Friday 11 March 2011

An amazing success and a spectacular failure

(This note is from Thursday 10 March, but it was posted after midnight)

This was a day of contradictory news. While the army is running a brutal counterrevolution on Tahrir square, in the village the spirit of democracy was running strong today. As problems have been increasing, the spirits, too, have been rising today.

I start with the bad news. Yesterday evening the army forcibly removed the sit-in on Tahrir Square after it had already been attacked by thugs earlier the same day. This seems to be rather well orchestrated, allowing the media to report that the army intervened after clashes between supporters and opponents of the sit-in. But news that reached me later the same nights and today noon give a much more sinister picture of the role of the army. As many as 170 people participating in the sit-in, including 17 women, were arrested. Many of them were released today, and some of them had been subjected to serious torture.

(For a witness account with photo of traces of torture, see )

Many others are still detained, including my friend Aly Subhy who accompanied me and H through much of the time in downtown Cairo at the time of the big thug attack on the square on 2 and 3 February. Aly Sobhy is an artist and clown, and has been participating in the revolution from its beginning. He is currently detained at the Military Prosecutor’s office and may face a military court. Military courts are used at the moment to give ultra quick judgements to maintain law and order, or that is the claim. A “court hearing” typically takes five minutes, without witnesses or defence, and the sentences are typically around five years. The worst news came tonight, as Egyptian TV Channel One showed a photo with the text “a group of young violent thugs (arrested at Tahrir yesterday)” In the front line of the young men, all with hands tied on their backs, and sitting on the ground, was Aly Subhy.

Just a few days ago, the army introduced a law introducing the death penalty on “thuggery” in attempt to calm down the fear of criminality. In the worst case, Aly may face charges for thuggery in an attempt by the army to scare the demonstrators while giving the general public the impression that they are protecting them from thugs. The Egyptian army is playing a very sinister double role, and there is good reason to doubt their intentions now more than ever.

My friends are starting an internet campaign to free Aly and the other arrested demonstrators, hoping that international publicity will help to put some pressure on the army. Here a film about him in Arabic:

But while the news from Cairo are troubling today, there is also a lot of positive energy around. In the village this was a good day, with a big public meeting with the head of the village council and afterwards a long meeting of the local revolutionaries arguing why Egypt needs an altogether new constitution.

Yesterday the village revolutionaries were frustrated, defeated by their own sense of declining enthusiasm. Lots of things were supposed to be done for the meeting today, but there was absolutely no energy around. Today morning A came by, and some friends came by and asked why there isn’t any advertisement for the meeting by leaflets and mosque loudspeakers, only on the internet. Then things slowly got back to movement, and then quite suddenly everybody was busy sending for photocopies and envelopes, and then some went to distribute the leaflets (addressed to people personally). A film edited from video footage made during the graveyard cleanup campaign on Tuesday is screened on the local cable network. Suddenly the spirits go up again.

As I went with a group of young men from the activist group to the youth centre where the meeting was to take place, there was at first a moment of worry. The centre was still closed, and the mayor announced that he will be late. People doubted that he may be trying to delay his attendance in order, and at first only few people were there. But then more and more people started arriving, and the mayor and his secretary arrived, too. Responsible people from the administration who had announced that they would come did not show up, but the mayor being there was good enough. The attendance reached more than one hundred people, all of them men (the girls from secondary school who had announced their participation didn’t show up), the more senior in the closer circle, the younger around.

It was a strange and fantastic meeting, at once an amazing success and a spectacular failure. Only at this meeting I truly realised what it means to live in a society in a state of revolution. It was a mixture of respectful recognition of authority and angry rejection of all authority, of careful argumentation and chaotic shouting, and it would have been absolutely inconceivable just one month ago.

The mayor and the preacher of the village mosque were greeted with special honours. So far, the framework of a patriarchal and authoritarian society seemed intact. But the discussion was critical from the start, and after the more senior and socially high-standing people had made expressed some more constructive remarks on the system of bread distribution in the village, a wave of angry critique emerged from every direction. The organisers actually wanted to discuss possible solutions, but there was so much suppressed anger about the thoroughly corrupt and inefficient way in which the village was run, that it was almost impossible to lead a structured debate about solution, and instead there was most of the time an angry and noisy choir of critique. The organisers from the activist group and some of the men in the first row tried over and again to get the discussion back to the topic of suggestions for improvement, and occasionally good suggestions were made, and the mayor could give his reply. After a while the discussion turned again into a chaos of angry shouting, and towards the end the meeting became more and more chaotic. In the end, the organisers barely managed to state that the village administration was expected to take notice of the suggestions that were made regarding the distribution of bread and gas and the cleaning of the streets, and that its initiatives in improving these points would be discussed in a next public meeting on the first Thursday of April, and then the meeting dissolved, with some heading home while others forming small groups of people debating and arguing loudly.

