The Uprisings Will be Gendered

by: Maya Mikdashi

Women’s rights and the regulation of gender and sex norms in the Arab world have long been put under the spotlight by local and international activists in addition to local and international politicians and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs). This year, the ongoing uprisings in the Arab world have brought into focus some dominant ways that sexual and bodily rights are framed, gendered, and politicized. These can be grouped under three loose themes, each of which deserves further study: One is the equation of gender with women and/or sexual and gender minorities. Two is the fear of Islamists. Three, is the use of gendered and sexed violence to discourage or discredit protests and revolutionaries. Such a selective focus on sexual and bodily rights obfuscates power dynamics and contexts that are always also at play when discussing a particular political, historical, or economic issue.

It is an old complaint that the study of “gender” is in fact the study of people who are not “white” (i.e., not racialized) hetero-normative men. Such an equation hides that gender is not something one can be outside of. It is not an analytic lens that can be withheld and deployed according to the genitalia and/or sexual practices of the group or topic under study. Thus we have seen journalists and academics write about “protestors” without mentioning gender until they get to the “female protestors.” The same deployment of gender is used to talk about citizenship more generally, where the “citizen” apprears as an unmarked and universal category until studies of “female” and/or “Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, and Queer (LGBTQ)” citizens (and non-citizens, by the way) disturb this chimera. When we read of these “female protestors” are we to assume that all previous analysis of “protestors” has been about men? If so, why does this not factor into analysis? Are men not gendered? Is citizenship an ungendered and undifferentiated category except when talking about female citizens? If we believe that an attention to gender is important to understanding how women live their lives, then why not extend the same courtesy to men? What power dynamics and hegemonic discourses are being reproduced with every selective deployment of “gender” in the media and in every syllabus on “politics” or “citizenship” that includes one or two weeks (yay!) about “women” or “gender?” The equation of gender with non-hetero-normative males is as old as the genesis of “gender studies” itself. We are seeing this equation play out again in coverage and analysis of the Arab uprisings, where a study of “gender” has become a synonym for the study of women and LGBTQ Arabs.

Masculinity studies is a growing and robust field that teaches us to be vigilant in questioning the ways that a gender analysis is deployed and withheld. Everyone is gendered, just as everyone, rich and poor and middle class, is “classed.” In fact, the current deployment of a gender analytic is akin to studying the class grievances, backgrounds and anxieties of only half of the Egyptian or Syrian population, for example. The assumption that socio-economic class is only an analytic to study those that are notmembers of the privileged classes reproduces international and national political and economic dynamics, alliances, and interests. Likewise the division of gender justice from economic justice lends itself to debates on female “quotas” in various parliaments that do not take into account the need for economic diversity among parliamentarians.

A second prevailing mode of framing, gendering, and politicizing the uprisings is the fear of Islamists. As Islamists gain ground in Egypt, Tunisia, and Syria concerns over their potential gender policies continue to fester. While such concerns and interest are certainly important, why do they gain such momentous traction only when it comes to Islamists? After all, have non-Islamist Arab political parties and powers had such wonderful and progressive gender policies all this time? This selective fear of Islamists rests on familiar assumptions about Islam (scary) secularism (redemptive and progressive) and other religions (huh?). Thus the victory of Islamists in Egypt’s elections is cause for anxiety (about what they might do) among international feminists and gender activists, in addition to groups and individuals such as The Center for Secular Space and Hillary Clinton. But spitting on eight-year-old girls or stoning women (yes, stoning) who violate the gender code of Orthodox Judaism is a headline, not a discourse on women’s rights and patriarchy in Israel or in Judaism. But I am sure that if women were stoned and/or spit on in he streets of Homs for not wearing the hijab it would be about Islam and about the dangers that the Syrian uprising poses to Syrian women. Similarly, the victory of Islamists in Tunisian elections is scary because of what they may do in regards to women’s and LGBTQ rights. But Rick Santorum’s bible-fueled anti-woman and anti-gay campaign/crusade says nothing about the gender politics of Christianity. In addition, many Arab secularists dismiss the Egyptian and Tunisian elections primarily because Islamists won, and many try to dismiss the Syrian uprising by branding it “Islamist.” Interestingly, many of these thinkers were (rightly) quick to condemn Israel and the United States’ refusal to work with Hamas after their electoral victory. To paraphrase Fawwaz Traboulsi: Islamists won. Deal with it. Traboulsi also makes the important point that now that they are in power, Islamists will actually be held accountable for all the fantastical promises they have made for decades. We will now get to see, for example, if Islam, or this brand of it, is truly the answer to a chronically clogged sewage system in Cairo. For their part, some mainstream journalists have become obsessed with finding the women on the streets of Syria. When they find them they describe their clothing with the type of attention to detail that can only indicate something of deep significance. Thus women protesting in Syria are in “western dress” or not, they are “secular looking” or not, and some of them (believe it or not) have boyfriends and drink alcohol.

Gender equality and justice should be a focus of progressive politics no matter who is in power. A selective fear of Islamists when it comes to women’s and LGBTQ rights has more to do withIslamophobia than a genuine concern with gender justice. Unfortunately, Islamists do not have an exclusive license to practice patriarchy and gender discrimination/oppression in the region. The secular state has been doing it fairly adequately for the last half a century.

The third frame we can employ to understand dominant discourses related to the uprisings are the uses of gendered and sexed violence to discourage or discredit protests and revolutionaries. The Mubarak regime and the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) have used sexual violence to discourage and discredit Egyptian protestors and revolutionaries. Female protestors and activists have been subjected to “virginity tests,” vicious beatings, and charges of immorality. In fact, everywhere there has been an uprising, the regime in question has propagated a discourse of immorality among male and female protestors. In Yemen women were actively discouraged from joining protests by security forces who targeted them for repression. In Bahrain a cry for “public morality” was thrown against men and women fighting to overthrow a repressive monarchy. Such statements are meant to discredit protests and protestors as cesspools of immorality and sexual licentiousness. In turn, the spectacle of Egyptian security forces publicly beating and dragging a woman down a street is a warning to others. It is forcefully implied that women and men should stay at home and away from the impunity with which (secular) security forces can violate a protestors’ body.

Arab regimes are not the only actors using sexed and gender violence to discredit protestors and revolutionaries in the Arab world. As the hysteria surrounding the sexual assault of Lara Loganrevealed in the days when the United States was still trying to assure Mubarak’s longevity, the protestors were in fact a sex crazed reactionary and dangerous mob. In addition, “women’s rights” in Egypt and Tunisia have been twinned with the type of state feminism advocated by their respective former first ladies, a cynical use of gender rights by authoritarian regimes that were thus branded ‘reformers’ by their western allies. In fact, reading the American press, it seems that the daily reality of sexual violence is important only to the extent that it can be harnessed to other political causes and projects. Furthermore, a selective emphasis on some sexual and gender violence decontextualizes those violences from the larger infrastructures of oppression that people live under. For example, Israeli attempts at “pinkwashing its settler colonization of Palestine highlight how Israel saves gay Palestinians from their Islamic culture. In this way, the Israeli state hopes to paint Palestinians as homophobic Islamic fundamentalists in order to discredit now well over a century of resistance against settler colonialism and apartheid.

These are frames that have been used to discuss “gender” in the Arab uprisings: One, gender means women and gays. Two, Islamists (and only Islamists) are scary and dangerous to women and sexual minorities. Three, the legitimacy of a popular uprising and/or revolutionary struggle can be gauged by how it treats “their women” and “their gays.” All three of these frames are highly selective and politicized. Furthermore, each reproduces and invites practices of patriarchy, Islamophobia, authoritarianism, and colonialism. By using these frames gender justice is divorced from struggles for economic and political justice, and the revolutionary potential of this three way marriage is once again smothered.

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Which Islamists?

by: Hani Sabra

Ballot counting continues as Egypt’s first round of elections, in which a third of the country voted, comes to a close. We now know that the Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party, with the weight of an 83-year old organization behind it, will come out on top. But the real surprise has been the success of the more hardline, ultraconservative Salafi Nour (Light) Party. Nour could capture roughly a quarter of the seats in the first round, and there’s no reason to believe that it can’t replicate that performance in the upcoming two rounds.

Nour’s success unsettles many moderate Egyptian Muslims, liberals, and Christians who fret about the potential impact on their personal lives. How will an Islamist-dominated parliament approach banking, tourism, and foreign investment? But Nour has probably unsettled the Muslim Brotherhood too. The upstart Salafis, who until recently did not participate in politics — many of them still say that democracy is “kufr” (non-belief) — have encroached on the Muslim Brotherhood’s traditional territory. Thus, an increasingly critical question in post-Hosni Mubarak Egypt is not how the liberals will fare against the Islamists; that’s already been answered. Rather, it is: Who wins the right to speak for Egypt’s Islamists?

There are roughly three main Islamist political trends in Egypt, and together they will form a supermajority in parliament. The Muslim Brotherhood represents the right-wing, conservative, pragmatic wing of the movement. The rising Salafis represent the more reactionary, uncompromising wing, and parties like Al-Wasat (The Center), who will be by far the smallest Islamist party in parliament, represent a third trend that seeks to emulate Turkey’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP). The three groups have legitimate reasons to believe they can seize the Islamist mantle and settle the question of who speaks for Islam.

With their electoral success and their unparalleled organizational skills, the Muslim Brotherhood is in a strong, but delicate, position. It remains unlikely that Egypt will have an Islamist-only parliamentary coalition, and electoral success strengthens the Brotherhood’s hand with non-Islamists parties, because it allows the Brotherhood essentially to dictate the terms of any parliamentary coalition that excludes Salafis. Non-Islamist parties may dislike the Brotherhood, but they understand that its leadership is essentially pragmatic and unlikely to introduce radical changes that impact the economy or peoples’ personal lives in the short term. The Brotherhood leadership has spokesmen who shave their beards and talk up the need for foreign investment. It also includes a senior Christian member.

But the Brotherhood has to move carefully and can ill afford to alienate the Salafis. For rank-and-file Brotherhood members, the line between a Brother and a Salafi is blurry. It’s almost certain that potential FJP voters chose Salafi candidates or parties at the ballot box. And more Brothers could jump ship if the Salafis illustrate that they better represent “true Islam.”

The Brotherhood is in a complicated position, trying to hew to the right in the provinces, while behaving “moderately” in Cairo and outside Egypt. In some cases, the Salafis and the Brotherhood will collaborate, but it will likely be a more competitive (and unpredictable) relationship.

Hani Sabra is an analyst in Eurasia Group’s Middle East practice.

Religious Liberties: An Interview with Saba Mahmood

Saba Mahmood is an anthropologist who teaches at the University of California, Berkeley, and whose work raises challenging questions about the relationship between religion and secularism, ethics and politics, agency and freedom. Her book Politics of Piety, a study of a grassroots women’s piety movement in Cairo, questions the analytical and political claims of feminism as well as the secular liberal assumptions on the basis of which such movements are often judged. In the volume Is Critique Secular?she joins Talal Asad, Judith Butler, and Wendy Brown in rethinking the Danish cartoon controversy as a conflict between blasphemy and free speech, between secular and religious world views. Now, Mahmood is working on a comparative project about the right to religious liberty and minority-majority relations in the Middle East. We spoke over breakfast in New York City.

NS: I know you have been following the events in Egypt and have even been back a couple of times since the overthrow of the Mubarak regime. How would you describe the situation?

SM: I think this is an incredibly interesting time in Egypt. The country is involved in a historic and heady process of political transformation. The stakes are very high, and it is unclear whether the kind of changes—political, social, and economic—that the January 25 Revolution envisioned will, in fact, be possible. Like any other revolution in modern history, this one faces immense challenges from both within and without.

NS: What exactly are those challenges, in your view?

SM: Well, after the overthrow of the Mubarak regime, as one would expect, the movement became divided over what the collective future of the country should be. Old differences that had been set aside to topple the Mubarak regime have come to the fore again—differences of class, ideology, and religion, all of which affect the vision of what a just society should be. Second, there is the issue of transforming the political system from within to create a democratic structure—which entails, not only promulgating new electoral laws and procedures, but also forging laws that address the demands of a democratic society. Then there is the challenge of how to dismantle the much-despised state security apparatus, with its bloated and corrupt bureaucracy of surveillance and vengeance, and the Emergency Law—in place for over twenty years—that has facilitated its operations. In recent months, protestors have taken to the streets again to demand an end to the military trials that have continued since the overthrow of Mubarak. (Some report that more than 10,000 people have been tried in military courts since the revolution.) These military trials are a symbol of the old system that is still intact, and which the protestors of the January 25 Revolution had sought to dismantle. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, there are economic issues that are systemic, and that are not simply Egypt’s but belong to the international system of finance and capital. Egypt, like any other Third World country, is hostage right now to the global economic crisis and the immense pressure put upon those countries by international institutions (like the World Bank and IMF) and geopolitical powers (the US and Western Europe) to resist the demand for socially progressive economic reforms. The Egyptian military is part of this system and has benefitted from it immensely. I cannot see how the military, as the primary institution in charge of this “transition,” is going to set aside its economic interests to yield to the popular demand for economic justice. This is in part why Egyptians from various walks of life continue to stage sit-ins and protests across the country.

NS: How do you think these challenges might be overcome?

SM: Well, I have faith in the Egyptian people and their thirst and desire to transform the status quo. None of us expected or predicted what the Egyptians were able to achieve on February 11, 2011, with their determination and political will. The unimaginable became imaginable. The same powers are in play right now, and I suspect we all will have a lot to learn from the developments that unfold in Egypt in the coming years.

NS: Without a doubt. But let’s back up a bit now. I first read your essay on “Rehearsed Spontaneity and the Conventionality of Ritual” when I was a freshman in college, and it had a big influence on how I came to think about the practice of religion. I still look back to it. In that vein, I wonder if you, too, had an experience early on that reoriented your own thinking.

