system” (nizam) be replaced. What I had not taken into account was that the demoralzing experience of being forced to become a part of the corrupt system of relationships in order to survive its pressure, had become the breeding ground of a growing sense of anger and an urgent desire to live in a different world—a sense that only needed the successful revolution of Tunisia as an example to find that, rather than coping with the condition of normality, it is, after all, possible to change that condition.

That said, I continue to think that the Foucauldian fashion of studying power is inadequate to understand the revolutionary spirit. Revolution is certainly a matter of affect, but it cannot be understood by means of subjectivation, cultivation, governmentality, or any other approach that highlights the discursive and the strategic. As I have experienced it in Egypt, and as it has been told to me by people who participated in it, revolution is an emotional state, a sensibility of being that is marked by a peculiar shift in the relationship of imagination and action, and by a transient state of exception that stands in an open relationship with the persistence of political and social transformation. In the limited space of this essay, I will try to make some sense of these two points before I attempt a preliminary conclusion about the relationship of power, normality, and revolution.

“This is more than I could have ever dreamed of.”

People I spoke with in Egypt kept highlighting to me the way they themselves had been surprised by the events. Some told me that they had gone to demonstrate on January 25 but did not expect anybody else to show up. Several times, people have expected that the revolution would lose its momentum and that people would become tired and give up, only to be happily surprised by huge new crowds of demonstrators filling the cities’ streets. With growing trust in the possibility of changing things, the demands of the demonstrators have rapidly increased in scope: from asking Mubarak (and his son) not to run in the next elections, they have moved on to demanding his resignation, and now they want to put him on trial. The success of doing something they themselves had been utterly sceptical about just the previous day has given them an immense sense of pride, dignity, and trust in their capacity to change the world. This is the original revolutionary moment: the birth of a sense that something to date unimaginable is in the process of being realized. This stands in a striking contrast to the experience of normality, in which great expectations and promises—be they political, religious, economical, or moral—are always far ahead of a frustrating and demoralizing reality. If, in the condition of normality, reality systematically falls short of imagination, in the condition of revolution, action exceeds the imagined and creates unexpected new grounds of expectation. The revolutionary condition changes the world, not because it would change the logic of governmentality, the relationships of power, or the technologies of subject-making (although that will be necessary in the further course of the revolution), but because it in itself is a change of the subjective life-world of the people involved: an emotional reassessment of the situation, a new way of being in the world.

This is the starting point. But the question, of course, is how permanent this change will be. Right now it looks like the Egyptian revolution is going to be a long one, but one day, it will be over, for better or worse. The question, then, is what the revolutionary condition does to the condition of normality.

Transience and persistence

As an anthropologist who has long worked on festive culture, I have noticed a strikingly festive aspect to the revolutionary space of Tahrir Square. What is taking place there is not just a protest against an oppressive regime and the expression of a demand for freedom. In itself, it is freedom. It is a real, actual, lived moment of the freedom and dignity that the pro-democracy movement demands. As such, this is an ambiguous moment, because its stark sense of unity (there is a consensus as to having absolutely no party slogans on the square) and power is bound to be transient, for, even in the most successful scenario, it will be followed by a long period of political transition, tactics, negotiations, party politics—all kinds of business that will not be anything like that moment of standing together and finally daring to say “no!” But thanks to its utopian nature, it is also indestructible. Once it has been realized, it cannot be wiped out of people’s minds again. It is an experience that, with different colorings and from different perspectives, will mark an entire generation.

A revolution is not a quick business; it requires persistence. And there are different kinds of persistent effects that this moment can have. Those regarding the political system and its entrenchment with the economic system are critical, and they have not yet been realized. They will be the subject of an ongoing struggle. Others, more psychological and affective ones, are already becoming part of a new normality. A particularly interesting one, because it is currently so intensively debated among Egyptian intellectuals, has to do with the figure of the father-president. On February 4, the vice president Omar Suleyman declared that Egyptians had to show respect to the president, because “Mubarak is our father.” In other words, Suleyman took recourse to a social ideology of patriarchal rule, where the father is to be respected even in disagreement. It is a shrewd attempt to employ some deeply rooted sentiments among the people, but meanwhile the sentiments of many Egyptians have changed in a strikingly Oedipal manner. Characteristically, one of the democracy activists replied in a media interview: “My father is dead.” Many intellectuals now argue that this revolution is really a Freudian father-murder par excellence. By symbolically killing the authoritarian father of the nation, they argue, Egyptians are gaining their independence as full persons.

Preliminary conclusions

The degree of success of the Egyptian revolution is still undecided as I write these lines. The situation is critical, and Egyptians are probably facing a long struggle ahead. Whatever the shape of the new normality that will emerge from the revolution, one thing is already certain: The generation of Egyptians who participate in this revolution can never again be governed the way they once were. Their experience of acting and changing their condition, the success of going out to the streets at all on January 25, of throwing back the police on January 28, of establishing law and order in the absence of the police after the lootings of January 29, of organizing mass peaceful demonstrations and putting the entire political system under pressure, has changed the way they understand their scope of possible action. Any attempt to govern them, be it by a democratic government or by the authoritarian system consolidating itself again, has to take this into account.

This leads me to a preliminary theoretical conclusion. Michel Foucault famously argued that his way of thinking about power by no means excludes resistance, but that every form of power produces its own particular form of resistance. Both the normality of the past years and the revolution that began on January 25 compel me to turn this idea around. Before the revolution, the “system” actually consisted largely of the people’s attempts to endure it, which gave it its particularly wicked and demoralising form. As the revolution continues, the “system,” which Egyptians now want to overthrow, is being hastily adjusted by the regime in reaction to a spontaneous mass movement that keeps surprising the ruling elite. After the revolution, new ways to govern the country will emerge, for better or worse. In reversal of Foucault’s thesis, the Egyptian revolution shows that every form of resistance produces its own particular form of power.

Thursday 10 February 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.

Tuesday 8 February 2011

My friends reporting from Cairo, 8 February 2011.

After I returned from Egypt, I cannot report from Egypt in person, but I keep staying touch with my friends, here is what they report from Cairo today. From tomorrow, I hope to be able to publish posts by my colleague in Egypt.

The new day of demonstrations in Cairo is very successful, proving wrong reports by international media claiming that the democracy movement has “lost its momentum”. In the afternoon, Tahrir square is full. People on all entrances queue up and find it difficult to enter. Queues for both men and women over 100m on Talat Harb street. Protesters have now surrounded the buildings of both People’s Assemby (lower house) and Shura Council (upper house) in down-town Cairo. And most recently, the demonstrators are now also surrounding the television centre in Maspiro.

Today, there have been many people demonstrating in Tahrir square who had not dared go out in the past two weeks out of fear of violence. Their contribution is a sign of the continuing dynamics of the revolution, but has also caused some slight tensions with those demonstrators who have been in Tahrir for more than a week and have made often heavy sacrifices in that time.

My colleague spoke with one of the new demonstrators: “Just met an English teacher, 50, on Tahrir sq. He decided to participate in a street protest for the first time in his life, after seeing Ghoneim's televised interview last night. He and the whole family had cried watching it. He earns some 140 EUR/month (pretty well for a teacher in Egypt) but finds it impossible to make ends meet. He was 20 when Mubarak came into power and today, finally, came out to say: Enough!”

The televised interview with the activist and Google employee Wael Ghoneim who had been arrested for 12 days and was released yesterday, has given a lot of new credibility to the democracy movement. You can see it here:
In general, there is some movement in the Egyptian media. The daily al-Ahram newspaper, until now very close to the government, has also now clearly sided with the pro-democracy movement. The editorial staff of Rose Al-Youssouf newspaper, a de fact organ of the secret police and security apparatus, is in strike against the kind of reporting they have been forced to do lately.

