Tuesday 8 March 2011

The village revolutionaries

The village where many of my friends live has a history of political activism, and has a lot of supporters of the left and of the Muslim brotherhood. It was no surprise, then, that it was one of the first in its region where the revolutionary dynamics took off after Mubarak was sacked. It all began with a clean-up campaign in the village that culminated in a sit-in at the city hall of the nearby town. The movement, which is gaining growing popular support, was at first initiated mainly by a group of young men of left-wing orientation. Two of them were demonstrating in Tahrir Square on the very first day, on 25 January, and others were demonstrating at different times in Cairo and Alexandria. On 10 January, the evening when Mubarak was expected by everybody to step down but didn’t, they decided to go to Cairo and stay there until Mubarak goes, but realised that they didn’t have enough money to go to Cairo. So they decided to collect their money and to send four people to Alexandria. One of them couldn’t go because his mother hid his ID card, fearing for his life. But three others went, arriving just on time at the massive demonstration in Alexandria on the evening Mubarak resigned.

After the first wave of revolution was successful on the national level, they decided to take the revolution to their village, and since then I have received a continuous stream of news about their actions. Yesterday as I arrived in my friends’ house I found the outside walls covered with anti-Mubarak slogans, and the guest room turned into a meeting point for the village revolutionaries. On a table are notes for announcements and demands, and a computer connected to the internet. A group of men of different ages gathers here, discussing and planning. S’s wife (who was also out on the streets in Alexandria with her children in one of the demonstrations against Mubarak) serves them tea, and the children play in the living room, occasionally shouting slogans against the system

I arrived here last night and sat in the guest room until the early morning hours, exchanging news and experiences with the men, some of them old friends of mine, some of them new faces. They are very proud of their action in the village (although many of the cleaned up alleys are already getting dirty again, since many people in the village have not changed their ways). They are especially proud because they were the first to start such a campaign in the area, and their example has been now followed by the surrounding villages and also the nearby town. There it was lead by the same mayor whom the villagers confronted with a sit-in on 23 February. After the fierce resistance he faced, he has clearly decided to ride the wave of the revolution. In the village, the next step of the cleanup campaign is due tomorrow on Tuesday, with a cleanup of the graveyard. I will participate in that. After that the future of the campaign is open because it has been to a significant extent carried by pupils and students who will be going back to school or university this week.

After the cleanup campaign and the sit-in, and a period of insults and accusations by supporters of the old system last week, the next major revolutionary event in the village has been a series of demonstrations in schools. It started on 2 March in the boys prep school in protest against a new director. The old headmaster moved to another school, and a senior teacher who had been directing the school before and who was quite liked by the teachers and pupils had filed a lawsuit to get his position back. Meanwhile the headmaster of a school outside the village had purchased a fake doctor’s attest that for health reasons he should work near his home, and got the director’s post, against the rules because such a transfer is not allowed there is a lawsuit filed about the position. Supported by the teachers, the pupils held a demonstration on in the schoolyard. The next day, the teacher came with relatives of his to take his position by force, but was sent back, and now the issue has been transferred to the village council and will be transferred to the ministry of education. In the meantime, the director’s post remains vacant. In the secondary school, too, there was a demonstration to get back money the pupils had to pay to the school, but not quite as successful.

One of the leading figures in the group of village revolutionaries is Hajj F, a senior school teacher around fifty. F. tells that some people have called them the 23 February Youth because of their sit-in in the town on 23 February. I ask him: Well, Hajj, how do you feel about being part of the youth? He finds it a great joke and a compliment. There is, indeed, quite some irony to the title of “youth revolution,” because the movement really combines people of different ages. And having people of different ages is crucial. While young men’s willingness to take risks was crucial in the early days, and their energy continues to carry the movement, for other tasks old men are needed. Hajj F’s task is to spread the message to the mosques so that they can use their loudspeakers to inform people about tomorrow’s next clean-up campaign. It takes a senior teacher’s authority to do that in face of potential opposition and stupid questions.