SM: One thing that had a decisive impact on me was Talal Asad’s “The Idea of an Anthropology of Islam.” I was a graduate student at Stanford at the time, and I was working on issues of religion at a moment when there was little interest in the subject within the discipline of anthropology. This was pre-9/11, and people didn’t think that religion was of great importance. I was reading a lot on my own, and this essay came up in footnotes. Our library didn’t even have a copy of it, so I had to request it through interlibrary loan. I sat down, and I distinctly remember reading and then rereading it several times. I was really challenged by the questions that the article forced the reader to ask, not just of Islam but of religion in general. It’s a very well-circulated paper now, and most students of religion and Islam tend to read it, but at the time, it was a buried treasure.

NS: Tell me about what brought you to anthropology in the first place. You were an architect before that?

SM: Yes, I practiced architecture for four years. At the time I was also involved in activism against U.S. foreign policy in Central America and the Middle East. When the first Gulf War broke out, I realized that there were many pressing questions, which the war had brought to the fore, that I hadn’t really resolved for myself. These were questions that had to do with the transformed political and social landscape of the Muslim world, the ascendance of Islamic politics and the challenge this posed to those of us who grew up believing in the promise of secular nationalism to forge a different future. Following the Iranian Revolution, in 1979, Islamic movements had become the primary expression of political dissent in a variety of Muslim countries. In order to think about the transformations this ascendance had caused in the social and political landscape of Muslim societies, I resolved that I would go back to graduate school. At the time, I did not really know much about anthropology; so I enrolled in a political science graduate program, which I found to be very Eurocentric. I realized that this discipline would not help me explore the kinds of questions that I was interested in. I was fortunate enough to be introduced to anthropology at the time, and it has been my disciplinary home since.

NS: Have you found anthropology to be a discipline in which questions that concerned you as an activist can be addressed?

SM: My activism would probably have been accommodated in any discipline. But what anthropology has allowed me to do in a serious way is pursue the question of difference. The traditional aim of socio-cultural anthropology was to study the primitive other in order to reflect upon the peculiarity—and often superiority—of Western cultural and social norms. In the late 1980s, anthropologists and others launched a robust critique of the essentialized and ahistorical notion of cultural difference that had served the discipline for so long. One important result of this critique was that the discipline moved to think critically about the question of difference—not just cultural difference but how different histories, traditions, and arrangements of power force people to live and experience life in heterogeneous ways. In general I find anthropology’s commitment to thinking critically about difference unique in the human sciences and worthy of engagement and exploration. So, in answer to your question, it is not so much that anthropology is especially open to activism, but rather its insistence that we engage with difference, while being attentive to relations of power that hierarchicalize and essentialize differences, that has enabled me to work productively in the discipline.

NS: On your website, you also say that your experience in architecture influenced your work as an anthropologist. Can you say something about how?

SM: That’s probably overstated! But when I was practicing architecture, I realized I wasn’t very happy with the elitist and technological bent of the profession. I started working instead with the homeless, designing, financing, and constructing housing for people who couldn’t afford to pay rent or mortgage. The work I did was mostly in dense, urban communities, both in the U.S. and, briefly, in Pakistan. This experience left me with an appreciation for the grit of urban life, the challenges it throws up to people, and how they manage them. In a sense, this is what Politics of Piety is about, too—people trying to make sense of a world that has completely undone the possibility of a wholesome life, but in which people still try to recreate that possibility through suturing various kinds of disparate practices and habits.

NS: Why did you choose Cairo as the site of your fieldwork?

SM: At first I went to Algiers, but it was in the throes of a civil war, which made fieldwork impossible. I also went to Fes and Casablanca but found that political debate was very guarded and muffled, making it difficult to pursue the kinds of questions I was interested in. In Cairo, however, I found a place that was very vibrant and alive with debates about the importance of secularism, Islamism, and what it means to live as a Muslim in the contemporary world. The city streets pulsated with these debates, and Egyptians generally did not feel restrained in expressing their religious and political views. I found the public culture of the city very conducive to the project I wanted to pursue, and so I stayed.

NS: What brought you to the theoretical tools that would help you interpret that experience in Politics of Piety?

SM: By the time I went to do fieldwork in Cairo, I was already very critical of how the existing literature analyzed Islamist movements, largely in functionalist and reductive terms. It seemed to subscribe to a hydraulic conception of politics: you squish something down in one place and it bubbles up in another. Islamic politics, in other words, was a displacement of something more fundamental—economic frustration, lack of democracy, and so on. But I was far less prepared to think about the range of embodied religious practices I encountered and how these inform or undergird politics. It was really a challenge for me to think about people’s preoccupation with the minutiae of bodily practices and not to read them as misguided or misplaced religiosity. Like countless other scholars, I initially tended to view them as inconsequential both to politics and to the substance of religion. It was really only after doing the fieldwork, when I came back and started writing, that I began to think more deeply about these issues and my own inadequate response to what I had observed in the field. This process of reflection and writing brought me to rethink the distinction drawn between ethics and politics in liberal political theory, as well as the centrality of affect and embodied praxis to political imaginaries and projects.

NS: In the preface to Politics of Piety, you speak very eloquently about the relationship between that project and your experience of coming of age in Pakistan. Does Pakistan continue to inform the questions that you pose and the ways in which you think about them? The country has certainly come to play a different role on the world stage in recent years. . . .

SM: The developments in Pakistan have been quite tragic. The Pakistani military has mortgaged the future of the country to fight a series of proxy wars for the U.S.—wars that have methodically destroyed its infrastructure, not to mention social and political life in the country. Politics of Piety is an analysis of a different kind of Islamic movement, in Egypt, that is transformative of social and political life but not destructive of its very possibility. In Pakistan, Islamist movements have largely played a very destructive role, especially with the ascendance of jihadi movements that have made a Faustian bargain with the Pakistani military, on the one hand, and U.S. strategic interests, on the other. It’s quite different in Egypt, where the Muslim Brotherhood—the largest Islamist political organization in the country—has eschewed militancy at least since the 1950s, and the network of da’wa groups that I analyze in my book are reformist in nature, focused largely on proselytization and social welfare activities. The career of Islamic militants in Egypt was short-lived, and they do not command the kind of power that they do in Pakistan. As a result, the social and political profile of Islamism in Egypt is radically different from its counterpart in Pakistan. In my current project, I have begun to take up the question of how geopolitics transforms the ways religious coexistence is managed, produced, and transformed. But, while geopolitics has certainly transformed Pakistani life, in my current work I’m not thinking about it particularly in the Pakistani context.

NS: Can you tell me more about the project you’re involved in now?

SM: Well, I am engaged in a couple of related projects. My personal project focuses on how Christian-Muslim relations have been historically transformed through the introduction of the concepts of minority rights and religious liberty in the Middle East, with a particular focus on Egypt. Aside from this, I am also working on a three-year collective project with three other colleagues (Elizabeth Hurd, Peter Danchin, and Winnifred Sullivan), funded by the Henry Luce Foundation. It focuses on how religious freedom is being transformed through legal and political contestations in a variety of countries in Europe, the United States, the Middle East, and South Asia. It’s called “Politics of Religious Freedom: Contested Norms and Local Practices.” Most of the scholarly work to date tends to treat religious freedom as a singular and stable principle, enshrined in international and national legal documents. Others tend to focus on how different religious traditions are either amenable or resistant to the incorporation of liberal conceptions of religious liberty. Our project is distinct in that it asks whether religious liberty can indeed be treated as a singular or stable principle aimed at achieving shared goals and objectives, given the diversity of historical and political contexts. We will track the variety of claims made in the name of religious liberty, with the aim of mapping out modular disagreements that occur in a variety of national and international political contexts. We are interested in this because we believe that, in order to reach any sort of agreement in the human rights community, it is important first to understand what is really at stake in battles over religious freedom. It is also important to ask whether religious freedom, given its manifold deployments and limitations, is the best way to achieve co-existence for the variety of actors involved.

NS: A thread that seems to connect the earlier work with what you’ve been doing more recently is the issue of freedom—from freedom as personal autonomy, in Politics of Piety, to religious freedom in international law, now. Has the one informed how you think about the other?

SM: That is an interesting question. I agree that liberty and freedom are at the center of both of my projects. The right to religious liberty is often conceived in individualist terms—whether in the First Amendment, the European Convention on Human Rights, or the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Yet the right to religious liberty has also been imagined in collective terms as the right of a group to practice its traditions freely, without undue intervention or control. This latter conception has been very important to religious minorities in claiming a place of autonomy and freedom from majoritarian norms and state interventions. In my current work, I am trying to think through how these alternative conceptions of religious liberty stand in tension with each other and the sorts of impasses it produces.

NS: What kinds of methods are you using? Are you doing fieldwork again?

SM: Fieldwork is an important part, but the project has historical, geopolitical, and legal dimensions as well, since I’m interested in tracking how notions of religious liberty travel across time and history, and also across the divide between Western and non-Western. So, I’m looking at the UN charter, the UDHR, international laws and treaties, as well as particular legal precedents in Europe that have traveled to the Middle East and have gained particular traction there.

NS: Tell me more about what the fieldwork is like. After all, I imagine that the usual way of studying international law is primarily textual. How does fieldwork inform these kinds of questions?

SM: I’m interested in the social life of the law, especially since many court cases about the right to religious freedom in the Middle East are fought, not just in courts, but through public campaigns launched on the cultural-political terrain. People’s sense of what constitutes religious liberty is shaped by how human, civil, and minority rights organizations end up contesting and arguing over it. Part of my fieldwork in Egypt entailed working with human rights practitioners, particularly those who are using international human rights protocols in their legal strategies and public campaigns.

NS: Can you say a bit, in turn, about how Is Critique Secular? came about and the kinds of problems that framed it?

SM: It emerged out of an event organized at UC Berkeley to announce the establishment of a new teaching and research unit on critical theory. This inaugural symposium generated a lot of interesting debate and discussion—not only on the Berkeley campus but here on the Immanent Frame as well. The Townsend Center for the Humanities, where the event was held, approached me and other participants about putting some of the papers together in book form. As we could not pull together all the papers from the symposium, we focused on the ones about the Danish cartoon controversy. Wendy Brown, Talal Asad, Judith Butler, and I decided that we would try to organize the book around this question while also retaining some of the original impetus for the symposium.

NS: More recently, the cartoon controversy seems to have repeated itself all over again with the Park51 complex in Lower Manhattan, or the so-called “Ground Zero mosque.” And long before that, there was the fatwa against Salman Rushdie for The Satanic Verses.

SM: Well, I think there are substantial differences among the issues involved in each of these controversies. I think the latter is quite straightforwardly about the right of a much-maligned minority to build a place of worship near a site invested with patriotic-national fervor, while the former controversies centered upon Muslim objections to how the prophet Muhammad was portrayed.

NS: What is wrapped up for people in these portrayals of the prophet?

SM: It’s not an accident that with both the Satantic Verses and the Danish cartoon controversies, what was at stake was the particular kind of affective and religious connection pious Muslims (but certainly not all Muslims) feel to the figure of Muhammad—to his iconicity and his exemplariness. This relationhip forces us to think about religiosity in more complicated ways than as privatized belief, or as a system of rules, regulations, and taboos. Both Muslims and non-Muslims must think critically about whether the sense of injury that derives from this sort of religiosity is translatable into a language of rights, and whether understanding this sense of injury is something worthy for the ethical and political life of a religiously diverse society. I think that there is an increasing tendency within the U.S. and Europe—on the part of the majority and minorities alike—to resort to the law and the state to settle ethical and moral issues. At the time of the Danish cartoon controversy, both sides wanted to defer to the law to settle their claims. But I think that such a turn to the law, or legislation, freezes positions and allows the state to intervene in domains toward which it claims to be neutral. My contribution to Is Critique Secular? lays these issues out in more detail than I can do justice to here. In sum, what I am suggesting is that struggles over religious difference cannot simply be settled by the heavy hand of the law. Insomuch as these struggles entail competing religious sensibilities as well as deep prejudices and intolerances, they must be engaged on other—cultural, ethical, visceral—grounds. This may not yield immediate or definitive results, but it is a necessary and important step in the creation of a multi-religious polity.

NS: So how do you think this plays out in the case of Park51?

SM: There, of course, even though the personage of Muhammad was not involved, the language of injury and offense dominated the debate. If you recall, in the Danish cartoon controversy, the claim was that the right to freedom of expression is also a right to offend anybody and anyone—and that this is a characteristic of an open, pluralistic, and democratic society. Some even argued that the cartoons served as an instrument to create offense, so as to engender a critical dialogue among Muslims about Islam. In contrast, in the Park51 controversy, it was argued that the complex should not be built because, even though Muslims have a right to do so by virtue of the First Amendment, building one so close to the World Trade Center would offend American sensibilities. The claim to offense and injury in each instance was being marshaled for very different purposes.

NS: And the players’ roles have been reversed, haven’t they?

SM: Right. I do think, however, that what is at stake in all these debates is the status of a religious minority within self-avowedly liberal societies, which claim to have in place the most robust mechanisms possible for accommodating the concerns of majority and minority alike. And yet, what we find is that the rights of minorities are actually framed by the norms of the larger community; it’s against those norms that minoritarian claims are judged and contested, and that is where the idea of religious liberty and freedom of expression as an individual right remains inadequate to grasping the situation. We have to start thinking in terms of how groups are weighted both demographically and politically, and how this conditions the context in which certain claims are made or heard. It’s not enough to refer to a right that exists in constitutions—such as the right to free speech or to religious liberty—and to track when it is applied or not. Far tougher questions are at play. One has to think about how the ethical, cultural, and social norms of the majority structure the possibility of the exercise of individual and group liberties differently for minorities. I should make clear that this structural problem characterizes all nation-states (premised as they are on the demographic calculus of minority and majority populations), and is not simply particular to Euro-American societies.

