Tuesday 11 October 2011

The Arab autumn?

I never liked the expression “the Arab Spring” because I know too well what happened to the Prague Spring in 1968. A short time of hope in a “socialism with a human face” was crushed by Soviet tanks, and it took more than twenty years before a new revolution could gather momentum.

2011, the year of revolutions and uprisings around the Arab world, has been marked not only by an amazing spirit of change, but also by fierce resistance by the ruling elites, and a fear of instability and chaos among large parts of the ordinary people. Some uprisings, most notably that in Bahrain, were crushed with brute force at an early stage. Others, in Yemen and Syria, continue with an uncertain future. Along with Tunisia, Egypt appeared to be one of the lucky Arab nations that were able to realise a relatively peaceful and quick revolution, a turning point towards a better future of justice, freedom, and democracy. This autumn, however, the situation in Egypt raises doubts about that better future.

Returning to a different country

I returned to Egypt on October 2nd, this time not with the aim to follow the events of the revolution but to begin a new ethnographic fieldwork on writing and creativity, pursuing questions about the relationship of fantasy and social change. I found Egypt in a very different state from what it had been when I left it behind in March. Returning here, I encountered an air of freedom, a sense of relaxation and ease, and a strong presence of creativity, discussion, and interest in politics. But I also encountered a fear of economic collapse and a continued sense of turmoil, with strikes (mostly successful) continuing all over the country, a political struggle among political parties to share the cake of elections beforehand through alliances and deals, confrontation between competing sections within the Islamist spectrum (which has much more presence and popular support than the liberal and leftist camp), an increased visibility and activity of what in post-revolutionary jargon are called the fulul, or “leftovers” (literally, the dispersed units of a defeated army) of Mubarak’s National Democratic Party that was dissolved last spring, renewed confessional tensions, and last but not least a military rule tightening its grip over the country.

My revolutionary friends are without exception extremely frustrated about the situation. Some see the revolution in grave danger, others say that it has already failed, that it fact failed on 11 February when the military took over from the Mubarak family. In different variations, they argue that the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) has proven itself as a faithful follower of Mubarak, intent on taking over power through the manipulation of the upcoming elections, if necessary by the way of spreading chaos and terror. Also the Islamists in their different colourings, who until the summer were very supportive of the military rule (hoping to strike a good power share deal), have turned critical of the SCAF, beginning to realise that the army is deceiving them just like Gamal Abdel Nasser did back in 1954 when after a period of cooptation, the Muslim Brotherhood was prohibited and brutally suppressed. But a lot of people (probably the majority) are still trustful in the army, believing what state television says and what public sector newspapers write. And most Egyptians are first of all busy with the economic situation, which is very difficult.

It was in this mixed atmosphere of an air of freedom and a sense of frustration and anxiety about the way things are evolving that I arrived in Alexandria three days ago, after spending a week in Cairo. Alexandria is one of the power bases of Salafis and the Muslim Brotherhood, and their posters and banners are visible all over the city, but not to the exclusion of others: posters of liberal or leftist parties, banners of new parties by the fulul, graffitis by the radical opposition and politicised football ultras.

The massacre at Maspiro

On Sunday 9 October, large-scale Christian demonstrations were organised in several cities around the country in protest against the burning of a church and Christian appartments in Idfu (in the south of Egypt) more than a week earler, and the very inappropriate reaction of the authorities. The governor of Aswan, rather than trying to solve the crisis, had declared that the church had been built without a licence anyway. A sit-in of Christian protesters in front of the state television headquarters at Maspiro (overlooking the Nile in Central Cairo) had been forcibly dispersed and many people had been injured. On 9 October, a large number of Christians, feeling to be under increasing pressure since quite a while, went out to streets in large numbers, and rather than just occupying one place, they took out in protest marches through the cities.