The revolution continues...

Monday 7 February 2011

The first part of the diary of the Egyptian revolution from 30 January to 6 February as a pdf file

You can find the all the posts from the first part of my diary from the Egyptian revolution, covering the the period from 30 January to 6 February, as a pdf file at the link below: 

Sunday 6 February 2011

"This is more than I could have ever dreamt of." - the diary of my first two days in the Egyptian revolution, now almost a week ago

"This is more than I could have ever dreamt of."

This is the Diary of my first two days in the Egyptian revolution, peaking in the march of Millions on Tuesday 1 February. I couldn’t post it back then due to the internet blackout. See my other posts for more recent reports and analysis.

(This post concludes my diary of the Egyptian revolution. Great thanks to the many people who have been supporting me both in Egypt and abroad by updating and spreading the news, organising interviews, sheltering me, and accompanying me. Without your help none of this would have been possible. Back in Europe, I can be reached under +49 179 962 96 58 or +358 44 927 57 77, in case you need more information. I will try to get an Arabic translation of this diary online as soon as I find somebody to translate it. If you are a translator, please contact me. My entire Egyptian revolution diary is available in Feel free to pass it on!)


Prelude in Berlin, 25 January at midnight.

Big day of demonstrations in Egypt, on massive scale, all over the country, demanding Mubarak and his system to go. Amazing. I wish I were there. Following the news and footage uploaded by the people on the net much of the evening. Chatted with B. who just came back from the demonstration. He told that the police was very brutal, throwing bottles on the demonstrators from the roofs and attacking people in the side streets. He also said that he was very happy he was there, because this may not happen again in his lifetime. Tomorrow he is going again.

How much this changes everything. How completely a day like this can change the image I have been drawing lately of people stuck in the circle of living in a frustrating system that turns every promise into pressure and every subversion of the system into a part of the system. There is a moment when they glimpse hope, the impossible suddenly appears in a hand’s reach, a different step can be taken than could be taken just weeks and days ago, and the world changes a little.

Even if this revolution will be crushed (but I am optimistic), this glimpse of hope, this moment in which a path opens where a wall just stood, is something to hold, much like B. said when I chatted with him. Here an excerpt:

B.: “This is a joyful thing. This is a day one can rarely see.”
I ask on Police:
B.: "Really, they were brutal, but in a wicked way.”
Samuli: How?
B.: “They let the big demonstration run, and collected people in the narrow side streets. And the mobile phone networks are offline. They threw lightbulbs on the demonstrators from the roofs, and beat up people in the side streets, and arrested them.”
Samuli: But you went out anyway, and in big numbers all over the country. That didn’t happen since 1919.
B.: “Yes. The people want to do something real. Instead of letting the Police Day (25 January, a public holiday in Egypt) a day of rest to celebrate the police, the people decided that it would be a day the police never forgets. Really, I was happy that I participated in something like this. Because maybe it won’t happen again in my lifetime.”


Monday 31 January.

On the plane from Frankfurt to Cairo, against all odds, and most of all against my own strong scepticism whether it really is a good idea to go to Egypt now. Returning from the airport and following the news about the previous night’s looting and anarchy, and the terrible death toll of Friday night, when in many cities the security appears to have been shooting to kill at the demonstrators with live ammunition, I became very worried. But when I called M. and J. they were both telling that it is safe to come - M. says that the looting has probably been heavily exaggerated, and at least in Giza things are actually working better than ever without the police, now that the citizens have taken over control of the public order. Young boys and old men are guiding the traffic in Midan al-Mahatta. M. is entz├╝ckt. J. reports from Imbaba on a similar note: The previous night was “scary”, with thugs on the streets, but Sunday was fine. She was in the
demonstration in Tahrir square but returned home before sunset for fear of looters, but this time it was calm, she said, and children were playing football on the Corniche road because there was very little traffic. Demonstrators had cleaned up their own garbage, the streets were really clean. The police force was announced to returned to the streets, Jenny told, “but we don’t need them.” A European friend of mine flew to Cairo last night on Turkish airlines, and I had made my going or not going dependent on whether he would be able to get out of the customs. It all went fine, he told on the phone, and it was also easy to get a taxi at the airport.

Still, I was undecided, and I was undecided even when I took the train to the airport and checked whether my flight was going - it was, but half an hour earlier than had been announced the previous day, so I had to hurry. I called Daniela, she said go but be really careful, and I made my decision: I shall go but be really careful. If I hadn’t been in such a hurry I might have stayed. But my feet took me to the plane and there I was.

I am not the only foreigner on the plane, but almost everybody is Egyptian. The plane is half full - there are many more passengers than were standing at the gate yesterday, but still not that many. This is the first Lufthansa flight to Cairo in three days. I also recognise many of the people who were at the gate yesterday. A very varied crowd. Wealthy looking middle aged men, I imagine them to be perhaps businessmen, some maybe also Egyptian diplomatic service, who knows. The young folks I met yesterday are all there, including the young woman who is going to Cairo to participate in the revolution. A couple of men with recognisably trimmed Muslim brotherhood beards were hurrying for the plane along with me - I guess they, too, are going for the revolution. Right now, this an uprising for everybody who wants to join. If it ill be successful, the big question is what shape the new order shall have. Unlike at the gate yesterday, on the plane today there
are no political discussions.

On the plane, there are many business class and even first class passengers, so the rich of Egypt are not only escaping, as some did in the past days, crowding at the VIP terminal in the Cairo airport according to international news.

The rest is expectation, speculation, tense anticipation. When I arrive I will know more.

Of course, I can forget about working on my publications this week. I will do it at another time.


31 January 2011, in Cairo!

I can hardly believe it, and I’m very happy I came here. It is amazing, and much better than I expected. I am so happy that I see something like this in my life.

I took a taxi cab to Cairo together with L., an Egyptian artist living in Germany. She decided to go to Egypt after her brother disappeared in the demonstrations on Friday. Since then her mother has been going through mosques and hospitals looking for him, and her father has been completely broken down. She didn’t speak it out, but it seems likely that he has been killed. She was coming to Egypt partly to participate in the revolution, partly to search her brother. She had not told her parents she was coming in order not to make them worry.

The taxi which overcharged us extremely. But we were happy to get to town before the curfew would make movement slow (the curfew is not imposed in a strict sense. Instead, from 3 p.m. the army makes roadblocks where they check the ID of passengers and what the cars carry, and ask where they are going. But they commonly do let the few cars out on the street move in the evening pass.). The taxi driver was at height of the situation, but from a sarcastic distance. When L. asked him: “Did you demonstrate?”He said: “Am I stupid?” He seemed to think that while the demonstrations were legitimate, it would be foolhardy nonsense to participate in them, and he also warned her about going out in the evening, claiming that Saturday night had witnessed not only looting but also cases of rape. She wasn’t impressed.

The city as we saw it from the taxi saw much better than what I had expected from television images that had ben showing destroyed shops and streets covered with wreckage. On the way, we saw three buildings burned down - the police station in Azbakiya burned down by demonstrators, the hospital in Azbakiya burned by looters (luckily noone inside got hurt), and the National Democratic Party headquarters that stood out as a black skeleton right next to 6 October bridge, the most impressive sign of people’s hatred of the system.

