Sunday 14 October 2012

After one hundred and a few days

Not yet

Taking the minibus is one of the best ways to know the general mood in Egypt. Soon after my return to Egypt two weeks ago to continue my research on literary and creative trajectories, I was on the countryside on the way to visit friends, and the passengers of the minibus wanted to know what I think about president Morsy. “I haven't seen enough from him to make up my mind,” I answered in an evasive manner. “You won't see anything from him anyway”, one of the passengers replied, and the driver – for some reason he insisted on taking me for an Egyptian – asked: “Come on, don't be afraid to say your opinion. Whom did you vote?” On this minibus, the opinion prevailed that Morsy is a good-for-nothing, but on other rides one encounters people who think that he is doing a good job, that the streets are already safer, but that he needs more time. Two days ago in Alexandria, a passenger wearing a short, well-fashioned beard of the style common to Muslim Brothers, involved me in a discussion about the European perception of Islam, and then went on to argue in support of Islamic economics and the prohibition of interest in banking. I said that I'm quite sceptical of Islamic economics when Egypt's new Islamic government borrows money from the IMF against interest, and sells state bonds with a lucrative interest rate. He replied: “That is just because we do not have an Islamic government yet, it is not yet fully in control. But it will be soon.”

Not yet” is the mood of these days – a hopeful “not yet”, a fearful “not yet”, an impatient “not yet.” The government of the Muslim Brotherhood is working hard on turning expectations into facts, however. They are struggling to gain control over the state, its institutions, the streets, the squares, the culture. In circles critical of the Brotherhood, the neologism akhwana “Brotherhoodisation” has become the keyword of the Ikhwan's attempt to establish dominance over all institutions of the state. But they have not been successful yet, and for the time being both those in support of Morsy and his government and those sceptical of or opposed to it have as the main evidence for their point of view that not much has happened yet.

The urgent problem, however, is that Morsy had promised that a lot would happen. The deadline was last week. Upon entering office, Morsy declared an ambitious yet very simple and uncontested One Hundred Days programme to improve the economy, to restore security, to improve traffic, to clean up the streets, to guarantee distribution of subsidised goods, etc. It was a programme tailored at gaining wide popular support, bare of any of the key ideological aims of the Brotherhood and focussed on problems that are generally recognised as urgent and important. On 6 October, on the occasion of the celebrations for the anniversary of the 1973 October war, a huge celebration was organised on Cairo Stadium, attended by honorary guests (importantly not including the leading figures of the military rule, Field Marshal Tantalize and General Annan whom Morsy in late August promoted out of office by making them presidential advisers, and more controversially including the Zumur brothers who had been involved in the assassination of Anwar al-Sadat and spent the entire Mubarak era in prison), a large crowd mainly made up of supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood, and the rest of the ranks filled by soldiers and policemen to fill up the stadium. His two-hour speech, broadcast live on state television, was only secondarily about the October War. First and foremost, it was political rally to mobilise support for the president and to convince the nation that his 100-days programme has been “successful up to 70 per cent.”

The reality looks less like the image Morsy depicted in his speech. There is a general sense that the security situation has improved (but a friend of mine got robbed in plain sight on a main street recently, and it is difficult to tell whether there really is less crime, or whether people are simply less anxious), and that the economy has slightly improved (but so far the improvement of the economy appears to be mainly because the presence of a president and a regular government gives people the confidence to invest again). Beyond that, the urgent affairs of Egypt are very much like they were a hundred days earlier, and some things are worse: Since August, the government is fighting a de-facto war against Jihadist insurgents in the Sinai. Also in the Sinai, Christian families in the border town of Rafah were threatened by Jihadists and told to leave the town. They stayed, but their situation remains precarious. Last Ramadan witnessed a disastrous electricity crisis with repeated long power cutouts in large cities.

Now that the hundred days are over, the way the new government tries to solve the nation's urgent problems begins to look increasingly haphazard. Most recently, the minister of local development has passed a regulation to limit the opening hours of shops (excluding pharmacies) to 10 pm., and of cafés and restaurants to 12 pm. In Egypt, a country that has a very night-oriented way of life, where people often work at very late hours, and where especially in poorer areas many cafés and shops are open day and night, this regulation appears strange to say the least. The official reason given for the regulation was saving electricity – but it does not seem very convincing, given that the demand for electricity is at its highest before 10 pm., not after. Prime minister Qandil defended the regulation, claiming that there is no other country in the world that does not regulate the opening hours of shops and cafés. Aside of the prime minister, I have so far not managed to hear anybody else speaking in support of the regulation. Everybody I meet finds the regulation ill-informed, disastrous for Egyptian lifestyle, bad for security (open shops and lots of people are the best way to make streets safe at night), and impossible to implement. Aside of being haphazard and ill-planned, this regulation also reveals a lot about the underlying idea of good urbanity among Egypt's new rulers. It is a vision oriented on Europe, America, and the Gulf States, informed by the lifestyle of the economical elites in well-secured, calm and motorised suburbs – the social class from which the leadership of the Muslim Brotherhood and the ministers of the government with few exceptions hail. In this regard, the policies of the Morsy era do not seem so far from those of the Mubarak era, dominated as they are by the life experience and horizon of economical elites who often experience the lively street culture of the less fortunate classes as disturbing chaos and dysfunctional informality, consequently seeing it as an obstacle to overcome instead of recognising it as a functioning social order.

The hundred days' programme addressed issues that are consensual. At a number of other points, the Ikhwan are beginning to show their true colour. Some cases – like the closing hours for shops – tells how close their understanding of policing public order is to that of the Mubarak system. Others – like the removal of sexual education and reproductive health curricula from schoolbooks, and the increasing number of lawsuits on the ground of “denigration of religions” – fit perfectly within the framework Islamist ideology and, disastrous though they are, are in no way surprising. Other issues, again, reveal a sharpening sense of confrontation between different political forces as the Ikhwan are trying to establish control, but are not yet successful. In this last regard, the last days have brought some surprises, and more can be expected.

The Battle of Sheep”

For last Friday, demonstrations were announced by liberal and leftist revolutionary groups against Morsy and his government. Then, two days before that date, all accused in the Camel Battle (on 2/2/2011 when supporters of Mubarak tried to storm Tahrir Square) court case were declared innocent for lack of evidence. Predictably, this raised quite some sentiments, but it also offered the Muslim Brotherhood and the Salafis the occasion to declare their participation in what they deemed a demonstration for the sake of purifying the judiciary. Thursday evening, the news broke that Morsy has transferred the public prosecutor – who was widely deemed responsible for the failure of almost all court cases about the killing of protesters during the revolution - to the post of the Egyptian ambassador to Vatican. For the moment, it seemed that Morsy had gained another victory in establishing control over the state, and now the Muslim Brotherhood and Salafi participation in the demonstration was to be in support and celebration of Morsy.