On the afternoon of that day, I was returning from downtown Alexandria to Mandara in the east of the city on a minibus when we entered a big traffic jam on the seafront Corniche road. The minibus driver diverted to the side streets, and after a while we saw that on the Corniche there was a large (a few thousands) march of Christians with lots of crosses visible from afar. Turning left and right on the narrow side streets, the driver managed to get us just ahead of the march, and stopped shortly to pick up passengers, calling them to hurry: “Get in, get in, let’s move before we get beaten up!” He didn’t specify who he expected to get beaten by - in any case, he sensed danger. In Alexandria, the march headed for the Northern Regional Military Headquarters, the standard destination of demonstration marches in Alexandria ever since the army seized power on 11 February (unlike in Cairo where demonstrations are usually stationary at Tahrir Square, in Alexandria they usually march through the city).

At the same time, a similar march was heading to Maspiro in Cairo. The events that followed and the terrible death toll are known, and there is nothing I can add to the many eyewitness reports from Cairo that tell about stones being thrown at the march on its way, the army attacking the protesters at Maspiro with live ammunition, armoured troop carriers crushing people, cars being set in fire, and riots evolving. The bits of pieces from eyewitness reports I get from Cairo tell of a chaotic situation evolving around the centre of the city, with various groups of Muslim citizens, some of them groups of (apparently hired) thugs, others people incited by the state media, going out to the streets, trying to break into Christian shops and institutions, threatening people, stealing things. Things were not everywhere simply a matter of Muslims and Christians, however. In Faggala, one witness reports on Facebook, the standoff was between poor youths and thugs on the one side, intent on looting Christian property, and Muslim inhabitants of the area who were not at all happy about the idea of stealing in the name of Islam.

In Alexandria, the night was tense, fights were reported in some parts of the city, and the protesters at the Northern Regional Headquarters were attacked by civilians, described as inhabitants of the district by news media. But to my knowledge no shots were fired in Alexandria, and nobody got killed.

More terrible than the veritable massacre committed by the army at Maspiro was its coverage by Egyptian state media that - this has become very clear in the past two days - openly called “the noble people of Egypt” to come to help the Army against Christians, reported that the protesters killed three Egyptian soldiers (to date it remains unclear whether any soldiers were killed at all), showed clearly dubbed interviews with injured soldiers. We don’t know what they really said, but the dubbed voices told of Christians seizing the weapons of the army, attacking people, stealing their money, beating soldiers to death. Also in the following days, after footage and eyewitness accounts have proven that the official version was not only skewed, but completely false, the state media and a big part of the independent media have continued to spread the version of 23 dead “from both sides,” giving the impression of an equal confrontation. Today, state-owned newspapers have began to distribute new versions of the story, one according to which the protesters stole the armed troop carriers, and another according to which protesters set a troop carrier in fire and killed a large number of soldiers inside it. At the same time, there is no official confirmation of any deaths from the ranks of the army and the police. After the direct incitement by state television in the first hours, the official tone has shifted to expressing compassion with “our Christian brothers” and commemorating “the martyrs from among the army and police.” There is a huge cover-up going on.

A lot of people continue to trust the state media, and especially when the issue becomes mixed with confessional sentiments, it becomes very compelling to believe that version of the story. D., a man from the countryside and very critical of the system since years, told me that he heard the news about the massacre at Maspiro in a cafe in Birimbal. In village cafes, people usually watch Egyptian Channel One which they still trust over other news media He tells that based on the coverage of Channel One, he really believed its account of the events, and thought that if protesters get armed and attack the army, then nobody else than the military can control the situation and that they need to be given the power to do so. Only when he got home an hour later and opened the Internet did he find out that it was the army that shot at the protesters and drove over them with armoured vehicles. No wonder then if others, who are less determined supporters of the revolution and less critical of the army and the military rule, believed - and still believe - what state television said.

Many - if not most - Muslims in Egypt do not have a sense that Christians would be in any way disadvantaged. They claim that there is national unity in Egypt, that Muslims and Christians are united and equal - a powerful fiction that makes it easy to overlook the really existing forms of discrimination. This is the ground from which the claims by state media about armed Christian protesters attacking the Egyptian army could gain their credibility: a sense that the Christians are demanding more than is their fair share anyway, now turned into a terrible union of patriotic militarism with sectarian distrust of the religious other. In the social media, this sensibility is expressed without the veil of national unity and sorrow in the official state media, with comments that range from anger to open aggression towards Christians. For those who never liked Christians anyway but had no good reason for this sentiment, the official story of Christian protesters arming themselves and attacking the Egyptian army offers a legitimate reason to hate.

