Monday 3 June 2013

Seize the day

On Saturday evening, I met with a group of men, most of them fishermen and workers, in a café in the village in the Nile Delta which I frequently visit. As usually these days, the talk turned to politics. A.I., part-time waiter in a café, part-time fisherman, remembered how he had complained to me about oppression and injustice back in 2009. „Now, it has only become worse,“ he said: „Mubarak wasn't good, but Morsy is a million times worse.“ He and his friends complained that there is no work, there is no money, there is a crisis in everything: There is electricity shortage, there is fuel shortage, and some days ago tap water was cut off for two days in the village. People had enough water in storage for drinking and cooking, but not for bathing, washing, or flushing toilets.

I write these notes two days later on my way back to Berlin form a short visit to Egypt in a moment of what felt like calm before a storm. Ethiopian plans to construct a series of dams on the Blue Nile are a cause of great concern, and president Morsy's suggestion on a TV interview that „we will rise our hands and pray to our Lord“ to make sure that there will be enough water reaching Egypt, does not sound like a well-thought strategy. There was a wave of lengthy electricity cuts in mid-May, and after a week of fairly reliable electricity, electricity cuts began again three days ago. There is a constant shortage of gasoline and diesel and long queues at gas stations. The economic situation is difficult, and a friend who works as a salesman of boat and ship equipment told that the even petroleum companies which so far have been the most reliable customers, have become unreliable when it comes to paying their bills. Political freedoms are getting further curtailed, several activists have been arrested, face charges, or are imprisoned. Most recently, on Monday, Ahmed Douma received a six months prison sentence for insulting the president (which immediately provoked an „Insult the President“ campaign on social media). While the Muslim Brotherhood is evidently failing to solve the urgent problems of the country, they are more successful in establishing their control over institutions of the state step by step, most prominently at the moment in the Ministry of Culture where the new minister of culture has started to change directors of cultural institutions in order to slowly establish ideological control over an institution of the state that until now has been an important leftist and liberal bulwark.

In short, Egypt is in a miserable shape. And it may be a golden hour for the opposition against the Muslim Brotherhood's rule.

After meeting A.I. in the café on Saturday evening, I went to see a Hagg F. and his wife, both teachers. F's wife and daughter were watching the latest Arab Idols show on television, while Hagg F. and his friend AA. were talking about poetry and politics. Minutes after my arrival, the electricity was cut off (for the second time that day), and remained so for an hour. In the darkness illuminated by a torchlight, we entered a discussion about the isolation of intellectuals in a conservative society. AA. argued that the problem of living in a village is that there is little distance between people of different opinions and visions of life, which is why one has to build high mental walls between oneself and others to avoid conflicts. Intellectuals from the village, he argued, essentially face three choices: moving away, going crazy, and isolation. Those who move away can come back on weekends, and for them life in the village is a holiday, a time out of the pressures of city life. For those who stay, it is very difficult.

While AA. elaborated his point with an anecdote about Nietzsche and the shared predicament of those who try to come up with progressive, exceptional ideas in conservative society, there was a knock on the door, and M., a cousin of Hagg F. in her mid-twenties walked in and asked if he could lend her his USB stick because she needed to print out more forms for the Tamarrud signature campaign to remove trust from president Morsy. „I'm doing the campaign at home, at work, wherever I can,“ she told. She is getting a lot of signatures.

The Tamarrud (literally rebellion, disobedience, insurgency) Campaign is the most ingenious move of the revolutionary current since quite some time. It was launched by a small group of activists in early May and has since then become extremely popular despite repeated arrestations and attacks against people collecting signatures. After too many endless battles with the police and Ikhwan supporters on the streets that over and again did not bring a result, the signature campaign is a peaceful and inclusive tactic of resistance and opposition. Most importantly, it is able to overcome the social isolation of the activist few, to mobilise people like M., and to reach out to a lot of people who could not be reached by revolutionary street action.

In the village, the campaign has encountered a very positive response. The success and ease of finding people who would sign with their name, address, and citizenship number against the president, has given the village revolutionaries a new sense of confidence and power in place of the isolation and frustration that had previously prevailed among them.

Nationwide, the campaign has the declared aim to collect 15 million signatures until 30 June, the first anniversary of Morsy's presidency. So far they have more than seven million, and they keep collecting. It has no binding legal force, however, and what exactly will happen when the campaign reaches its set deadline on 30 June is an open question. But already now, it has the immediate effect of raising the spirits of the revolutionaries and giving them a new sense of confidence and power – a power which they are also trying to actively excercise.

On Saturday morning, the head of the local council of the village (the same one who decided to cooperate with the revolutionaries back in spring 2011 and remained in office unlike the head of the city council who got into a fight with them), called a number of people to a meeting to rescue a public housing project for the youth from alleged theft and „Brotherhoodisation“ (akhwana). There is a plot of land behind the youth centre which the local council of the village bought back in the 1980's, and where the foundations for public housing had been laid weeks ago. A local businessman, however, produced an apparently false contract to prove his ownership of the plot of land. He was supported by the city council of the nearby town which is meanwhile controlled by the Muslim Brotherhood. The assumption is that the businessman is acting as an agent of the Brotherhood against the local council of the village which is still lead by men of the old system (like governors, also heads of city and local councils are appointed, not elected in Egypt). Now the head of the local council of the village was trying to mobilise the revolutionaries to support him against the Muslim Brotherhood.