NS: When you approach these issues today, are you still coming to them as an activist as well as a scholar?

SM: No, I would say that I come to them more as a scholar than as an activist. My intellectual work has often led me to challenge and complicate my political stances—to complicate the very ground on which politics can be imagined and conducted. Politics, in my opinion, demands a certain closure of thinking, in order to judge and to act. Intellectual work requires a different kind of labor. In one sense, of course, all arguments are political when you’re thinking about such controversies, but I don’t start with a political position and then see how the argument unfolds. For example, during the Danish cartoon controversy, I was puzzled by the fact that the kind of injury expressed by ordinary pious Muslims did not find any voice in the polemical debates in either the Islamic or the European press. I tried to make sense of this silence, and it led me to suggest that the kind of religiosity expressed by most Muslims in response to the Danish cartoons was incommensurable with the language of rights, litigation, and boycotts that came to dominate the debate. And it was precisely because this religiosity could not be contained within the language of identity politics that it found no expression in the public debate. Needless to say, this argument did not win me friends in either one of the two camps.

NS: Is there something in particular that you think the West needs to know about the Muslim world, or about Islam, or about Muslim minorities? Is there some message that, above all, you think needs to be definitively stated—or is the questioning enough?

SM: I don’t think questioning is enough. But I do think that there is a desperate need to challenge the current way of framing things, as a civilizational stand-off between Islam and the West. This way of thinking is not only dangerous but also unsustainable in the long run. Those of us interested in stepping out of this overheated polemic have a responsibility to make people realize why this framing is inadequate and problematic, even dangerous. Despite important differences among political ideologies and religious traditions, I believe that we have the historical language and analytical skills to think differently, to imagine a future in which Islam and the West are not locked in some zero-sum game. To take a simple example, when I speak of the kind of relationship that many pious Muslims feel toward Muhammad, which was partly at stake in the Danish cartoon controversy, surely it is recognizable to scholars of Christianity (with its long and rich tradition of the Eucharist and Corpus Christi), Eastern Orthodox Christianity, and late Antiquity? Surely we can think together about different conceptions of religiosity and what space they have in, and what effects they may have on, our political present without descending into the abyss of civilizational incomprehension and incommensurability?

NS: What about the concerns of Western feminists in particular? There sometimes seems to be especially little hope for common ground on women’s issues.

SM: Once again, feminism has a rich and varied tradition of thought and praxis. The current tilt toward painting an essentialized picture of feminism and Islam—as quintessential opposites—is inadequate to the complexity of both traditions. There are no doubt historical reasons for the great suspicion with which some Islamic symbols are treated in Euro-American societies, but I would hope that thoughtful people would be able to think through this history critically. Take the example of the current obsession with the veil in Europe: colonial discourse had long cast the veil as the essential symbol of the civilizational inferiority of the East, and of Islam in particular. It is not a surprise, therefore, that anti-colonial movements took up this symbol precisely to reverse the colonial judgment while embracing the practice—in the process, reifying the importance of the veil to Muslim identity. The current discourse is, in a sense, a re-enactment of this history. What is new, however, is the way in which the European and Turkish bans on the veil have been held up in the name of secularism, wherein secularism is equated with the principle of gender equality. For example, the judgments of the European Court of Human Rights that uphold the headscarf ban in Turkey and France rest on two interrelated claims: one, that the veil is a symbol of women’s oppression; and two, that insomuch as secularism is for gender equality France and Turkey, as secular states, cannot condone this practice. But, historically, secularism has hardly been on the side of women’s rights—otherwise French women would have been granted the vote long before 1945, and the separation of church and state would have yielded gender equality in the nineteenth century, when European states adopted this principle. Secularism and women’s rights have always had a troubled relationship, which is important to think about from within the history of feminism. This does not mean, of course, that one has to denounce secularism and embrace religion or vice versa. One has to be able to see the mutual imbrication of religion and secularism to even diagnose the problem correctly. Otherwise, I think we run the risk of dulling the critical edge of feminist thought.

NS: I found your essay about the mobilization of feminists behind the invasion of Afghanistan very powerful. I remember being so struck at that time by how American women were identifying with women in Afghanistan under the Taliban, which made some eager to support our military adventures over there. But is there a better way to ally ourselves with women in the Muslim world?

SM: The entire social fabric of Afghani society has been torn apart as a result of, first the war between the United States and the Soviet Union, between 1979 and 1989, and then the U.S. war against the Taliban and now al-Qaeda. There are civilian casualties reported almost every day—the vast majority of whom are women, children, and the elderly—as a result of U.S. bombs and drones. This violence exceeds and parallels the violence unleashed by the Taliban on the Afghanis. We read about these casualties in the media, but I do not see any mobilization by major U.S. feminist organizations to demand an end to this calamity. This silence stands in sharp contrast to the vast public campaign organized by the Feminist Majority in the late 1990s to oust the Taliban. I am often asked by American feminists what they can do to help Afghan women. My simple and short answer is: first, convince your government to stop bombing them, and second urge the US government to help create the conditions for a political—and not a military—solution to the impasse in Afghanistan. It is the condition of destitution and constant war that has driven Pakistanis and Afghans to join the Taliban (coupled with the opportunistic machinations of their own governments). Perhaps it is time to asses whether diverting the U.S. military aid toward more constructive and systemic projects of economic and political reform might yield different results.

Shot of Art: Ed Ou’s ‘Revolution’, Dispatches from Egyptian Revolution

Statement

In January of 2011, Egyptians from all corners of the country erupted in mass protests, challenging the heavy handed rule of President Hosni Mubarak. The entire world watched, as Egyptians fought to have their grievances heard using sticks, stones, shouts, cell phones, and computers. Over the course of eighteen days, protesters occupied Tahrir square, the symbolic heart of the revolution, where Egyptians of all ages and parts of society could speak with one unified voice, demanding the ouster of the president. They debated politics, shared their testimonies, supported each other, and mapped out their hopes and dreams for their country. On February 11, President Mubarak resigned, ending thirty years of autocratic rule. As the euphoria and excitement dies down, Egyptians are beginning to question what they have actually achieved. They are asking themselves what they want to make of their new Egypt, and how to reconcile with decades of mistrust of authority, corruption, and an economy in shambles. The difficult part arguably, is still to come.

 

About the Artist

Ed Ou (24) is a culturally ambiguous Canadian photojournalist who has been bouncing around the Middle East, former Soviet Union, Africa, and the Americas.
His photography has (so far) taken him from dark eerie crypts in Madagascar, to radioactive lakes in Kazakhstan, refugee boats in the Gulf of Aden, to animatronic love doll factories in Tokyo.
Ed started his career early as a teenager, covering the 2006 war between Israel and Hezbollah in southern Lebanon, and the fall of the Islamic Courts in Mogadishu, Somalia while he was studying in the Middle East. He first worked for Reuters and the Associated Press, covering a wide range of news stories in the area. He was also an intern at the New York Times. After university, Ed moved to Kazakhstan, where he documented the tragic consequences of Soviet nuclear weapons testing in Semipalatinsk. Recently, he has been covering the wave of uprisings that has rocked the Arab World.
Ed is the recipient of a Global Vision Award from POYi, a 1st Place Contemporary Issues award from World Press Photo, and other recognition from the Overseas Press Club, Ian Parry Scholarship, Best of Photojournalism, PDN Photo Annual, UNICEF, among others. He has been selected for a Getty Images Editorial Grant, PDN 30 Under 30, and took part in the World Press Photo Joop Swart Masterclass. He was recently awarded the City of Perpignan Young Reporter Award.
He is represented by Reportage by Getty Images.

(For more information on Ed Ou’s on the exhibit at O’Born in Toronto please visit the website)

 

Words of Women from the Egyptian Revolution

The participation of women in the Egyptian revolution didn’t come as a surprise to us, nor do we view it as an extraordinary phenomenon.

Women are part of every society and form a part of the social, political and economical spectrum. It is history that tends in most cases to ostracize the participation of women and keep them in the shadow while highlighting the participation of men and attributing leading roles exclusively to them. This is why we want to document and share Her-story.

This project intends to shed the light on the participation of women and to document their experiences as part of the historical (herstorical) memory of the Egyptian revolution. It is also a tool for women empowerment everywhere and a source for researchers, students and everyone interested in the matter.

Your support and donation is highly appreciated and needed
http://www.indiegogo.com/herstory-egypt

Director Leil-Zahra Mortada
Producer Aida El-Kashef
D.O.P. Laila Samy
Editor Ziyad Hawwas
Sound Sandy Chamoun
Investigation Kholoud Bidak
Assistant D.O.P. Nadim Mourtada
Art work Marta Paz

Music of the Egyptian Revolution

by: Elizabeth Blair

 

Musicians have not been silent in the movement that brought down Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak. Perhaps the most popular song of the Egyptian revolution is by Mohamed Mounir, a singer so revered, he’s known as “The Voice of Egypt.”

The song is called “Ezzay,” which means “How come?” Dalia Ziada, a blogger and human-rights activist in Cairo, says Mounir compares Egypt to a lover in the song.

“He’s telling it, ‘I love you, and I know you love me, too, but you have to appreciate what I’m doing for you. I will keep changing you until you love me as I love you,’ ” Ziada says, adding that that’s exactly how Egyptians feel about their country. Mounir’s song was not played on Egyptian state radio, but the video is online, and it’s been watched hundreds of thousands of times.

Artists can often express the feeling on the streets better than anyone else, says Hani Almadhoun, who writes the blog Hot Arab Music. He says you can hear this phenomenon in Haitham Nabil’s “Sefr,” one of the first protest songs to be released. Sefr means zero; Almadhoun says Nabil’s message is that “Egyptians’ dignity became the equivalent of zero.”

A lot of songs have been inspired by the protests in Egypt. Almadhoun, who goes by the name Hanitizer online, says some songwriters are exploiting the opportunity.

“But the majority of the stuff,” Almadhoun says, “has been really good and drives the message home.”

One song that’s been very popular with Arab-Americans in the U.S. is called “January 25,” or “#Jan25,” after a trending topic on Twitter. Arab-American and African-American musicians living in different parts of North America contributed to the song. The first verse, which was written by rapper Omar Offendum, begins, “I heard them say the revolution won’t be televised / Al-Jazeera proved them wrong / Twitter has them paralyzed.”

“I wanted to open up that way because it symbolizes how a lot of people were hearing about this revolution,” Offendum says.

“#Jan25” has been viewed more than 100,000 times online. Offendum says he’s proud of the song, but that the real music that defines the revolution in Egypt was created on the streets there.

“The protesters were coming up with amazing call-and-response songs and chants on the fly, as Egyptians do, because they’re so creative,” Offendum says. “And to me, that’s the real true music of this revolution: the voice of the people.”

After Mubarak, Fighting For Press Freedom in Egypt

by: Sharif Abdel Kouddous

(originally published at The Nation)

Under Mubarak, state-owned media was a propaganda arm of the government, parroting party dogma while dismissing public criticism and political opposition. During the 18-day uprising that toppled him, state TV tried to downplay the size of the demonstrations, depicting protesters as funded, inspired or infiltrated by foreign elements ranging from Israel to Iran to Al Qaeda.

Television is by far the most important medium in Egypt. A recent public opinion survey by the International Republican Institute found that 84 percent of the population relied on TV as their main source of information during the revolution. While state TV acted as a government mouthpiece, under Mubarak, licenses for private-owned satellite TV stations were reserved for rich businessmen with varying degrees of closeness to his regime. Private channels were closely monitored by the State Security Investigations branch of the Interior Ministry.

The struggle for greater openness in the media under Mubarak came at a high cost. Outspoken journalists and bloggers were arrested, prosecuted and harassed for reporting on controversial issues. Police and plainclothes thugs beat and detained reporters, confiscating and destroying video footage and notes. Prison sentences were imposed on members of the independent media, including newspaper editors and reporters. Elements of the state security apparatus may have even posed as journalists to monitor civil society and opposition activists, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists.

After Mubarak’s ouster, the struggle for press freedom is far from over.

The Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, which have been ruling Egypt since Mubarak stepped down, have actively clamped down on press freedom since taking charge of the country. For decades, the army was a taboo subject in Egyptian media. Laws dating back to the era of Gamal Abdel Nasser prevent local journalists from reporting anything about the military without permission. This ban became difficult to enforce during the revolution, with soldiers in the streets and daily debates about the army’s role and its handling of the country, but the Supreme Council has sought to reinforce the restrictions. In late March the Morale Affairs Directorate of the Egyptian Military sent a letter to editors of Egyptian publications demanding they obtain approval for all mentions of the armed forces before publication, including “any topics, news, statements, complaints, advertisements, pictures pertaining to the Armed Forces or to commanders of the Armed Forces.” The Committee to Protect Journalists described it as “the single worst setback for press freedom in Egypt since the fall of President Hosni Mubarak.”

Over the past four months, several journalists have been brought before the military prosecutor for interrogation after reporting on the army. In the most recent case, on June 19, Rasha Azab, a journalist with the newspaper Al Fajr, was summoned to the military prosecutor along with the newspaper’s editor in chief, Adel Hammouda. Azab was accused of “publishing false information with the potential to cause public disorder” after she penned an article detailing a meeting between the Supreme Council and activists campaigning against the widespread use of military trials against civilians. After a few hours of interrogation, she was released without bail but still faces a possible prison sentence or fine. This came on the heels of the case of Hossam El-Hamalawy, a prominent Egyptian blogger and activist, was summoned to the military prosecutor on May 30, along with TV presenter Reem Maged, after the head of military police, General Hamdi Badeen, filed a complaint about El-Hamalawy’s comments on the private OnTV channel, in which he criticized abusive military police practices and held Badeen responsible for the torture of activists.

In the most serious case, a military court in April sentenced blogger Maikel Nabil Sanad to three years in prison for “insulting the military” after he wrote an article criticizing the army for not being transparent in its decision-making.

