Saturday, 5 February 2011

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!