The taxi left L. at her place in Muhandisin, and I continued to Giza where I walked from Corniche down the Mahatta street. Here, for the only time, I saw riot debris on the street: broken glass in different colours and tear gas shells. Otherwise the streets were mostly carefully cleaned up after the demonstration (except for burned police trucks that stand at major squares all over the city). It was in fact much cleaner than it is otherwise in Egypt, and all this due to voluntary effort. In Muhandisin, I saw from the taxi three young women with distinctly upper class looks cleaning up the street. In Muhandisin most shops were closed, but in Mahatta Street in old town Giza the shops were open and the streets full of people. I met Y. on the street, we bought me a new simcard because my Egyptian simcard is in Alexandria and walked home where I just quickly left my bags, talked shortly with Y. who told how he was covering for the newspaper he works for the
demonstration in Giza where ElBaradei was participating, he got beaten there, had to run, and filmed while running.

At 4 p.m., one hour after curfew, I hail a taxi at Mahatta Street to take me to the newspaper where M works. The driver is first hesitant because there is a military roadblock at the University. But the roadblock turns out very fine. They check papers and look into the trunks but let people pass. Most importantly, they speak to the citizens with a friendly and polite tone that Egyptians are absolutely not used to hear from their police force who routinely insult and abuse the citizens. Also later, when we return from the demonstration on foot, we are twice controlled by soldiers who say: “Excuse me, sirs” and politely check that we are not armed. Some contrast to the “son of a bitch” Egyptians are used to hearing from their police force. No wonder the military is extremely popular and has been very successful in imposing peace and order wherever they are.

There is army all over the city. At every major corner, place or junction, there is at least a tank or an armoured vehicle, sometimes two or three. The soldiers - conscripted young men who might have otherwise been demonstrating - appear very relaxed, and the people treat them in a very friendly and respectful way. Many are getting themselves photographed in front of the tanks, and in Tahrir square the tanks are covered with anti-Mubarak graffiti.

I pick up M. at his work, we drive with the taxi through almost empty streets to 6 October bridge next to the burned-down NPD headquarters. M. picks up a flattened Pepsi can and gives it to me as a souvenir. Washing your face with vinegar or cola helps against the effects of tear gas. M.: Just before they cut the internet we got really good advise from the Tunisians on Facebook how to handle tear gas and other police techniques.

We walk towards Tahrir square and find the place in a very joyful and peaceful atmosphere. On the bridge, someone is flying a kite in the colours of the Egyptian flag. As we walk past army control posts, everybody has to show their ID, in order to prevent police or state security officers from entering the demonstration to cause havoc. This is great: the Egyptian government has developed the ID card to be a perfect window to “see” the citizen. It tells not only the citizen’s name and date of birth but also her/his address, marital state, religion, and profession. And by telling the profession it makes it possible to identify plainclothes police and state security officers.

The demonstrators dominate Tahrir square ever since the army entered on Friday night, and they haven’t left since. It is an amazing atmosphere, something I have never seen in Egypt before, and would have never expected. It is very joyful and peaceful, there is no central stage for speeches but a number of spontaneous groups chanting improvised slogans, which rhyme well in Arabic, and some of them are real poetry.

There are in my estimate some 10.000 people in the square at one time, but since people are coming and going, it is likely to be more in the course of the day. The crowd is extremely mixed, but politically active people are clearly best presented. There are lots of left wing activists, smart upper middle class folks, Salafis and Muslim brothers, many with the entire family, all chanting against Mubarak: Salafi families with beards and face veils next to left wing activists and artists, old-fashioned intellectuals, and many many more. There is space for everybody in this revolution. There are also really a lot of women, young and old.

No group dominates. The religious currents are strong and visible, but at the same time there are also lots of slogans that emphasise the unity of Muslims and Christians as Egyptians. The strong presence of the Muslim brothers is something that Mirette had expressed some concern about while we talked on the plane. She was not very trusting towards the Muslim Brothers and hoped that the Egyptians could be made a little more secular. But that’s the nature of popular revolution and democracy: It comes from the people as they are, not the way they should be. There is little question that a democratic Egyptian government will be a more religious one, and a more confrontational one towards Israel. As far as I’m concerned, however, I think that it’s less the question who is going to govern Egypt, but how it is governed. And today gave me a lot of hope in this regard. The spontaneous organisation of Egyptians in demonstrations and in residential areas
alike is for me the most powerful proof that Egyptians are capable of having a democratic rule. It is really amazing, and many people I speak with are extremely proud of this. Garbage is continuously collected at the demonstration and on the main streets by volunteers in a country that until now has been full of garbage anywhere you turn. People are guarding the streets where until recently they were dependent on and subject to a brutal and inefficient police force. If this momentum can be held, and turned into a constant dynamic, it will radically change Egypt.

In Tahrir square I meet my European friend who arrived this morning on Turkish Airlines, and also J. who - like everybody else - says that he wouldn’t have expected this. He tells that even in small towns in Upper Egypt the police station has been burned and people have taken over the public order, and unlike J.’s fears this has not lead to confessional tensions but, at least for the moment, unity and cooperation. His only worry is that the system may still resort to brute force, even bruter than on Friday, when they feel cornered by the people. This is also a concern expressed by Y., although everybody is relieved and reassured by the declaration of the army that they will not use force against the demonstrators. But there is still the President’s Republican Guard.

On the square, some men who look like working class from the popular districts, show me mobile phone footage of the storming of Qasr al-Nil bridge by demonstrators on Friday (which I saw on television but from the distance of a hotel balcony where an American tourist was filming), where a man is shot into his face with live ammunition and killed immediately. M. tells that he was going with a big group of demonstrators through Zamalek where they gave a special honorary visit to the Tunisian embassy, but afterwards on the bridge they were attacked very violently by the police, and M. saw one man dying from bullets of the police, and many others wounded.

The cutoff of Egypt from the internet is a trouble - only people who can pay for accessing foreign dialup servers with a mobile phone have any connection at all - and people have difficulties to stay informed. In the absence of internet, al-Jazeera plays a key role, and after its hesitation on the first day of protests it has shifted fully to the side of the demonstrators, and has become the most important source of critical information in Egypt. Yesterday, Al-Jazeera was cut off on Nilesat, and since then Egyptians have realigned their satellite dishes to another satellite that continues to show Al-Jazeera. On Tahrir square three television sets have been set up for the people to view it, and there is a tent where some leftist activists collect digital video footage and photographs. M. laughingly tells that when Al-Jazeera was disconnected his son turned to a serious opponent of the president because Mubarak disconnected him the Cartoon Network which
could only be seen on Nilesat.

Tomorrow is the next big demonstration, named the March of Millions. As M and I leave the demonstration and walk all the way to Giza for the lack of taxis or minibusses, we join a group of people coming our way, lead by a woman wearing a colourful variant of niqab, accompanied by another woman in jeans and open hair, and shouting in very loud voice: “The people - want - the removal of the president!” We join, and M. starts chanting (I never knew he has such a loud voice): Tomorrow at nine! Million tomorrow! Million tomorrow at nine! Peaceful demonstration tomorrow!

We walk a long way through Dokki and Giza. In Dokki there are some few policemen here and there - the police force returned to Cairo last night, but in small numbers, it seems - but they are still looked at with utter suspicion. The streets are remarkably clean, but here and there stand burned police trucks, in Giza at least five or six of them in a long line.

The most amazing thing is that nobody expected this. Just two weeks ago someone asked me whether Egypt could experience a revolution like in Tunisia, and I said no, Tunisia may be followed by Yemen, but there won’t be a revolution in Egypt. I couldn’t have been more wrong. M. says that he , too, didn’t believe in it. On Tuesday, he didn’t even want to join the demonstrations, thinking there was no point. But he soon changed his mind. We walk to Giza with a young man from old Giza who is very excited about the new situation. He tells he also didn’t believe in the demonstrations of Tuesday - he went there not believing that others would go. He describes the feeling: Until few days ago I felt that I live in a nightmare, and suddenly I could dream freely. M Things became possible that I couldn’t have imagined. Suddenly we can make a difference.