Then things went badly out of hand. Already the previous night there were verbal exchanges and minor fights between supporters and opponents of Morsy on Tahrir Square, and the next morning witnessed a veritable battle of stone-throwing between the competing fractions. I was not there, but D., a long-standing revolutionary from the village in the Nile Delta who moved to Cairo last spring, was. This is his account:

D. went to Tahrir early in the morning, and by that time the revolutionaries were few in numbers, and became quickly outnumbered after significantly larger (but not huge – 500 according to one estimate) numbers of Muslim Brotherhood supporters entered the square. The revolutionaries chanted against Morsy and the Brotherhood with chants like “Down with the rule of the Supreme Guide” and “Sell the revolution, Badie” (referring to the Muslim Brotherhood's Supreme Guide Mohamed Badie, the real strong man behind Morsy), and the Brotherhood supporters reacted by demolishing the stage set up by the Popular Current of former presidential candidate Hamdeen Sabbahi (in front of running television cameras) , and Brotherhood supporters forced the revolutionaries out of the square to Muhammad Mahmoud St., where D. and his comrades faced a rain of rocks thrown at them from the square and were forced to hold out there. By this time he had to go to work, and as he returned from work a couple of hours later, he encountered a group of protesters on al-Qasr al-Ayini street who had tried to enter the square but were forced back and did not want to get involved in fighting. He managed to convince them that it was necessary to reestablish the revolutionary presence in the square, and they managed to enter the the square without a fight. For a while the square was split into two parts, the Brotherhood supporters on the central circle, and the revolutionaries on the pavement on the side of Downtown. Both groups were chanting their slogans but no fighting was taking place, until more marches of the revolutionary fraction started to arrive and tried to enter the square from Talaat Harb Street and Abdelmoneim Riad Square. Rocks being thrown both ways, the revolutionaries who were already on the square tried to go between but without success, and a street battle endured between for an hour and a half, with neither side being able to make advances, until at six in the afternoon when the Brotherhood supporters at once all withdrew (upon order by their leadership, it later turned out), and headed to hold a protest in front of the high court against the public prosecutor. The revolutionaries took over the square, and two of the minibuses that had transported brotherhood supporters were set on fire.

The Muslim Brotherhood's version was of course different. In different statements the previous evening, members of their leadership declared that the Brotherhood had not been present at the square in the first place, and that they had withdrawn in order to calm down the situation. The next day, the brotherhood's press organ al-Hurriya wa al-'Adala came up with an official version of their account, according to which it was the Ikhwan who had been attacked by an unspecified party, and that there was an unprecedented media campaign going on to defame the Islamists.

The critics of the Brotherhood were outraged. This was not the first time that Brotherhood supporters had either compelled their opponents to leave the square, or tried to make their slogans unheard by the sheer power of superior sound systems. But it was the first time that Brotherhood supporters had entered such a direct confrontation with their opponents. The arrogance with which they demolished the Popular Current's stage and tried to prevent their opponents from entering the square was only topped by the lies of their leadership, first denying involvement and then putting blame on an unknown party – echoing the “third party” theory so routinely used by the military rulers in 2011 and 2012. The Brotherhood certainly showed itself a worthy successor of Mubarak's National Democratic Party

This is not to deny that quite a few revolutionaries were rather happy to enter a fight with the Ikhwan, too. But from all witness accounts and reports I have read, it appears that Brotherhood supporters and Salafis were the initial attacking party – and the Ikhwan leadership's refusal to say by whom they were attacked and their vague references to an unknown party only further supports the revolutionaries' version of the events.

The revolutionaries quickly started calling the incident “the Battle of Sheep” in an ironical reference to the “Camel Battle” - a name that for draws a direct comparison between the Brotherhood and the NDP, and furthermore claims that the supporters of the Brotherhood (who arrived on Tahrir with minibuses provided by the Freedom and Justice Party, and left the square at once when their leadership called them back) are sheep-like creatures that follow the whistle of the shepherd and lack a will of their own.

The Ikhwan are doing their best to depict themselves as victims, and they may yet take the events as a pretext to silence opposition towards them on other occasions. But for the moment, many revolutionaries experience the battle as a victory. They had been pushed out of the square a few times by the Islamists, and this was the first time they ended up dominating the square by the end of the day. And although the Ikhwan are really good at explaining things their way, the incident certainly are a serious media setback for them – the more so since it was accompanied by a another setback.

While fighting endured on Tahrir Square, the judiciary had taken a united and firm stance against the dismissal of the public prosecutor. It also turned out that legally the president was only allowed to replace the prosecutor in agreement with the judiciary. By this time, Brotherhood supporters were commanded from Tahrir Square to demonstrate in front of the High Court. Heated rounds of negotiated evolved, and on Saturday noon, Morsy had to admit his defeat and the public prosecutor could stay in the office. The official version was that the president had given his consent to a petition by the Supreme Judicial Council, but the Council declared that they had not sent any such petition.

While the “Battle of Sheep” was a struggle about the power to speak in the name of Tahrir Square, the struggle between the president and the prosecutor was one between the Ikhwan trying to establish control over the state, and an institution of the old system successfully defending its power. Unlike in the transitional period when the Muslim Brothers could play a tactical game of changing alliances with the revolutionaries and the military rulers, they now face opposition on two fronts. They still have some of their revolutionary credibility, and they are very, very good at mobilising shows of mass support (of the kind they did on 6 October). But as they become the ruling party, it gets increasingly difficult to exploit that credibility. At the same time, they are officially in charge of the state, but in practice many institutions of the state remain hostile to them. Today on the train to Cairo, I happened to sit together with three police officers, two of them in civil. Noticing that I was reading the Brotherhood's organ Al-Hurriya wa al-'Adala, they expressed their clear dislike of the Brotherhood, were very happy about the success of the public prosecutor in holding his position, and argued that the Camel Battle court case was all based on rumours anyway, and that it was a spontaneous action of the tourism entrepreneurs of Nazlat al-Samman. They didn't look like they would be a very willing executive of Morsy's government.

What can one dare to hope now?

That said, it seems unlikely that the Brotherhood would be out of power any time soon – and in fact, it is not even desirable. The question, instead, is to what extent they will be successful in establishing control, and what other dynamics will be taking place in Egyptian society. I try to explain what I mean with the help of four recent conversations.

First, there is the pessimistic view. It was expressed by M., my journalist friend in Cairo. He expects that the Ikhwan will be able to push through a constitution of their liking – and some revolutionaries and liberals will boycott the constitutional assembly in order to deny its legitimacy, but it won't make a difference because it will be in force anyway, and laws will be passed and the state run according to it. Sooner and later there will be parliamentary elections and the Ikhwan are an election machine able to mobilise a lot of voters under any conditions, and they will not shy away from using all means necessary to secure a parliamentary majority. Once firmly in power, they will never give it up voluntarily again. Furthermore, the opportunists who are always on the side of power are already busy siding with the Brotherhood. And, M. adds, the people are tired, the prices are rising and although the economy is recovering a little they are too busy with existential things. There will be no revolution against the Ikhwan like there was against Mubarak, at least not any time soon: “It looks like they are going to stay with us for a long while.”

But one of the twists of the Brotherhood era is that the lines of political opposition are being redrawn. I know some people who had little interest in politics even during the revolution, but who have developed a much more sharply oppositional attitude since Morsy's election. F., owner of a café in a small town, thinks that there may soon be a new uprising against the Ikhwan very well – and he in fact hopes it – because they have so disastrously failed to run the affairs of the country. His business suffered severely from the wave of electricity cuts throughout Ramadan, and the government's plan to limit the opening hours, if implemented, will be equally disastrous. He says: Yes, the people want to be left in peace and get back to work and business, but the government is failing precisely in that point, and people are getting angry again.

The question, however, is what would follow from a new uprising or from a fall of Morsy. D., on his turn, does not expect the Brotherhood to leave power any time soon – in fact he hopes them to stay for at least four years, and as far as he is concerned, they should go through with the Brotherhoodisation of the state, because only that way they can lose their aura as a victimised oppositional movement, and Egyptian people can have enough time to understand how far removed from Islam Islamist politics really are. Furthermore, he adds, if the Ikhwan would lose power now, it would most likely be in favour of the supporters of the old system who have been able to organise their ranks again after their temporary disarray in 2011, and who still command considerable power over many parts of the state. The revolutionaries are currently neither able nor competent to seize power. While expecting the Ikhwan to stay in power, D. is hopeful for different reasons. He perceives a significant change in political consciousness of ordinary people in a way that, he argues, is bound to put Egypt to a better path. But it will not happen now, and we may not be the ones who profit from it, he says. He points out that this does not only involve the revolutionaries who have been able to transform themselves through the experience of uprising. It is a change that even involves those who once lacked an oppositional consciousness, or even were close to the system. The judges' successful power struggle with Morsy is not only about guarding the old system, he says: It is also about the judiciary developing a different self-understanding as an institution of the state under changing governments and presidents. And he says that in many daily encounters, walking the popular districts of the city, and in is work, he finds people critical, and aware of what politics means in a way that was still lacking during the revolution. Importantly, he himself has the feeling that he can do something, in his work, in his studies, in the many political debates he develops with people on a daily base.

