Tuesday 29 November 2011

Jakob Lindfors writing: Continuous Elections – Until Victory!

The following note about the first day of parliamentary elections in Egypt was written by Jakob Lindfors who was friendly enough to allow me to publish it on this blog. This is the link to the original:


The first day of the loooong Egyptian Parliamentary vote has ended. And this long vote is only the beginning of an even longer Continuous Election season that would, according to the plan laid down by the (Transitional?) Military Council, take us through, after the Parliamentary vote (over 1 month), elections for the Shoura Council (another month), then Constitutional Referendum (again!), and eventually Presidential Elections (promised by the Militaries to be finished by those magic six months (again!) from now…

My conclusion of this first day of Election season brings some bad news. But also much good news. In fact, at the end of the day, Good seems be taking a democratic lead.

Let’s start with a piece of good:

The general voting atmosphere is positive. In the first elections after the January 28th revolutionary burning of the headquarters of Hosny Mubarak’s civil organisation – The National Democratic Party, counterpart in supporting his version of Military rule– the behaviour of the different campaigning entities, parties and individuals, has been close to exemplary!!

Yes, there are reports on infringements on behalf of several campaigners. Unlawful campaigning tactics outside and inside polling stations, providing transport for people to the places as long as they vote “right”, buying votes, and fighting in some places with white weapons and cut bottles, etc. But this is nothing!

The general voting conditions are much improved in comparison to Mubarak days: now when the campaigning entities have entered a healthier field of true and relatively transparent competition, they have proved to be pretty well behaved.

This is a victory of the Revolutionary movement. Before, when there was no real competition, the level of violence in elections was horrendous. On the one hand against opposition, they were simply not accepted. But also between the corrupt criminal elements of the System itself: “maslaha” (partisan interest) vying for a piece of the cleptocracy cake.

(Of course, the above judgement decent behaviour might be premature, and I could be proven to be terribly wrong at any time! There is still more than a month to go, and many things can either go wrong by situation. Or go wrong by intentional sabotage…Ma3 3aleina)

Actually, something I take as good news too: it seems that in the present more democratic set-up, the elements that are most guilty of infringements of regulations are the parties that have most appetite to now cut new pieces of advantages in the New Parliamentary power play. And such partisan interests behaviour will be taken a lot less lightly by big numbers of voters who feel empowered to have the right of institutional, law-based, government.

Yes. To be governed by law and by credible and efficient institutions, this IS really an issue at this point. The story that started today is the beginning of a long election season. Sure. And the week that passed before it was a very long week. As it happened, still early in it and it feels like ages ago, (on Sunday as it was, less than 24 hours into the bloody battle against the Ministry of Interior, just hours before the ferocious combined Interior Ministry forces and the Military attack on Tahrir happened, which ended in big numbers of people getting killed, injured and other arrested and subsequently abused) I had to make a trip to the deeper neighbourhoods of the Pyramids area, al-Talbiya district. I went with companion Shaker to check up on some places we had previously contacted to set up the Community Theatre Play called “Going to the Neighbours House”, which talks about the situation of Refugees from several African countries and from Iraq who live in Cairo.

During our trip in the neighbourhood of al-Talbiya – an extremely dense informal area of unpaved streets, high-rise housing built breaking all terms of urban regulations, and extreme high-piched everyday human interactions – at one point we took a run-down microbus to get out to Pyramids street (asphalted of course: after all it carries international tourists towards the Heritage site of the famous Giza Pyramids). We jumped into the microbus and found three other persons sitting in the front coach. They were all men, looking around 40 or 50 years old, but they might as likely have been just around 30. As it turned out, these men belonged to the society of the extreme poor in Egypt. They were recent immigrants from the Upper Egyptian town of al-Minya. Day-workers, which means people who sit out in the street each morning, waiting for any “patron” to come and pick them up to do a day of labour (most commonly in construction). And concerning the age that appeared reasonable from looking at their faces, I have since long given up trying make a clear guess: 45 or 30 … Real poverty carves life experience into the faces of who carries it far too quickly.

In the bus, Shaker asks me what is going on Down Town (we had coincidentally been together with other companions of that same Refugee play at the by-now-famous-Mohammed Mahmoud-street the afternoon before, Saturday 19th, as we were supposed to have a rehearsal for it in the American University campus, at the very moment (early afternoon) when all hell broke loose there, and we spent the rest of the afternoon and evening in the area doing anything else but constructive theatre work). I answered that the “all hell” continued. At this point, one of the day-worker passengers turned and looked at us. “Really” he says “the fighting goes on?” I answered positively to the question, but tried to do it in a diplomatic way, not showing any particular attachment to the event in one way or the other, being conscious of the possibly “foreign” looking aspect of my face and dialect, and more conscious even, of being close to “camel” neighbourhood (yeah – this was my prejudice!)

The man turned back to his friends, and was silent for a while. Then he turned back to me and he said: “Well, but don’t you think it is our right to fight them?” Again I was non-committal in my answer. But the man was fully committed in his solidarity with the boys fighting the Police. Then my companion Shaker asked “But then why are you not there fighting with them?” They answered they would have liked to, but how, since they spend some 14 hours out working each day just looking to take care of their families.

Shaker then asks about the elections, will they go back to al-Minya to vote? The same man answers “No. Why would I go to vote? The people who present themselves to elections only do it to advance their own interests (maslaha) – I vote for this guy, and all he’ll do when he wins is to put the son of his cousin in this position, and some uncle in another… No, I don’t care for that. What I want is a government that rules by law and gives to each citizen his rights. When I feel this is what I vote for, I will vote”.

And between himself and his friends, and us, we broke into a conversation about social justice, workers rights, a social insurance system that protects families from individual accidents of providers, etc… Until we reached the paved Pyramid Street and all of us went different directions.