Sectarian tension has a decades-long history in Egypt, and while it is evident that the army and state television did their best to incite confessional tensions, they were only able to do so because they really are widely shared by Egyptians. While Christians are at the losing end of these tensions due to their smaller number and their lack of presence in key nods of the military-media complex, it does not mean that they would be innocent of sectarian intolerance. There has been a strong turn to religion as the basis of identity and good life among Muslims and Christians alike, and part of this has been an increasing degree of closure towards the religious other. If Egypt were a 90% Christian country, we might have seen Muslim protesters massacred at Maspiro on Sunday.

The success of the media cover-up is far from total, however. It may have been aimed at tightening the army’s control over the country, but rather than creating a unified public opinion, it has deepened existing political splits. A lot of people don’t buy the army’s version of the story, and even many who are sympathetic of the army say that they don’t know what to believe.

One of the paradoxes of the Massacre at Maspiro is that it targeted people who otherwise would have been very likely to be supportive of a military rule that guarantees continuity and stability. Under Mubarak, many Christians would see in the ruling system a protector of Christians against the Islamists, even if they suffered from it as much if not more than everybody else. Last Sunday turned a big part of Christian Egyptians from hesitant supporters of the system into angry opponents of military rule.

Also among Egyptians of Muslim faith, many are putting the blame on the army, the more so after huge numbers of eyewitness accounts and horrible photographs and videos on the Internet and on some television stations have shown the extent of the violence by the army and the outright lying of the state media. The euphoric sense that “the army and the people are one hand” has been shifting more and more towards a distrust in the army’s ability (and good will) to run the country properly. Add the fact that there is not only a lot of sectarian tension in Egypt, but also quite some opposition to it by people who resist the momentum of sectarian closure. Who wants to be informed in Egypt, can be. Those who didn’t trust the military anyway, see in the events at Maspiro is a terrible proof of how much the SCAF, aided by the fulul, is intent to resorting to the tactics of chaos and terror that the Mubarak regime tried in the first days of the revolution last January.

D. sees that there is a plan that is being executed step by step. Not a clever one, and not well implemented, but a plan. The attack at the Israeli embassy in Cairo was one step, a way to exploit nationalist sentiment while inciting fear of unrest. The massacre at Maspiro was another step. The elections will be the next one, and D. expects that they will turn very violent and will be cancelled after the first round. The army intentionally lets the situation deteriorate, to let chaos prevail, the economy collapse, and the worse things get, the more people are willing to accept military rule as a guarantee of stability and security. In 2013 or 2014, D. predicts, an army candidate, most likely chief of staff Samy ‘Annan, will run for presidency, and even if the elections were fully free and fair (which they will not be), he will win.

My friend S. from Alexandria, since long frustrated about the current state of affairs since has strangely enough found new optimism in this moment. He thinks that what the country is going through now may be the birth labours of a better future. He (a Muslim by the way) is teacher at a school that has a large portion of Christian pupils and teachers, and confessional tensions have been very tangible there since long. Today, he gave the daily school opening speech. He started with telling that he saw Hosni Mubarak in a dream, the former president telling him that from his point of view, everything is going exactly as he wants. Calling the teachers and pupils to fight the Mubarak that continues to live inside them, S. concluded with an appeal to humanity and the need of people to recognise each others as humans. The speech moved people to tears, Muslims and Christians, and S. says that it made him feel a lot more optimistic.

A., calling me on the phone from the Emirates where he is working as a migrant labourer, tries to take it with humour: “The solution is that the Muslims burn the churches and Christians burn the mosques and everybody prays at home.”

Revolution as continuity

In Egypt this autumn, what in the way of a bad omen was called the Arab Spring is being crushed under the wheels of a military-media complex intent on employing sectarianism and the fear of chaos to consolidate their hold of the country. There are plenty of reasons for pessimism. Is there reason for optimism?