State-run media is also continuing to censor dissident voices. Last week, potential presidential candidate Mohamed ElBaradei said he was barred from a popular show hosted by Islamic preacher Amr Khaled and broadcast on Egyptian state TV. The Nobel Peace laureate and former head of the International Atomic Energy Agency was effectively banned from appearing on local television channels while Mubarak was in power; upon his return to Egypt in February 2010 after many years abroad, ElBaradei emerged as a leading reform advocate.

“Policy of censure and vilification continues,” ElBaradei wrote from his Twitter account after his appearance on state TV was cancelled. In response, ElBaradei’s supporters set up a Facebook page calling for a protest at the Egyptian Radio and TV Union headquarters, known locally as ‘Maspero.’

The pressure appears to have worked. Later that day, ElBaradei announced state TV had rescinded its decision and would allow him on. “I’m grateful to the youth who sent a strong message to Egyptian Television, which is financed by the people, that a revolution has taken place and freedom of expression is guaranteed for everyone,” he said.

ElBaradei isn’t the first presidential candidate to clash with state-run TV. Bothaina Kamel, a newscaster turned activist, is described as the first woman to run for president in Egypt’s history (some dispute this, pointing to the feminist and writer Nawaal El Saadawi putting her name forward for candidacy in 2005). In May, Kamel appeared on the state-run Nile Culture TV to speak about clashes in Imbaba, in which two churches were set ablaze, 15 people were killed, and over 240 injured. Midway through the live interview, management cut her off the air.

Kamel has also been kept from hosting her own TV program on the Saudi-owned Orbit network. According to the New York Times: “When she chose to do a program, following the revolution, on Hosni Mubarak’s hidden billions, station executives, expecting Saudi Arabia’s alleged role in transferring the fortune would come up, informed her a half hour before airtime that the show was not going to be broadcast. Her program has been in reruns ever since.”

Despite the crackdown, there is a burgeoning movement for press freedom in Egypt. Many of the revolutionary youth who helped lead the 18-day uprising are looking to create new, independent outlets in the post-Mubarak media landscape. The publication El Gornal recently printed its second issue, intentionally breaking Egyptian law prohibiting publishing newspapers without official permission. An independent media center called “Mosireen” (Arabic for “We insist”) has opened its offices in downtown Cairo, advocating for citizen journalism—so ubiquitous during the uprising, with protesters using cell phone cameras to document the revolution—and providing services like media training, camera rentals, filming workshops, and editing booths. Historian Khaled Fahmy is leading efforts to create a digital, accessible archive of the revolution in collaboration with Egypt’s National Archives. A new Egyptian Journalists’ Independent Syndicate has been established with the aim of defending the rights of journalists. Media advocates are also looking to reform the laws and regulations governing the traditional spaces for television and radio, to redraw the media landscape in Egypt.

“Truly independent media is going to be the only guarantee that we can really build a democratic society,” says Hossam Bahgat, executive director of the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights. “When it comes to women’s rights and gender equality, when it come to the rights of religious minorities and the exercise of freedom of religion and when it come to social liberties and personal freedoms. We have to ensure that the media is a part of the struggle to democratize our society in parallel to our efforts the democratize the government.” In this critical transitional phase in Egypt’s history, the battle for freedom of the media is just beginning.

Egyptian Activist’s Message to Iranians: Learn From Egyptians, As We Learned From You

by:  Wael Ghonim

Wael Ghonim, the Egyptian activist hailed by observers worldwide as a hero and one of the leaders of the Egyptian uprising, talked to the International Campaign for Human Rights in Iran and thanked the people of Iran for organizing a demonstration on 14 February in solidarity with the people of Egypt and Tunisia, and thanked the Iranian civil rights movement.

Ghonim played a major role in organizing the protests that have shaken Egypt for the past two weeks. His Facebook page is widely credited with inviting Egyptians to their first public protest on 25 January.  Wael Ghonim has appeared with a green wristband during his public speeches and interviews. As the peaceful protests after the disputed 2009 presidential election in Iran came to be known as the “Green Movement,” Ghonim’s green wristband has become a source of interest for Iranians.

When asked by the Campaign whether the motivation behind his green wristband is Iran’s Green Movement, he said: “That was just a coincidence, but I’m happy you guys made the connection!”

“I would tell Iranians to learn from the Egyptians, as we have learned from you guys, that at the end of the day with the power of people, we can do  whatever we want to do.  If we unite our goals, if we believe, then all our dreams can come true,” is the prominent Egyptian activist’s message to Iranians on the threshold of the 14 February demonstrations.

Wael Ghonim, a Google executive who took time off from his job to be in Cairo during the protests, was freed last Monday after being held by Egyptian authorities for 10 days. He is one of the best known speakers for the Egyptian people’s movement.

The Future of the Arab Uprisings

by: Joseph Massad (Originally published on Al Jazeera)
The US and its Arab allies are scrambling to control the outcome of the Arab Spring in a way that will prolong their regional dominance [GALLO/GETTY]

A specter is haunting the Arab world – the specter of democratic revolution. All the powers of the old Arab world have entered into a holy alliance with each other and the United States to exorcise this specter: king and sultan, emir and president, neoliberals and zionists.

While Marx and Engels used similar words in 1848 in reference to European regimes and the impending communist revolutions that were defeated in the Europe of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, there is much hope in the Arab world that these words would apply more successfully to the ongoing democratic Arab uprisings.

In the case of Europe, Marx ended up having to write the Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Napoleon in 1852 to analyse the defeat of the 1848 revolution in France. He explained how revolutions could overthrow an existing ruling class but would not necessarily lead to the rule of the oppressed. He analysed the process by which Louis Napoleon was able to hijack the revolution and proclaim himself emperor, restoring monarchy to republican and revolutionary France, as his uncle Napoleon Bonaparte had done before him to the glorious French Revolution of 1789.

Since the end of World War I, European powers and the United States have appointed and removed Arab kings at will. Their actions were always taken to ensure the persistence of these dictatorial monarchies, rather than their removal, and to strengthen Euro-American control and hegemony over the region.

The only seeming exception to this rule was the French removal of King Faisal from the throne of Syria in 1919, ending the short-lived Syrian independence, only for the British to extend to him the throne of Iraq, which he assumed that same year, with the inauguration of British rule in that country.

This Euro-American power would include the granting of Abdullah the throne of Jordan in 1921 and the removal of his son King Talal from it, replacing him with his own son Hussein in 1952-53. The French would dethrone Mohammed V of Morocco in 1953 but would restore him again in 1955 when opposition to his removal weakened their control.

The British would remove Sultan Said bin Taymur in 1970 and replace him with his son Sultan Qabus, who was better able, with the help of the Iranian Shah, the Jordanian King, British and American military support, to quell the republican revolution in Dhofar.

Even the palace coup of 1995 by Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa al Thani of Qatar to oust his father, Sheikh Khalifa bin Hamad al Thani, and replace him, received American support and enthusiasm, as it was carried out to strengthen, rather than weaken, the Qatari monarchy.

Imperialism and orientalism

Since World War II, but more diligently since the mid 1950s, the United States has followed two simultaneous strategies to exercise its control over the Arab peoples across Arab countries. The first, and the one most relevant to Arabs, was based on the early US recognition and realisation (like Britain, France, and Italy before it) that Arabs, like all other peoples worldwide, wanted democracy and freedom and would struggle for them in every possible way.

For the United States, this necessitated the establishment of security and repressive apparatuses in Arab countries, which the US would train, fund, and direct in order to suppress these democratic desires and efforts in support of dictatorial regimes whose purpose has always been and continues to be the defense of US security and business interests in the region.

These interests consist principally in securing and maintaining US control of the oil resources of the region, ensuring profits for American business, and strengthening the Israeli settler-colony.

Much of this was of course propelled by the beginning of the Cold War and the US strategy to suppress all forms of real and imagined communist-leaning forces around the world, which included any and all democratic demands for change in the region.

This strategy, which was formalised in the Eisenhower Doctrine issued in 1957, continues through the present. The Eisenhower Doctrine, issued on 5 January 1957, as a speech by the US president, declared the Soviet Union, not Israel or Western-supported regional dictatorships, as the enemy of the people of the Middle East.

To neutralise president Gamal Abd al Nasir’s wide appeal across the Arab world, Eisenhower authorised the US military “to secure and protect the territorial integrity and political independence of such nations, requesting such aid against overt armed aggression from any nation controlled by international communism.”

In contrast with its actual anti-democratic policies around the world, the US has always insisted on marketing itself as a force for global democracy. In line with this public relations campaign, the second strategy the US used to advance its anti-democratic policies in the Arab World was the importation of European orientalism, which acquired a central place in post-war US academia.

State Department funding assisted by funding from private foundations would solidify orientalist research that asserted that Arabs and Muslims were incompatible with democracy and that more often than not they love and prefer dictatorial rule and that it would be culturally imperialist for the US to impose democracy on them, leading to the conclusion that it would be best to uphold their dictatorial rulers whose repressive policies, we are told, are inspired by Islam and Arab culture.

Between the billions spent on repressing the Arab peoples and the millions spent to explain academically and in the American media the need to repress them, this two-pronged US strategy in the region since World War II has been coming apart at an accelerated rate since January 2011, a development that continues to cause panic in the Obama White House and manifests in the incessant fumbling of his secretary of state, Hillary Clinton, who is much despised across the Arab world.

If president Jimmy Carter infamously declared on the eve of the Iranian Revolution in December 1977 that the Iran of the Shah was “an island of stability in one of the most troubled areas of the world”, Hillary Clinton would declare Mubarak’s Egypt as “stable” days before he was overthrown.

Subverting democracy

The anti-democratic US campaign in the region started with the first coup d’état the US sponsored when it overthrew democratic rule in Syria in 1949 and was soon followed by the restoration of the Shah in neighbouring Iran in 1953 in a CIA-sponsored coup that overthrew the government of prime minister Mohammed Mossadegh and suppressed the democratic movement in Iran.

As the US was following similar strategies elsewhere in its expanding empire, especially in Guatemala where it sponsored an anti-democratic coup against the reform government of Jacobo Arbenz and unleashed a wave of terror that murdered hundreds of thousands of Guatemalans for the next four decades, it formalised its new strategy in the Arab world through the Eisenhower Doctrine.

Soon after, the US went into high gear suppressing democracy in the region, starting with intervention in Lebanon on the side of right-wing sectarian forces in 1957, moving to engineer the palace coup launched by the young King Hussein against the democratically elected parliament the same year in Jordan, and proceeding to help the Baath party assume power in 1963 in Iraq and massacre thousands in the process.

The defeat of Nasir in the 1967 war was followed by US support for the most repressive Sudanese regime ever under Jafar Numeiri and the suppression of the revolution across the Arabian Gulf in the early seventies with the assistance of the Shah’s forces and the Jordanian army, which stabilised the region for US oil profits and began the road to secure Israel’s supremacy.

In the meantime, the removal of Arab monarchies from power and replacing them with republics would take place through the mechanism of military coups, which, unlike Euro-American interventions, had much popular support. Beginning with the removal of King Farouk of Egypt in 1952 by the Free Officers, the removal of Arab monarchies would proceed with the overthrow of the Iraqi King and the Hashemite royal family in 1958, the Yemeni monarchy in 1962, and ended with the overthrow of the Libyan monarchy in 1969 by Gaddafi.

All other Arab monarchies have persisted, with massive American, French, and British financial, economic, military, and security support, despite a number of threats to these thrones over the decades. While only two monarchies survive outside the Arabian Peninsula, which only managed to lose its Yemeni monarch, all other Arab regimes have a republican form of government.

The US-Saudi axis

The ongoing uprisings in the Arab world today, as is clear to all observers, do not distinguish between republics and monarchies. Indeed, in addition to the republics, demonstrations have been ongoing in Morocco, Jordan, Oman, and Saudi Arabia (and more modestly in Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates), despite the brutal suppression of the major Bahraini uprising by a combined mercenary force dispatched by the member states of the Gulf Cooperation Council led by Saudi Arabia.

The situation in Arab countries today is characterised as much by the counter-revolution sponsored by the Saudi regime and the United States as it is by the uprisings of the Arab peoples against US-sponsored dictatorial regimes.

While the US-Saudi axis was caught unprepared for the Tunisian and Egyptian uprisings, they quickly made contingency plans to counter the uprisings elsewhere, especially in Bahrain and Oman, but also in Jordan and Yemen, as well as take control of the uprisings in Libya (at first) and later in Syria. Attempts to take control of the Yemeni uprising have had mixed results so far.

Part of the US-Saudi strategy has been to strengthen religious sectarianism, especially hostility to shiism, in the hope of stemming the tide of the uprisings.

This sectarianism targets not only Iran but also Arab shias in Bahrain, Iraq, Lebanon, Saudi Arabia, and even in Oman and Syria, while simultaneously encouraging anti-Christian zealotry in Egypt. The Sadat and Mubarak regimes encouraged anti-Christian zealots for decades. Part of the ongoing counter-revolutionary efforts is to resuscitate these sectarian forces to break Egyptian unity and bring about chaos.

If the Eisenhower Doctrine insisted in 1957 that the Soviets, not Israel, were the main enemy of the Arab peoples, today the US insists that it is Iran and shiism who are their main enemy. With the US and Saudi-led suppression of the people of Bahrain, the hope is that this American-sponsored sectarian hatred and encouragement of sunni Arab chauvinism would in one swoop render Iran (and not the Arab dictators, their Israeli ally, or their US sponsor) the enemy of Arabs, if not the only enemy of Arabs, and delegitimise at the same time the uprisings in countries with a substantial number of Arab shiites.

The US sponsored this project several years ago with limited success. It would be best articulated by Jordan’s King Abdullah II, who warned in 2004 of a “shia crescent” threatening the region. The US and the Saudis are hoping that it could be more successful today.