And this type of consciousness of what the issues are really about will not only be found among these three men in the Talbiya microbus. It is a lot more widespread than that.

Then, what is Bad News?

Well, the whole day has been bad news somehow. The absurd theatre play of the Institutions of “Security” – the Military and the Police of the Ministry of Interior – guaranteeing peaceful and orderly elections, only days after the same two institutions were responsible for the murder of over 40 young men, most under 20 years of age. It is totally absurd! It is over 40 people! It must be an issue. And the deepest absurdity and the deepest feeling of sadness arise when the whole country somehow accepts to play in this charade. What more striking image of total corruption? Not only institutional corruption, we know that one, and expect it. But the corruption of society itself…

This was a sad feeling today.

But then again, I really doubt that this “social” corruption IS that deep any more. I have felt in so many encounters lately that the past ten months of upheaval is really challenging people to question the past political experience. If people in February were only talking about 30 years of injustice, and people who tried to give another discourse were silenced, now it is a wholly new field. After a period when people were very tired of the “instability of revolution”, they are now also realising that it is a question of being ruled by an entity that does not have nor the qualification nor the legitimacy of ruling a nation. Someone – not at all a Tahrir revolutionary, but a common 14 hour/day working family father – explained to me recently, actually as recent as during the last days of intense fire in front of the Ministry of Interior: “I want the military. Sure, I want them: on our borders. I am happy if they protect us there. But if some of them are going to come also to the capital and tell us how we are going to run the country, well, then let them leave their uniforms and weapons there on the border. And they come and discuss with us here in the city, them like us, no difference. It’s been 60 years now. Naser, then Sadat, and Mubarak. Does this al-Mushir (Field Marshal (Tantawi)) want to try it too? No way.”

A companion of mine, Diana, who teaches at the University of Minya – as she frames it, after all a second rate public university combining youth from all Egypt, from Alexandria to Aswan, all from middle class or lower class backgrounds and representative of a “silent majority” – feels very clearly how the consciousness among students has changed from November a year ago until today.

And finally, in Port Saiid last night, on the eve of elections, friends I have, all over 60 years old and common people, workers in the declining harbour business of the city, were spreading the word of a “blank vote” alternative, wanting to dis-own all participating political forces, Islamic, Old-guard, or “Liberal”… Their intention to just give a revolutionary statement that nothing of what is presented in the political theatre at this point responds to their true aspirations and intentions.

People today however went to vote. And in the greater picture I think they had good reasons to. First of all, many were hoping to bring peace to the country, feeling understandably tired and fed up with the deaths of young people. Many hoped to participate for the first time, in any election at all (people in Egypt did simply NOT vote before). And many were hoping to give a vote that would count in an empowering way. Many were totally lost anyways, not having clear alternatives (here is also a failure of “new” political forces). Many have stated that they would give their votes to the Muslim Brotherhood, just because they seemed to be the only force they could recognize, more so than necessarily for a true ideological commitment to the group. And the Muslim Brotherhood – partisan interest (maslaha) apart – have to be given a big credit for the basic organisational and mobilising work they actually manage: it is a path for any serious political movement to follow (in the essential sense, discarding only the old-style election dodging ways of old-System players that they are also guilty of…) Many voters were even that lost that they were on the streets looking for their balloting place just out of worry about the 500 LE fine the Military Government has threatened to impose on anyone who does not vote (great Stalinist democratic election standards).

But now, let’s get back to some really good news again. The real “infringements” on elections. It seems these were caused by pure incompetence of the present authorities. The elections, Field Marshal Tantawi had promised, would be ensured by SCAF and the Ministry of Interior. Good. Through the day no major eruption of violence happened. But as I claim above, it is not really due to the institutional backup of military and police, but to the contrary: that the competition is done between more independent, more accountable and therefore more responsible political forces now.

The only really serious election problems today have been caused by purely institutional failure. The incompetence of these mentioned institutions to guarantee the very infrastructure of the vote is what has produced all major instances of disturbances. Some polling stations did not open in 7 hours because of one or another missing ingredient (no boxes; boxes without a lock on it; not enough ballots; unstamped ballots; no ink that voters should dip their fingers in; no presence or late arrival of supervising judges, etc.) This type of failures has led to real public order problems: angry voters invading polling stations, some cases of supervising judges being kidnapped (!).

This chaos is likely to continue. This will be contrary to the hoped for gaining of good-will of the military government. Framed in a PR stunt as the elections for “Revolution Parliament” and being elections people really had hopes in, actually it might very well happen that they contribute to an even deeper popular resentment of the situation, when people experience the continued institutional management failure of the SCAF government. This would further undermine the crumbling popular and always officially manipulated idea that “the Military is the only capable institution of the country”.

It can backfire in a situation where more and more people are realising that military training might not be the best qualification to sound state management skills.

And then, the results… Well, the Muslim Brotherhood will without doubt be the greater beneficiary of the parliamentary game. And for sure, there is no doubt that their capacity for institutional management is highly superior to the past and present military governed system. However, the only thing we can actually be sure of is that these elections will create yet another political force that has a say and a stake in the turmoil. But nothing more than that. The Brotherhood might, ideally, have capacity to really improve everyday life conditions of many citizens. But then, what practical capacity will they have when the actually ruling institution might not be supportive of such positive change, but could instead be countering it?

The struggle is unpredictable, and prone to constant change. The Revolutionaries do not change much. Nor the military. But the other forces will be swinging in and out of “Tahrir”. Depending on how well they present their cases, they will or will not be welcome to pass the checkpoints of the Square.

There will still be many developments to the ongoing Continuous Revolution – Until Victory.