This is the revolutionary moment, the same “psychological state” L. described when I talked with her on the plane to Cairo. Egyptians have so long lived in a sense of oppression, a sense of frustration and pressure, they have hated the system but felt that there is nothing you can do. They have subverted the system by being chaotic and lazy, diverting the system to their ends, but all this has in turn become the system, encapsuling them in a highly frustrating state of suffering from a corrupt system and at the same time being a part of it. Suddenly the revolution in Tunisia opens a door of possibility, rejecting the system becomes something that makes sense, there is a point to it. In one night, the country changes.

The future will show how successful and deep this change can be - not everybody shares the euphoria, and some problems Egypt suffers from are not solved by changing the government - but even the mere existence of this trust in the possibility that one can do something and it will make a difference has been enough to fill the squared with demonstrators, to burn down the police stations known for torture of prisoners, to clean the streets afterwards and to put a quick end to the looting.

But not everybody is sharing equal enthusiasm. I also meet people who are either more modest in their demands, or more sceptical about the possibility of getting rid of Mubarak and the system. The guy at the mobile phone shop where I got my phone card said: Isn’t this what we wanted - we got a new government. A customer says no, we want more, he must go. Tomorrow we all go to the March of the Millions! And at night as we stand for a while at Giza square, I talk with a man who gives the government full blame for the whole looting and chaos and hates the system, but still believes that Mubarak won’t go, he will stick no matter what we do. “It’s now worse than ever. Now we are forced to fight Egyptian against Egyptian, check each others on roadblocks, what way of living together is this?”

After a long walk, we reach old town Giza, and go to buy vegetables at the market which is still partly open at 7:30 p.m., with groups of men guarding the streets and shops with knives and sticks in their hands - the same scene that can be seen all over the city. As we are buying beans and macaroni in a shop, screaming women run past us on the alley, followed by adolescents with sticks and knives in their hands. Looters have been sighted, there is commotion, all the adolescents are about to run after them, but the older men stop them and say: Don’t all run the same way! Idiots, half of you must stay at the other end of the alley! The women return and say that one thief got away, the other was caught. But is not clear whether this really happened. A vegetable vendor says: There were looters here from the first night, but mostly it’s false alarms, people see someone running, scream “thief” and then everybody screams and runs.

We arrive at home, greeted by M’s son enthusiastically shouting “The people! want! the removal of the president”. I talk with Y. about his participation in the demonstration on Friday, his first one so far:

“This feeling of dignity was something I wanted to write about to everybody on Friday, but there was no internet. That as the first day in my life I felt that I live a natural human life. I got up, I had breakfast, I prayed, I went out to the demonstration and said “no!” even though I got beaten up, I called my sweetheart, I went home and slept. This was the first day in my life that I had nothing missing.”

In the evening, as we eat and sit with al-Jazeera running on TV, important announcements follow in rapid pace. First the army declares that they recognise the legitimate demands of the demonstrators and will not use force against peaceful demonstrators. Half an hour later Omar Sulayman makes a declaration that in effect means that the current parliament that was based on completely false elections will be dissolved and new elections will be expected, and that the president has given him the authority to negotiate with all political powers. After this news, the moderators on television 1 become really nervous, one phone call with al-Ahram is abruptly interrupted as the person at the other side of the line says that this means that the project of hereditary rule is definitely over. One can really see how the pressure is growing on the system - interestingly always late in the evening. The revolution won’t happen in Egypt while Obama is still sleeping...


1 February.

Late in the evening, at M.’s place, exhausted, waiting for Mubarak to speak on television shortly. Since an hour we are back from the biggest demonstration in the history of Egypt so far [note afterwards: it was only the second biggest. The biggest was the Friday of Anger on 28 January, but I didn’t know it at the time of writing]. It not only filled Tahrir Square completely - the people did not even all fill into the square, and the demonstration extended to much of downtown Cairo around it. News speak about one or two million people, how many there really were is guesswork, but they were so many more than either I or anybody else could imagine in their wildest dreams.

This day was one of the most amazing things I have ever experienced. It was perfectly peaceful, perfectly organised by spontaneous volunteers who took care of order, security, cleanliness. The people behaved in a very peaceful and reasonable way, and there was an amazing shared sense of dignity and power. Whatever will come after this will fall short of the expectations today (because the people demonstrating have completely different political views, and because reality is always trickier than the revolutionary moment), but whatever political system, whatever government Egypt will have, it will face citizens who share the experience of going out and making the unimagined reality. This is what this day has taught to me and millions of Egyptians demonstrating in Cairo and all major cities around the country - and also their families and friends to whom they are tonight telling about their experience: The moment people have the trust and the power to cross
the limits of the possible, they may get further than they ever dreamed of. This is what F. whom I met at Talaat Harb square told me: “This is more than I could have ever dreamt of.” And he is a long-standing communist activist who has had some lofty dreams. Such pride, such determination, such sense of dignity, such sense of power, and such joy prevailed today in the centre of Cairo that I cannot write about it tonight without becoming very emotional. Not a moment for detached analysis.

So, and now the events of the day:

I got up early to go along with Y. to pick up his girlfriend A. from a southern suburb where she lives. She is going to the demonstration with the hesitant agreement of her mother, against the will of her brother and without asking her father. But she has promised to come back before curfew, so Y. is responsible for picking her up and bringing her back. In the metro there are few people, most of them men past 40. Young men and women conspicuously few. Almost all of the men talk about the demonstration. There is no other topic of discussion, and spontaneous debates evolve constantly between the passengers. Their views differ: Some consider the demonstration unnecessary or dangerous, others support it, but almost everybody (with the exception of one apparent NPD member) agrees that Mubarak and his system are rotten and must go. We walk through a a residential suburb where, like all over Cairo, Citizen’s guards (in arabic ligan sha’biya, “people’s
checkpoints”) stand at every street corner, with stones and low barricades on the streets to prevent anybody from driving through without being checked first. On the way, I buy newspapers. The newspaper stand has almost only independent or opposition newspapers: Shorouk, Wafd, Al-Masri al-Youm, Al-Youm al-Sabi‘, and those are the papers people read.

We pick up A. who is equipped with an Egyptian flag and lots of elan and determination. We take the metro back, but it doesn’t stop at Tahrir, and we get out at Gamal Abd an-Nasir and walk. There is a beginning stream of people heading towards Tahrir, the sun is shining and it’s a beautiful morning. In Ramses street we see burned police trucks with graffitis like “down with the tyrant” sprayed on them. As we approach Tahrir the crowds quickly increase, and we walk down Champollion Street where cafes are open and full of demonstrators having a break.

At the entrance to Tahrir we again have to show our ID and our we are controlled for weapons. There is a separate row for women with women volunteers checking women, there are several lines of control, and everybody is very polite, they say excuse me, sorry about this, and everybody is very happy about this measure. They feel that it is a great contribution to their safety (and a necessary one, if the report by al-Jazeera is true that later this evening a car loaded with automatic weapons was stopped at one of the checkpoints). Where there is army, they do a part of the controlling, but mostly it is entirely volunteers. And as the demonstration grows in the course of the day, new checkpoints extend out to the streets, as far as beyond Talaat Harb Square, with men forming human chains to guide people to the checkpoints. Although there are possibly more than a million people (it is all guessing - nobody knows) out in downtown, these controls work well
throughout the day and the evening.