The assessment of the meeting by members of the activist group was accordingly contradictory. Some said that the chaotic nature of discussion where most people just wanted to make statements and didn’t listen to others proved that Egyptians, after living under oppression and fear so long, had not yet learned how to make responsible use of their freedom, and that they had a long learning process ahead. Everybody was discontent that they hadn’t been able to go through the list of points they wanted to discuss and because it was so difficult to have a constructive discussion. At the same time, they were very happy because so many people had shown up, because the mayor had shown up after all, and because the people had really come with their problems and demands, and spoken out freely and without fear. In S’s view, the meeting was at once a success and a failure - a failure because so many people couldn’t distinguish between democratic debate and chaos, and a success because it has never happened before that the head of the village assembly has to answer serious questions and angry critique and not just friendly greetings.

On a more practical level, it once again appears that a decent PA system is a necessary part of any revolutionary’s toolkit. The chaotic nature of the meeting was for a significant part due to the lack of a microphone and loudspeakers that would have made it easier for one person to speak at a time.

Chaotic or not, the public meeting made the spirits of the activist group dramatically rise. They had successfully organised a major event of public debate, and the sense of frustration they had felt on Tuesday was all gone.

After the meeting, twelve men crowded S’s guest room for a calmer more constructive round of debate about the proposed constitutional amendments. (In February, a commission of constitutional experts appointed by the military government came up with proposed amendments of six articles in the constitution. These amendments, which have been widely criticised by both legal experts and supporters of the revolution, are subject to a referendum on 19 March.)

In this rather left-wing crowd there was complete consensus that the proposed constitutional amendments were completely insufficient, and that Egypt needs an altogether new and significantly better constitution before the elections. They will all vote “no” in the referendum on constitutional amendments. There was a long and detailed discussion about the Egyptian constitution, its problems, about different forms of constitution both in the history of Egypt (the most democratic constitution being that of 1923) and abroad, and the improvements which the people expected. It began with a long talk by A.M., an old Marxist teacher and an extremely learned man who gave a long introduction into the general theme of constitution. A.M. argued, among other things, that not only had the constitution been de facto overthrown by the revolution - it had in fact been overthrown by the regime itself, with many of Egypt’s laws being in open contradiction to it. The most blatant example is article 1 of the constitution that states that Egypt is a socialist country, which is blatantly contradicted by its neoliberal policies and laws in the past decades. A.M.’s exposition was followed by questions and comments, especially regarding the powers of the president, which almost everybody in the room wanted to limit in favour of a parliamentary system. The extensive knowledge of A.M. combined with the critical questions and suggestions by the people present, and the laptop connected to the internet to check the exact phrasing of the proposed amendments, allowed for a very high level of debate.

The general spirit of the debate was in favour of a radically democratic Egypt ruled by a parliamentary government and a president whose power would be restricted to representative functions. The basic argument is that the current constitution was tailored to serve a system of corruption, and if the revolution is to realise its central demand, the downfall of the system, then the constitution is a part of the problem. - the central They see the proposed constitutional amendments are really a disguised continuity of the old system in the guise of the army, in itself a part of the old system and as such an ambiguous ally of the revolution at best.

This is probably not the majority opinion in Egypt, and it seems likely that the constitutional amendments will successfully pass the referendum, and after the transition to a civil government Egypt will continue to be ruled by a president equipped with almost unlimited powers. But among the village revolutionaries, there existed a strong consensus that the for the revolution to be successful, it must guarantee that power is in the hands of the people. What exactly the new constitution should contain - except for a more parliamentary system that would prevent the concentration of power in too few hands - was less of an issue. In this regard, the activists showed quite a lot of trust that Egypt has capable constitutional jurists who can draft a good constitution that serves the needs of Egypt.

I was assigned the task to record the entire debate on video, and as soon as I have finished these notes, I will edit and upload it on the internet where the activists hope to use it as means for increasing the political consciousness.

After yesterday was such a tense day marked by such frustration, today has been a day of renewed optimism and enthusiasm although the factual state of the affairs is very much the same - and while it is better than it was before Mubarak’s fall, it is still not that good, now that it becomes more and more clear that the old system has not really fallen, it is still in power in the shape of the army that plays a complex and dirty game. But a change of spirit changes the situation to a certain degree, and that is what a revolution is all about. I talked about it with S’s wife who also for quite personal reasons is very happy that yesterday’s knot of frustration has been broken. She, S. and I agree: If yesterday was a difficult emotional state, “a strange day” in A’s words, today seems much better even if the problems ahead seem bigger. Not only the revolution is an emotional state. The counterrevolution, too, is inside you.

Greetings from Egypt’s revolutionary countryside!


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