Friday 25 November 2011

Longing for the smell of teargas

Today was a new day of mass protests against military rule in Egypt. While the attention of the media has focused on Tahrir Square, large protests have taken place in several cities around the country. Daniela and I travelled to Alexandria where protests have been going on in front of the regional military headquarters and the security directorate since Sunday. We arrived in the early afternoon to join the march that, as customary, was heading from al-Qa’id Ibrahim mosque to the Northern Regional Military Headquarters. The march was very large, and very different from the one dominated by Islamists one week earlier. It gathered a large following, somewhat more than last week’s march, and this time there were many more women among the protesters, and only few men sporting Salafi style beards. Also Alexandria has witnessed ongoing violence by the police force as well as civilian thugs against the protesters, mainly at the Security Directorate in Sumuha, and this violence has also contributed to discrediting the protests among a big part of the inhabitants of the city who are concerned about the destruction of property and fear chaos. It was therefore very important for the protesters to stage a large and peaceful march, and in this they were very successful. The protesters filled the streets in excellent mood, chanting against military rule, and the people we met were all happy about the large numbers and determined to continue the struggle, knowing that the Military Council is not giving in to the pressure easily (In fact, the instatement of Kamal al-Ganzouri, a veteran politician of the old system who already served as prime minister under Mubarak, is the opposite of any kind of concession towards the protests).

They have revived the spirit of action and optimism among many of those who had become increasingly frustrated, and thus passivised, in the past months. While the protests are not carried by the majority of Egyptians, their power and persistence is also a sign of a growing wider discontent with the military rule. Also those who are skeptical about the protests, are often equally skeptical about the military. As one friend put it, there is a growing consciousness that there is more that matters than the proverbial “wheel of production” that “must turn again” which opponents of protests often cite: “The people have learned not to take shit anymore.” The new uprising is also telling of a growing competence of people in organising spontaneous resistance. The field hospitals in Tahrir Square has offered probably some of the best free health care in the country for the last days, and The Military government is now acting under heavy pressure, and unlike the cabinet of Essam Sharaf which was hailed as a revolutionary cabinet when it was instated on March 8, the new cabinet of al-Ganzouri is facing wide-spread refusal from its first day. The protesters have grown extremely critical at attempts to coopt their movement (which is why party leaders are not permitted to give speeches). Most importantly perhaps, I often encounter a realistic assessment of the difficulty of the task that the protesters have taken, combined with a strong optimism born from out of the spontaneous power of the new protesters. These protests, many have told me, are only the general probe for the next uprising to come. Those involved in the revolution in the spring and this new wave of protests are learning political action by doing, and they are developing a greater degree of persistence. But while the supporters of ongoing revolution have become very good at occupying the squares and enforcing public attention, they still have to face the bigger task of turning this momentum into more permanent forms of social and political organisation.

The problem of social organization and outreach remains unsolved, but what is emerging are shapes of a formative generational experience among young participants in the protests. Also among those who have never participated in the protests, the revolution year has come up with a different experience and outlook of life, with people extremely politicized, not only speaking about freedom but also acting it out. It has also affected older people, and I have heard from some people that their parents’ way of relating to their children’s expectations of life has also changed. The experience has been especially dramatic for those have actively taken part in the protests in the last days that have been marked by a continuing violence that is comparable only to the days from 25 to 28 January.

Many of my friends in Alexandria have been participating in the protests at the Security Directorate in Sumuha where they have been teargassed, shot at with rubber bullets, and attacked by thugs in civilian clothes. Two people have died during the protests there. On Wednesday night, they were attacked with a very aggressive gas that had much more severe effects than ordinary teargas. This experience has created an enormous sense of determination among them, and they speak in very different tones than they would just a week earlier. “You don’t think about yourself and the danger in that moment,” one friend tells. In unison people say that after so many people have died across the country, they feel obliged to continue their struggle. And they enjoy it. They have grown fond of tear gas. R., a woman in her twenties, has been out in the street in Sumuha every night since Sunday and was injured by a rubber bullet. She says that when she returned home and her mother washed her clothes, she realized that she was missing the smell of the gas on her clothes. Tear gas is an extremely ineffective means to break up demonstrations. It makes people run away and immobilises them for a short moment, but it also makes them very angry, and in fact the continuing teargassing the protesters in the past days has given them a much greater degree of determination than they might have otherwise had.

Longing for the smell of tear gas is the olfactory embodiment of radical action and determination. It is an experience that may not influence the immediate course of Egypt’s politics because most of the people who share in it are young and still in the beginning of their personal, professional and political trajectories. But for better or worse, it is creating a class of people with a history of activism, many of them with high education and active cultural trajectories, who are rather different in their way of thinking about their role in the world from the apolitical generations that were socialized between 1980 and 1990. They are few but in their future careers they will be culturally and perhaps also politically influential. As such, they may well be compared with the 1968 generation in Europe and Northern America – also there a minority involved in radical political action and cultural critique gave their stamp to an entire generation. I say for better or worse, because while most among them while most will choose for constructive, peaceful, and effective paths, some may go for more destructive paths. There is a dangerous beauty and intensity to struggle.

The dangerous side of the struggle with the police in Sumuha is recognised by many protesters, and at the demonstration in front of the Northern Regional Headquarters, many were arguing that the protesters should withdraw from the Security directorate and focus on the Headquarters. They said that the ongoing confrontation was doing more damage than good, offering the government a handy pretext to accuse the protesters of being thugs and wreckers. But there were some who insisted that the confrontation must continue with the aim of occupying the Security Directorate, and after the demonstration at the Headquarters many protesters headed for Sumuha to join the sit-in there. We did not follow them, because the presence of foreigners might have been misused to further discredit the protesters. But I have been in contact with them on the phone, and new clashes have evolved, teargas has been shot at the protesters again, and thugs in civilian clothes have been attacking the protesters and destroying property. My sympathies are strongly with the protesters who are holding out in Sumuha tonight against the police and the thugs, but it is an ambiguous struggle.