We arrive at Tahrir Square around 11 a.m., and it is already much more crowded than it was yesterday. In the course of the next three hours it becomes so full that it becomes difficult to move although it’s a big square. We stand, watch, chant with the crowd, I make many photographs, and many Egyptians ask me about my opinion, and I tell them what I think, and add that I am here to demonstrate against the European governments that support dictators while talking about democracy. Y. hopes that people would agree on chanting one slogan, but it is impossible due to the huge size of the demonstration. And at two occasions I see heated discussions between demonstrators around the issue of the slogans. Later my European friend tells me that last night there was some disagreement on the same issue. All groups have agreed to suspend the use of any slogans of particular parties or movements, but sometimes people are tempted.

(While I write this, we are tensely waiting for the announced speech by Mubarak. The expectation is that he will either say that he will not run for the next elections, which will mean the next big demonstration on Friday, or he will resign. We switch to Egyptian television where they show a small group of people with signs saying “Yes to Mubarak” and actually claim that there were two million in the streets of Alexandria demonstrating in support of Mubarak. No wonder everybody in the demonstration was calling home and telling that the situation is completely different from what is shown on television.)

For half an hour, Y. starts to collect garbage, and he does with extreme dedication and determination. Then Y. and A. leave early to take her home (but they accidentally take my sandwiches along and spend almost an hour searching for me, eventually find me on their way out but by then they have distributed the sandwiches already, and they head on so that A. can get home). I walk down the sidewalk that is separated from the square with a fence towards Talaat Harb street. The fences around the square create some difficult bottlenecks, and it gets very crowded at one moment, so crowded that I start to worry how many people the square can take. I stand for a while next to the armoured vehicle parked at the entrance of Talaat Harb street, and then walk down Talaat Harb street where shortly a rumour is spread that Mubarak has resigned, but it is quickly debunked. I meet my European friend, and we go around Tahrir Square and then walk around in downtown, have
coffee, and on the way meet many friends. Joyful encounters in an exceptional mood of hope. At last I meet M. again, he had to go to work in the morning, and he had arrived at the demonstrations in the afternoon. He was exhausted. We went together to the apartment of a friend in downtown to go to the bathroom, and stayed shortly for a drink, very welcome. M. was exhausted so we headed home, expecting that we will have to walk all the way. But luckily we got a ride by a man who was driving his car as an illegal taxi with his wife and daughters along with him. Good mood, and everybody is happy and proud about the good manners and politeness of the citizens’ guards.

Much more than a revolution of Facebook or Twitter, this is a revolution of mobile phones. All day long, people at the demonstration keep talking to their mobile phones, telling to their friends or family that the situation is completely unlike what Egyptian television tells (in the afternoon, they apparently tried to scare people with warnings about clashes and new looting), that the demonstration is huge and peaceful. The government is trying to keep the citizens in the dark at all means possible. Internet is down since Friday. Al-Jazeera has been repeatedly taken off Nilesat, and today also Arabsat. Egyptian state television is running a heavy campaign of disinformation.

While I wrote this, Mubarak spoke on television. He will not run for the next term, but otherwise he is defiant and makes no real concessions, on the contrary, he promises a change of the constitution but by the current parliament, and he says that the parliament will only be dissolved after courts have decided whether there must be new election the challenged seats (400 out of 420 - and this is the same what Omar Suleyman promised yesterday, even less). And he tells that all the people who have been resp0nsible for looting and for causing chaos will be caught by the law. M.’s interpretation: If he doesn’t go on Friday, our blood will be shed, everybody who participated in the demonstrations will be persecuted. He says: It will be Friday now - that is, that’s the next big demonstration against Mubarak. Actually what Mubarak said was pretty much exactly what John Kerry had demanded in the US senate just an hour or so earlier. He seems to act under
foreign pressure, but he is not moving one step more than he absolutely must.

M. is really angry. The sense of tense expectation gives way to anger, and he is going out to join the demonstration right now. Y. would go as well if he could but he has to stay behind to watch for the safety of M’s son and mother. Al-Jazeera shows the people in Tahrir chanting loudly against Mubarak. This will continue. And maybe it won’t wait until Friday.

M. just walked out of the door to go back to Tahrir. Y, their mother, M’s son and I stay behind, watching television. What will tomorrow bring? This is a critical moment. But I will find it out after getting some sleep.

(For what happened afterwards, see my reports posted from Wednesday 2 February on).

My entire Egyptian revolution diary is available in
Feel free to pass it on!

All the best, and long live the Egyptian revolution,


"Now, it's gonna be a long one" - some first conclusions from the Egyptian revolution

Today is my scheduled day of departure from Egypt. As I sit on Cairo airport waiting for my flight to Frankfurt, it is the first time on this trip that regret anything - I regret that I am leaving today and not staying. I have told to every Egyptian I have met today that I am not escaping, just going for my work at the university and returning soon. But perhaps it has been more to convince myself than them. My European friend who like me came here last Monday is staying for another two weeks. My American friend in Imbaba tells that for months, she has been homesick to go to America and see her parents and family again. But now when the US government would even give her a free flight, she says that she cannot go. This is her home, and she is too attached to the people, and especially to her husband. Two days ago, he was arrested on his way back from Tahrir square, held captive for four hours, interrogated, and tortured with electroshocks. He is now more determined than ever. How could she leave him behind? But today is my scheduled departure, and I only intended to come for a week and then return to do what I can to give a balanced idea of the situation in Egypt in the public debates in Germany and Finland. Tomorrow I will give a phone interview to Deutschlandradio (a German news radio), and on Tuesday I will give a talk in Helsinki in Finland. Right now, I feel that maintaining high international pressure on the Egyptian government is going to be crucial, and I will do what I can.

There remains little to be reported about the beginning day in Cairo, but maybe I can try to draw some first conclusion from this week.

The morning in Cairo today was marked by a return to normality everywhere except on Tahrir Square itself, where the demonstrations continue. Now that the streets are full with people again, the fear I felt in the past days on the streets is gone, too. If I stayed, today would be the day when I would again walk through the streets of Cairo, talk with people and feel the atmosphere.

From what I know from this morning’s short excursion in Giza and Dokki, the people remain split, but also ready to change their mind. As my Egyptian friend and I took a taxi to Dokki, the taxi driver was out on the street for the first time since 24 January, and had fully believed what the state television had told him. But as my friend, a journalist, told him what was really going on, the driver amazingly quickly shifted his opinion again, and remembered the old hatred against the oppressive system, the corruption, and the inflation that brought people to the streets last week. A big part of the people here seem impressively willing to change their mind, and if many of those who were out on the streets on 28 January - and also of those who stayed home - have changed their mind in favour of normality in the past days, they do expect things to get better now, and if they don’t, they are likely to change their minds again. This is the impression I also got from the taxi driver who took me to the airport from Dokki. He, too, had not left his house for eleven days, not out of fear for himself, but because he felt that he must stay at home to protect his family. He was very sceptical of what Egyptian television was telling, but he did expect things to get better now. What will he and others like him do if things don’t get better?

As I came to Egypt a week ago I expected that the revolution would follow one of the two courses that were marked by the events of 1989: either a successful transition to democracy by overthrowing of the old regime as happened in eastern Europe, or shooting everybody dead as happened in China. Again, my prediction was wrong (although actually the government did try the Chinese option twice, only unsuccessfully), and now something more complicated is going on.