In 2011, D. was one of the first people I know who reached the frustrated conclusion that the revolution had failed. A year later, when most young revolutionaries now also think that the revolution failed, D's new-found optimism is striking. It is an optimism, however, that depends on the continuity of a relatively free and pluralistic political space. A return of heavy-handed repression and fear can still falsify it. The Ikhwan are the power to reckon with for the years to come, but the decisive question is how much power they will have, and what shape that power will take.

The fourth conversation took place online between me an Iranian friend who pointed out to me how much the development in Egypt reminds him of the Islamic revolution in Iran in 1979. It is not the same, he says, but it has many similarities: The revolution in Iran was based on a wider popular consensus from right to left. The Islamists presented themselves consensus-oriented and pluralistic at first, but upon seizing power started to systematically eliminate and marginalise their opponents. This is an important point of comparison, and it was certainly not taken seriously enough in spring 2011 by all those commentators who stated that Egypt will not be like Iran, when instead it would have been necessary to ask what can be done in order to prevent Egypt from going Iran's path. However, there is an important difference, and a paradoxical one: I think that one of the greatest failures of the Egyptian revolution may turn out to be one its main assets in the future: the lack of revolutionary justice. One of the key themes of mobilisation ever since the revolution began has been that the leaders of the old system and the perpetrators of crimes against protesters must be judged and punished. Almost none of that has happened, and practically all who were responsible for killing protesters in January 2011 have been acquitted, except for the life sentence for Mubarak, which was nevertheless a major disappointment for all those who wanted to see him hanged. After the Mubarak verdict, many revolutionaries reached the conclusion that Mubarak should have received the same treatment as Gaddafi did, that true revolutionary justice can only take place at the lampposts of Tahrir Square, and that the first step of the revolution should have been a thorough purge of the state apparatus. However, they may eventually consider themselves lucky for the failure of revolutionary justice, because such justice is extremely prone to turn against the revolutionaries themselves – and often with even greater brutality – as soon as one of the revolutionary parties has seized power. Already now, hundreds of protesters are still held in prison (and it is unclear whether the president's recent pardon on all revolution-related crimes will actually include them), but so far the leading figures of the different fractions, be it revolutionary, Islamist, or old system, have remained free and largely unharmed. No matter how troubling the failure of justice towards many of the most outrageously criminal figures of the Mubarak era may be, it also sets a precedent that makes it more difficult to make opposition leaders disappear in prison or get shot on open street.

The struggle over control continues, and while the Muslim Brotherhood definitely has the upper hand, it is yet undecided, and in fact difficult to decide because it is a struggle of three blocks – Islamist, old system, revolutionary (the latter being the weakest of the three) – and as soon as one block seizes power, it faces the opposition of the two others, so that the struggle may continue for a long while still. And increasing political confrontation brought by the brutality of the Military Rule, the tactical manoeuvres and determination to power of the Muslim Brotherhood, and the radicalisation of the liberal/left revolutionary block has made it increasingly difficult to find any sort of consensual base across these blocks. However, while this is the situation of party politics and activist circles, ordinary political life in Egypt is still not very firmly entrenched along block lines, and people who are not committed supporters of any given block, tend to have complex, multiple and more open-ended visions and positions. I therefore conclude this otherwise very inconclusive essay with one little item that displays the complexity of everyday political allegiances.

While the “Battle of Sheep” took place in Cairo, I was attending the annual festival (mulid) of the great Muslim saint Ahmad al-Badawi in the city of Tanta. Contrary to last year when the festival had suffered from the general sense of anxiety and insecurity, it was quite successful this year (the Muslim Brotherhood has been traditionally been sharply opposed to mulid festivals, but so far Morsy's government has been rather busy with other business). A new cheap sales hit made rounds at the mulid: Colour posters with the portrait of Mubarak's predecessor Anwar al-Sadat in military uniform. Displaying the portrait of Sadat in one's shop is a fairly clear stance against the Ikhwan, and also a more ambiguous show of allegiance with the state of the Free Officers – ambiguous because for one part it is can be a way to show support to the old system, while at the same time it is also a way to take distance from Mubarak and his era. Sadat also enjoys some ambivalent sympathy in the revolutionary circles: While he stands for the beginning of the ruthless privatization policies, for the oppression of the left wing in favour of the Islamists, and for the much hated Camp David peace treaties, he is nevertheless also the hero of the October War of 1973 (although the revolutionary daily al-Tahrir recently devoted whole two pages in their 6 October issue to questioning this image, and claiming that the counter-attack across the canal and the resulting intrusion of Israeli forces on the west bank of the canal was made possible by tactical errors by Anwar al-Sadat and the “totalitarian” structure of command that compelled the military leadership to implement Sadat's plan against their better knowledge), and a secular hero assassinated by Islamist militants. My friends from the revolutionary leftist/liberal circles in Alexandria found it outrageous that Morsy in his two hours long speech on the occasion of 6 October failed to mention Anwar al-Sadat with a single word. Displaying the portrait of Anwar al-Sadat does therefore more than expressing explicit disagreement with Morsy and implicit allegiance with the pre-revolutionary order. It is also expressive of a search for something like a consensual base in a moment where it is very difficult to find one.

Friday 25 May 2012

Some social science of the presidential elections

I have usually avoided writing on this blog when not in Egypt, because its value, if any, lies in the proximity to events, moods, and everyday encounters as the stuff for some preliminary anthropological theory of the revolutionary process. With the presidential elections, I now feel compelled to make an exception and try to offer some analysis from the distanced vantage point of a cozy coffee house in Europe. The election results not only determine the political future of Egypt: they also provide an amazing wealth of sociological data that could be telling about the general social dynamics in Egypt of which the revolution in Egypt is a part. In consequence, this post is more sociological than ethnographic, trying to look at some interesting societal tendencies on the basis of the statistical evidence provided by the election results.

The result, to start with, it is nothing short of a disaster in terms of Egypt's immediate political future. The second round of the elections on 16 and 17 June will see a face-off of Mohammed Morsy (25% of the vote in the first round)) of the Muslim brotherhood and Ahmad Shafiq (24,3%), Mubarak's last prime minister. This result wasn't foreseen by most observers - I myself gave a completely mistaken prediction in an interview on Finnish radio on Wednesday, anticipating a lead of Amr Moussa (11,4%) and Abouel Fotouh (17,3%) who, however, ended up 5th and 4th, beaten by the socialist Sabbahi who with an amazing campaign and with very little money managed to gain the biggest part of the revolutionary vote, reaching a completely unexpected third place with 21% of the vote. Unexpected as it was for many, the result appears to be a largely genuine expression of the voters' will, even if it does have a margin of error due to minor rigging here and there (which unfortunately also means that we will never know with certainty whether Ahmad Shafiq really got more votes than Hamdeen Sabbahi). There is still the tiny chance that the outcome of a large number of polling stations can be contested because of irregularities and rigging – but Shafiq is 764,000 votes ahead of Sabbahi, and it is probably too large a gap to overcome by legal means.

As far as it comes to presidential elections, the revolution is now over, and we enter the age of battles of power between two powerful blocks that are fundamentally not committed to democracy. Whoever of the two wins, there is every reason to expect the worst from his rule. (The best of scenarios is an ongoing and undecided power struggle between the Brotherhood and the Military that will allow the revolutionary movement to gain ground because neither of the two powers is strong enough to eliminate political opposition.)