This youtube video shows the protest march on its way to the Northern Regional Headquarters http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jEhCy4sscVQ

This youtube video shows the protesters gathered in front of the Northern Regional Headquarters: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=X02-nEJRAYU

P.S.: I developed many of the thoughts in this and previous notes in conversation with Daniela Swarowsky, to whom special credit is due.

Thursday 24 November 2011

Revolution as a way of life

Today afternoon, Daniela and I decided to enjoy some normality. There is plenty of it, life going on as normal in the rest of Cairo while protests continue in Tahrir Square. We walked through the districts of Sayyida Zaynab and Abdin, met on the way Sheikh N. who was recovering from a serious dose of tear gas in the middle of Tahrir when it was covered in teargas on Tuesday, which hospitalised him for two days. He is full of optimism about a new civilian government of national salvation that will take over from the military, and does not expect the elections to go through. But walking from Sayyida over Abdin to Bab al-Louq, not only did we find life entirely normal, but also the Muslim Brotherhood doing very active election campaigning. It looks like they are going to win this one. The ongoing protests add a complex layer to the events but are unlikely to change the likely election victory of the Brotherhood.

We walked down Tahrir street through the area that until yesterday was right behind the frontline of the protesters, but now calm ever since a successful truce was negotiated and enforced. Now the army stands in Muhammad Mahmoud Street, trying to enforce an impression of the army protecting the citizens and directing the blame to the police and the Ministry of Interior (which, of course, is acting under orders from the Military Council, but right now the military is busy trying to appear as a constructive and protective power). On Falaki Street that had been straight behind the lines of the protesters for several days, some shops were open again, and at a coffee roastery where we got a pack of fresh coffee, the people told that this was the first day when they were open in the evening, and that during the clashes with the police they had been open but had to close around 2 p.m. because of teargas. At the entrance of Falaki Street at Falaki Square, a committee of local residents were blocking the street and politely asking people to continue to the square but not to enter their street.

At Tahrir Square, the atmosphere has changed a lot since Monday when the mood was more one of anger and resistance, with chants against the military to be heard all over the place. Now it was more of a mixture of a youthful celebration with firecrackers on the side streets, and of countless political discussions about the elections and the shape of a civilian government with full powers that the protesters are demanding to replace the Military Council. There were also many discussions about who was to blame for the violence against the protesters. Those who had lived through it were arguing to new-comers that even if it was the police firing at the protesters, it was the Military Council that was to be held responsible.

The Military Council, after failing to suppress the protests with force, has resorted to a tactics of appeasing the protests, trying to show itself again as the protector of the people (it is amazing how many people still are willing to buy this story after all that has happened) and putting the blame on the police and the Ministry of Interior. It is likely that the Kamal al-Ganzuri who served as prime Minister under Mubarak but had to leave office become he was becoming too popular was will be named the new prime minister, and all in all the army is clearly intent at appeasing the protests without making any serious concessions. The numbers of protesters tomorrow, and the degree to which the protesters will be united or disunited about their opposition to the Military Council, may be decisive about whether the Military Council can go ahead as they are trying to or whether they will be compelled to further concessions. In any case, they seem absolutely determined to go ahead with the elections as planned, and they have the determined support of the Muslim Brotherhood which has every reason to expect an election victory. Almost all other political groups have turned to support the protests, most lately Egypt’s third most important Islamist group al-Gama‘a al-Islamiya. Tomorrow, there will be big protests, but the tactics of appeasement by the Military Council will have make them less sharp in anger, determination and unity than the demonstrations on Tuesday were.

My guess is that these protests will not change the course of the elections, nor will they have a major effect on their outcome. On the short term, they will force the Military Council to some concessions, but in all likelihood the elections will go through, an uneasy alliance of the Muslim Brothers and the army will be ruling the country. But on the longer term, these protests show that they are going to face ongoing and wide-scale resistance. A big part of Egyptians have grown used to a state of revolution, so much that after less than a year after 25 January it is hard to imagine Egypt without the condition of uproar and uprising. There are many who complain about chaos, but also many who rather enjoy the state of uprising; on the one hand they are angry and determined enough to risk their lives, on the other hand they have arranged themselves well enough with the state of uncertainty and uproar to give any future government of Egypt serious trouble. During the latest protests, popular districts have sent groups of youths to the square as a kind of competition in who are the bravest, a flourishing trade in snacks, food, cigarettes, and protective gear has developed around Tahrir Square, there is a makeshift bus station serving the protesters at the Egyptian Museum, and unlikely in January and February, the protests now rather neatly fit to the ongoing flow of life in the city. Revolution has become part of the way of life in this country. Egypt may not be on as smooth a path to democracy as Tunisia is, but it will also be rather resistant to any attempt to get things under control. It’s going to be a long one.

Greetings from Egypt in revolt!

Wednesday 23 November 2011

Subverting the Uprising

I'm just returning from Tahrir, where there were lots of people, but of course not as many as the last night (Tuesday was a major demonstration, while today was the continuation of the sit-in in expectation of a next big demonstration on Friday). We got a good dose of tear gas at the corner of Tahrir Street, two or three blocks away from the area where the fighting takes place. The police fired tear gas to the street, people were running away from it, and the first help station was rapidly filled by people unable to breath due to the effects of the gas. Otherwise, we spent a calm evening, meeting some friends, including a group of writer friends from Alexandria and Cairo who are camping in Tahrir ever since Saturday. The medical services are getting better organised. The entire event is better and better organised, including the medical services, food, blankets, and unlike in the past, speakers’ stages and party presences are strictly prohibited. The protesters have named a number of politicians whom they suggest as capable figures to lead a civilian presidial council to replace the Military Council - the key demand of the protests.