This is really the question now: Will things get better or not? In other words: Was the revolution a success of a failure? And on what should its success be measured? If it is to be measured on the high spirits and sense of dignity of those who stood firm against the system, it was a success. If it is to be measured by the emotional switch of those who after the Friday of Anger submitted again to the mixture of fear and admiration of the president’s sweet words, it was a failure. If the immense local and international pressure on the Egyptian government will effect sustainable political change, it will be a success. But it will certainly not be an easy success, and very much continuous pressure is needed, as a friend of mine put it in words this morning: “Now, it’s gonna be a long one.”

In Dokki I visited a European-Latin American couple who are determined to stay in Egypt. He was on Tahrir Square on Wednesday night when the thugs attacked the demonstrators, and he spent all night carrying wounded people to the makeshift field hospital. He says: “What really worries me is the possibility that Mubarak goes and is replaced by Omar Suleyman who then sticks to power with American approval. He is the worst of them all.” Just in case, he is trying to get his Latin American girlfriend a visa for Schengen area, because if Omar Suleyman’s campaign against alleged “foreign elements” and “particular agendas” continues, the day may come when they are forced to leave after all.

A few words about the foreigners participating in the revolution need to be said.. Like the Spanish civil war once, so also the Egyptian revolution has moved many foreigners, mostly those living in Egypt since long, to participate in the struggle for democracy. This has been an ambiguous struggle in certain ways, because the state television has exploited the presence of foreigners on Tahrir Square in order to spread quite insane conspiracy theories about foreign agendas behind the democracy movement. The alliance against Egypt, the state television wants to make people believe, is made up of agents of Israel, Hamas, and Iran. That’s about the most insane conspiracy theory I have heard of for a long time. But unfortunately, conspiracy theories do not need to be logical to be convincing. But to step back to the ground of reality, if this revolution has taught me one thing is that the people of Egypt do not need to look up to Europe or America to imagine a better future. They have shown themselves capable of imagining a better future of their own making (with some important help from Tunisia). Compared to our governments with their lip service to democracy and appeasement of dictators, Egyptians have given the world an example in freedom and courage which we all should look up to as an example. This sense of admiration and respect is what has drawn so many foreigners to Tahrir Square in the past days, including myself.

As an anthropologist who has long worked on festive culture, I noticed a strikingly festive aspect to the revolutionary space of Tahrir Square. It is not just a protest against an oppressive regime and a demand for freedom. In itself, it is freedom. It is a real, actual, lived moment of the freedom and dignity that the pro-democracy movement demands. As such, it is an ambiguous moment, because its stark sense of unity (there is a consensus of having absolutely no party slogans on the square) and power is bound to be transient, for even in the most successful scenario it will be followed by a long period of political transition, tactics, negotiations, party politics - all kinds of business that will not be anything like that moment of standing together and finally daring to say “no!”. But thanks to its utopian nature, it is also indestructible. Once it has been realised, it cannot be wiped out of people’s minds again. It will be an experience that, with different colourings and from different perspectives, will mark an entire generation.

In a different sense, however, the relationship of transience and persistence is a critical one. A revolution is not a quick business; it requires persistence. Some have that persistence, and millions have continued demonstrating (remember that in Alexandria and all major provincial cities there are ongoing in demonstrations as well). Others, however, had the anger and energy to go out to the streets on the Friday of Anger on 28 January to say loudly “No!”, but not the persistence to withstand the lure of the president’s speech on Tuesday 1 February when Mubarak showed himself as a mortal human, an old soldier determined to die and be buried in his country. A journalist noted to me that this was the first time Mubarak has ever mentioned his own mortality - the very promise that he will die one day seems to have softened many people.

Speaking of generations, this revolution has been called a youth revolution by all sides, be it by the demonstrators themselves, the state media, or international media. Doing so has different connotations. It can mean highlighting the progressive nature of the movement, but it can also mean depicting the movement as immature. In either case, in my experience the pro-democracy movement is not really a youth movement. People of all ages support the revolution, just like there are people of all ages who oppose it or are of two minds about it. If most of the people out in the demonstrations are young, it is because most Egyptians are young.

Thinking about the way Egyptians are split about their revolution, it is interesting to see how much people offer me explicitly psychological explanations. The most simple one, regarding the switch of many of those who went out on the streets on the Friday of Anger (28 Jan) but were happy to support the president after his speech after the March of Millions (1 Feb), is that Egyptians are very emotional and prone to react emotionally, and in unpredictable ways. One of more subtle theories crystallise around the theme of Freud’s Oedipal father murder about which I wrote yesterday. Another is the Stockholm Syndrom that some have mentioned as an explanation why those who turn to support are favour of the system are often those most brutally oppressed by the same system. The Stockholm Syndrome, referring to a famous bank robbery with hostages in Stockholm, is the reaction of hostages who turn to support their abductors at whose mercy they are. There is something to it.

As Ifinish writing this, my plane is leaving for Frankfurt and I will be out of Egypt for a while. After these notes, I will upload also some notes from early last week which I couldn’t upload then due to lack of Internet in Egypt. Those are notes from the March of Millions on Tuesday 1 February. But unlike I was thinking at that moment, it was not the biggest demonstration in the history of Egypt. The biggest one was the Friday of Anger on 28 January when people in every street of every city went out to shout “Down with the system!” Due to the almost total media blockade by the Egyptian government, there is still much too little footage from that day. What I have seen so far, shows amazing crowds even in districts far from the city centre, but they also show very systematic violence by the police force, which shot to kill that day. Many were killed, and many more are still missing. I will try to collect image and film material from that day, and if you can send me any, your help is appreciated.

You can also see all my reports (one is still due to be uploaded later tonight) in The content of the blog is in the public domain, so feel free to cite and circulate on the condition of giving credit to the original.

Greetings from revolutionary Egypt!


Saturday 5 February 2011

A day of contradictory news

As I am finally back in my Egyptian friend’s apartment in Giza after a day of visiting peole in different parts of Cairo, there is nothing left to do than watching the news, and the news are contradictory.

The worst news of the day just arrived, citing the US special envoy saying that Mubarak should stay in power to oversee a peaceful political transition. Knowing what Mubarak’s government has done against its people in the last days, shooting them dead, terrorising them by allowing widespread looting, and systematically deceiving them on state media, this is a fatal error that may open the door to the ruling system to establish itself again. Mubarak’s record is scandalous and criminal to say the least, and to assume that he of all people would be a suitable person to guarantee a democratic transition a delusion.

There are other, better news. The demonstration on Tahrir Street was big again today. They show no sign of going home. And the demonstrators have named a group of ten public personalities who will speak in their name, which will make it possible to make some of those tactical manoeuvres that will be so important in the following days and weeks. And unlike Egyptian television, the press - even some government papers, which surprised me - is reporting very positively about the demonstrations. The ruling National Democratic Party has removed several of its most notorious figures from the party politbureau, including Hosni Mubarak’s son Gamal Mubarak. The new head of the politbureau is Husam Badrawi who is one of the few respectable people in the NDP and who failed in the last parliamentary elections due to one of the most spectacular cases of fraud in a round of elections that were all a fraud anyway. This could be read as a good sign, but more likely it is just another superficial concession to keep the ruling elite in power. The NPD, we must remember, is not a political party in the proper sense, but an organ of an autocratic government.

The weather today has been cold and overcast with occasional rainshowers, which well reflects the subdued mood of the day. Cairo is returning to normality everywhere except on Tahrir square, the streets are again full of people and cars, and shops are opening. Normality is what Mubarak has promised to Egyptians, and many Egyptians are welcoming it, also many of those who went out and withstood the brutal police force on the Friday of Anger on 28 January (which, by the way, was probably the by far biggest day of demonstrations in the history of Egypt, but because internet and mobile phones were blocked, much of the images from that day haven’t reached the media). But normality is also in favour of the demonstrators in Tahrir square and their supporters, who can now show that they are not causing any chaos.