The elections might have had a different outcome. Much of the result was due to quite specific circumstances. The disqualification of former vice president Omar Suleyman and the Salafi preacher Hazem Salah ended up reducing the fragmentation of the pro-system and Islamist votes, which worked to the advantage of Morsy and Shafiq. At the same time, the competition between the two revolutionary candidates Sabbahi and Abouel Fotouh fragmented the revolutionary vote, with tragic consequences (although neither one of them would have actually been able to unite all the votes of the two – their ideological agendas are too far apart for that). The decision of major Salafi groups to back Abouel Fotouh alienated a big part of his leftist and liberal supporters, which in turn turned into Sabbahi's advantage – but not to a sufficient degree. In the end, the result is what it is, but these elections certainly have been one of those visible moments of contingency in history where it is very clear that things might have just as well gone differently. But now back to the facts:

The data from the election tells that there are interesting things going on in Egypt. Some of them, more slowly and less dramatically, are working to the advantage of the revolutionary current, and give every reason to expect that things will remain in movement in Egypt for years to come.

1. On the basis of the election results, three political and electoral blocks of roughly equal size emerge: 1) the old system (represented by Ahmad Shafiq and Amr Moussa), promising cautious transformation, and standing in the tradition of Mubarak's authoritarian neoliberalism; 2) the Islamists (represented by Ahmad Morsy and a part of Abouel Fotouh's voters – AF was backed by a part of the Salafis which ended up costing him a lot of support in leftist and liberal circles), promising a religious-moral turn but essentially committed to Mubarak's neoliberal policies; and 3) - partly overlapping with the Islamists - the revolutionaries (represented by the Nasserist socialist Hamdeen Sabbahi and the liberal Islamist Abouel Fotouh), demanding a fundamental overhaul of the political and economical system, and representing a variety of ideological positions, including liberal, Nasserist, socialist, and Islamist). So in terms of popular support, no groups is clearly superior to the others.

(No, I do not count the Muslim Brotherhood to the revolutionaries. They have proven to be highly opportunistic politicians committed to winning the political game but not committed to fundamental systemic change. They have ridden the wave of the revolution when it suited them, and sold the revolution when it served their interests. There are Islamists who are with the revolution, but the Brotherhood is not among them.)

2. Although the immediate outcome of the elections is a defeat for the revolutionaries, the overall support of the revolutionary fraction has grown. In the constitutional referendum, the „No“ vote was 23%, which until now has been the best indication we had about the overall support of a demand for a fundamental change of the political system. In the parliamentary elections, the vote of liberal, leftist, and revolutionary Islamist groups together was in the same order of magnitude as the „no“ vote. In the presidential elections, in contrast, the two revolutionary candidates Sabbahi and Abouel Fotouh gained together nearly 40% of the vote. Partly this is due to a part of the Salafis shifting towards the revolutionary spectrum lately, but there is more to it: Both Abouel Fotouh and Sabbahi were able to address people at a large scale beyond the immediate circles of revolutionary enthusiasts. While the revolutionary block has lost the presidential race, with Hamdeen Sabbahi it has also gained a leader who is able to gather mass support without making concessions either to the Islamists or to those afraid of change – a feat that seemed to be impossible to realise after the constitutional referendum and the parliamentary elections. Sabbahi may still become the president of Egypt - in five or ten years' time.

3. - The election was decided in favour of Shafiq and Morsy in the countryside and in small and medium-sized towns where Sabbahi and Abouel Fotouh were not able to reach people on an individual level through family and other networks the way Morsy and Shafiq were. Especially the Muslim Brotherhood has proven itself as a veritable election machine capable of bringing people from their homes to the polling stations, and campaigning even inside the polling stations to persuade the undecided. However, and this very important, they are not having their greatest success in those milieus where they have their strongest social basis – that is, in the cities of northern Egypt – but mainly in the countryside and in southern Egypt. Like with Shafiq, their success in the elections relies to a significant degree on people who vote not on the basis of established ideological positions but of personal and clientelist relations (who knows whom, who can help whom) and expect solutions to immediate local or personal problems. For Shafiq, this is perfectly in line with established NDP practice, but for the Muslim Brotherhood, it is a contradiction of sorts, and shows that while their power in rural areas is great, in their original milieus they are in trouble.

Shafiq, in contrast to Morsy, also did well in Cairo which, with its proximity to the centre of power, interestingly has lots of both revolutionaries as well as hardcore supporters of the old system: Sabbahi 28,7%; Shafiq 27 %; Morsy 17%; Abouel Fotouh 16%; Moussa 11,3%.

4. - Both Morsy and Shafiq were totally defeated in Alexandria, Egypt's second largest city that until now was thought to be an Islamist stronghold. This is the official result for Alexandria:
Sabbahi 34%; Abouel Fotouh 22%; Moussa 16%; Morsy 15%; Shafiq 12% (and others 1%)
This was not entirely a surprise, because already in the constitutional referendum in March 2011 Alexandria had some of the highest „no“ votes in all Egypt, close to 35% (both supporters of the old system as well as the Muslim Brotherhood rallied for a „yes“ vote). Rather than being an Islamist stronghold, Alexandria now has the revolutionary liberal/left as its most prominent political current (in terms of ideological position and public opinion, that is, not in terms of organisational power. In the latter regard the Islamists are vastly superior). This does not mean that the depiction of Alexandria as an Islamist stronghold is false – I think that in the past, it was true. Alexandria's position as a rapidly growing city of 4 or 5 millions somewhat out of the focus of the government's sight makes it a structurally oppositional city that suffers from neither the conservative inertia of the rural regions nor the vested interests and proximity to political power of the capital. This made it the perfect site for Islamist groups to develop and prove their political and social power in the past decades, and it has also made it the place where Sabbahi's revolutionary message with Nasserist undertones and populist appeal („One of us“ was his election slogan) would be most successful. Alexandria is a vanguard city when it comes to social and political dynamics in Egypt. It is worth keeping an eye on it.

5. - The support of the revolutionary fraction is heavily concentrated to cities, but not necessarily to the middle classes. Both in Cairo as well as in Alexandria, Sabbahi also gained a lot of votes in working-class areas. Structurally speaking, there seems to be a relationship between urbanisation and progressive politics that goes beyond the middle-class theory of democratisation. This puts the future government of either Morsy or Shafiq in front of a dilemma: To maintain power, they rely on a constituency that is often rural and poor. If the future government's economical and social policies are successful, this will lead to the growth of milieus that structurally favour progressive, anti-system politics, and sooner or later the future government will face new unrest – and stronger opposition. If its policies are unsuccesful, however, it will face new unrest much sooner.

6. - The revolutionary candidates were generally very weak in in rural areas, with one very interesting exception: Kafr El Sheikh, a largely rural province in the northern Nile Delta. Otherwise, the Nile Delta region was generally dominated by Shafiq (mostly first) and Morsy (mostly second), except in provinces with high degree of urbanisation like Daqahliya (which has two big cities, Mahalla and Mansoura) where Sabbahi came second behind Shafiq with a very narrow margin. In Kafr El Sheikh, however, he gained an overwhelming victory with a stunning 62% of the vote. Kafr El Sheikh is Sabbahi's home region, which is one reason for his success but not the whole story – Morsy did not win in his home region, and Abouel Fotouh was positively defeated in his. More importantly, Kafr El Sheikh has a history of leftist activism in the 1970's and 80's and although the old socialist networks had become inactive in the past two decades, they still could be reactivated for Sabbahi's campaign. In the village in northeastern Kafr El Sheikh where I do much of my fieldwork, those networks made it possible that in late April, the village was suddenly plastered by Sabbahi posters. At first, this was thanks to just six Nasserist families, but the spark soon spread also to the non-Nasserist village revolutionaries (who had formed themselves in spring of 2011 but had little practical success and played no role in the parliamentary elections), and many of them joined the Sabbahi campaign. The same happened in villages and towns throughout the province, with quite some effect as the results from Kafr El Sheikh show:
Sabbahi 62%; Morsy 17%; Abouel Fotouh 9 %; Shafiq 8%; Moussa 4%
Morsy and Shafiq won because their campaigns were able to link into family and clientelistic networks. The revolutionary candidates were successful either in cities where people are more likely to vote on the basis of ideology than networks, or in places where they could rely on pre-existing networks. While voting on the basis of ideology is likely to increase in the coming years (on the condition that there are free elections, that is), the revolutionary current can only reach majorities if it can rely on both ideology and networks. This means that if the revolutionary current does not want to wait for demographic change to solve the issue in their favour in 10 to 20 years, their most formidable task is to build those networks, and I'm not sure whether they are up to it.