Today, a group of people from the activist group met with the village mayor. Unlike the mayor of the nearby city who had arrogantly turned them down, the village mayor (like all mayors appointed, not elected) took them seriously, and I’m told that they had a very productive meeting. Here is a list of the issues they addressed, paraphrased from the handwritten notes they shared with me:
1.:The quality and distribution of state-subsidised bread. In this issue, which has long been suffering from corrupt networks of National Democratic Party members, a major success has already been booked and a new distribution system has been introduced. The issue of quality still needs to be solved.
2: Cleanliness of the alleys: The activist group offers their participation but also requests a concrete plan from the village administration.
3: Electricity, demanding an end to the diversion of electricity of the village network power, a more predictable system of billing, and information about the causes of power cuts.
4: Drinking water, demanding more frequent cleaning of the water filters and better supervision.
5. The graveyard, requesting that a wall should be built around the graveyard to separate it from the houses adjacent to it.
6. The youth centre, asking the people who run it to be replaced, or else abolishing it altogether because the way it is currently run is useless to the youth.
7. Designating an area to be used as a bus station.

The excitement and determination of the young men working to take the revolution to their villages stands in an impressive contrast to the boredom and nihilism they expressed to me in earlier times. More than three years ago I was here to do fieldwork on boredom, and almost everybody I talked to complained about there being nothing, just waiting. At least for a moment and for some of the young men, things have quite changed, there is a sense that things are meaningful, and there is more to be done than just waiting. But there is still a lot of empty time, as meetings take time to hold when people arrive late from errands. For the empty time, the computer lent by A. (he worked for two years in one of the richt Arab Gulf states, and the money he earned was just enough to buy him a laptop and a phone) is equipped with a good selection of computer games. “Because this is the youth revolution”, comments one of the young men.

The situation in the village is in many ways different from that of the cities. Also here people express pride and happiness about the peaceful revolution in their country. There anxiety about safety and crime that I encountered in Cairo is absent here. The retreat of the police on 28 January didn’t affect the countryside where there is very little police presence anyway, and people have always taken care of their own security here. Therefore the villagers have had no reason to worry about crime and looting. There have been cases though of people taking over empty shops hoping that it will take a while before they can be sued by the lawful tenants or owners. But the situation in Libya is hitting the people hard economically, as the income of the people in the village is heavily dependent on labour migrants abroad. Many migrants are returning from Libya these days, and others are stuck in Libya in a very difficult situation. The brother-in-law of a friend of mine just came back from Libya the same night I arrived from Cairo, evacuated via Tunisia on a military transport plane. He and colleagues of him escaped from Tripolis with the help of their employer, but on the border troops loyal to Gaddafi took all their money and bags, and they found themselves empty-handed in Tunisia, but happy to be alive.

With the economical situation staying difficult, and likely to remain so, young men are more pressed than ever to think about migration, but the problem is, where to go? Now that the chain of revolutions has begun, who knows which country will be next? But while economical uncertainty prevails and puts pressure on people, a strong the sense of possibility also prevails, and the revolutionary “youth” (as said, this “youth” actually includes people in their fifties) is most importantly marked by the sense that they are finally doing something meaningful. The demands they make to improve their local politics are pragmatic and simple: They concern the distribution and quality of bread, garbage collection, drinking water, public transportation, and so on. But the sensibility of life is quite different from what I know from the past. Three and a half years ago I was here to do research about boredom and frustration, and the image I gathered was that of a nihilistic sense of “it’s all wrecked, there is no point in any of it.” Religion provided some sense of meaningful action, but also with limitations. for some, creative production and the flight of fantasy offered another path, but usually also marked by the frustration of knowing how much more limited one’s actual possibilities were. A sense of deep, existential boredom prevailed. At the moment, there is no boredom. For the young men gathering in the guest room and organising cleanup campaigns, this is a moment when things make a little bit more sense, and many young men whom I have seen wasting their talent in a state of waiting, are now able to make themselves useful, at least for a moment. Life has quite a different feeling when sitting in the cafĂ© is not about killing time but about thinking how to organise the next cleanup campaign and discussing the differences of a presidial and parliamentary government while knowing that this is not a theoretical question but a practical one.

More tomorrow...

Greetings from the revolutionary countryside!


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