But while the protesters are getting more strategic, the Military Council is resorting to new tactics. But there has been a strange turn in the square tonight, a rather clever move by the government. Late in the evening, a group of young men gathered at the corner of Talaat Harb street, a little far a way from the main concentration of the demonstration, and started calling for the establishment of popular committees to protect the street. A young man standing on the fence told that they want to keep the peace, and “if anybody throws a stone, we catch him”. Somebody else fiercely opposed him, and a debate evolved. Later, just before leaving Daniela and I took a look again at the beginning of Tahrir Street where the medical service was expanding to the street and treating a continuing stream of people suffering from the effects of gas. There, we ran into a young man whom I had met the previous night while buying cigarettes in the district of Kitkat on the other side of the Nile. Back then, he had expressed his strong disapproval of the revolution and argued that under former minister of interior Habib al-‘Adli there were no thugs on the street like now. I wondered what he was doing now in Tahrir, and he explained that he was upset about Egyptians fighting Egyptians, and had come here for the sake of the peacefulness of the event. In his view (congruent with the view spread by state television), all violence was caused by radical protesters attacking the police that was only acting in self-defence. People with such views were not the majority in the square, but there were quite a few, like there also were others who did see the police as responsible for the violence but still trusted that the army would not attack the protesters. A man standing at the corner of Tahrir Street was lecturing to them: “Of course it is the army that is attacking us! Who else has the power in this country? It’s the army that is sending them.”

The ongoing clashes go back to the excessive brutality of the police force (the pile of bodies on Tahrir Square on Sunday should be a good enough reminded). But the determination of protesters to face the police all the same is employed by state media to quite some effect to depict the protesters as rioters and wreckers, glossing over the fact that tens of protesters have been killed by the security forces and the military police since Saturday, mainly through live ammunition and effects of tear gas. There have been several fires, and the state media has accounted this to the protesters. To my knowledge, based on accounts from the streets where the fighting takes place (I have not been there myself), the fires that have broken out hear and there yesterday and today have been caused by the gas grenades fired by the police. A friend showed me a mobile phone image showing protesters putting out a fire in the second floor of a building at the corner of Falaki and Muhammad Mahmoud Streets. At the same time, many of the protesters are determined to fight and do search confrontation.

Tonight, the Military Goverment appears to be making tactical use of the riot imagery in a way to subvert the protests. While a member of the Military Council offered his excuses for the violence on television, the Ministry of Interior has warned called “the youth on the square” to protect the buildings around the square from “counter-revolutionary elements” may be trying to enter the buildings to attack the protesters from above. Coming from Egypt’s most important counter-revolutionary element itself, the executive organ of a massacre against the protesters in the last days, such warning sounds questionable to say the least. But quite a few people seem to have followed this call, believing that they need to protect the square from what they believe wreckers rather than from the police - despite a flood of contrary evidence. Their presence in Tahrir tonight to is creating a complicated and potentially dangerous situation.

I have no predictions to offer. I did not expect the January 25 Revolution, and I did not expect this uprising either. When D. three weeks ago told me that he puts his hopes into a new revolutionary uprising, possibly on 25 January 2012, I told that there is not enough anger in the country for that. I was wrong, he was right. But where the paths is leading to now, neither of us can tell.

Greetings from the Egyptian revolution!

Videos from Tahrir Square

I shot these scenes and interviews on Tahrir Square on Tuesday, 22/11/2011. Partly in Arabic, partly in English.


This short film shows effects of tear gas on protesters at Tahrir Street on the evening of 23/11/2011, as they are treated in the first aid service at the corner of Tahrir Square. The film is edited from material from two separate events around 22:00 and 00:30, respectively.


Monday 21 November 2011

Strategies and surprises

It has been a weird four days in Egypt to say the least. Just back from Tahrir Square, I find it impossible to describe the situation in any straightforward way. A day of demonstrations organised and dominated by the Islamists trying to push for a better power-sharing deal has been quite surprisingly followed by days of spontaneous demonstrations at Tahrir Square and in other cities and extremely brutal violence by the police and the army. A new big demonstration is announced to take place tomorrow, and I think it might offer new surprises. Lots of people have been killed, and countless injured, among them a friend of mine. It is all rather confusing, and before I can even attempt some sort of an analysis, I need to give an account of the past days.