Where the situation will go from here is unclear to say the least. What is clear is that the system has withstood the immediate challenge of the revolution through a mixture of concessions and intimidation, and is now trying to sit it out. Whether it will be successful, or whether there will be enough continued pressure for real democratic change remains to be seen. But even in the worst case of a consolidation of the old system, my friends all say, Egypt has changed forever, and its people can never again be governed the way they were governed just weeks ago.

This morning I took a taxi with my European friend and left downtown Cairo for the other side of the Nile, going to see different friends of ours. In Imbaba, I met an Egyptian-American couple who told that Mubarak’s speech on Tuesday night had successfully impressed many of the people in their area and that they were quite trustful that everything will be all right and the government will do what they promised. The Egyptian husband: “The strangest thing that those most oppressed and deprived by Mubarak are those most willing to listen to him.” He himself is one of the people who headed to Tahrir to support the demonstrators immediately as they heard of is constantly shifting between frustration and hope, depending on the kind of news he is receiving.

From Imbaba I continued to my friend in Giza where I could finally put on a fresh set of clothes. It was a tense journey, knowing that the state media has spread stories about foreign agents inciting and paying the people in Tahrir Square, and there being several cases of foreigners being arrested and deported, and foreign journalists being attacked. I did not actually face any hostility, not even stupid questions. But I was still infected by the fear of Wednesday and Thursday nights when we were sitting in the apartment in downtown, listening to gunshots, fights, and shouts, and at least once there were people searching for foreigners trying to enter our street (but the street was guarded by good and trustworthy inhabitants who left nobody in). It will take a little while for that fear to pass. But a strange thing did happen as my Egyptian friend and I walked over Giza Square today. A police officer in uniform stopped us and told that two or three men in civil had just been asking about us and wanting to follow us. The officer asked whether we need help and protection. We thanked and said that everything is fine and no help needed. I have no explanation to offer, but thank you, officer. I have no intention of being deported from Egypt - I arrived here out of my free will, and tomorrow I will be departing out of my free will.

Egyptians continue to be divided in different camps around the events, but there is much less debate on the streets than there was a couple of days earlier. One camp firmly supports the president, be it out of personal interest, out of belief in strong leaders, or out of fear of chaos. Another camp is critical of the president and the system but optimistic and ready to accept the concessions the government offered. Which way this camp turns in the next days and weeks will be decisive. And one camp, the revolutionary camp, either supports the demonstrators on Tahrir Square, or is standing there right now. A friend of mine from the countryside told me on the phone that he greatly regrets that he hasn’t been in Cairo in the last days, because "Egypt’s noblest people are now on Tahrir square."

There is an interesting psychological twist to this split. Yesterday the vice president Omar Suleyman declared that "Mubarak is out father." This is a recourse to a social ideology of patriarchal rule where the father is to be respected even in disagreement. This is a shrewd strategy that employs some deeply rooted sentiments among the people, but the sentiments of many Egyptians have changed in a strikingly Oedipal manner. My Egyptian friend says that this revolution is really a Freudian father murder par excellence: By symbolically killing the authoritarian father of the nation, they are gaining their independence as full persons.

On my way to Giza visited I visited the editorial office of one of Egypt’s main independent newspapers, whose voice has been very important in the past week and half. The offices were busy as newspaper offices are in preparation of the next day’s issue, and the journalists strongly in favour of the revolution. I spoke with some of them, asking them for their predictions (knowing that my own predictions have proven notoriously false). Like most people I have spoken with today, they expressed a mixture of subdued pessimism and proud sense of accomplishment. They said that even in the worst case (which would be Hosni Mubarak and his system staying in power) Egypt has changed for good, because people have learned to speak out, learned that they can make a difference, that they can stand up against police brutality, and that they can take responsibility for their own situation. This alone is a revolution. But it is not enough, and it is under serious threat by government media spreading conspiracy theories and fears about spies, foreign interests and chaos - all well-tested means of rule in the Arab world. The next days and weeks will show how much concrete political changes can be accomplished.

In the period of political transition and pressure that is beginning now, strong and persistent international pressure it is of crucial importance. If you read this and live in a democratic country call your MP, call your government, call your president, and tell them that the slightest degree of support to Mubarak’s regime is the same as supporting crimes against humanity. Only a democratic government elected by the people of Egypt can be an acceptable partner to the world community.

You can follow my reports from Cairo also in the following address:
(With many thanks to Nazan Maksudyan for establishing the blog)

Greetings from the Egyptian revolution, hoping that it will go all the way!


From Cairo: A huge demonstration but uncertain outcomes

Yesterday was again a day of a huge demonstration that filled Tahrir square completely with people calling Hosni Mubarak to resign. You have probably been able to follow the events on television and news better than I have, and I have very little overview of the situation, but maybe I can give some idea about the atmosphere among the demonstrations.

On Wednesday and Thursday night, Downtown Cairo had been a bad place to move around as a foreigner, with pro-Mubarak gangs moving on the streets and reports of foreigners being arrested and sent to the airport. Also at our house we at least once heard people entering the street and asking whether there are foreigners living here, but the men guarding the street said that there weren’t any foreigners and energetically told them to go. On the basis of what we had heard on the street and over the internet we decided that it is wiser to leave the apartment for Zamalek, an very fine and up-market area where there have been no clashes caused by the thugs. From there, our agreement was, some of us would continue to Tahrir and others could stay in the apartment of a friend there. But as we entered the street, it turned out that the situation was again very different from what we had been judging from sitting upstairs. Now the streets of downtown Cairo were full of people heading to Tahrir to demonstrate for democracy, and we spontaneously decided to join them. Without the slightest trouble, we found ourselves at the entrance to Tahrir square where rows of volunteers were checking people’s ID and pockets as they have been doing ever since the demonstrators took over Tahrir Square. But the sight of the street had dramatically changed since we were at this spot a day and a half earlier. Large barricades made of construction site fences now closed the entrance to the square, and in front of these barricades stood an additional line of barbed wire set there by the military. And this had not been a main site of fighting against the pro-Mubarak gangs but only a side scene. As we arrived inside the square, we found a totally different atmosphere, with a continuous stream of people arriving and bringing with them breakfast for the demonstrators who had spent the night inside, people chanting anti-Mubarak slogans, and the atmosphere optimistic due to the evidently strong response of so many people who had decided to join what the pro-democracy demonstrators called “The Friday of departure”, meaning Mubarak’s departure.

We sat down at the tents in a green traffic isle at the centre of the square, and spent a lot of time talking with the demonstrators there. A young woman from a rich family, speaking to us in very good American English before she found out that we speak Arabic, told that on Tuesday night as Mubarak gave his speech, she was willing to accept it and to go home, but after the attack of the pro-Mubarak gangs with horses and camels (those images really had a big effect), she decided to come back today, because it was clear for her that the president was trying to deceive the people. She also said hat people had been asking why she goes to demonstrate when her circumstances are good. She said that she didn’t come here for herself, but for those people who have to suffer under the system, and that the system tries to make everybody to think just about their own interests in order to prevent them from taking collective action. A middle aged woman, definitely not from the upper classes like the first one, told to a Belgian journalists who had asked me to help translate, that Mubarak’s speech last Tuesday was an attempt to manipulate the emotions of the people just like Nasser did in 1967. “It’s the same film running again, and repetition makes the lie evident”, she says. Here some background: After the humiliating defeat of Egypt against Israel in the Six-Day-War Nasser held a very emotional speech offering to resign if the people want it. The response was overwhelming support by Egyptians demanding the president to stay – a masterpiece of manipulation of the public opinion. On Wednesday after Mubarak’s speech where he said that he will not run again for presidency, a similar mood had encompassed Cairo, and might have prevailed if it hadn’t been for the attack on Tahrir. However, the attempt to continue the old policy of brutal intimidation at the same time by removing the demonstrators from Tahrir has clearly backfired, at least among those pro-democracy supporters who had been at first impressed by Mubarak’s speech. Another story are those who tend to sideline with the system anyway and are skeptical about rapid political change, for example a friend from Alexandria with whom I spoke on the phone. She hoped that everything would remain peaceful said that people should really go home so that the nation can get back to work.

