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

This youtube video shows the protesters gathered in front of the Northern Regional Headquarters:

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

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