7. - Yesterday evening the story started to spread that the Christian vote, influenced by the Coptic Orthodox Church that is very close to the old system, was instrumental for Shafiq making it to the second place. However, the most important base for Shafiq's succcess were not the Upper (i.e. southern) Egyptian provinces with their large Christian populations. Shafiq did well there but Morsy was the winner in most of Upper Egypt, and Shafiq got his most votes (in terms of absolute numbers) in the Nile Delta, most overwhelmingly so in the central Delta province of Sharqiya that has no remarkable Christian population: Shafiq 33,5%; Morsy 27,5%; Moussa 16 %; Sabbahi 12 %; Abouel Fotouh 11 %).

(the source of these calculations is this: - preliminary results but largely congruent with official final results)
(See also this overview, based on the official final results: )

To conclude, my expectation is that both Shafiq or Morsy will be really bad for Egypt, but that they may not be able to be quite as bad as they would like to. Shafiq will mean the consolidation of the military rule that has wrecked Egypt. Morsy is now trying to mobilise the revolutionary vote for him, and some (like the novelist Alaa El Aswany) are going along with that. But everything that the Brotherhood has done in the past year and so indicates that as soon as they gain power, they will drop, marginalise, and - if necessary - recklessly repress their former allies. However, the social and political landscape of Egypt as the outcome of the election shows it, indicates that no new leader will be able to gain the hegemonic and unquestioned position which Mubarak once had (before his authority began to crumble around 2005). Especially in the major cities, the future president will face a largely oppositional population, and it will be a tough job to govern Egypt in the coming years.

At the same time, there is no question that these elections have been the most serious and most irreversible defeat for the revolution since it began. There may not be another chance for the revolutionaries to gain power in free elections – I see no reason why either Shafiq or Morsy would have any interest to ever have free elections again unless they are forced to. The path of a peaceful revolution has come to a temporary end, and wrestling power back from either Morsy or Shafiq will likely require more than good campaigning.

Nevertheless, both Alexandria and Kafr El Sheikh (and Port Said, by the way, where Sabbahi also was first) provide crucial lections of how the revolutionaries can do it right. The path to power may begin in protests on the squares, but it must pass through the networks of people's ordinary lives and worlds. In at least three provinces in Egypt, the supporters of the revolution have found solutions to this problem. They offer lessons to be studied and learned from that may help to turn this defeat into future victories.

Saturday 14 April 2012

The presidential theatre

(Addition, 15 April in the morning: Oh the pleasure of getting it all wrong again. Just hours after I wrote this note, the supreme electoral council excluded Omar Suleyman, Khairat al-Shater and Abu Ismail from running for presidency. Unless some of them will be able to successfully appeal the decision, it looks like the main electoral battle is going to be Abu el-Futuh against Amr Musa - which already sounds a bit better than what I expected in the afternoon. - But then again, there is good reason to expect that dirty game by the Military Council was involved, and will be involved again...

But premature as my political analysis was once again, I think this note still has something to say about the mood of these days. And I still do think that the revolution has failed in an important, deeper sense even if things, against all odds, go well.)


For weeks, there has been essentially one topic of political discussion in Egypt: The presidential elections. It has been quite a theatre, with lots of political game, lawsuits, and last-minute surprises. Now the list of candidates stands - although some changes still can happen because of pending lawsuits - and the contours of the political battle around presidency are taking shape. And it is a dark and frightening shape, giving much reason to fear that the presidential elections will mark the definite point of failure of the 25 January revolution.

Just when Egypt’s revolutionaries had learned to fear the populist power of the Salafi presidential candidate Hazem Salah Abu Ismail (whose enthusiastic supporters have plastered the country with posters showing his bearded face and who almost got kicked out of the race because his mother may have held American citizenship), the very last day of registrations for presidential candidates taught them that there are worse things to fear: the former head of secret service and Mubarak’s short-time vice president Omar Suleyman, the shared menace of all opponents of the Mubarak system. Omar Suleyman had denied that he would be running just a day before, and then suddenly handed in his registration, and collected more than 40,000 signatures in his support in just one day. After the controversial candidacy of Khairat al-Shater by the Muslim brotherhood just a few days earlier, this was the second and more significant surprise.

In a matter of days, Omar Suleyman has completely changed the nature of the presidential game, and according to a representative survey by the daily Al Masry Al Youm that was published today, he is now the most popular candidate, followed by Abdel Mun‘im Abu al-Futuh (the only revolutionary candidate who has any chances to win) and Hazem Abu Ismail. However, 38,1 % of those who answered to the survey did not yet know whom they would vote, and their vote will be decisive. However, the survey gives some interesting statistical information that is telling also about those who have not yet made up their mind. Omar Suleyman is especially popular among people with low education and income in rural areas - the same constituencies that also have the highest number of undecided voters. These were the voters who have been most disconnected from the revolutionary movement, most exposed to state media, and who in the Parliamentary elections mostly put their hope in the Islamist parties - parties that after few months of parliamentary work have already lost much of their aura of piety and moral integrity. Omar Suleyman is also very popular among those members of the urban middle classes who from the beginning on experienced the revolution as a chaotic threat to the orderly way of life and who now see in the former vice president an experienced and reliable politician who is able to steer the country back to the right course.

No matter how much antagonism there is between the radical revolutionary camp that has insisted on an ongoing confrontation with the Military Council, and the more opportunistic Islamist groups that dominate the parliament and who since the parliamentary elections have been opposed to demonstrations (until changing their mind last week), Omar Suleyman has given them a new shared enemy. On the suburban train three days ago, I overheard a group of middle aged men with Salafi beards discussing the elections, and one of them saying: “If Omar Suleyman becomes the president, then the prisons will be full again, with Islamists, liberals, socialists - we will be all together again.”

But a shared enemy has not brought back the unity of the early days of the revolution. Yesterday, the Muslim Brotherhood and a number of Salafi groups called for demonstrations against military rule and the candidature of Omar Suleyman, which was met with ridicule by the supporters of ongoing revolution who had learned to know the Muslim Brotherhood in particular as an extremely opportunistic group that takes whatever position suits their momentaneous interest. In Alexandria, a large group of protesters gathered at al-Qa’id Ibrahim mosque at the time of Friday prayer, but the revolutionary block was as good as absent, except for a small group of people who were holding up signs provocatively asking where the Muslim Brothers had been when the revolutionaries were being killed in Muhammad Mahmoud and Qasr al-‘Ayni streets, and what the parliament has done for the sake of change. These signs caused quite some debate and commotion. I didn’t stay to see how the debate and the demonstration continued, for I was on my way to meet friends in Kafr al-Zayyat, an industrial town in the Nile Delta to see friends - and found everybody talking about the president as well.

Kafr al-Zayyat happens to be the home region of Abou al-Futuh, and his posters cover the walls of the city and surrounding villages. But the inhabitants of the city and its surrounding villages are far from united. On the minibus on the countryside, the driver, sporting a Salafi beard, showed him as an enthusiastic supported of Abu Ismail, and very happy about the recent court decision that the sheikh’s mother was Egyptian after all. Discussing with a passenger on the front seat, he argued that if only Egypt gets a president who applies the Law of God in full, all the economical and moral problems will be solved, graduates will get work, corruption will end, and the economical situation will improve in just two years’ time. The passenger, a civil servant by his looks, agreed about the urgency of the problems of labour market, corruption and economy, but argued that he would cast his vote for Abu al-Futuh whom he described as “wasati” representing a religious and modern middle way.