The French and the British have continued to play important neo-colonial roles in the region, economically, militarily, and in the realm of security “cooperation”. They have strengthened their position by increasing their security and diplomatic “assistance” to their allies among Arab dictators.

The US-supported repression in Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, Oman, Yemen, Jordan, Morocco, Algeria, and in the United Arab Emirates goes hand in hand with the Euro-American-Qatari intervention in Libya to safeguard the oil wells for Western companies once a new government is in place.

The hijacking of the Libyan uprising and the defection of Gaddafi’s governing elite of politicians overnight to the side of the “revolutionaries” not only casts more than one shadow of suspicion on those claiming to lead the Libyan uprising against Gaddafi’s horrific dictatorship, but also on the Western powers who were Gaddafi’s major allies in the last decade until their recent defection.

The situation today is one of a struggle between the formidable US-Saudi axis, which is the main anti-democratic force in the region, and the pro-democracy uprisings.

The US-Saudi strategy is two-fold: massive repression of those Arab uprisings that can be defeated, and co-optation of those that could not be. How successful the second part will be depends on how co-optable the pro-democracy forces prove to be.

While it is true that revolutionaries make their own history, as Karl Marx famously put it, “they do not make it just as they please; they do not make it under circumstances chosen by themselves, but under circumstances directly encountered, given and transmitted from the past.”

Guarding against the co-optation of the Tunisian and Egyptian revolutions is the hope of all Arabs today.

The US-Saudi axis will use every mechanism at its disposal to do so, not least of which will be the forthcoming elections in Egypt and Tunisia. The great Arab hope is that Tunisia and Egypt will write a new Revolutionary and Democratic Manifesto for the Arab peoples.

The concern and the fear remain, however, that we may end up with less of a Communist Manifesto and more of an Eighteenth Brumaire.

Joseph Massad is Associate Professor of Modern Arab Politics and Intellectual History at Columbia University in New York.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily represent Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.

The Praxis of the Egyptian Revolution

by Mona El-Ghobashy

published in MER258

If there was ever to be a popular uprising against autocratic rule, it should not have come in Egypt. The regime of President Husni Mubarak was the quintessential case of durable authoritarianism. “Our assessment is that the Egyptian government is stable and is looking for ways to respond to the legitimate needs and interests of the Egyptian people,” said Secretary of State Hillary Clinton on January 25, 2011. [1] With these words, Clinton gave voice to a common understanding of Egypt under Mubarak. Government officials, pundits and academics, foreign and domestic, thought the regime was resilient — not because it used brute force or Orwellian propaganda, but because it had shrewdly constructed a simulacrum of politics. Parties, elections and civic associations were allowed but carefully controlled, providing space for just enough participatory politics to keep people busy without threatening regime dominance.

Mubarak’s own party was a cohesive machine, organizing intramural competition among elites. The media was relatively free, giving vent to popular frustrations. And even the wave of protest that began to swell in 2000 was interpreted as another index of the regime’s skill in managing, rather than suppressing, dissent. Fundamentally, Egypt’s rulers were smart authoritarians who had their house in order. Yet they were toppled by an 18-day popular revolt.

Three main explanations have emerged to make sense of this conundrum: technology, Tunisia and tribulation. Technological analyses celebrate young people who employed new media to defeat a stolid autocrat. By the second day of the Egyptian uprising, CNN correspondent Ben Wedeman was calling it a “very techie revolution.” In the following days, every major news outlet framed the uprising as the work of wired, savvy twenty-somethings awakening the liberating potential of Facebook, Twitter and the writings of American intellectual Gene Sharp. “For the world’s despots, his ideas can be fatal,” asserted the New York Times of Sharp. [2] A second category of explanation credits the Tunisian people’s ouster of Zine El Abidine Ben Ali in mid-January with supplying a shining example to follow. Esam Al-Amin notes that the Tunisian revolution “inspired Egyptians beyond the activists or elites.” [3] A third theorem focuses on the many tribulations afflicting Egyptians, particularly soaring commodity prices, positing that hardship finally pushed the population to rise up against oppression. “Food: What’s Really Behind the Unrest in Egypt,” one Canadian newspaper headlined its story. [4]

None of these explanations are false. All of them correspond to interpretations of events forwarded by the participants themselves. And each has an impeccable intellectual pedigree, harkening back to two influential traditions in the study of popular collective action. One is the dramaturgical model, identifying a cast of self-propelled characters, armed with courage and a new consciousness, who then make an uprising. The second is the grievance model, by which an accumulation of social troubles steadily diffuses among the population and finally reaches an unforeseeable tipping point. The two models call attention to distinct but equally important forces: specific actors and generalized complaints. But both are oddly without context. Because aggrieved and heroic people exist under every type of political system, the models do not explain when such people will band together to challenge the conditions they deplore.

Egypt’s momentous uprising did not happen because Egyptians willed it into being. It happened because there was a sudden change in the balance of resources between rulers and ruled. Mubarak’s structures of dominion were thought to be foolproof, and for 30 years they were. What shifted the balance away from the regime were four continuous days of street fighting, January 25–28, that pitted the people against police all over the country. That battle converted a familiar, predictable episode into a revolutionary situation. Decades ago, Charles Tilly observed that one of the ways revolutions happen is that the efficiency of government coercion deteriorates. That decline occurs “when the character, organization and daily routines of the population to be controlled change rapidly.” [5] The organization and daily routines of the Egyptian population had undergone significant changes in the years preceding the revolt. By January 25, 2011, a strong regime faced a strong society versed in the politics of the street. In hindsight, it is simple to pick out the vulnerabilities of the Mubarak regime and arrange them in a neat list as the ingredients of breakdown. But that retrospective temptation misses the essential point: Egyptians overthrew a strong regime.

Strong Regime, Strong Society

Like his predecessors, President Husni Mubarak deployed the resources of a high-capacity state to cement his power. He handily eliminated all threats to his rule, from a riot police mutiny in 1986 to an armed Islamist insurgency in the 1990s to an over-ambitious deputy, Defense Minister ‘Abd al-Halim Abu Ghazala, whom he sacked in 1989. He presided over the transformation of the economy from a command model with the state as primary owner to a neoliberal model with the state as conduit for the transfer of public assets to cronies. He introduced an innovation to the Egyptian authoritarian tradition as well, attempting to engineer the handover of presidential power to a blood relative, rather than a military subordinate. To manage social opposition to these big changes, Mubarak used the political arena to coopt critics and the coercive apparatus to deal with those who would not be incorporated.

Opposite this wily regime stood an ostensibly weak and fragmented society. Echoing the regime’s own arguments, workers’ protests, rural riots, electoral struggles and any other forms of popular striving were explained away as economic, not political; local, not national; and defensive, not proactive. The little people had no politics. Thus spoke the political scientist and Mubarak loyalist ‘Ali al-Din Hilal to a US diplomat, who in a 2009 cable reported that Hilal said, “Widespread, politically motivated unrest was unlikely because it was not part of the ‘Egyptian mentality.’” Independent academics shared his view: “There could be a poor people’s revolt if the state fails to provide food. But we must bear in mind that Egyptians rarely explode and then only in specific cases, among them threats to their daily bread or national dignity.” [6]

The reality was that Egyptians had been practicing collective action for at least a decade, acquiring organizational experience in that very old form of politics: the street action. Egypt’s streets had become parliaments, negotiating tables and battlegrounds rolled into one. To compel unresponsive officials to enact or revoke specific policies, citizens blockaded major roads with tree branches and burning tires; organized sit-ins in factory plants or outside ministry buildings; and blocked the motorcades of governors and ministers. Take this small event in the logbook of popular politics from January 2001, one of 49 protest events recorded that year by just one newspaper. Workers at the new Health Insurance hospital in Suez held a sit-in to protest the halt of their entitlement pay. State security officers and local officials intervened, prevailing upon the authorities to reinstate the pay and fire the hospital director. [7] By 2008, there were hundreds of such protests every year, big and small. In June 2008, thousands of residents in the fishing town of Burg al-Burullus blocked a major highway for seven hours to protest the governor’s abrupt decision to halt the direct distribution of flour to households. Police used tear gas and batons to disperse demonstrators, and 90 people were arrested. [8]

If one classifies Egypt’s protests by the type of mobilizing structure that brings people out into the street, rather than the content of their claims, three sectors are salient, each with its own repertoire of tactics. The first is workplace protest, including collective action by industrial laborers, by civil servants, students and by trade practitioners such as auto mechanics and gold traders. The second is neighborhood protest, whether on the scale of a single street or an entire town. Protests by Copts, Sinai Bedouins and farmers are often organized along residential lines. Associational protest is the third sector. The organizing mediums here are professional associations such as lawyers’ and doctors’ syndicates; social movements such as the pro-Palestine solidarity campaigns, the anti-Mubarak Kifaya movement and the April 6 youth group; and the youth wings of political parties such as Ayman Nour’s liberal Ghad, the Muslim Brothers, the liberal-national Wafd, the Nasserist Karama and the Islamist Wasat.

Doing politics outdoors brought citizens face-to-face with the caste that rules the streets: Egypt’s ubiquitous police. Mubarak’s was not a police state because the coercive apparatus routinely beat and detained people. It was a police state because the coercive apparatus had become the chief administrative arm of the state, aggregating the functions of several agencies. Police not only deal with crime and issue passports, drivers’ licenses, and birth and death certificates. They also resolve local conflicts over land and sectarian relations; fix all national and sub-national elections; vet graduate school candidates and academic appointments at every level; monitor shop floors and mediate worker-management conflicts; observe soccer games and Friday prayers; and maintain a network of local informants in poor neighborhoods, to ensure that dispossession is not converted into political organization. Officers are free to work out their own methods of revenue extraction, sometimes organizing the urban drug trade. [9] Patrolmen routinely collect tribute from taxi and microbus drivers and shopkeepers, while high-ranking officers partner with landowners or crony businessmen. When there is a riot or a road accident or a natural disaster, Egyptian police personnel are the first responders, not to aid the victims but to contain their rage.

By January 25, 2011, every protest sector had field experience with police rule, from Helwan University students to villagers in the Delta province of Daqhaliyya to Cairo lawyers to Aswan horse cart drivers. But no population group had come close to shifting the balance of resources in its favor, with the arguable exception of Sinai’s Bedouins, who have been embroiled in fierce battles with police for years, ever since the Taba bombings in 2004 led to massive arrest campaigns targeting residents.

The first significant effort to link up Egypt’s three protest sectors was easily aborted by the regime. On April 6, 2008, a loose coalition of Mahalla and Kafr al-Dawwar textile workers, town residents and groups in Cairo’s associational landscape coordinated a general strike and national day of protest to demand a minimum wage and an end to corruption and police brutality. Riot police and state security officers dissolved the strike action at the Mahalla textile factory before it could take off. Then they easily broke up furious protests by thousands of Mahalla townspeople, lobbing tear gas canisters into crowdsand arresting 150 residents. Smaller solidarity demonstrations in Greater Cairo were also effortlessly managed, and state security’s plans succeeded in preventing the spread of protest to other provinces. But the event midwifed the April 6 youth movement, which would be a key organizer of the January 25 action.

Street clashes continued between locals and police in various spots throughout 2010, with some incidents leading to mass arrests and curfews. Although the triggers of these confrontations were particular to time and place, both police and citizens drew upon remarkably similar sets of devices, from Akhmim in Upper Egypt to Rosetta in the Delta to ‘Umraniyya in Greater Cairo. Two signal events embedded these local patterns of friction into a national framework. In June 2010, a young Alexandrian named Khalid Sa‘id was hauled out of his chair at an Internet café and beaten to death by plainclothes police officers in broad daylight, reportedly in revenge for his posting of a video on YouTube that showed the officers divvying up the proceeds of a drug bust. Sa‘id’s death galvanized public opinion in disgust at police predation. Google executive Wael Ghoneim helped start a Facebook group called “We Are All Khalid Sa‘id,” and social movements organized several large demonstrations against police brutality at which the slogan “Leave! Leave!” was hurled at Husni Mubarak. The second occasion was the national legislative elections. Under complete police management, the elections in November-December 2010 were flagrantly rigged to return 97 percent of the seats for Mubarak’s vehicle, the National Democratic Party (NDP). The elections outraged political elites and ordinary people alike, spurring a unified opposition protest on December 12, and leaving behind fresh memories of street battles in dozens of districts across the country.

