A week in revolutionary Egypt and some departing thoughts

1 Jan

These are just my departing thoughts on Egypt. Thank you so much, to my friends and newfound comrades in Egypt and you have my eternal and unending respect and solidarity for your courage and political programme. Things may change but, the need for liberation remains the same. ***If your name did not get written in it is for security reasons and or, a lack of consent on the person’s part.  

This will not be published but, it is just a QUICK note about my time in Egypt. J

Arriving in Egypt on 21 December was probably like arriving in Egypt a year earlier; except one did not see Mubarak’s face everywhere. It was SCAF’s show now and to the expense of the Egyptian people, the show must go on.

 

The SCAF as the “defenders of the revolution” are orderly transitioning from Mubarak to a technocracy or as a friend and guide, Ahmed Saleh called it, “the Romanian Scenario”: from one dictatorship to plutocracy run by the second tiers, of the former. Citizens are the constituents of a state and they are not accepting anything less than ‘real democracy’ a la control in a fair system. As a fellow young revolutionary named Josef told me over shisha, “we have a goal [that is democracy] so we are going to take steps towards it”, not towards something sufficient but that goal itself, “as long as it takes”.

 

In Egypt, as I met 6 April coalition and Youth for Change and Coalition in Defence of the Revolution activist, Ahmed Saleh in person I turned a corner and found him conducting a meeting with 8 other activists and  newcomers who were looking to get involved. This wasn’t just passive interest but one of the attendees was looking at a newspaper and crying, and Ahmed said, “he lost someone, and he has four bruises over his body”. Many of the participants had lost someone or had originally participated and saw the repression and broken promises and forthwith decided to extend their solidarity wherever they could as ‘dignified’ citizens.

 

Dignity is a central concept. Too many of the Egyptian people have been denied their dignity as individuals. Dictatorship to them has violated their dignity, or their individual autonomy on various occasions and enough was enough.  Although this dignity also represented a shift in the power within the state, people were willing to challenge SCAF a la, the only legitimacy it has is through its guns and the promise of a transition.

Visiting Tahrir

 

The 23 December "million man march" against military-police brutality. They're demanding reduced police powers and an end to SCAF rule.

Finally, I visited Tahrir with Ahmed and this was my formal introduction to the resistance. Many democrats were discussing tactics, living issues, current events, or discussing the value of the struggle. There were a dozen of small meetings and I met one of the student leaders, Mahfouz. He had been part of the group who re-took Tahrir after the military had swept them away. From seeing the peaceful occupation of Buffalo, the anaemic occupation sites at Manchester, the spontaneity of the public assemblies in Spain and the decimations in the USA, to wit, Tahrir was the centre of resistance.

 

A center of resistance, is not just a physical space but it is a focal point of energy. The space is a space where parallel institutions and organization is legitimate, as the wobbly adage goes, “making the new world, within the shell of the old”. In a space such as Tahrir, it was made safe for people to openly discuss and criticise the legitimacy of both the political and economic relationships in society as well as practice and reinvent those relationships. Operationally, it takes the nature of this space and uses the space as a base of operations within a network for actions and activity: liberation & resistance.

 

SCAF’ tactic is the velvet glove as opposed to the iron fist, or rather its social attrition. After the decimation of the first camp in Tahrir, SCAF’s media war is parallel to a war of attrition on Tahrir. On my last full day in Tahrir, 28 December I sat down at Tahrir with organizer, Mohammed ElKomy and discussed the method that SCAF has used to try to dismantle the camp at the square.

SCAF has used the state media, which has been cited as a method of manipulation by Amnesty International as well as the 6 April coalition (note: It’s narcissistic, I am particularly happy that the coalition is named after my birthday) and other organizations. According to Mohammed, “our medical services have broken down…there were 4 or 5 clinics in Tahrir [square] and they all shut, I don’t know why but, now doctors only come when there are clashes”. He attributed the closing to SCAF’s coercion which included direct theft and attacks on the square by spies and assailants. When I interviewed Mohammed I noticed newly erected entrance gates at Tahrir that were established in order to check the flow of travellers in and out of the square; whereas, during the 40 day occupation of the square (including the recent raid), community members have come to know one another and may easily identify one another.

 

One examining any dictatorship, either by a military force or a political party, can see SCAF’s strategy and tactics on display. The use of assailants and mercenaries- hired thugs, really- is rather notorious parallel to the snach-and-grab tactics used by SCAF itself. Mohammed, said “[if you] step 100 meters out of the square then the police will come and snach you up, so here is the only place that is safe”.

 

The debates were between counter-revolutionary and revolutionaries (or sympathizers), the former came to the square to dissuade people from entering with the standard SCAF line: ‘these people are keeping Egypt back, Tahrir is merely a den of squatters and scoundrels, and during the revolution people came and handed out hundred pound notes to these people ( a la they are being financed to de-stabilize Egypt)’.  These were all rumours to disenchant people who favoured the revolution. The night I arrived here in my romanticized view of Tahrir- and heinous lack of any Arabic proficiency- I witnessed multiple discussions going on. Crowds would gather around 2-4 (mostly men) and they would vigorously discuss & debate, although later I learned that this was a fight going on.