Late at Saturday night, a group of men from the revolutionary circle gathered in a café near the main mosque of the village late at night to discuss what to do. There was a sense of energy and empowerment among them. They were already emboldened by the success of the Tamarrud Campaign, and by seeking their help, the town mayor had recognised them as a power in local politics. But they were determined to play their own game.

As they discussed the issue in detail, they agreed that the story stinks. They had no doubt that there was dirty game by the Brotherhood and the local businessman going on, a scheme of indirect takeover of power in the village by the Ikhwan (who have become so unpopular in the village that some new functionaries in the town have been advised not to set their foot in the village), and a blatant case of land theft and corruption. But they were also convinced that the head of the local council was after private interests of his own, that there was bound to be money flowing into his and his clicque's pockets through the construction project – and probably there would be manipulation in the distribution of the apartments as well.

Instead of joining one side or the other, they decided to mix up the game and play it by their own rules. The story is already out and soon it will be making rounds in the village. „There will be a lot of hugger-mugger“ said one of them. M.R. countered: „Hugger-mugger is our strength.“

M.R., a member of ElBaradei's Constitution Party, came up with a suggestion that convinced everybody present: The revolutionaries will make the whole thing public and demand that the entire process is made transparent, starting from the choice of a contractor to build the housing all the way to the distribution of the apartments and their prices.

The next day some of the men went to meet the head of the local council and photographed documents about the case. S. who lives in Alexandria, and D. who has started to work as a freelance journalist in Cairo are trying to use their contact to get television and press coverage, And everybody in the village will be talking about it.

This was a golden opportunity, they agreed while sitting and planning in the café late at night, a moment to seize the day and exploit the current unpopularity of the Ikhwan.

The talk turned to future elections (date not yet set). M.R. wants to run for the local council, the others encouraged him and promised their support, and the discussion moved to the question of party politics, especially whether the National Salvation Front will be able to agree on candidates from the many allied parties. In the electoral district, several parties as well as the independent farmers' union all have serious candidates to propose – many more than there are seats that can be realistically won. It will be a big fight.

As the discussion went on, I thought to myself that while these guys are determined to play their own game, at the same time they are about to take a crucial step away from revolutionary purity towards pragmatic politics with all the tricky negotiations and alliances of local politics involved. It is the moment of planned, intelligent, peaceful action in order to make a positive difference – but it will come along with all kinds of complications, problems and question marks.

But if the village revolutionaries currently do have a concrete plan, nationwide things look less clear. On Saturday evening I went with S. to a barber shop for a shave (a luxury which greatly enjoy in Egypt and miss in Europe). Y. the barber asked S. a question that people keep repeatedly asking: „Do you think that Morsy will go on 30 June?“ S. replied, sceptically: „It will be an uproar and it will be over.“ Y's hope was that the Tamarrud Campaign together with big demonstrations will force the Brotherhood to step down. This is an expectation I have heard repeatedly: „On 30 June, we shall see“. But what will there be to see? Y. he was certain about one thing: „There will be blood“.

„There will be blood“ is something I have heard very often these days. It is based on the assumption that the Brotherhood will never give up power peacefully, that violent confrontation is inevitable. This expectation, even hope for violence stands in a curious contrast with the non-violent success of the Tamarrud Campaign. I remain puzzled, and it is a puzzlement many others share with me. While people of different walks of life and different political visions come together these days in their rejection of the Brotherhood (I have met too few Brotherhood supporters on this trip to say something about their point of view), their visions about what to do about it, and what should come after them go far apart. Some hope for the return of the military. Some expect that the Brotherhood will stay in power but that their gradual takeover of the state needs to be stopped. Some put their hope in a transitional presidential council (which has been demanded by many revolutionaries since summer 2011). Many – perhaps the most – tell me that while they think that Morsy must go, they really don't know how it can be done, or who could possibly govern Egypt after the Brotherhood and do it better.

The current condition is unbearable, and its unbearable nature along with innovative tactics of opposition makes it possible to perhaps seize the day and change the condition. Now that hundreds of thousands have gone out to streets against Erdogan in Turkey, it looks like the grip of political Islam on power may be successfully contested even where it has been economically successful. But this sense of opportunity is shadowed by the realisation that there is a terrible lack of convincing alternatives.

The greatest failure of the Muslim Brotherhood has been its inability to create durable alliances with other political forces across ideological and social divides. They have dramatically wasted an opportunity to become the leading power of constructive political change – instead, they are struggling on all fronts, national and local alike, to establish control, creating opposition as they do so, becoming more and more authoritarian to protect their power, while having very little success in solving any urgent matters. They may continue doing so for many years to come, which is not exactly a bright vision of the future . But the bigger problem is that there is no reason to assume that anybody else could do better. None of the many competing factions in Egypt's social and political landscape is alone strong enough to run the country. Whoever will try to rule Egypt alone will fail, and face fierce resistance by everybody else. At the same time, it looks more difficult than ever to make durable alliances, to share power, and to accept others in spite of ideological differences. More and more people are recognising that this is a core problem – but also how exceedingly difficult to solve it is.

In this moment of confusion, the idea of bloodshed emerges as a terrifying promise of a fierce, decisive battle that may finally bring about a solution. But of course, It won't. It will most likely only destroy more. There will be blood. But what is needed is something else: tactical innovations, new ways of doing inclusive politics that can seize the day the way and unite different factions. The Tamarrud Campaign is prophetic of what may be possible one day, although that possibility does not have a recognisable shape yet.