Wednesday 9 March 2011

What is to be done?

We are living tense days in Egypt. As Egypt slowly moves from the state of revolution to that of a transitional period, things are in movement. Some of this movement is positive, and some of it is dangerous. In the village where I am staying these days, people are therefore busy asking themselves: What is to be done?

Since yesterday, a north wind from the sea, known here as nawwa, has brought cold weather, wind and rain to the village, and today most people stay home under the blankets if they can. But yesterday afternoon the weather was still sunny and not too cold, quite perfect for the announced cleanup campaign at the village cemetery. Two weeks ago there had been a wide-scale cleanup campaign where the activist group manage to win over lots of people, including the mayor and the head of the village council. But after a campaign of insults they faced from supporters of the old system, the activists were a little cautious, and not quite so enthusiastic. In result, little advertisement was made for this new round of the cleanup campaign. In the afternoon, perhaps twenty to thirty adults showed up, followed by a large group of children. Except for one woman from the neighbourhood, the adults participating were male crowd, and most of them belonged to the activist group. A truck of the communal cleaning service from the neighbouring town had been organised, and in the course of the day, it filled with garbage, sticks, and weed collected in the graveyard.

The graveyard turned to be a lot more difficult to clean than the streets, being full of weed and loose bricks. The cleanup proceeded slowly, and by sunset about one third of the graveyard was cleaned up. The activists were a little disappointed about the relative low turnout (although it was still more than the cleanup campaign in the neighbouring village was able gather), but decided to use this campaign to make advertisement for a next round on Friday, calling people to join to finish cleaning up the graveyard after the noon prayer. S. had borrowed a video camera and filmed the cleanup, and today we sat most of noon and afternoon together editing it to be screened on the local cable channel network to invite people to a public meeting with the village council on Thursday and to the next round of the cleanup on Friday.

The people who organise the cleanup understand it the first place as a way to create consciousness and to mobilise people to care about local affairs. In this village things don’t look too bad, there being a big enough activist base, enough popular sympathy, and a cooperative mayor. In the neighbouring village where I paid a short visit yesterday, things have been more difficult. I met two young men who had organised a cleanup campaign there, but only very few people had shown up, and described most of the youth in their village as being in a state of apathy. The real success of the campaign in the village I am staying in will be seen tomorrow at the public meeting with the village council and a number of people from the local administration. Everybody is invited to come with their issues and complaints, and just an hour ago a group of female secondary school pupils knocked on the door to ask whether girls can participate. The answer was yes, everybody is welcome to discuss their complaints. (This is not obvious in the village where it is very unusual for women to play a direct role in public affairs.) But we shall see whether the people from the administration will really show up tomorrow.

Tomorrow will thus be a day to discuss what is to be done regarding the administration, the bread distribution and the public utilities of the village. But in the meantime, people also look for solutions to other pressing concerns, some of them personal, others national.

One big issue is the referendum about constitutional amendments announced to take place on 19 March. In the past two days it has been a repeated issue of discussions. My revolutionary friends largely oppose the amendments and would rather like to see a completely new constitution. Others are busy getting informed. S’s mother-in-law who is illiterate but has become highly interested in politics in the course of the revolution, inquires us at length about what the amendments exactly mean, and what exactly a “yes” and a “no” vote implies.

Yesterday afternoon, I met H, a lawyer living in the village and working in the nearby town. Since a couple of years, he is member of a locally based human rights organisation that had managed to build a relationship of dialogue and trust with the regime. He argues that the success of the revolution has been vastly exaggerated. For one thing, he argues that nobody had prevented him from expressing his opinion before the revolution, since he knew how to communicate it the right way to avoid conflicts with the system. And he is not happy about what he describes as the sudden and chaotic course of the events. Unlike many others whom I know who blame the security apparatus for the chaos, he puts the blame on the majority of Egyptians themselves, and criticises their ongoing hostility towards the police apparatus. In his view, the police has committed mistakes, but it is being blamed for more than is its responsibility, because “as the immediate face of the government, the police has been made responsible for its own errors and the errors of others.”