In a café in the centre of the city, I was present at a more heated debate about the presidential candidate with two young men, one of them running a private business, and a determined supporter of the revolution, and the other an army officer. D., the army officer, argued that he would vote for Omar Suleyman whom he described as the “best among the bad” because he is an experienced statesman able to run the affairs of the country - and added that basically everybody in the military circles support him. For D., the choice was one between the Salafi populist Abu Ismail and the experienced and responsible Suleyman - a binary that is also presented by parts of the state media and that, by ignoring Abu al-Futuh, reduces the choice to one between fundamentalism and security. M, the revolutionary, countered that while he was against Abu Ismail, Omar Suleyman certainly would be the worst of choices, a leading member of the clique responsible for wrecking the country before and after the revolution, and choosing him would be equal to choosing Mubarak. More than that, he argued, Abu Ismail maybe bad, but Omar Suleyman is not only bad. More than that, he is a traitor who sold Egypt’s interests for the sake of security cooperation with the USA and Israel.

Unsurprisingly, the debate remained inconclusive, and neither of the two would change his mind. In any case, the elections will be decided by those who do not yet know whom to vote. And Egypt’s voters have proved to take their decision in the last minute, often even while standing in line for the polling station. But in all likelihood (unless the law just passed by the parliament banning high functionaries of the old system from running for presidency is not overruled by the constitutional court) the second round of elections will see Omar Suleyman against one of the three Islamist candidates: The Salafi Abu Ismail, the revolutionary Abu al-Futuh, or the Muslim Brother Khairat al-Shater. This on the assumption of more or less fair elections. However, the way in which Omar Suleyman, clearly with the backing of the military and secret service establishments, entered the competition in one day, gives every reason to assume that he is the Military Council’s man for presidency, and that the military will do everything they can to facilitate his victory. Add to that the marginalisation of the radical revolutionary camp along with the gradual loss of credibility of the large Islamist parties, and it looks very likely that the presidential elections will be the final nail to the coffin of the 25 January revolution.

If this will be the case - and I will be happy to be proven wrong - the question arises: Why did the January 25 revolution fail?

Of course, the revolution has been successful on many fronts. It brought down Mubarak and his family. It has created a powerful culture of discontent and creative thinking about new ways to live and to organise society. After long years of struggle, it has brought Islamist groups to new power. But politically, it has already failed, and only a (rather unlikely) election victory of Abu al-Futuh can still turn it into a political success. The original demand spoken out by the protesters on Tahrir and other squares during the first days of the revolution was not only to remove Hosni Mubarak, but to change the ways in which the country was being governed. However, one year after the beginning of the revolution, those who are serious about changing the ways the country is being governed have proven themselves as unable to seize power, and those able to seize power have proven themselves as unwilling to change the ways in which the country is being governed.

The record of the radical revolutionary camp is poor in terms of both organisation and popular mobilisation, but then this seems to be often the destiny of the crazy few who start revolutions - their power, if any, will be a cultural and social one of nurturing a new generation of highly educated and highly critical people in key social positions. The problem, however, is that the young revolutionaries are often very unaware of the struggles of the past, and ill-equipped to avoid repeating past defeats, a problem articulated by an older professor at a literary salon attended by young, largely bourgeois audience in Alexandria. While the organisers of the salon, most of them between 20 and 30, were full of enthusiasm about the break with a de-politicized past, the older professor argued: “I see you making the same demands I made fifty years ago, and I’m very afraid that after fifty years of struggle and imprisonment, you in turn will find another young guy at the podium, making the same demands.”

As for those able to seize the power: The army should have never been trusted in the first place, and those people - including myself - who for few weeks were optimistic about the positive role of the military have been taught a bitter lesson, a lesson that has cost hundreds of lives. Most bitter, however, is the record of the Muslim brotherhood that in the course of just one year has step by step sold the cause of revolution for the sake of political power, so much as to gradually discredit itself before even gaining power. They still do have enough credit to exert power from the parliament and the cabinet (and who knows, maybe Shater still has a chance in the presidential game after all), but they are already on their way of transforming from an religious-political oppositional organisation into an opportunistic ruling party along the lines of Mubarak’s NDP, and by now many of the most respectable and trustworthy cadres of Brotherhood have either left it, or have been kicked out. With their more populistic approach, the Salafis may be able to profit from the problems the Brotherhood faces, but they, too, are intimately embedded in the clientelist politics of family alliances, favouritism, only with the pious vision of doing all that “without violating the Law of God.”

On 10 February 2011, I wrote in this blog that whatever happens, whether there will democracy in Egypt, or an authoritarian rule reconsolidating its hold, the uprising is already a success because it has given birth to a significant - and socially and culturally powerful - part of the population who can no longer be governed the way they once were. By now, it seems that the more pessimistic of the two scenarios of relative success is the more likely one: a reconsolidation of military and secret service authoritarianism, or alternatively the consolidation of an Islamist-led rule that builds on the old structures rather than changing them. As said, this does not change the fact that the new powers-to-be will face a social and political opposition of a kind Mubarak only faced (and failed to address) for less than three weeks. It is something, a little victory that hopefully will pave the way for new struggles and greater victories to come. But it is so much less than might have been possible.

However, there is also a deeper problematic that is not so much related to the ways Egypt in particular is governed, but with conditions of living in the contemporary world as a whole. On a deeper level, the Arab revolution were not directed so much against the governments of Ben Ali, Mubarak, Asad, or Saleh, but were an expression of a deeper discontent about a sense of existence that deprives one of one’s dignity, humanity, and freedom while at the same time promising their fulfilment.

The Arab revolutions of 2011 are perhaps best understood as a prelude for something that is yet to come, something that emerged under particularly sharp and oppressive conditions of frustrated promises of consumer capitalism and oppressive authoritarianism in the Arab world. By aiming their anger at the presidents and their cliques, however, the revolutionary movements have failed to name the original discontent. There are some leftists also in Egypt who are pointing at neoliberal capitalism as the core cause of the problem, but their analysis, too, may fall short of the problematic. And in any case, their analysis has not been translated into an instinctively convincing common sense of discontent and demand.

Whoever will rule in Egypt in the years to come will continue the neoliberal policies of the past decades, and will further intensify the existential discontent of living in a high capitalist world under the continuous pressure of growth and consumption, a world were precisely those things that offer temporary satisfaction - buying things, material comfort, revivalist religiosity, expectation of social ascendancy - are the same things that also increase the sense of pressure, alienation, and demoralising competitiveness that people experience. It is a problem not limited to Egypt or the Arab world - it shared also by people living in more privileged conditions as shown by the way the revolutionary spirit was taken over by the Occupy movement and others (with even less success, eventually). However, by the very real power of consumption to actually provide material comfort and to thus carry the promise of existential comfort, it remains very difficult for those people who most suffer from the condition of the world as it is to stand up in protest to change it.

In short, both the early success and the eventual failure of the January 25 revolution have to do with the problem that there is something wrong with the way the whole world is working. But unable to name the discontent as we are (as said, I think the socialists only have a partial name for it), we are still far from actually solving it.

Friday 9 March 2012


Today is the last day of the Coptic month of Amshir, a month that is known for stormy and unpredictable weather, bringing cold weather in one day and heat in another, rain in the morning and sun in the afternoon. (For practical purposes, the Coptic solar calendar has since long been replaced by the Gregorian calendar in Egypt, but agricultural calendar and common wisdom about weather changes stick to the Coptic months.) If we want to use a seasonal metaphor for Egypt after the January 25 Revolution, Amshir is certainly more appropriate than the awful “Arab spring” that was invented by western media and has also been appropriated in Arabic usage.

