Saturday 12 March 2011

Consolidation, for better and for worse

(This post is from Friday 11 March, but it was posted after midnight)

Today I left the village for Alexandria, Egypt’s second-largest city, and one of the most intense sites of demonstrations during the revolution. During the great demonstrations in late January and early February the number of demonstrators of Alexandria was as much or even more than in Cairo, which is four times larger than Alexandria. In Alexandria, things have also taken longer to calm down, there has been especially much fear of crime, and a return to normality has taken longer. Schools opened in most of Egypt this week, but in Alexandria they will remain closed for another week. But tonight the shopping streets were busy and Fathallah shopping mall in Muntazah district where I am staying was packed with people. The storefront is still covered with a temporary brick wall after the windows were broken on the night of 28 January, but the shops are all open.

As normality is returning to Alexandria and the police is returning to the streets amidst a strong sympathy campaign by state media, they receive a somewhat contradictory welcome. After a period of strong fear of crime the presence of the police is welcomed, but this welcome is conditional on humane behaviour of the police. S’s landlord whom we met in Fathallah mall showed a particularly ambiguous attitude. On the one hand he told that he himself helped a police officer to restore his authority towards minibus drivers who treated him with lack of respect that is due to the officer of law. On the other hand he was proudly showing everybody a mobile phone video showing how inhabitants of a nearby district displayed on a pickup truck the bound and heavily injured police officer involved in the killing of protesters who he had been caught three days ago by the inhabitants of a poor neighbourhood, and beaten up badly, possibly killed.

Everybody who has something to say in Alexandria these days writes it on the wall: Death penalty for armed robbery, Revolution accomplished, Revolution continues, Unity of Christians and Muslims, Make Egypt an Islamic state, We are all Egyptians, Let’s respect each others, Don’t forget the Martyrs of the revolution.... In Alexandria, a stronghold of the Salafis, there are remarkably many stickers demanding an Islamic state especially on the side streets, while the seaside Corniche road is marked by large wall paintings (made by volunteers and sponsored by the local administration and an advertisement agency) celebrating the revolution. It is a wild mixture of spontaneous expressions, political and religious movements pressing for their point of view, and the army and local administration riding the wave of the revolution to consolidate their power.

This is a moment when everybody speaks in the name of the revolution, but with very different aims. On Facebook, revolutionary activists campaign to release the people arrested the protesters who were arrested on Tahrir Square on Wednesday. The state-owned newspaper al-Gumhuriya, the most faithful voice of the Mubarak regime, reports about citizens volunteering to renew Tahrir square after the violent removal of the sit-in as an act to complete the revolution. A large hand-written poster in the outskirts of Alexandria reminds that the revolution will only be completed when State Security is permanently abolished and all political prisoners released. A banner in Alexandria’s central square clearly aiming to prepare the return of the police to the streets declares that the people, the army and the police hold together for the sake of the January 25 revolution. Critics of the constitutional amendments hold conferences and write in the press arguing that a completely new constitution is necessary both to ensure the success of the revolution and also in order for the judicial system to work properly. On Corniche road in Alexandria, leaflets were distributed in the name of an until now never heard-of group “Youth of the future” urging people to vote “yes” for the sake of a continuation of the revolution.

While the revolutionary spirit of hope is all over the place, we are now entering the process of consolidation, negotiations, constitutional debate, and political mobilisation. After a period marked by the general demands of revolution that were designed to avoid party difference, now political groups are arguing for their programmes, presidential candidates are beginning their campaigns, and different movements begin to mobilise their supporters. In Alexandria one can follow this directly on the walls of the houses, with posters, graffiti, stickers and leaflets all over the place.

Looking back to the past week it seems that the resignation of prime minister Ahmad Shafiq and his replacement by Essam Sharaf, and the suspension of the State Security and the occupation of its headquarters by protesters marked a turning point. After that moment and amidst confessional clashes and fear of criminality as people were looking forward to a consolidation of the situation, the sit-in in Tahrir with its pressure to change the entire system came under pressure and now there is a different tide, and it is a very ambiguous one.

The way in which the military government is evoking the revolution while working hard to limit its extent is seen as nothing less as a counterrevolution by the dedicated revolutionaries. This view is loudly expressed on the internet and in informal discussions. But there is strong hesitance in the independent press to name the problems involved in the role of the military - its wealth, the fact that it is a core part of the old system, the human rights violations by the military police. I ask a journalist friend of mine whether I’m paranoid or whether the press avoids certain issues, and he says that I’m not paranoid.

Demonstrations for the sake of national unity of Christians and Muslims took place today in Alexandria and Cairo in the framework of the series of Friday demonstrations that have been going on ever since the begin of the revolution. In Cairo where the confessional clashes had taken place, the demonstrations were fairly large. But in Alexandria where there have been no news of confessional clashes despite the general tension and anxiety, the demonstrations were small today. Partly this was because for most people in Alexandria were a little tired of demonstrating, but also partly because some political activists think that more important than demonstrations at this moment is political mobilisation and consciousness-raising.

The latter was the point of view of leftist friends of mine who are running a cultural centre in downtown Cairo. Their centre served today as a site for demonstrators to prepare their banners, but they themselves were more busy thinking about how to reach students at the university and people on the street in face of the coming referendums and elections. Alexandria being a stronghold of the Salafi movement and of the Muslim brothers, there are lots of stickers here calling for Egypt to be an Islamic state, and my friends at the cultural centre see their role in pushing a more secular and leftist agenda, focussing on issues of equal rights and social justice. They are right now busy planning a poster and sticker campaign.

The university term began in Cairo in the past week, and it begins in Alexandria this week. Before the revolution, universities were guarded by a special force of the Ministry of Interior which was feared and hated among the students. This force has been now dissolved and replaced by a civil security service. This has now turned the universities into sites of intense political activism. In Cairo University last week, students were demanding that the president and deans should be elected. A wave of political activism is sweeping the universities, and all political movements, old and new, are busy trying to play a role.

While attempts of consolidation by the army are evident - and greeted by many who look forward to things to calm down a bit - for most people this has not diminished the sense that one can now finally breath freely and dream. As I walk with A on the Corniche he looks at the sea and says: “Even the sea looks different after the revolution. The things themselves remain the same but the way you look at them has changed.” At the cultural centre where my friends work I meet G who despite her many worries about the future of the country is full of enthusiasm and optimism: “In the past years this country got so oppressed that one wouldn’t want to get up from bed in the morning. Now I can finally dream. I don’t want so much, I just want the Arab world to be a reasonable place. I don’t expect a utopia, just a reasonable place where I can travel throughout it freely and where people can live in peace.” The spirit of freedom in its widest sense, including the freedom to define what freedom means, is strong these days.

But I have to end with a more pessimistic note. Aly Subhy and other demonstrators detained on 9 March on Tahrir Square remain in custody ( The last witness saw Aly being transported to military arrest in a grave physical condition showing traces of torture. Even worse, there are reports that more people have been arrested today, in an operation apparently targeting leading figures of the Tahrir Square sit-in. This throws an even darker shadow on the role of the army, and if this campaign can continue covered by the consolidation campaign of the state press and the hesitation of the independent press, there is a serious danger that much of the newly won freedom will be lost.

International pressure helps. Please pass on the news about the detained protesters, and write to the Egyptian ambassador in your country. People are being detained and tortured by a military government that claims to be in service of a democratic transition, and yet has to prove that it means it.

Greetings from the Egyptian revolution!


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