I ask him what he as a lawyer thinks about the constitution. He is opposed to it, and will vote against it in the upcoming referendum - a point of view, by the way, shared by many of the people I know. He thinks that the entire way in which the military tries to push a quick transition is questionable. He speaks especially from the lawyer’s and judge’s point of view, demanding reliable constitutional conditions rather than an amendment coupled with the condition that next year a new constitution will be drafted. Why not draft it right away, he asks. He finds it very questionable to make few amendments to a constitution that in any case has been de fact abolished. Instead, he argues for a proper constitutional board that wouldn’t need more than two months to present a proposal for a new constitution. He also criticises the speed with which election should be held, which in his view makes it more difficult to hold free and fair elections. Finally, he also has some suspicion about the current anti-corruption campaign because in his view it focusses only on a part of the old system. What about field marshal Tantawi? Isn’t he a man of the old system, too? Nobody talks about his money and wealth. I ask H what he sees as his task in the coming period. He answers: “to do my part to get the judiciary working again.” The court in the local town is working again since Monday, but so far the judges have only delayed cases, and don’t want to run any processes until they have police protection again, and that will take at least another ten days.

H. is an interesting critic of both the revolution and of the military rule, arguing mostly from the point of view of the rule of law. This is also linked with his personal experience. On the Friday of Anger 28 January he was in the local town calming down the demonstrators who wanted to burn the court after the police had withdrawn. Compare this to the experience of S. who on the same day saw people being killed by the police in Sidi Bishr. In his view, the current sense of unrest and insecurity is allowed to continue “in order to make the people forgive the police and to ask them to come back. But after what they did to us in Sidi Bishr I cannot forgive them.”

Everybody agrees that restoring law and order is a key priority at the moment. But what exactly should be done is a different question altogether, depending on people’s assessment of what causes the sense of unsafety. Those who see the unrest caused by irresponsible behaviour by people who allow their pre-existing conflicts escalate in the current atmosphere of anxiety, look forward to an organised return of the police force to calm down the situation. Those who see the unrest caused by forces of the counterrevolution, that is, the National Democratic Party and members of the State Security, spreading rumours and inciting unrest, think that the return of the police will not solve the problem as long as the counterrevolution remains active. Many also point out to me that worse than any actual unrest is the terror effected by rumours, and that the biggest problem is the fear that is inside the people. The revolution of 25 January did break an important barrier of fear for many, but the existential fear of the safety of one’s family is of a different kind, and has a strongly destabilizing effect when out of this fear people don’t go to work and don’t send their children to school.

The sense of unrest is serious at the moment. Since two days, there is a sit-in of Christians, supported by some Muslims, in protest to the burning of a church in a village south of Cairo due to a conflict that began with a love affair between a Christian man and a Muslim woman. Just as it looked like this problem was being solved after the army promised to build a new church, confessional clashes broke out in Muqattam in a neighbourhood inhabited, among others, by Christian garbage collectors. Thirteen or fourteen people were killed in clashes that lasted two days. The good news is that the peaceful sit-in in front of the television building have been successful in pressing and making public demands by the Christians in a way that can be constructive. The next round of demonstrations planned for next Friday were supposed to take place in support of the transitional government of Essam Sharaf, but their theme will no be national unity. In the village, news spread about gangster attacks and chaos in Alexandria, and also many people in the outskirts of Alexandria fear going to the city now. People in Alexandria with whom I spoke with the phone said that the situation was entirely normal and quiet except for few conflicts between families that seem to have incited the wave of rumours and fear. And indeed, the terror of rumours and fear is much worse than any of the actual trouble that happens. The biggest unrest is not in the streets but inside people and in their intimate relationships. There have been so many strong emotions in the past weeks that people have very short nerves now.

But the biggest concern here in the village right now is how to get through the year of difficult economical situation which people commonly expect. This afternoon I met D, a recently married man who has been doing various kinds of work. He has always been a man of pragmatic solutions. He expects that it will take a year for the situation to stabilise, and three years for the economy to improve, after four years he expects things to be better in the country. By then, he plans to start a business. Many young people now want to start businesses, especially after the news was released that for people over 30 there will be no government jobs anymore, but a scholarship to start a project and a temporary unemployment benefit. That’s much more to his mind than a government job anyway, and with his driver’s license he hopes to start a taxi or minibus business. But he doesn’t expect to be able to do it now, and in order to pass through the difficult times, he is going to work in Saudi Arabia. He already got a visa, and only waits for the last phone call, but things are slow at the moment. The labour agent only returned to Egypt a couple of days ago, and he didn’t get to work right away but first went to look at Tahrir Square. Many others are thinking about migrating at the moment, too. The expectation is widely shared: Things will get better in Egypt, but it will take a while, and to get over that while, one will have to work abroad.