At the outskirts of an uprising

One of the most bitter lessons learned by those who whole-heartedly support a revolutionary transition to a new, democratic Egypt in the past months, is the realisation that they are a minority in Egypt. Many more fear and suffer from chaos and hope for a quick stabilisation of the situation, and many of those who look forward to a political transition are going to favour Islamist parties whose relationship with the revolution is rather ambiguous. This has lead to a very widespread sense of frustration and disillusionment among those who demand a quick and complete political transition and oppose the ruling Military Council. In result, the more radical revolutionary forces became up extremely passive on the eve of the upcoming elections. Many people I know say that they don’t know whom to vote, find all parties corrupt and don’t trust any of them. Many expect that there will be massive vote-rigging and violence from the part of some candidates. Some are arguing to boycott the elections. The calls to boycott the elections have been coming primary from among those who either do not see their views represented by any of the candidates or who expect their point of view to be at the losing end, while in particular the Islamists who have good reason to expect a major election victory, are doing a very good job at campaigning for their candidates, and they have been able to convince a lot of people.
On Friday 18 November, the first major demonstrations since early October took place in Cairo and several cities across the country. The Friday demonstrations always have a name, and this one was called “Friday of the one single demand” - a title not void of irony, since it actually united political forces with very different demands. The main force behind the demonstration were Egypt’s three main Islamist movements: The Muslim Brotherhood, The Salafis, and the Gama‘a al-Islamiya. They have been on friendly terms with the Military Council throughout the year, refusing to participate in demonstrations against the military rule, looking forward to an election victory and hoping for a good power sharing deal with the army. In early November, however, they rose in protest against a document detailing the outline of Egypt’s future constitution. Presented by the vice prime minister al-Silmi (therefore known as the Silmi Document), the document states that Egypt will be a civil (that is, not theocratic and not military) state, outlining a constitutional assembly where only half of the seats would be made up by members of the new parliament, and giving the military almost complete autonomy regarding budget, organisation, jurisdiction, defence policy, and even a right to veto a declaration of war by the parliament. The Islamist parties, recognising that this document was an attempt to limit their ability to turn their parliamentary power into political power and to formalise indirect military rule, called for large-scale demonstrations against the Silmi Document. One part of the liberal and left-wing political forces decided to join the call for protests, congruent as it was with their opposition to military rule, while many others decided to abstain because they saw the demonstration as election tactics that would only serve the Islamists.
The demonstrations were large and successful. In Cairo, the Islamist parties transported busloads of supporters to from different parts of the country for a demonstration of strength in Tahrir square, and successfully so, filling the square to the limit. In Alexandria, Daniela and I followed a smaller protest that started at al-Qa’id Ibrahim Mosque and headed for the Northern Regional Military Headquarters some kilometres to the east from city centre - both customary sites for protests in Alexandria ever since the revolution. Also in Alexandria, the protest march was dominated by Islamists, but not the exclusion of others. The protest march, which included perhaps some ten thousand people, possibly somewhat more, was made up of three quite distinct blocks. It was lead by Salafis holding banners against the Silmi Document and chanting adapted revolutionary slogans such as “The people demand: Down with the document” (derived from “The people demand: Down with the system”. It was a weird and disconcerting performance because during the revolution the major Salafi groups had all sided with the Mubarak regime and called for people to abstain from demonstrating. Also now they did not chant against the military, but only against the vice prime minister. The Salafis were followed by a large block of supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood but without any visible symbols of the movement (the Brotherhood had decided to only appear with their symbols on Tahrir Square), and this block was followed by a block of leftist and liberal protesters who, rather than opposing the Silmi document were chanting against the Military Council and against Egypt’s interim leader Field Marshall Tantawi. The three groups were approximately equal in size (the Salafis perhaps somewhat larger than the others), but very different in appearance. The Salafis had a very unified style, with few individual self-made signs or banners. The Muslim brotherhood supporters were also fairly uniform in style. The leftist revolutionary block was much more heterogenous in appearance, with many more people carrying hand-written signs, different groups (notably the 6th of April and Kifaya movements) carrying their symbols, and many more women among the protesters.
Despite heavy rain soaking the people at about half of the way, the march proceeded in good mood due to the large numbers it had been able to gather. But as it arrived at its destination in front of the Northern Military Headquarters, the Salafis who had been in the front of the march put up the centre stage, and the speakers soon shifted from criticising the Silmi Document to demanding for Egypt to be an Islamic state. At this stage, most of the leftist and liberal protesters left the demonstration. At a cafe two blocks away we ran into some people we knew, taking cover from the rain and very unhappy about the Salafi dominance. For them, it was a mixed experience, on the one hand it had been a successful demonstration, but on the other hand, it seemed to serve powers they did not want to align with. They were pessimistic, but said that they hoped that there will be new surprises. D. called me from Cairo (he goes to every Friday demonstration in Tahrir) where he had arrived at a late hour and said that he was “frightened” by the Salafis who dominated the square with slogans like “The people demand the Law of God.” He was very worried about the prospect of the Military Council falling only to be replaced by the Islamists. “What slogans can I use against them?” D. asked. “They legitimise themselves through religion, and if I chant against them they tell that I am chanting against religion.” Thus the left wing revolutionaries went to sleep on Friday with the uncomfortable feeling that the revolution might be about to result in the victory of the wrong people.
The next afternoon I ran into W and R., a man and a woman in their early twenties involved in Alexandria’s cultural scene. As we were about to sit down in a cafe in downtown Alexandria, the phones started ringing, and the news spread that the security forces of the Ministry of Interior were attacking the protesters in Tahrir (what I did not know at that moment was that a small sit-in of 200 people in Tahrir had been attacked already in the early morning hours, and that a much larger crowd of protesters had returned to the square in the noon). Spontaneously, numerous people stood up from the cafes and started walking in rapid pace towards al-Qa’id Ibrahim Square. Daniela and I followed them a little later, finding a a crowd of about fifty people were debating what to do and whether to protest at the Military Headquarters or at the Security Directorate in Sumuha, an up-market districts further away from the city centre. There were few people, much disagreement, much talk against the military, the parties, the Muslim Brotherhood, the corruption, but little sense of concerted action. R. and W. left feeling that there was no point to it, and also Daniela and I could not avoid feeling the sense of a defeated revolutionary movement, split in factions, disorganised, and too busy with matters of principle to undertake strategic action.
It was with this sentiment that I spent the rest of the evening at a lecture in an art space and at a private party, only marginally aware of what was evolving in Cairo and in other parts of the city. D. called me and told that he had arrived in Alexandria in the early evening and gone straight to the Northern Military Headquarters where a group of protesters had gathered. He was angry and looking for confrontation, showing his shoe as a way of insult and verbally confronting the army special units guarding the military area. Other protesters called him to calm down and mind his manners, he felt that they lacked courage and left. But he also said that the events in Tahrir the same day had given him back the revolutionary spirit, and he felt that also if the Muslim Brotherhood and the Salafis seize power, the Egyptian people will arise against them. If the demonstration would continue the next day, he said, he would go back to Cairo.
On the afternoon of the next day, Sunday 20 November, the ongoing demonstration in Tahrir Square was attacked with extreme force by the Military Police. In Alexandria, all I could do was watch the events on television. It was becoming clear that something big was going on. But I got back to work. In the evening, I returned to my fieldwork in al-‘Asafra in eastern Alexandria and spent the evening with a long an interesting discussion with poets and teachers about the reasons to choose for different styles of poetry. While protesters at Tahrir were being shot dead, and while protesters in Alexandria were facing the army and the police, life went on in very ordinary ways around the city.
These days, Everybody is speaking about the events in Tahrir Square and at the Security directorate in Alexandria, but the views go far apart. Sunday night, returning on a minibus from Asafra to Downtown Alexandria, a passenger and the driver were discussing the situation. The passenger had just received the news on the phone that the police was shooting at protesters at the Security Directorate and that the protesters had set cars in fire. He and the driver saw in the events an attempt to prevent the Muslim Brotherhood from gaining power through elections. And indeed, the Islamist parties who dominated the demonstrations on Friday, have distanced themselves from the spontaneous demonstrations since Saturday, calling for restraint and insisting that the elections should take place as planned. They are the likely winners of the elections, and people have good reasons to vote them. The minibus driver was highly critical of the many independent candidates as well as those voters who still think about elections in the logic of the Mubarak era as a way to channel resources, a clientelistic business of providing jobs and services to the supporters of a candidate, rather than as a responsible business that is about finding the competent people to run the country. “Me, my wife, and children, we will all vote for the Muslim brotherhood, because they have spent years listening to us; they have patience with the people.”
Also among people who are not confident in the Muslim Brotherhoods capacity to run the country, there is a lot of doubt and worry. The cleaning lady in the hotel where Daniela and I stayed argued that “the protesters are too much in a hurry. This country needs to be transformed, but you can’t jump to the top of the ladder like that, it has to be done step by step.” But if many people are sceptical of the new protests, it does not mean that they support the Military Council. At a small bookstore, I met the owner and her circle of friends, all very worried and sceptical about the situation. One of the people was very worried of the destruction of property. He told that protesters had set a gas station in fire in Sumuha (his family owns a gas station, too, but theirs was not damaged), “the most beautiful and cleanest part of Alexandria” in his words, a place that should be cared for and not wrecked. But he also had no belief whatsoever in the Military council. Their time is over, he says, but at the same time he wonders what to do. He, and like him the owner of the bookstore want to participate the elections, they do not share the radical view of those who think of the elections as a fake bare of all legitimacy. It is a matter of having a say or not having a say, they argue, even if the elections are not fair and clean. But there is a big question mark. “What is to be done?” Asks the owner of the bookstore. She says that she really does not know. Something has to be done, but what?
For those who believe in the revolutionary momentum more than the elections, the answer to the question is a simple one: stand up and fight. The waiter in a cafĂ© makes this very clear to me. He tells me that the army is using a new, more aggressive kind of tear gas against the protesters: “After February, they put us all to sleep and bought new weapons from the Americans, but now the revolution is awake again, and we will win.”

