Sunday, 6 February 2011

"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!


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