By the time January 25, 2011 arrived, there was local resonance for the planned national “day of rage” in virtually every corner of Egypt. The political atmosphere was highly charged: Public opinion was inflamed by the Alexandria church bombing on January 1, which had led to numerous rumbles between police and Coptic protesters. The Tunisian people’s toppling of Ben Ali electrified Egyptians. Riot police corralled a January 16 demonstration outside the Tunisian embassy, where activists had gathered to sing the Tunisian national anthem. Unwittingly, the regime itself provided the calendar date for the “day of rage,” having newly designated January 25 a bank holiday to mark Police Day. The holiday freed up citizens for assembly, practically inviting them to convert the official celebration into a popular harangue against police rule. Several get-out-the-protest clips on YouTube strung together notorious scenes of police brutality captured by cell phone video cameras. Members of all protest sectors announced their participation, including Mahalla workers, Sinai Bedouins and civil servants employed by the cabinet. New actors joined in, such as hard-core fans of the two biggest national soccer teams and Khalid Sa‘id’s mother, who, in an interview uploaded by Nobel laureate Mohamed ElBaradei’s reform campaign on January 21, also urged Egyptians to reclaim their rights in the streets. [10] The government felt compelled to counter-organize. State security officers warned Muslim Brothers in the provinces to stay home. NDP parliamentarians branded January 25 the “day of loyalty to the leader,” paying for 500,000 posters featuring Mubarak’s visage and pasting them in major squares. [11] The Coptic Church, seven tiny opposition parties, the Nasserist party and Sufi orders spoke out against the protest action. [12]

In the days before the “day of rage,” a little-noted disturbance prefigured scenes that would soon pop up all over Egypt. One afternoon in the Nile-side working-class neighborhood of Warraq, a brawl erupted between two detainees at the police station. Officers violently put down the fight. The detainees then set fire to the blankets in the lock-up, and the blaze soon engulfed the station, injuring the Warraq head detective and his lieutenant. Armored cars and riot police were dispatched to the neighborhood, as rumors spread that a detainee had died in the fire. Hundreds of residents and detainees’ relatives descended on the station and tried to push their way in, pelting the building with stones and breaking four window panes. By 2 am, the standoff had ended. The Giza police chief had arrived to negotiate with residents, allowing them in one by one to ascertain their relatives’ safety. “My brother is wrongly imprisoned. They accused him of stealing a cell phone,” a resident outside the station told a reporter. “One of the officers framed him.” [13]

Verdict of the Barricades

The January 25 protest started as a midsize demonstration and ended as a massive uprising against autocratic rule. But no one leaving their house that morning knew that they were stepping into the largest policing failure of Mubarak’s tenure. The uprising was forged in the heat of street fighting, unanticipated both by its hopeful strategists and its watchful adversaries. “We went out to protest that day and expected to be arrested in the first ten minutes, just like usual,” recalled Ziad al-‘Ulaymi, an organizer with ElBaradei’s campaign. [14] A lieutenant colonel in the riot police, who was monitoring events from the Cairo operations room, later noted, “Our preparations for January 25 were as per usual, and the instructions were not to molest demonstrators.” [15]

Interior Minister Habib al-‘Adli and his four lieutenants had met on January 24 to finalize their strategy. Cairo police chief Isma‘il al-Sha‘ir issued stern warnings through the media, threatening protesters with arrest and invoking the demonstrations law of 1914 requiring a permit for any public gathering of more than five persons. [16] Giza police chief Usama al-Marasi deployed 12 riot police trucks on Arab League Street, the main thoroughfare of Cairo’s western half, and 18 trucks outside Cairo University. The broad avenue and the campus were two of the pre-announced protest locations on the Facebook pages of the April 6 and Khalid Sa‘id movements. For good measure, al-Marasi emplaced trucks along the entire stretch of the Warraq corniche. [17] Outside Greater Cairo, police set up checkpoints along the approaches to the large Delta towns of Tanta and Mahalla, blocking the entry of delegations from Kafr al-Shaykh, Daqhaliyya and Minoufiyya provinces that had been planned by protest organizers. Qalyoubiyya and Suez provinces were placed on high alert. Suez, in particular, had a recent history of troubles. In 2010, a high-ranking police general was assassinated in plain sight by a former informant, whose trial turned into an exposé of the gendarmerie’s brutal methods. And the heavy police hand was evident again during the 2010 elections. “The polling stations are under occupation. Suez has been turned into a military garrison!” cried an irate poll monitor on voting day. [18]

Zero hour, as announced by protest organizers, was to be 2 pm. The stated plan was to demonstrate in front of the Interior Ministry and then disband at 5 pm. Security forces therefore sealed off all the vital downtown streets leading to and from the Ministry, allowing pedestrians to pass only after checking ID cards. But it was a ruse. On the morning of January 25, organizers used cell phones and landlines to disseminate the real locations of the protests and the actual start time: noon. “The protest locations announced on Facebook and to the press were the major landmarks. The idea was to start marching down small side streets and pick up people along the way, so that by the time demonstrators reached the announced locations, they would be large crowds that security couldn’t corral,” explained organizer al-‘Ulaymi. [19]

The crafty tactic worked in some neighborhoods, but not in others. Envision a sizable Kifaya demonstration walking down a tiny, picturesque lane in the inter-confessional neighborhood of Shubra, calling on residents watching them from the balconies to come down and join. Actor ‘Amr Wakid is there, demonstrators are waving Egyptian flags and veteran sloganeer Kamal Khalil is providing the soundtrack with his unique sing-song rhymes. [20] By the time this group surged toward the announced rally point of Shubra Circle, they had collected 1,000 bodies and police officers had started to chase them. Khalil was arrested, and the other legendary sloganeer and seasoned unionist Kamal Abu Eita just barely escaped. “That’s when I realized that Abu Eita runs much faster than me!” said thirty-something activist Ahmad ‘Urabi of Abu Eita, who is nearly 60.

By that point at 2:30 pm, the Shubra people received calls and text messages that crowds were filling streets in the working-class neighborhoods of Boulaq, Imbaba and Bab al-Khalq, and that Arab League Street in middle-class Muhandisin was overflowing with people marching toward Tahrir Square downtown. So they individually hopped into taxis and headed for the square. Meanwhile, outside the High Court building near Tahrir, middle-aged opposition parliamentarians and tweedy professors were scuffling with riot police. Lawyers from the bar association nearby had broken through the cordon and were approaching, as was a third roving group passing by the Judges’ Club around the corner and chanting over and over again, “Hurriyya! Hurriyya!” (Freedom! Freedom!). The police were disoriented by the convergence of the three formations. State security officers negotiated with parliamentarians, trying to convince them to persuade the crowds that they could chant as much as they liked but had to remain stationary on the High Court steps. But there was another logic at work. The bodies gleefully broke through the cordons and rushed toward Gala’ Street and from there to ‘Abd al-Mun‘im Riyad Square abutting the Egyptian museum, a stone’s throw from Tahrir.

While security forces were trying to contain the court demonstration, Ghad party leader Ayman Nour and Wafd party members Muhammad Shurdi and businessman Rami Lakah were fronting an energetic group of Wafdist youth speed-walking from Ramsis Street to the Nile corniche. A couple of hundred strong and each member carrying a green party flag, the procession plucked off bystanders as it moved along, making its way to the NDP headquarters where it stopped for some moments to denounce NDP leaders, promising them the fate of the Tunisian ex-president, Ben Ali. Before security forces could pen them in, a large group coming from the Qasr al-Nil bridge merged with the Wafdists and, together, they set off for the state radio and television building, completely encircling it for a few minutes with no security forces in sight. From there, they roamed the streets of Boulaq, reemerging at the intersection of Ramsis and July 26 Streets, and headed for Tahrir.

Nearby, on ‘Abd al-Khaliq Tharwat Street, Khalaf Muhammad Mursi, a 75-year old newspaper vendor, said, “Back in the days of the monarchy, I saw as many demonstrations as there are hairs on my head. Back then, they flipped over the trams and chanted against the king, and some of them wanted [Prime Minister Mustafa] Nahhas back in power. Demonstrating is good. They’re marching and not doing anything wrong. The government should let them.” [21]

In the provinces, there were also large demonstrations. Police containment varied in intensity, with some brigades tolerating the columns of protesters and others losing control of the crowds, as in Cairo. In Ismailiyya’s Firdaws Square, police made rigorous preparations starting the night before. By early afternoon, rows of riot police were tightly hemming in 600 demonstrators, who were performing the afternoon prayers outdoors and shouting, “Chant it, chant it! Raise your voice high! He who chants will not die!” By 6 pm, more people had joined in, enabling the protesters to break free of the cordon and ramble through the city. The labor stronghold of Mahalla was a different matter, the two demonstrations there having been violently put down, with 11 arrests. Alexandria’s squares and landmarks saw several simultaneous, separate protests. Police ringed a large crowd outside the governor’s office, chanting for the dissolution of the rigged parliament and demanding an audience with the governor, who refused. In the al-Asafra neighborhood, a procession flowed toward NDP headquarters, fending off the “karate companies,” the state security musclemen who disperse crowds by striking demonstrators.

Back in Tahrir, shortly before 4 pm, security forces were resisting demonstrators’ surge toward the national legislative headquarters from two directions. In the square, high-octane crowds led by soccer fans exclaimed “Egypt! Egypt!” in army-like cadence. They repeatedly rushed the thick layers of conscripts blocking the way to Qasr al-‘Ayni Street, which leads southwest in rough parallel with the Nile, passing by the houses of Parliament. When the protesters succeeded in breaking through, panicked officers went in hot pursuit, pushing the discombobulated lower ranks in front of them to rearrange them again in a human blockade before the people could reach the People’s Assembly, as Egypt’s lower house is called. From the other direction on Qasr al-‘Ayni Street, a now iconic scene saw light-footed young men sparring with an armored vehicle. In the footage posted online (where it has upwards of 2 million views), one of them then positions himself directly in the path of the moving lorry as it spouts water from a cannon. He stands there defiantly, hands on hips and drenched, as the vehicle brakes and the videographers wildly cheer him on from a balcony above. [22]

By then, something extraordinary was happening. The thousands of demonstrators who had been wending their way through different parts of the city were streaming through all the approaches to the square. Poet and Baradei campaign leader ‘Abd al-Rahman Yusuf was running from security forces through the labyrinthine streets of chic Garden City, home to the US and British embassies. He and his fellows approached the square from underneath the Qasr al-Nil bridge. “It was one of the most profound moments of my life. The sight of the square filled with tens of thousands heralded the long-awaited dawn. As we entered the square, the crowds installed there cheered the coming of a new battalion, greeting us with joy. I wept.” [23]

In the orange glow left by a setting sun, a skirmish unfolded outside the upper house of Parliament. Demonstrators had inched their way to that spot by making iterated advances into riot police formations, breaking them apart and gaining a tad more ground each time. Protesters clambered atop a red fire truck, and their jubilant fellows began to sing the national anthem. Tense riot police commanders herded their troops. The black-helmeted conscripts jogged in place and emitted the rhythmic grunts of soldiers revving up for close combat. When the order was given, the troops rushed into the crowd. “Silmiyya! Silmiyya!” roared the demonstrators, exhorting each other to non-violence and holding their ground as the troops retreated into position. An enterprising civilian knocked over a white-and-blue sentry kiosk. His fellows rushed to help him roll it to the protesters’ side; a barricade had been made. When hotheads in the crowd started hurling rocks at riot police, a chant rose up from both the front lines and cheerleaders on the sidelines, “No stones! No stones!” In this army, the commanders and the foot soldiers were one. [24]

Night fell, but the people stayed put in the square. Huge speakers were procured from nearby Bab al-Louq, and a people’s broadcast service was set up. Angry monologues, poetry couplets and political demands were read out. A cardboard replica of a squat dictator hung from a lamppost. News was relayed that two citizens had died in Suez that day, solidifying resolve. Volunteers ranged across the square, collecting garbage in plastic bags. People built fires and danced around their light. Out of nowhere, food and blankets appeared, to the delighted claps and cries of the encampment. Memories of March 20–21, 2003 flitted through the minds of those who were there that evening, when the square was under the people’s control for ten hours to express outrage at the US bombing of Baghdad. But on that occasion security forces had uprooted them by the next afternoon. Perhaps determined to avoid a reprise, the broadcast rallied everyone to spend this and every night in the square until their demands were met. As they had repeated over and over again throughout the day, they wanted: “Bread, freedom, social justice!” After sunset, as demonstrators realized their own power, this troika began to alternate with the Tunisian anthem: “The people want to overthrow the regime!” Reporters milled about, collecting stories. Sitting alone was Amal, a young nurse. Her friends had abandoned her, their parents refusing to let them join the demonstrations. Why did not her parents do the same? “My parents have passed away,” she explained, “and I support five brothers and sisters. I’m here so that they can live a dignified life. I don’t want them to be deprived because they’re orphans.” [25]

The riot police lieutenant colonel received the order at midnight. “The square had to be cleaned up,” he recounted. “Absolutely no one was to spend the night there.” The armored vehicles closed in, the riot troops were arrayed and the first tear gas canister was lobbed into the sit-in at 12:45 am. Nearly an hour later, following deployment of 200 vehicles, 50 public buses, 10,000 riot police and 3,000 special forces troopers, the people were expelled. Before scattering in all directions, knots of protesters encircled the vehicles that barged into the square at breakneck speed. A group ran to the NDP headquarters, where they smashed windows before being arrested. Another headed to the television building and blocked traffic in front of it. And a third group set fire to police kiosks and a police car near the ‘Abd al-Mun‘im Riyad bus depot. Holding up bloodied hands to the camera, one of the protesters said, “They shot at us! They shot at us! Who are we, the enemy?” [26]

Mubarak’s Worst Fears

Habib al-‘Adli and his adjutants were concerned by the day’s events, especially the synchronized diffusion of protests across the country, the fluidity of crowd movement in the two major cities and citizens’ euphoric sense of the weak points of the police. As the operations room lieutenant colonel recalled, “What we saw on January 25 was an uprising, not a demonstration. A young man standing in front of an armored vehicle, jumping on it to strike it, falling off and then doing it again? Honestly, there was no fear.” [27] Both the Cairo and Giza police chiefs were in the field all day on January 25, and they saw the electrifying empowerment that seemed to course through Egyptians’ veins. Both were experienced, hands-on officers who had proved their mettle in dicey situations. Cairo police chief al-Sha‘ir won al-‘Adli’s trust by handily managing the large 2006 protests in support of reformist judges. And Giza police chief al-Marasi had been the head state security officer in Suez, seat of a sparsely populated province with multiple coils of social tension, from labor strife to drug running to Bedouin tribes with serious grievances, all sitting at the southern mouth of the Suez Canal, the country’s prime generator of external revenue.