Back at Tahrir

It was in this contradictory mood that Daniela and I left from Alexandria for Cairo where we are supposed to have meetings for collaborative research and art exhibition project, well knowing that most of our appointments are likely not to take place. As we arrived in the house of a friend in Imbaba, we again saw the live footage from Tahrir, showing more and more people gathering in the square. The news reached us that the interim government has stepped down, which doesn’t make much difference because they never had any power anyway, acting merely as the executive organ of the Military Council. I called some friends and they told that the mood there is excellent, and I decided to go there.
Tahrir Square tonight was one of the weirdest things I have experienced. It was filled with people, well comparable to the days of the revolution. No speakers stages this time, however. All presidential candidates and party chairmen trying to enter the square in the past three days have been refused entry by the protesters. It is a genuinely spontaneous gathering, collecting very different kinds of people: youths from popular neighbourhoods on motorcycles, leftist activists, middle-class couples, Salafis (the Salafi organisations are against the protests, but there are individual Salafis who think otherwise), you name it. At the centre of the square, the mood was quite festive. Most people there were firm supporters of the revolution who had come to reclaim the square, revive the revolution, and to demand proper change. Groups of people chanting slogans, a poet reading out a revolutionary poem, flags, and discussions were accompanied by a very lively trade of tea, snacks, sweets, cigarettes, souvenirs, flags, and protective glasses and masks. Next to the Egyptian Museum, a temporary minibus and taxi stand had emerged serving the people coming and going. At the same time, ambulances were continuously passing through the crowd, there was a bitter taste to the air from tear gas. While on one side of the square there was an almost party-like atmosphere of celebrating the revolutionary spirit, in the side streets leading to the ministry of interior, people were getting killed. [EDIT: actually the killing had happened the previous day, and by the time I was at Tahrir street battles still coninued but there were mostly injuries from tear gas and birdshot.]
Confronting the police there, the protesters are trying to keep the police as far away from the square as possible, but also trying themselves to get closer to the Ministry of Interior, the old foe of the revolutionaries. My friends and I spoke with a man from a village in the Nile Delta who had just come to have a break from the street battle. He was wearing swimming classes, a construction helmet and a painter’s gas mask, and he told that the situation in Muhammad Mahmoud Street was terrible. They were being shot at with rubber bullets and with live ammunition, and the police was using a new kind of aggressive tear gas that could not be washed away with water like usual tear gas, but instead needs to be treated with a solution of bread yeast and water (it is US produced CR gas, classified in the United States as a chemical weapon). [EDIT: actually most teargas used in those days was CS gas but probably a fresh delivery.] He had left his wife and children at home and told them that he was going to work. He said that he could not do otherwise than come here, to fight for the sake of a better future of his country.
Having at first encountered the festive side of Tahrir Square, it was frightening to realise that just a block away people were being killed. Even more frightening was to hear how big the real death toll appears to be. The official figure by the Ministry of Health is that 33 people, all of them protesters, have been killed. But a friend whom I met at Tahrir told that the doctor running one of the two field hospitals has a list of names that is close to hundred, and it only covers the bodies at his field hospital. Since Sunday I had heard nothing of D. He returned to Tahrir on Sunday and his mobile phone has been off ever since. I was already about to go searching for him in the field hospitals, but I just received a facebook message from him. He has been wounded by gunshots [EDIT: actually, birdshot] on his shoulder and foot, but he is alive.