D. stayed in the village throughout the revolution, although he did want to join at one point, he tells. He was emotionally so involved watching the news all day long that in the end he became sick and the doctor told him to turn off the television. After the attack on Tahrir Square on 2 February he wanted to join a group of people, mostly from the Muslim brothers, who wanted to join the demonstration in Cairo the following Friday (4 February). But when one villager who had been on Tahrir Square on the day of the attack returned home with his shoulder seriously injured by a bullet, D became too afraid to go. The group of people that did leave the village for Cairo to join the demonstrators were sent back by the army at the ring road. On that day, lots of people tried to come to Cairo to support the demonstrators but were sent back.

D’s story of almost participating in the revolution is shared by many who feared for themselves, felt responsible for their family, or were forbidden to go or told to come back by their parents. Many others did not even intend to go, but everybody remained glued to the television screen. Today, there is wide agreement (but no consensus) among the people that they have together accomplished something really special. For those who stayed mostly at home watching television, this sense of accomplishment is, of course, debatable to a certain extent. But S’s mother-in-law, for example, nevertheless insisted that she, too had lived through it as if she had been part of it, by the force of empathy. Since the beginning of the revolution she was glued to the television, watching the news until late at night and unable to stop. During the revolution a neighbour took advantage of the absence of the police and judiciary and took over her shop that was temporarily standing empty. For her, this became a way to relate to the much greater sacrifices others had to face:“I lost my shop, but others lost their children.” S. didn’t oppose her directly, but to me he added that he has a big problem hearing people claim the revolution as theirs when they spent it “at home wrapped in blankets” while others were risking their lives on the street. A shared friend of ours from Cairo has been out on the streets ever since 25 January, and has been participating in the sit-in in Tahrir until today, and on Facebook she is sharing angry comments about those who criticise the continuing sit-in. S. has a lot of sympathy for her anger and essentially shares her point of view.

In the course of this day and evening, more and more worrying news reach us from Tahrir square. Ever since the closure of the State Security Offices, there has been increasing fear of elements of the old regime systematically working to destabilize the situation, and Tahrir Square has been the central site of those attempts recently. Yesterday a demonstration by women’s rights activists voicing demands for full equality of women faced a very nasty reaction of attacks and derision, apparently quite organised and not just a spontaneous chauvinist reaction. Today morning there was an attack by thugs armed with sticks, knives and who threw stones and tried to drive away the sit-in, unsuccessfully. Considering that the final demand of the sit-in has been the complete abolition (and not just the suspension and reorganisation as announced) of the State Security, it is not difficult to guess what motivated the attack. But the problem is that meanwhile the sit-in had become small, and many people who participated in the demonstrations considered it better to give it a break and to see how the new government manages. This sentiment mixed with supporters of the old system claiming that the sit-in was the cause of all the unrest in the country has put those continuing the sit-in in a tricky position towards a public opinion split not just in supporters and opponents of the revolution, but also in different opinions about what is to be done to overcome the threat that continues to emanate from elements of the old system. And a big question mark has remained on the position of the Army - after all in itself a part of the old system - on all of this.

Tonight the army forcibly removed the sit-in from Tahrir Square. The Army has been trying to do away with the sit-in ever since 11 February, and this is in fact the third time the sit-in has been cleared. The most recent news is that the army has declared a curfew on Tahrir Square and the surrounding streets from 9 p.m. to 6 a.m. They seem serious about putting an end to the sit-in, and the thugs of this morning seemed to be if not in their service then at least a useful pretext. This time the attempt to clear the square seems more likely to be successful because the sit-in had become small and controversial. Justified as it has been, continuing the sit-in on Tahrir after last Friday with only a small amount of people and without a strong backing may have been unwise because it has turned the sit-in into a convenient target for the counterrevolution. The clearing of the square today is a victory to those who seemed to be thoroughly defeated last Friday when interim prime minister Essam Sharaf spoke to the celebrating demonstrators.

My friends in the village take it heavily: “The revolution has been thwarted.” But from the village, there is little one can do about Tahrir Square, and the effort here is now focussed on reforming the local administration. But in Cairo, people will be making up their mind tonight and tomorrow about what is to be done, and the next two days will tell, especially next Friday when the next demonstration in Tahrir Square is announced to take place.

Greetings from revolutionary Egypt!


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