In the early morning hours of January 26, preparations were swiftly made to secure downtown Cairo against another popular takeover. State security instructed all downtown businesses to close before 1 pm on January 26. The two underground Metro lines converging on the major transfer hub at Tahrir announced that trains would not be stopping at the station. Police sealed off four entrances to the station, and three entrances to the July 26 station one stop to the northeast, outside the High Court building. Two thousand undercover policemen fanned out in downtown streets and government installations, and al-Marasi ordered the placement of multiple checkpoints on Nahiya Street, through which thousands of people had streamed the day before onto the Arab League boulevard. Labor commissar Husayn Mugawir, whose job is to control workers through the sole official union federation, instructed all union heads in the provinces to be especially responsive to the rank and file, lest any incipient job action happen to lend the demonstrations strategic depth. [28]

These measures indicated that Mugawir’s superiors were feeling the worst fears of an authoritarian regime. For a capable autocrat like Mubarak, large protests are no cause for anxiety. The fears are diffusion and linkage. Indeed, the diffusion of collective action in time and space emboldened Egyptians, signaling the unwillingness or incapacity of the coercive apparatus to suppress demonstrations. The simultaneity of protests across very different locations, especially the filling of streets in neighborhoods entirely unused to such processions, revised citizens’ calculations of what was possible and reduced uncertainty about the consequences of action. The second fear is the coordination between the three organizational infrastructures of protest. Indeed, the state security directorate existed to frustrate precisely this bridge building. It had done so quite successfully with the April 6, 2008 general strike, and had a stellar track record in branding each sector of dissent with a different label: Associational protest was “political,” but workplace and neighborhood protest was “economic.”

The diffusion of protests on January 25–27 shattered both the mental and material divisions between Egypt’s three protest sectors, forcing the regime to confront them simultaneously, when for 30 years it had done so serially. In Cairo, there was a spontaneous sit-in on the tracks at the July 26 Metro station, with demonstrators halting the train. In Boulaq, a moving crowd of 1,000 residents fought with police from early afternoon until past 2 am Friday morning, braving tear gas and rubber bullets, and setting up barricades on Gala’ Street with dumpsters and carefully arranged burning tires. Undeterred by the traumatic routing of people from Tahrir Square, angry demonstrators by the hundreds continued to stride through the streets of downtown.

The picture in the provinces was much the same, with protesters refusing to empty the streets. Demonstrations in Daqhaliyya, Port Said and North Sinai demanded the release of those arrested on January 25; in Sinai, residents used their signature tactic of blockading the highway with burning tires. On the third day of protests, a young Sinai protester named Muhammad ‘Atif was killed in clashes with police, making him the fourth casualty nationwide. In Alexandria, state security broke up a planned lawyers’ protest on the Manshiya court steps, arresting the first 20 people who showed up. The next day, 200 lawyers returned and held their protest. In Qalyoubiyya, another 200 lawyers marched down the streets on January 26 inveighing against price hikes and the export of Egyptian natural gas to Israel, so police cooped them up in the courthouse the next day. And Mahalla was still under lockdown, with security forces importing reinforcements to block renewed attempts by textile workers to start action. Percolating up from these varied locales was a decision to hold another round of protest on the next common-sense date: after Friday prayers on January 28, first dubbed “the Friday of the martyrs and the detained.”

The situation in Suez developed rapidly. On January 25, security forces had been especially violent; the fighting resulted in 110 injuries and three deaths, as well as 54 arrests. The next day, hundreds of residents flocked to Suez General Hospital to donate blood, finding it so full that the injured were lying on sheets in hallways. Meanwhile, a large group of incensed relatives and citizens had gathered outside the morgue. The authorities insisted on handing over corpses without forensic reports, and security forces besieged the funerals with a ferocity that further enraged residents. “When you see this, you feel like you’re in Palestine and Iraq,” said the leftist Tagammu‘ parliamentarian for the city. “Security uses bullets and tear gas canisters and water hoses, and the residents can only confront this with stones.” [29] But residents escalated their tactics, setting fire to a police post and the municipal council building on January 26, and trying to burn down the local NDP office. On January 27, hundreds of residents and detainees’ relatives demonstrated outside the Arba‘in police station, chanting, “Enough! We want our kids!” Demonstrators hurled petrol bombs at the station and ignited several police cars.

On the evening of January 27, police and protesters each held planning meetings to plot the second act of the confrontation. Police officials devised a comprehensive scheme to cut off physical and virtual means of linkage. They ordered a shutdown of Internet and cellular phone service for the next day; cell phones were especially important for demonstrators to spread news of protest diffusion in real time, and to share spot instructions or eleventh-hour location changes. Cairo was sealed off from the provinces and put under lockdown. All of the arteries and bridges leading into Tahrir Square from east and west were closed to traffic — even to pedestrians. Additional Metro stops were closed, not just the two nearest the square. And mosques were carefully primed in advance. The ‘Umar Makram mosque in Tahrir was ordered shuttered. Friday preachers all over the country were instructed to deliver sermons denouncing assembly and disobedience of the ruler. At the Giza mosque where Mohamed ElBaradei was set to attend prayer before joining the protests, the preacher of 20 years was replaced with a government pick. For their part, the youth groups and opposition forces coordinating the protest added new locations and reacquainted themselves with landlines to cope with the cellular shutdown. Opposition parties who had sat out the January 25 action — the Tagammu‘ leftists and the Nasserists — scrambled to join up. And the Muslim Brothers threw their organizational weight behind the Friday gathering, revising their calculus of risk after seeing the momentous events of the previous three days. The players readied themselves, and the world watched.

On January 28, shortly after noon, a majestic scene unfolded all over Egypt. Grand processions of thousands upon thousands of people in every province made their way to the abodes of the oppressive forces that controlled their lives. Beckoning those watching from their windows, they chanted, “Our people, our people, come and join us!” When the crowds reached town and city centers, they encircled police stations, provincial government buildings and NDP headquarters, the triad of institutions emblematic of the regime. The syncopated chorus that had traveled from Sidi Bouzid to Tunis now shook the Egyptian earth: “The people…want…to overthrow the regime!”

In Tanta, 50,000 people blockaded a major highway, encircled the provincial government building and ripped down its billboards. In Kafr al-Dawwar, 25,000 did the same. In Damietta, the people called for the dissolution of Parliament, torching the NDP building and defacing the façade of the governor’s offices. In Minya, whose governor had bragged that his middle Nile province had not seen demonstrations on January 25, people ignored the entreaties of the police chief and barricaded the Cairo-Aswan highway, braving rubber bullets to chant outside the NDP headquarters: “Corruption caused this country’s destruction!”

Everywhere, the rising of the commons was met with superior force. Police fired tear gas canisters, rubber bullets and — the ultimate escalation — live ammunition. The goal, to be reached at any cost, was to prevent separate crowds of demonstrators from fusing together in city centers. State security commandeered ambulances to arrest the unsuspecting injured, and hospitals were pressured into falsifying the cause of death for demonstrators who were shot at close range. Residents provided first aid to demonstrators leery of getting into ambulances, and tossed water bottles, vinegar and onions (homemade tear gas remedies) to the civilians fighting below. On Ramsis Street in downtown Cairo, as a crowd of 10,000 crashed into a security formation and was hurled back with copious tear gas, a woman cried out from her balcony, “God be with you, men of Egypt!” [30]

Communications between Alexandrian field commanders that day record the shock and awe police experienced in Egypt’s second city. “We are still engaging very large numbers coming from both directions. We need more gas,” a squadron head radioed to a superior. “The people have barged in and burned a security vehicle. The situation here is beyond belief. I’m telling you, sir, beyond belief,” says another. By mid-afternoon, Alexandrians had laid siege to three police stations. In other parts of the city, police had run out of ammunition and resorted to throwing stones. A high-ranking commander got on the line to sternly instruct a field officer, “Stop engaging and secure the police stations! You don’t have sufficient forces to calmly engage these numbers. Go and batten down the hatches!” [31]

And Suez? Security forces had isolated the Canal town from the rest of the country, closing off all access points. Massive reinforcements had arrived daily since January 25. At 1 am on January 28, the top police brass met at the Arba‘in police station, which only a few hours before had been ablaze, to set the plan for the “Friday of anger.” The showdown in Suez started after noon prayers. Gen. Ashraf ‘Abdallah, commander of the riot police in the Canal Zone, later prepared an internal report:

After Friday prayers, no fewer than 5,000 people began a procession that was joined by large numbers of citizens from all mosques. The procession grew to 40,000 people, and the police chief ordered that it be allowed to proceed to the provincial capital building. Once there, the numbers exceeded 50,000. The masses remained outside the building for many hours, chanting hostile slogans. At the same time, large numbers of no less than 20,000 had gathered in front of the Arba‘in police station and assaulted the forces with rocks and Molotov cocktails. The forces used only tear gas. Due to the density of the crowds, the forces were unable to deal with them. The crowds burned the station, released the detainees and burned all the police vehicles in the area, among them ten lorries and an armored car belonging to the Ismailiyya force. [32]

In five compact hours, from noon to 5 pm, the police battled the people in all areas of the capital, desperate to thwart the amalgamation of multitudes in Tahrir Square. A climactic battle erupted on the Qasr al-Nil bridge, as surging crowds from the west sought to cross the river to join their brethren converging on Tahrir from the east. Qasr al-Nil has rightly been memorialized in word and video. [33] But there was another climactic Cairo fight in the east, where at least 15 citizens died (the youngest of them aged 14) and ten troop carriersparked in a row burned. The battle of Matariyya Square, to the east of the suburb of Heliopolis, raged as police sought to stop residents from merging with crowds in the adjacent, densely populated ‘Ayn Shams neighborhood. The people’s insistent anthem, as outside Parliament on January 25, was “Silmiyya! Silmiyya!” and “No stones! No stones!” When police used overwhelming force, including live rounds, the people switched tactics, forming a barricade with overturned dumpsters, seizing the shields of riot police, and burning the vehicles and the police station. The mother of ‘Imad al-Sa‘idi, 24, killed by one bullet to the heart and one to the side, wondered, “If there was no way out for a policeman but to fire, then fire on his hand or his foot. But to shoot him in the heart and end his life — why?” [34]

The Egyptian uprising telescoped the daily encounters between people and police that had played out for more than ten years. Al-‘Adli’s police force did not melt away in the face of a popular onslaught. It fought for four straight days on nearly every street corner in every major city, before finally being rendered inefficient by the dynamism and stamina of exceptionally diverse crowds, each with their own know-how in the art of interfacing with gendarmes. At 5 pm on the afternoon of January 28, when reports started rolling in of police stations burning down, one after another, al-‘Adli capitulated and ordered the removal of his forces from the streets. It was a sight unseen in modern Egyptian police rule — the one and only time that Egypt’s three protest subcultures were able to jointly defeat the coercive apparatus that had existed to keep them apart.

By the end of the street fighting, preliminary estimates were that 365 citizens had died and some 5,000 had been hurt. On the police side, there were 32 deaths and 1,079 injuries, while 99 police stations and 3,000 vehicles had burned. Al-‘Adli stayed bunkered inside the Interior Ministry until January 31, when he was transported out sitting huddled in an army tank. In a six-hour interrogation by the prosecution, on charges of responsibility for the deaths and injuries, al-‘Adli shunted blame upward and downward. He accused his four top assistants of providing him with false intelligence, and demanded that Husni Mubarak be held accountable for the decision to fire on demonstrators, in his capacity as head of the Supreme Police Council. But he did concede defeat.

The situation was beyond imagination. The faces of the demonstrators showed how clear they were in challenging the regime and how much they hated it, how willing they were to resist with their bodies all attempts to divide them with truncheons and water cannons and all other tools. They outnumbered security forces by a million or more, a fact that shocked the Interior Ministry leaders and the president. Those government officials all sat at home watching the demonstrations on TV. Not one of them devised a political solution to what policemen were facing — confrontations with angry people and indescribable hatred of the government. All of us were astonished. [35]

The prosecutor-general referred al-‘Adli and his four lieutenants to Cairo criminal court, on charges of murder and endangerment of public property. [36]

The People’s Choice

When Husni Mubarak appeared shortly after midnight on January 29 to announce his appointment of a new government, it was the first time in his tenure that he had been summoned to the podium by popular fiat. But he was enacting a familiar script written by autocratic rulers past, offering concessions to a population that had beaten the police and gained control of a country’s streets. An offering that if made only four days earlier would have been considered shrewd — a cabinet reshuffle — was now foolhardy. It simply sharpened the population’s apprehension of imminent victory, spurring them to stay outdoors and demand nothing less than the ouster of the president. Since Mubarak had made it impossible to remove him from office through elections, Egyptians resorted to the streets to relay the people’s choice.

The liberation of the streets from the occupation forces of the Mubarak regime was only the opening act. Next was the symbolic public acquisition of Parliament, filling the avenue outside with peaceful protesters and plastering the building’s gates with the people’s insignia. Then came the branding of public goods; “our money,” read a scrawl of graffiti on an army tank. With remarkable focus, citizens targeted the structures of rule that had disenfranchised and dispossessed them for decades. The police stations and NDP headquarters were the first targets, but the nascent revolutionaries did not stop there, hitting municipal councils, governors’ offices, state security buildings, police checkpoints, traffic departments, toll booths, utility buildings and other institutions that had taken their resources without giving in return. In Fayyoum, residents stormed the public utility company and destroyed the water bills that charged them exorbitant rates. In Ismailiyya, among the government institutions stormed was the Electricity Administration. In Alexandria, youthful demonstrators grabbed files from the main provincial building that they said showed evidence of corruption. In Isna, a town in Upper Egypt, 1,000 demonstrators stormed a brand-new administrative building that had yet to be formally opened, paid for with their monies.

The genius of the Egyptian revolution is its methodical restoration of the public weal. The uprising restored the meaning of politics, if by that term is understood the making of collective claims on government. It revalued the people, revealing them in all their complexity — neither heroes nor saints, but citizens. It repaired the republican edifice of the state, Mubarak’s hereditary succession project being the revolution’s very first casualty. It compelled the police to bring back their old motto, erasing al-‘Adli’s sinister “police and people in service to the nation” and returning “the police at the service of the people.” The countless public institutions branded with the names of Mubarak and his wife are now being rechristened in the names of regular people who died for the revolution. The referendum, a procedure disfigured beyond recognition by authoritarianism, on March 19 regained meaning as a matter for adjudication by the people. The revolution will have realized its emancipatory promise if it achieves one great task: constructing institutional checks against the rule of the many by the few.