 

Upon leaving Tahrir for the first time after I was guided through it I felt a warm feeling of solidarity as I passed out sanitary napkins and notebooks I had no use for as a non-lingual token of appreciation. The feeling of solidarity and warmth was not just because I was sympathetic but, because as an outsider I could communicate with the world and transmit their aims and what I saw there. In fact, after asking Mohammed what can westerners do to help the revolution is to act as a communications network and hear the stories opposite of the lies of the junta. Westerners, may also find another action used by the Egyptians and exercised in 2011 when outsiders called  in food aid to the occupation in Wisconsin’s state house.

The Demonstrations

On 21 December when I arrived, in Taalat Harb square, a walk away from Tahrir, there was a rally which has become a common occurrence at this intersection since the revolution: “don’t take away our voices”, read the sign depicting a young woman being silenced. The demonstrators had stickers on their mouths that read “our dignity”. Activists marching against the SCAF's repression and violence against women. On two other occasions Taalat Harb was the point of other public demonstrations and rallies, an auxiliary assembly point; at the point itself, the space is a space in conflict: graffiti, the messages, and signs of the revolution vs. Wealthy banks and business on the other hand.  

The silencing of women and the energy introduced by this event has raised the dialogue on the state of women in Egypt: bad. Women, according to a 2009 CESR report compared to other low and middle income countries in North Africa, Egypt has fallen significantly behind in making changes to improve the economic, health, and educational condition of women. Furthermore, in the CESR report, it cites Egypt as having one of the highest Female illiteracy rates in the Middle-East, and between 2002-2007 public expenditure has decreased except in defence and policing amidst a general upward trend in GDP.

 

Sexism or what many feminists would consider institutionalized patriarchy is in Egypt. Not all practices are sexist and as a westerner admittedly it would be ethnocentric not to exercise a flexible cultural relativism when accessing sexism yet, there are instances in public life that are clearly sexist. The inequality is rather dynamic in Egypt and I couldn’t do it justice to only briefly discuss it in a few paragraphs so, all that can be correctly stated are some of the testimonies I’ve received as well some key things from a discussion with an American friend living in Egypt I’ll call J.

The day after the demonstration, I made contact with a friend from New York introduced to me via others who has been living in Egypt for a year. Dignity of the family- and society as a whole- is represented in the women, and J went on to discuss a rather unnerving experience she had whereas after a demonstration and the women had mostly left, men attempted to grab her and because of her foreign status, she couldn’t assault them or it may have incurred xenophobic mob violence.

On the other hand, since women are the unit of dignity of the family and society in Egyptian society there’s a very serious culture of public (and private) respect for women in life. This respect excludes overt abuse in public, as Ahmed a “average guy” who graduated from American University told me: “I don’t know about in the west, but in the Arab world, hitting a woman is an absolute wrong….it’s just not acceptable, and when people saw the footage [of the girl being stomped on by the police] people flipped].

On 23 December, I was standing in a sea of demonstrations, multiple yet unified with only 5 days notice 2000 people were packed within Tahrir after a previous midnight crackdown of arrests, three protest marches, and then demonstrators vigorously chanted, “women are a red line” referring to the heinous footage of a woman being beaten by Egyptian military police and after a string of disgraceful cases of sexual and physical abuse of women. The demonstration was called on the 18th after the police burned down tents and mercilessly beat demonstrators. The 23rd December demonstration was a show of escalating force on the part of the protest movement yet, it was much less violent than the last demonstration according to my friend Ahmed Fakahany.

 

Ahmed gave me a tour of the area after I told him my intention to document the revolution. The area had been a site of resistance through self-defence not just political transformation, so this part of the news was actually correct. The kind of discipline came through a feeling of social solidarity created in a city or a people under siege, whereas there may be internal disagreements but one will not sacrifice the other to their common enemy. We were standing in front of a wall next to the burned out National Academy that according to Ahmed, who was a medic at the barricades, and as we walked towards Tahrir we entered Mohamad Mahmoud street which was also cordoned off. The walls around American University featured a mosaic tribute to revolutionaries and martyrs who weren’t that dissimilar to myself; “do you see how they all have one eye, that was the common wound during the clashes, so it’s a symbol of the revolution”, and thereafter, as I reflected upon it, walking through Cairo I saw many young adults with bandages on their heads or their eyes.

 

As we approached the American University library, we passed a demonstration led by a young girl that was no older than 12 years old. Street children played an impressive and important role in the clashes according to Ahmed, “they went into the smoke and teargas and pulled people out, threw rocks and ran for us, they were invaluable” yet “they are usually looked down upon and excluded and this revolution gave them a way to be included”.

As we left the site of the clashes and said goodbye to one another, the organization and the discipline struck me as brilliant. Brilliant because it was serious, this is not to say that there’s a certain discipline amongst western activists and organizers but, its a discipline that knows at the end of the day we may acquiesce to the apolitical but due to the situation itself and the importance of the political, self-defence became effective resistance to military repression.

