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!