A few people whom I have met these days express a sense of optimism that they cannot quite explain. There is a sense that something has changed, that there is no return to the past, a sense that the events that we see these days, no matter how terrible they are, may actually be signs of the revolution’s success. Even if it may be a mistaken optimism - revolutions are very unpredictable and dangerous events, and they can go awfully wrong (think of the Russian revolution of 1917) - it is something to take seriously.

Part of this optimism is related to the sense of freedom, the wave of creativity, discussion and communication that goes on in the society. It is related to social dynamics released by the revolutionary momentum that are likely to influence the formation of the coming generation even if the political aims of the revolution may fail. This is what I would like to call the progress theory of the Egyptian revolution, a vision of the revolution creating something new, something that wasn’t there before. It has a grain of truth, but I think that by emphasising the novelty of the January 25 Revolution, it overlooks the history of revolutions in Egypt. To conclude this essay, I try to think about 2011 from the point of view of what I call the continuity theory of the Egyptian revolution. Rather than something completely unprecedented, the January 25 Revolution can also be seen as a return to a historical normality - and it’s a hard landing.

Until this year, Egypt as I knew it was that of the late Mubarak era, one of the most depoliticised times in Egypt’s contemporary history. I first arrived in Egypt in the late 1990's, a time when the de facto civil war between the regime and the Gama‘at al-Islamiya in southern Egypt was ending with a bloody defeat of the Islamist militants. From the 1990's until 2010 was a time when everybody in Egypt, including the Islamists, were compelled to yikabbar, to mind their own business and not get involved. In retrospect, however, the Mubarak era that was Egypt as I knew it, appears as an exceptional one, an interruption in a long history of revolutions and uprisings in Egypt since the 19th century.

The Egyptian book market has been flooded by a wave of books about the revolution, most of them of mediocre value at best. But there are pearls among them, and one of them is Muhammad Hafiz Diyab’s Uprisings or Revolutions in the History of Modern Egypt (Intifadat am thawrat fi tarikh Misr al-hadith, Cairo: Dar al-Shorouk, 2011). Diyab presents a history of popular uprisings, student and strike movements, riots, and full-fledged revolutions that begins in the 19th century and continues throughout the 20th century, with the 1919 revolution against British colonial rule, student protests in 1935, student and labour protests in 1946, the military coup of 1952 and the following revolutionary rearrangement of political and economic power, demonstrations in the late 1960's and early 1970's, and the so-called “bread riots” of January 1977, a wide-scale protest movement involving workers, students, and political activists of different colourings against Anwar al-Sadat’s policies of economic liberalisation. These different uprisings share a number of important features: a key role played by young people (especially students, and since the 1940's industrial workers), significant participation across political and party lines, large-scale demonstrations often focussed on Tahrir Square (formerly Isma’iliya Square) in Cairo, a visible role played by women, and an at best moderate degree of success of the protesters in realising their demands.

The fantastic moment of standing in Tahrir square in January and February 2011 was a moment that went beyond the wildest dreams of those who participated in that moment, a moment of utopia turned into material reality. For those who were there it has gained a quality that comes close to that of a religious belief. That fantastic quality has created two blind spots about the relationship of the revolution with the ordinary world. The first blind spot is a practical one. The reality of social and political change is a lot more difficult, a lot less pure and grand, and comparing it with the fantastic moment of revolution can create a sense of powerless that makes it difficult to make a realistic assessment of what is to be done next. The second blind spot is a temporal one. The fantastic moment of revolution carries an experienced singularity of a once-in-a-lifetime moment that because of its singularity exceeds the imaginable. The January 25 Revolution was not a singular event, however. It stands in a tradition, and without repeating history, it builds on its predecessors and paves the ground for struggles to come, struggles that are now becoming evident.

This, I think, is the source of the inexplicable optimism in these difficult days of what, in Egypt at least, looks like the beginning of an Arab autumn, a period of authoritarian restoration and violent confrontations. January 25th 2011 was not the opening of a new era in Egypt. It was the return to the historical normality of a nation in revolt, the continuation of a state of uprising that began in 1919, or perhaps already in 1881, and that is bound to continue.