 

The difference in the openness about self-defence was refreshing as well. Normally in the west we fetishise non-violence, whereas in a conversation with activists they made it clear that self-defence isn’t attacking but, not letting someone threaten your body. For example, with the riot police and the military police they throw stones because they know that their lives may be in danger and there’s already an asymmetry in force. Yes, they do live in a different system- a dictatorship and now a military junta- but, nevertheless there’s asymmetry in force between the armed state and protestors and refreshingly upon bringing up Gandhian non-violence, the idea for them was to resist violence but preserve life. This is more relevant to western activists now more than in the recent part, particularly Americans with skyrocketing institutional police brutality and systematic repression with force. In a few words: Be non-violent, not passive. The police are not our friends do not attack them, do not antagonize them but, defend yourselves collectively.

For example, if we go back to NYC, when a woman was punched in the face in late November after the “cleansing” of OWS; let’s all be like the crazy guitarist, tap the officer on the helmet with your guitar and hold your friend as they grab at you.

 

The Pyramids of Giza, Alexandria, the tourist industry and counter-revolution

 

The Pyramids, Sphinx, the Roman Tombs, Library of Alexandria and the other monuments I saw in Egypt were amazing, absolutely brilliant and informative about poverty and the consciousness of tourism entrepenurs in revolutionary Egypt.

 

I can write a book about how to and not to engage in tourism in Egypt but here are a few tips: 1) Always get a cab and say in English, “by the meter” or “Fee Meter” otherwise you ride at your own risk; 2) Check out Arabian Nights hostel in Al-Darassa on Al Mansoureia st. Of all 12 countries I’ve travelled to and all the places I’ve been in the US their hostel was the friendliest, resourceful, reasonable, and generous and safest hostel I’ve stayed in; 3) bargain like hell, ironically in the place I was staying they didn’t know that much English on the streets so they would either wave me on or we’d intensely bargain; 4) Bring toiletries and learn a few basic Arabic phrases such as, please and thank you- it goes a long way.

 

While touring all of these sites and staying the hostel I asked many people and according to them, the tourism sector has suffered considerably. In fact, according to a recent article in Reuters, “the tourists have yet to return, and Egypt’s tourism minister has forecast the industry’s 2011 revenue will be 25 percent lower than the previous year.” Although, the phenomenon of revolution also brought people like myself or “Tahrir Tourists”, journalists, activists, and politicos who wanted the real story behind the revolution.

 

This makes the small business entrepreneurs a wild card, because on the one hand many expressed to me- independently- their enthusiasm for the revolution. Or rather, many expressed reluctant approval for the revolution and or complete opposition to the revolution for its hindrance of business as usual. Ironically, many of the Tahrir revolutionaries were middle class and some of them entrepreneurs so this becomes an issue of political consciousness and desperation. Many of the tourist industry employees who voraciously appealed to me in the markets and on the streets, one could tell that they were under pressure to compete and as an American I met at the airport characterized their condition, “they’re trying to eat”.   

 

Therefore, the tourism industry is a potential hotbed of counter-revolutionary energy but all that is necessary is education. In SCAF’s plan, they are utilizing the media and misinformation to turn people against Tahrir and if you’re a local family vendor who’s struggling before and after and you are only told that SCAF equals stability and stability is what you need for business, what are you going to do? I hope that this is not where “honourable” citizens originate from to crush revolutionaries.

 

Its a revolution!

 

The revolution in Egypt is indeed a revolution of social movements. From what I’ve seen the political formations, liberal, socialist, moderate and centre-right (before Mubarak) are still fighting it against SCAF and for them they are ready to go to the limit and to fight a war to win democracy, although democracy means many things. The movement itself is liberal democratic but, as a photographer who was my age and involved with the revolt to some extent told me, “for Egyptians capitalism means slavery” but, Egyptians are not marching en masse with the revolutionary socialists leading the change for socialism. Therefore, the revolution itself will result in democracy being defined as equality and freedom as inseparable in order to realize a reversal of Mubarak’s neoliberal policies and to ensure that their police state didn’t return as a soft-autocracy.

 

This has been most of all a revolution led by the idea and promise of human rights. Human Rights as we know them are divided into two tiers Primary/ Real political and civil rights such as the right to vote, assemble and freedom of the press, and then Secondary/ Welfare rights, which are the rights to education, healthcare, employment, sustenance and housing. I however, reject this hierarchy of rights because the latter is necessary to secure the former; for example, if one does not have access to education how are they to know about how to interpret the platforms of different political parties in the election or have access to opportunities, or as we’ve seen in history certain classes were uneducated in order to maintain feudal relations such as European serfdom and later U.S. chattel slavery. Moreover, the state of Egypt has the resources to provide a bare minimum of these secondary rights so why not? Whose interest is it in to disadvantage people, certainly not the individuals themselves when they have no access to proper medical care when they are dying from various ailments (see CESR report on Egypt available at http://www.cesr.org) .

 

We should all be cheering on the revolution of 2011 to its completion in 2012 or in the future. After all, when the people take rights as political and civil power, we represent ourselves as subjects who have material consciousness and may rule together for, by and with ourselves.

 

All of these have just been a few thoughts….


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