I returned to Egypt in mid-February, or early Amshir, entering a season of unpredictable and bad weather, as well as bad nerves and general worry, and most importantly a sense of disorientation. People far from political activism have lost much of their early enthusiasm and express fear of crime and insecurity - not without a reason, for violent crime has sensibly increased in the past months. Revolutionaries sense that the revolution has been stolen or lost. Protesters shortly filled the squares in great numbers in a new show of strength on 25 January 2012, but soon thereafter the massacre at the football stadium in Port Said and an ongoing campaign against NGOs and anti-military public media figures has shown that the situation has become rather worse than better. The two Islamist parties that gained an overwhelming majority of the parliament have quickly began to lose their aura of piety in the ordinary business of politics. The military council continues to rule the country with much brutality, and yet it has lost most of the credibility and authority it once had also in the eyes of those who do not support the revolutionary movement.

There is a shakiness of everything, a nervous disorientation and expectation of things to come, with shifting moods between hope and a sense of impending doom - underlined by the rapid changes of weather, days of beautiful sunshine and others of pouring rain and cold wind that compel people to stay home and wrap themselves with blankets for the lack of heating.

The inhabitants of Alexandria say that they love the rain and storms of the city. Rainy weather clears the air and gives it a fresh, pleasant taste. Empty lots of land otherwise bare are covered by a thick growth of weeds and flowers. Wet streets glimmer, and there is a sort of magic in the air. But when one tries to meet somebody in Alexandria on a rainy day, people cancel their appointments and tell that they are not going out as long as it rains.

Looking back at things I have written on this blog since the beginning of the revolution, I notice that over and again I have stated that things are contradictory, that some things are getting better and others worse, and many things are getting better and worse at once. Success and failure go hand in hand, as do frustration and action. This shifting, contradictory nature of things and emotions is indeed a characteristic feature of the entire revolutionary period that began in January 2011, a season of emotional, political, and societal Amshir. And just like the ways in which the Alexandrine deal with stormy weather are contradictory, so are the ways in which Egyptians relate to their revolutionary experience.

The sense of freedom that overwhelmed the country since January 2011, the now proverbial “breaking the knot of fear”, has in practice meant an emboldenment that has made life both better and worse. It has opened paths for open expression of political discontent, for a flourishing cultural life, for the rise of Islamist movements to political power, for rapid construction of houses on the scarce agricultural land, for a crime wave, and for good business opportunities for those who have the nerves and wits to seize the day.

F., a man around thirty from a provincial town in the Nile Delta, returned from Sharm el-Sheikh some months ago where he worked as a sales representative for safaris. The Bedouins, the original inhabitants of the Sinai who have profited very little from tourism, have made themselves increasingly independent first from the state, and eventually even from their own tribal leaders. There have been shootouts and kidnappings that have seriously affected tourism. F. had never considered tourism a job with a future, and with a friend he invested his savings to open the first up-market coffee shop in his home town, in style similar to those where the affluent of Cairo and Alexandria gather - only with much cheaper prices. F. doesn’t hold much of the revolution. He says: “People want to have everything at once, as if it that was possible. They don’t realise that things change step by step, and one has to work for it. The customers in the coffeeshop hang around there telling: ‘Down with military rule!’ until early morning but do nothing. They don’t search for work or try to build a future.” F. holds the military council for responsible for all the disasters and massacres that Egypt has gone through in the past months but sees little point in open resistance against them. He argues that the military leadership is corrupt and rich and determined to fight with all brutality to hold it, but picking a fight with them will make it only worse. But while critical of the revolutionaries, he is very well aware that the revolution is a golden chance to make a lucky break. Many people don’t want to invest at the moment, and prefer to wait and see. But F. argues that in a revolutionary time, those who can seize the moment win, and those who wait lose. And business is in fact going very well. While everybody talks these days about the difficult economical situation, F. says that people are actually very happy to consume, and his coffee shop is full every night. While F. is critical of the revolution, and suspicious of Egyptians being capable of democracy and freedom, he seems to be one of the winners, one of those who knew to seize the day.

One of truly tangible successes of the revolution has been a tremendous wave of cultural and artistic activity. Theatres, lectures, concerts, and exhibitions are crowded, and the past year and so has brought new styles of music and art into wider circulation. Y, listening to a new political song on his mobile phone, commented to me in this regard: “The two, and only two accomplishments of the revolution are in music, and in arts. There is so much music, good music, different music these days. And there is all the art in the streets.” There is the art of the revolutionary graffiti, most prominently produced by people from the artist scene on the walls of Tahrir Square and Muhammad Mahmoud Street in Cairo, but much more widely produced by football ultras around the country. There are the many singers and bands like Rami Essam, Cairokee, Iskenderella and many others who have connected revolutionary attitude with the sound of the guitar, with rap, or with a revival of the 1970's style of protest songs in a way that has significantly expanded the musical taste of many people in Egypt. At the same time, however, this explosive flourishing of arts and music has become a distinctive marker of a revolutionary attitude, and as such also a problem.

AA., one of the young leftist revolutionaries from the village in the Nile Delta who organised a cleanup campaign and a meeting with the village mayor in February and March last year, confronted me yesterday with a self-critique of the revolutionaries’s isolation and inability to reach out to the wider majority of people. “We are so good at arguing, and understand the situation and can analyse it well, but why are we not able to convince ordinary people although they otherwise seem so easily influenced?” The campaign in the village eventually failed, he says, because the activists were not able to gain a popular base that would extend beyond a group of mostly young men, most of them with higher education and living most of the year outside the village. AA., too, lives in Alexandria and only comes to the village on weekends. Relating to the downtown cultural scene of Alexandria which we both frequent, he wonders why it is that a leftist political attitude so often also comes along with a style: guys with beard and long hair, girls smoking imported rolling tobacco, and people wearing Palestinian kufiyas when going to a demonstration. “What do long hair, rolling tobacco, and kufiyas have to do with being revolutionary? And yet I, too, put on a kufiya when I go to a demonstration.” AA. thinks that the development of a revolutionary attitude hand in hand with a revolutionary style and jargon has the detrimental effect of making it in fact more difficult for the left wing revolutionaries to reach out to the people. The spread of a revolutionary habitus in the shape of music, kufiyas, etc. certainly has reached people across class and educational backgrounds, creating a space for creative expressions of a politically and socially critical attitude. But at the same time it has become a distinctive marker of that attitude (very much in the sense of Bourdieu’s theory of habitus, taste, and distinction), and as such it is by nature exclusive. The pop rock of Cairokee has become the sound of a revolutionary attitude among many who did not have a liking for such sound (or such attitude) before, but it is not the music that one would ever hear in a minibus, in a toktok, or in a popular wedding.

(10 March: An important correction regarding this point: Jakob Lindfors just wrote to me and says that most of the music I mention in this note is very commercial and close to establishment, and that I have completely ignored the politically uncontrollable and quite anti-system wave of popular music called Mahragan which is not played on the tv channels or included in the official soundscape of the revolution. Songs about Port Said, about burning police stations on 28 Feb. etc. It is the sound of the popular youth, the music one does hear in a toktok or in a popular wedding. So I think I was wrong about this. There is no lack of serious revolutionary music on the street level, but there is a lack of awareness and appreciation of it even in many of the revolutionary cicrles. Great music, too, btw.)