People like her were certainly very likely to be impressed by the disinformation campaign by Egyptian state television yesterday. Obviously I could not follow television on the square, but what I heard over the phone calls was that they were spreading news about small numbers of people in the square and increasing factional fighting. This campaign of disinformation was not restricted to state television, but to some degree took place on the square as well. In the course of the afternoon I followed a young man who kept involving people into discussions where he was raising questions about what will happen when Mubarak resigns and whether people will be able to agree and go home safely, whether the demands are realistic, and making the impression that actually the government had already given in to major demands and that the demonstrators’ determination on the square was becoming futile. Less through his specific opinions than due to his persistence in sharing them with others, I suspected him for being a state security informer sent there to spread doubts among the demonstrators - and with some, he did seem to be successful. But most people were very defiant and determined.

The most determined was a woman from the southern Egyptian city of Sohag who gave an interview to a Belgian newspaper. Because she didn’t speak English and journalists didn’t speak Arabic I translated. She was a widowed mother of two sons whom she had brought along here last Tuesday to join the march of the millions. She had no schooling and apparently didn’t know to read and write. After her husband died she had opened a travel agency but it had been closed by the government – something that often happens if one doesn’t know the right people or pay enough bribes. She would not go until Hosni Mubarak goes, and until the system of corruption and capitalism is overthrown and the power is given to the people. She was here, she said, for the sake of freedom, for the sake of dignity, and in order to feel that this is her country. With few words, she managed to crystallise the sentiment that propels this democracy movement: The sense of dignity and power that emerges from the ability to say no and to stand to one’s rights, and the feeling that this country, so long ruled by a system of clientelist exploitation, could belong to its people again. Two men put this very clearly in words to me later the same day as we went to get water (drinking water is widely available on the square, which is crucial for the people’s ability to persist). They said: It’s not Hosni Mubarak who has oppressed us for thirty years, it has been we ourselves through our silence. Now we have learnt to speak out.

Huge crowds spoke out their demand for dignity, freedom, and for being able to call this country their own on Tahrir Square on Friday. But the government did not move, except for a statement by the vice president that Mubarak has de facto given up but cannot formally do so under the current conditions. It seemed that the the system is now determined to sit it out, to give in a little bit here and there , but to keep the old elite in charge of the country. So we left Tahrir Square back to our apartment (which was now very safe to reach because it was now only one block away from the extended area controlled by the pro-democracy demonstrators ) in a subdued mood. This morning’s newspapers, however, offer a different image. Even the pro-government al-Ahram has yesterday’s demonstration as their main news (although they say “hundreds of thousands” instead of “millions” like the independent press does), and the independent press runs extensive coverage of the Tahrir demonstrations yesterday. The impression they give is that change is taking place right now and that there is no way back to the old system. They also inform that “The Friday of Departure” will now be followed by the “Week of Insistence” by the pro-democracy movement.

The revolution has given those sharing in it an amazing spirit, but it has also taken a heavy toll, and many are mentally exhausted. One friend who walks along us as we return from Tahrir says that his girlfriend was killed on the bloody Friday (28 January) when the state violence reached its peak, and that after that he does even know what he feels. He says that he is speaking out the Muslim creed that every hour because he expects to die any moment (and he is certainly not a religious man).

Future revolution can learn a lot from the past 11 days’ events. Here some lections we think can be learned.

-A popular grassroots uprising is possible but it requires some organisational and media support. The media support has been offered by al-Jazeera. The lack of organisation hat for a long time been the main asset of the movement because it could not be stopped by arresting or shooting its leaders – there are no leaders, and many of the people in Tahrir do not want leaders. They want power to the people. They want leaders elected in free parliamentary election. This grass-roots dynamics means, however, that while the demonstrators are well able to clean the garbage, to keep order, and to defend themselves – all actions that make immediate sense – they are not capable of making tactical manoeuvres, while the government is employing various and often contradictory tactics to sustain the revolution.

-The revolutionary movement must be able to occupy the government media. That the television centre in Maspiro has remained firmly in the hands of the government has left a key instrument of power in the system’s hands. To occupy it (it is less than a kilometre away) would require a a carefully planned attack, and the pro-democracy demonstrators are at the moment both too peaceful and too spontaneous to take part in such an attack.

-The revolutionary movement needs good loudspeakers. The extremely bad quality of the PA at Tahrir Square makes it impossible to share speeches and announcements with all the people on the square. Even sitting just fifty metres away from one of the two speakers’s stages I could usually not understand what was being said.

Greetings again from the Egyptian revolution!


Friday 4 February 2011

Samuli's LATEST news from Cairo 04-02-2011

15:20 > As people were waiting for Amr Musa to enter, a debate ensued among them. Some saw in him Egypt's next president. Some said: "we don't need politicians, this is the people's revolution!".

15:09 > All entrances to Tahrir except Abdel Munem Riyad are accessible and open a continuous stream of people entering. The square is very crowded but movement is easy (except for celebrities who are surrounded by the curious when they enter).

14:34 > Amr Musa's (former minister of foreign affairs and current secretary general of the Arab League) 2nd attempt to enter the square because curious bystanders and press block the cordon through which he is supposed to pass. He turns back again. We shall see whether he will make it to the speaker's stage.

from Henri: "People in their thousands are flooding in. Amr Moussa, former minister of foreign affairs and current secretary general of the Arab League made a brief appearance on Tahrir sq. He couldn't get in due to people rushing to greet him. Hopefully he tries another entrance and says something meaningful."

13:03 > There are a lot of people here who one day before yesterday were happy with the concessions Mubarak offered, but have turned against him after the thug attack at Tahrir before yesterday. The stystem's strategy of intimidation has backfired!

12:50 > The second prayer ends. Everybody - those praying and those not praying - stands up, shouting: "Down, down, with Hosni Mubarak!" "Go away!" "We won't go, he shall go!". The square is getting so full that many people on their way here will probably have to spread to the surrounding streets and bridges.

12:35 > Right now Friday prayer on Tahrir, followed bhy prayer in memory of the dead. The square is completely full with people. It's an amazing sight!

11:42 >I also spoke on the phone with a friend who's rather pro-Mubarak. She finds it very important that everything remains peaceful. Lots of journalists here and they all still have their cameras. Intimidation of journalists only outside the square.

11:35: I just saw a Salafi man with a long fundementalist's beard helping Nawal al-Saadawi, Egypt's most outspoken feminist, to get a comfortable place to sit down in the green traffic isle in the middle of Tahrir Square.

Via Jessica Winegar: Eyewitnesses in Tahrir Square: lots of people streaming in even though it is still hours before prayer time!...situation hopeful and spirits high. My neighborhood calm and people on the streets going about their every day business. The weather is great. Si se peude!!! Aywa mumkin!! Yes we can!!

10:47: We were about to go to Zamalik but found the streets full of people on their way to demonstrate and the streets safe. so we joined them. So I'm in Tahrir and very happy to be here. There are huge amounts of people arriving although it's still early. This will be a historical day!