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 café 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.

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