On strategy and spontaneity

A big demonstration is announced to take place tomorrow. It is likely to gather a large number of people, but the situation will be very different from what it as during the revolution in January and February. If in many ways the situation appears similar to what happened last spring, with terrible violence by the security forces, angry protesters taking over Tahrir Square, and the cabinet stepping down as an attempt to calm down the people, in other respects the situation is completely different. Parliamentary elections are scheduled to begin in exactly one week (they will take quite a while, involving several rounds and different voting times in different provinces), and the revolutionary coalition of the spring is now split into those who expect their side to win the elections and look forward to push for their visions through the parliament, and those who don’t expect much from the elections and put their hopes in a continued revolutionary uprising.
Most importantly the three main Islamist parties, but also the liberal al-Wafd party expect much from the elections. (It is important to note that the political camp is not simply split into Islamists and the liberal-left. There are liberals putting their hopes in elections and appeasing the Army just as well as there are smaller Islamist groups siding with ongoing revolution). Consequently, the three main Islamist parties have been calling their supporters not to participate in the protests. However, there is good likelihood that the Muslim brotherhood and the Salafis will try to join the protest movement, perhaps tomorrow, perhaps on Friday, to push it into a different direction. This already happened in Alexandria tonight. At the Security Directorate in Sumuha, the ongoing confrontation between protesters and the police took a new turn when the Salafis entered the scene. According to W who called me from Sumuha, the Salafis entered the demonstration in great numbers at around 10 p.m. and started shouting “Silmiya” (peaceful) “Al-sha‘b wa al-shurta id wahda” (The people and the police hold together) and attempted to move the protestors away from the Security Directorate, while at the same time the police has continued to fire tear gas, rubber bullets and live ammunition at the protesters. Tomorrow and next Friday will show whether this scenario will be repeated in Cairo. If yes, it will complicate things even more.
But what about the radical revolutionaries? What exactly do they want? This is, in a way, the big and open question of the moment. The demands are simple clear: Removal of the military government and the installment of a civilian transitory government. The new wave of protests has a lot of spontaneous energy, anger and enthusiasm, but in contrast to the actions taken by the Islamists, it appears to have little in terms of strategy. The new uprising that began on Saturday is a spontaneous act of anger that has grown from the increasing frustration of the radical supporters of the revolution. It is what the radical revolutionaries are good at doing, and what they love doing. There is a romantic momentum to revolution that in a certain way also turns it into an end in itself. Such romanticism can be dangerous because it makes it very difficult to act strategically.
Spontaneity and lack of strategy is both a strength and a weakness of the radical revolutionary movement. It is a weakness to start with, because the way the radical revolutionaries have been good in returning to the streets over and again, but very bad at establishing more permanent and socially rooted forms of organisation. While the Muslim Brotherhood has been running a very well organised and financed election campaign, the liberals and left have split into factions, their various parties have quickly lost their credibility in the eyes of their potential supporters, and many radical supporters of the revolution lack a vision of how to change the country after the revolution. In this sense, the return to the streets is a romantic moment of celebrating the revolutionary spirit again, but as a political move it is a blind one, creating a surprising new situation but possessing no means to turn the element of surprise into a long-term advantage.
But the spontaneity and the valuation of revolution for its own sake also has given the new uprising an enormous strength. It is due to this emotional determination rather than calculation that, for better or worse, the protesters have been able to upset the formation of what was about to look like a parliamentary-military power-share deal.
The light side to this power of spontaneous determination is that it means that it will be very difficult for any authoritarian rule to establish itself in Egypt in the near future. Finding an atmosphere of revolutionary celebration in the square after great numbers of people have been killed and while fighting continues in the side streets means that there is a spirit of ongoing resistance that will be very hard to break, and that spirit is urgently needed as a corrective power in the coming years when whoever will run the affairs of Egypt will be tempted to consolidate and concentrate power and wealth.
But the dark side of the power of spontaneous determination is its ambiguous relationship with violence. The protesters are facing a well-armed military and police with stones and makeshift protective gear, and this asymmetry of violence gives them a moral advantage. There also a willingness to sacrifice lives for the sake of the revolution, and the people on the streets have paid a heavy price. But this sense that a true revolution will require a heavy price can easily turn into a celebration of death and blood, and transform the commitment to revolution for its own sake into something more sinister.
At the moment, the situation is simply too complex and confusing to offer any clear conclusion. Rather, Lenin’s famous revolutionary question arises once again: “What is to be done?” What action can one undertake to use the uncertain moment of the transitional period to one’s advantage? The answers in Egypt right now are going far apart (and none of them follows Lenin’s suggestion of a vanguard revolutionary party). The Military Council is resorting to the same tactics that already failed on 28 January. Those parties that expect to win the elections are probably right now trying to decide how to turn the momentum of the protests to their advantage. The protesters on the streets are putting their stakes on a new revolution. People not involved in the events are wondering how the chaos will ever end. But as things stand, nobody knows what will really work.