The biggest contradictions and uncertainties concern the very issue of revolution itself. Was it a good or bad thing? Was it successful or did it fail? Was it really a revolution? Yesterday evening, some of the village revolutionaries gathered again in S’s guest room in his home in the village. In this circle, much as in circles of leftist and liberal revolutionaries in Alexandria, there was a sense of failure, even impending doom. There is good reason for that sense. A number of public media figures are facing charges for incitements against the state and the military at a military court. Egyptian employees of NGO’s are still facing charges in court after foreign citizens accused in the case were allowed to leave the country following a diplomatic deal that has become a major justice scandal in Egypt. Revolutionaries are facing insults and accusations of being foreign agents, traitors, and infidels. H. is one of the handful of village revolutionaries who lives full-time in the village, working for very little pay in a call shop. His key revolutionary experience was his participation in the street battles of Muhammad Mahmoud Street in November. Frustrated about how little the village revolutionaries were capable of accomplishing, he wonders: “Was the revolution successful, or did it fail? The problem is that it was neither successful nor did it fail. Was there a revolution in the first place? If there was one, it was stolen.” He is contradicted by M.A., an older Marxist teacher, who argues: “Revolutions are not to be measured by their success and failure, because a revolution is an explosive event, and as such fundamentally unpredictable. The very fact that we are sitting here and talking about revolution is proof that there was one. And the attacks that we face are also sign of our success. There can be no revolution without enmity and struggle.” The others in the circle are not so keen to share M.A.’s positive assessment of the situation; they have expected more tangible successes.

Both have a valid point. On short term, the revolution has brought a very brutal and incompetent military government into power, and on middle term, it is bringing the much more competent but fundamentally authoritarian Muslim Brotherhood into power. At the same time, the revolutionary movement has most likely successfully prevented the consolidation of military rule, which seemed quite keen on taking a more permanent hold of power by last summer, but has become dramatically discredited since then. The military rule over Egypt that began in 1952 is causing terrible havoc on its final metres, but it is effectively coming to an end (although that end is likely to take several years to complete). What comes after the stormy changes of revolutionary and counter-revolutionary turns during a year and half of emotional Amshir, is a different question. It may or may not be better. The revolutionary faction will not rule the country for the next few years the come, and it probably never will, except at the cost of selling out its own principles. However, if they are able to even partly overcome their social limitations, and if they are able to defend themselves against violent suppression, they will be a crucial oppositional and critical power that will rule indirectly by compelling those in power to reckon with them.

E., a cultural activist from Alexandria’s leftist intellectual scene, says that this has in fact already taken effect. “The people in Egypt now curse the revolutionaries and the revolution, because Egyptians always curse those in power. By cursing the revolution, they recognise it as in fact being in charge.”

Monday 30 January 2012

Writing anthropology of and for the revolution

Exactly one year after the I began writing this blog, here a more self-reflective essay about my experience of engaged anthropology, written after returning to Berlin and the academic everyday.

(Julia Elyachar and Jessica Winegar kindly motivated me to write it for a thematic section of Cultural Anthropology, where a more polished version can be read:

In the revolutionary year 2011, blogs and other online media have become sites where engaged researchers try to understand events as they evolve; researchers have themselves been engaged supporters of or activists in the uprisings. In my own case, engaged ethnography and analysis of events as they evolve has become a kind of anthropological theory in its own right. Throughout 2011, I have been writing a blog about the Egyptian revolution. Sometime in the spring of 2011, a colleague congratulated me for my blog and said that he was really looking forward to read my research output. I didn’t know how to answer because I then realised that the blog had become the research output. An academic article might never be able to convey what I think the blog did convey.

For me it started on January 28, 2011. On that day, still unaware of the terrible death toll that had resulted from the government’s attempt to violently suppress what probably were and still are the largest protests in the history of Egypt, I decided I had to go there. Having conducted research about the aspirations and frustrations of Egyptians for many years, and hearing friends in Egypt tell me that I really should be there, that “this day would have needed you”, I felt that going to Egypt was a kind of moral obligation. I could not remain a spectator. I was hesitant, however, knowing that the situation was unsafe. My partner Daniela Swarowsky said that if I really wanted to go, I shouldn’t do it just for myself. I should write about it, let the world know what I see. This I did, with the help of Daniela and my colleague Nazan Maksudian who regularly updated the blog during the first days. In the course of three subsequent trips to Egypt (two short ones in the spring, and a long one in the autumn), I have continued updating the blog and, thanks to the efforts of the translator Amr Khairy and the publisher Muhammad Sarhan, the part covering the first two trips was published in Arabic as a book last November (

My timing was often bad. On my first trip, I arrived in Egypt just days after 28 January. I left just days before 11 February when Mubarak stepped down. On my second trip, I returned one day before the constitutional referendum of 19 March - doing justice to the title of the blog “You’ll be late for the revolution” (I’m indebted for the phrase to the then five years old son of my friend M. who hosted me in Cairo). But covering dramatic events was never my intention in the first place. Rather, I tried to listen to different voices and look at various events that evolved in the revolutionary square as well as outside it. Most of the time, the blog follows very closely the format of my fieldwork diary, combining observations and discussions of the day with some preliminary analytical considerations. And judging by readers’ comments the blog’s value, if any, lies in this combination of ethnographic attention to detail along with the attempt to theorise events as they unfold.

What kind of theory is it, then? First of all, it is a very unsteady theory, changing from day to day. Times of revolutionary transformation are not good for high theory. In a time when one wakes up in the morning not knowing what the evening will bring, and when every day has a different mood and dynamics, one needs a situated theory that makes sense of the moment without making pretensions of explaining it all. Anything that I and other engaged academics have written during 2011 bears the mark of the historical moment - not just of the year, but of the day, even the hour - and is valuable not in spite of but because of its inherent historicity.

This also means that one shouldn’t be afraid of getting it wrong. I still think that one of the best essays in my blog is that written on 6 February, a very incoherent attempt to think through the accomplishments of the revolution while it was still happening ( In that essay, I quite mistakenly assume that the then vice president Omar Suleyman was consolidating his grip on the country and that the revolutionaries were facing a long struggle. While wrong on a number of key points, that essay also conveys the sensibility of that moment, during two or three calm days in which the sit-in in Tahrir was fairly small and it was very unclear how events would evolve. Those less dramatic days were later overshadowed by the cathartic climax of 11 February, but looking back now, I think they offer more insights about the complexity of what was going on than the celebratory moment of victory. And interestingly, while I was wrong about the firm grip of Omar Suleyman on power, I was right about the long struggle ahead.

Second, it was always clear for me that I was writing not just about the revolution but for the revolution. The same writing was intended both as anthropological analysis as well as revolutionary propaganda (directed mainly at a Western readership oscillating between enthusiasm and scepticism about the events). This is a tricky thing. Scientific research is obliged to an ethos of truth, while revolutionary action requires a tactical relationship with truth. At the same time, I also believe that a revolutionary uprising is one of those situations where one cannot speak truthfully about the events without choosing sides. When people are shot dead, there is no neutral ground for disengaged analysis. My account of the Egyptian revolution is an extremely partisan one, and I would consider it a failure if it were otherwise.

Curiously, however, Egyptian readers of my blog see things differently. Amr Khairy, who translated the blog into Arabic, told me that he found it valuable exactly because of its neutrality and objectivity. I heard the same comment from others who complimented me for drawing a complex and nuanced picture of different voices and stances that they themselves would be neither willing or able to produce in the currently highly polarised political atmosphere. Perhaps this is something that anthropology in particular is good at: taking seriously and doing justice to people with whom one disagrees.

Finally, the concept of revolution itself is an engaged one. From the beginning, sceptical voices have cautioned against revolutionary euphoria, arguing that the revolutions in Egypt and elsewhere only counted as such if they are successful in fundamentally changing the system of government and economy against which the uprisings originally were directed. By such measures, the Egyptian uprising hardly qualifies as a revolution so far. But there is another, more experiential and moral aspect to using the concept revolution. My friend M., who works in one of Egypt’s leading independent newspapers, tells that a few days after January 25, an editorial decision was made to use the word “revolution” in the headlines. This was a political decision, a conscious act of propaganda to push forward a sense that what was going on was not just a protest for the sake of reform, but a revolution to overthrow the system. Thus when I write about the Egyptian revolution, it is not only to say there was a revolution, but also that there needs to be one, that the uprising that began on January 25, 2011, must end in victory.