At press time, Egypt’s revolution is still in full swing. It must be expected, however, that the revolution will undergo phases of setback, real or apparent. The apparatus of coercion, indeed, has been quickly rehabilitated and is gingerly reinserting itself into civilian life. But on what terms? For Egypt’s revolutionary situation to lead to a revolutionary outcome, existing structures of rule must be transformed. Citizens must be free to choose their presidents, governors, parliamentarians, faculty deans and village mayors, their trade union, student, and professional association leaders. They must have a binding say in the economic decisions that affect their lives. The coming years will reveal how much of that will happen and how. Just as it provided an archetype of durable authoritarian rule, perhaps Egypt is now making a model of revolution.

Author’s Note: Thanks to Evelyn Alsultany, George Gavrilis and Mandy McClure for sympathetic and tough-minded feedback.

Endnotes

[1] Reuters, January 25, 2011.
[2] New York Times, February 16, 2011.
[3] Esam Al-Amin, “When Egypt’s Revolution Was at the Crossroads,” Counterpunch, March 9, 2011.
[4] The Globe and Mail, February 9, 2011.
[5] Charles Tilly, “Does Modernization Breed Revolution?” Comparative Politics 5 (April 1973).
[6] Interview with Muhammad al-Mahdi, professor of psychology at al-Azhar University, al-Shurouq, October 15, 2010.
[7] Al-Ahali, January 3, 2001.
[8] Al-Ahram Weekly, June 19–25, 2008.
[9] Al-Misri al-Yawm, March 18, 2011. [English]
[10] This interview is online at: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UgZMz3encLE.
[11] Al-Shurouq, January 22, 2011.
[12] Al-Misri al-Yawm, January 23 and 24, 2011.
[13] Al-Shurouq, January 12, 2011.
[14] Wall Street Journal, February 2, 2011.
[15] Al-Misri al-Yawm, March 12, 2011.
[16] Al-Misri al-Yawm, January 25, 2011.
[17] Al-Shurouq, January 25, 2011.
[18] Al-Shurouq, November 29, 2010.
[19] Al-Shurouq, February 18, 2011.
[20] This scene was in fact captured on camera: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1HfkUJrSMoM.
[21] Al-Misri al-Yawm, January 27, 2011.
[22] The scene can be viewed at: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kWr6MypZ-JU.
[23] ‘Abd al-Rahman Yusuf, “Diaries of the Revolution of the Patient,” al-Misri al-Yawm, March 7, 2011.
[24] See footage from this battle at: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pgh1iOXI6sQ.
[25] Al-Misri al-Yawm, January 27, 2011.
[26] These moments are recorded at: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=g58Sl_4GN0E.
[27] Al-Misri al-Yawm, March 12, 2011.
[28] Al-Shurouq and al-Misri al-Yawm, January 27, 2011.
[29] Al-Misri al-Yawm, January 28, 2011.
[30] Al-Misri al-Yawm, January 30, 2011.
[31] The transcripts of these communications were published in al-Misri al-Yawm, March 15, 2011.
[32] The report was obtained by al-Misri al-Yawm, March 16, 2011.
[33] New York Times, January 28, 2011.
[34] Al-Misri al-Yawm, February 15, 2011.
[35] Al-Shurouq, March 19, 2011.
[36] Al-Shurouq, March 23, 2011.

Portrait of a Revolutionary: Hossam El-Hamalawy

Hossam El-Hamalawy speaks about the role of Labour/Unions in the Egyptian Revolution

Bassam [henceforth “B”]:  How are you?  Congratulations.

Hossam [henceforth “H”]:  Great.  Thank you!
B:  Can you tell us about the post-revolution situation?  There’s fear, hope, etc.  We’d like to hear from you personally, as someone who took part in the battle:  What’s going on?
H:  The war hasn’t ended.  The first battle of the revolution ended with Mubarak’s stepping down from power, but the revolution hasn’t been completed.  We now say that we entered the stage of the revolution. I would like in the beginning to inform your readers of certain facts so we can be clear about what happened in Egypt.  First, all the media now, even the government media, describe what’s happened in Egypt as a “youth revolution.”  Of course, I’ve never heard of a “seniors’ revolution” in any part of the world.  And it’s well-known that in any revolution of people of the world, those from the ages of 18 to 25 compose the segment of the population that is the most involved.   But describing the revolution as a “youth revolution also makes it vague and gives it a certain color something that has become fashionable  today, to give revolution a certain color, so there are orange, purple, jasmine revolutions and so on.  I believe that some people have tried to call our revolution the “lotus revolution,” an attempt that has failed utterly, thank God.

H:  OK.  All social classes in Egypt participated in the uprising from the first stages. Hosni Mubarak’s regime succeeded in creating a state of alienation between it and all the social classes, with no exceptions.    Even among the Egyptian elite except for those businessmen who surrounded HM, were relieved when he resigned. But what pushed Hosni Mubarak, or what pushed the armed forces to ask Hosni Mubarak to step down and give up power?  First, the battle between us and the authority when we were protesting in al- Tahrir began to turn into a battle of nerves, and a battle of waiting, and a battle of attrition:  who would wear out first? And at the same time, the government was staging something like a capital strike—not a labor strike—a capital strike.  In the first stage of the uprising, buildings were closed, shops, banks….  This was the government’s decision; it wasn’t our decision.  The protesters didn’t attack the banks.  We didn’t attack shops.  And in Egypt at that time it was the armed forces that imposed a curfew. What stopped life in Egypt was the army that imposed a curfew.  So the situation turned into a battle of waiting.  But what pushed matters in our favor and pushed Hosni Mubarak to realize OK, that he had to leave power, were the beginning of  labor strikes on the Wednesday and Thursday prior to the Friday he stepped down, when ‘Umar Sulayman announced that Hosni Mubarak had stepped down.  The entry of the working class as an independent social force with its independent general strikes, that’s what ended the regime of Hosni Mubarak.

We might ask, where were the workers at the beginning of the revolution?  The workers participated in the revolution from the beginning.  In areas of Suez, in areas like Mahallah, areas like Kafr el-Dawwar…these areas are working-class areas.  So when you hear that tens of thousands—and at times there were hundreds of thousands—of people protesting in these cities, I think it’s understood that the vast majority of them were workers.  But the workers were taking part in these demonstrations as demonstrators, not as workers.  They were not acting as a separate force.  Number one, because this was an uprising and all of them were there in the street; number two, because the government was staging a capital strike, so the workers weren’t congregating in factories because the whole time the workers were either in the street or in the popular committees that were protecting the neighborhoods.  But as soon as the government tried to restore “normal life” once again in Egypt in the week prior to the fall of Mubarak, the workers returned to their factories, returned to their companies, and began to talk to each other and discuss the country’s affairs.  And it was on Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday that was the turning point.  The strikes began. The workers began to act as a social bloc.
OK, Hosni Mubarak stepped down on Friday.  Afterwards, the question arose:  “What next?”  Now there is a split within the ranks of the revolutionaries between the youth of the middle classes and their youth organizations, who announced their confidence in the armed forces, their opposition to the continuing rallies in al-Tahrir Square and announced that they were against the strikes, and called it class-based strikes, on the basis that those who are taking part in them were classes with limited interests that primarily concerned them and weren’t of concern to the rest of the classes in society, from their point of view.  There was a situation of hostility between the workers and middle class youth.
And this state of hostility is repeated by the Higher Council of the Armed Forces, which issued more than one statement prohibiting protesters, and its forces in Suez two days earlier arrested a group of workers and killed by mistake a number of protesters who were the relatives of workers, which led to an outbreak of clashes. The military police were used in some of the ministries, such as the Ministry of Agriculture today, for example, so as to disperse the masses of protesters on the pretext of protecting the ministries from being stormed by angry workers.  The army so far has not opened fire on the demonstrators and it hasn’t opened fire on striking workers.  But we are all holding our breath:  When will it happen?  None of us doubt the loyalty to the revolution of the soldiers and officers—the young officers.  However, the generals who rule Egypt right now, the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, are Hosni Mubarak’s generals- he appointed them.  They are the generals who have provided support and have been the spine of Hosni Mubarak’s dictatorship during his rule for the last thirty years.  The military institution is the institution that has ruled Egypt since ’52, so I don’t have any reason to trust the generals of the military council.  But the younger officers and soldiers and conscripts—they, in my opinion, are allies, not enemies.

Currently, the strikes, and after the fall of Mubarak, the social strikes are continuing.  There is no day in which you can open a newspaper and not find news about a sit-in or a strike or a labor demonstration, or about employees demonstrating somewhere.  The common demand in all of these strikes is first of all the prosecution of corruption and the dismissal of corrupt managers.  The second demand that is also common to all of these strikes is to make temporary workers permanent.  Egypt is one of the worst countries in the world in terms of labor rights and the government plays its games here the whole time in that most of the workers that we have here in Egypt don’t have contracts, all these work with temporary contract or on daily basis  for many long years. They have no social security. That is the second demand.

Another demand you see in most strikes is the formation of independent trade unions, because in Egypt we don’t have independent trade unions; we have something called the “Egyptian Trade Union Federation,” which is a governmental entity established by ‘Abd al-Nasser in ’57, and its job is to exert control over the working class, not to defend the labor movement.  In fact, the members of the Union are against strikes and always fight them, for the sake of the government.  It’s run by Hussein Migawar, one of the lords of corruption in the National Party.

But in Egypt, from the moment strikes broke out in 2006 some trade union successes. There were some achievements during the wave of strikes of the past five years.  Property tax collectors succeeded in establishing the first independent trade union in the history of the country in half a century in December 2008.

[Sound cuts out] …health technicians, who work on hospital machines here in Egypt, succeeded in establishing an independent trade union two months ago, and pensioners formed a union.  Those are the three independent labor associations that we’ve just gotten here in Egypt.  But we don’t have the kind of labor entity they have in Tunisia, like the Tunisian General Union of Labor, a trade union which was quasi-independent under the dictatorship of Ben Ali.  As soon as the revolution took place, the revolution provided the opportunity for bases for coordinated action. And they were able to mobilize the working class and to act in a unified way.  Here in Egypt we don’t have this kind of entity or anything like it, but it’s something that I and my colleagues on the left and a large number of labor organizations are now trying to build.
B:  You talk about the workers at the time coming in and demonstrating and striking on the Wednesday and Thursday before the fall of the regime.  Are there people who say, no, that’s merely an addition to what was already there, it didn’t itself lead to the fall of the regime?
H:  No, I mean, first, I am not trying to dishonor the efforts that were there in Tahrir.  I was one of those who was there in Tahrir.  This doesn’t mean that I’m saying that the intervention of workers on the political scene with the general strikes that they staged on Wednesday and Thursday before the Friday that Mubarak stepped down…when I say that I don’t mean that that was the sole factor.  The entry of the workers onto the battlefield was really an addition, but in my opinion, it was a decisive addition.  The whole time we were in Tahrir we could exert control over Tahrir, but we didn’t control the rest of the country.  Hosni Mubarak and his entourage were perhaps really complete and steadfast and they still held the battle-axe.  We couldn’t bend them.  But the general strikes on Wednesday and Thursday [sound breaks up].  Look, students could hold demonstrations for a full year and occupy their universities.  The government can close them down.  Judges could demonstrate in the streets and hold heroic demonstrations.  The government can close them—it has military courts.  If the journalists demonstrate, the government can shut down the newspapers.  But the workers, if they strike, it’s “game over.”  The game is over.  It’s finished, because the machine won’t work. There’s no money coming in.  No trains are moving. No buses are moving. No factories are working. No ships are moving. No ports are operating. It’s “game over”—finished.  The subject’s over.So, the intervention of labor was the decisive factor.  Of course, it wasn’t the only factor.

B:  When you say “decisive,” what is the thing that decided matters?  When you say “decisive,” did the army do something in particular that put pressure on Mubarak?  Decisive with respect to whom?
H:  Decisive for the Egyptian Revolution with the logic….
B:  Who made the decision that had the decisive reaction?
H:  In our situation, the army leadership intervened and asked Hosni Mubarak to step down and disappear from the political scene, because the army leadership, which was already beginning to control the country at that time, saw the regime crumbling.  And this was something Hosni Mubarak who was sitting holed up in his palace with Gamal Mubarak and his clique, this was something clearly that could not reach his sons at all, in addition to his great madness, as well as his pride and his hotheadedness.  But the army, which was more in touch with the scene on the street and how things were going, simply saw that Hosni Mubarak had to disappear or the regime was going to crumble.  That’s it, the country was no longer working.
B:  I’d like to talk about what happened afterward later.  But Hosni Mubarak was in the position that he would have to disappear.  Are you avoiding any talk about accountability….any type of accountability?  It’s as though he was put aside, and that was that.
H:  The chants in Tahrir, which began with “the people want the departure of the president” and “the people want the fall of the regime,” in the last days the people were shouting, “the people want the trial of the president,” “the people want the trials of the butcher” and “the people want the execution of the butcher.”

They were shouted together. We need to be clear about this. These were the slogans that came up again and again.  In the view of the vast majority of the Egyptian people, we don’t want Hosni Mubarak to leave the country.  We really want Hosni Mubarak to stay in the country.  We want him to answer for what he’s done over the last thirty years, and at the same time, to return the wealth that was looted and stolen from us.  The current estimates of Hosni Mubarak’s wealth range from 5 billion up to 70 billion dollars (according to varying figures).  We need to get this money back.  The Public Prosecutor, who we have to understand that he is also a part of the old regime, he’s a Public Prosecutor who was chosen by Hosni Mubarak, is under pressure now and waging a campaign to combat corruption.  This “fight against corruption” involves arresting former ministers, taking custody of their property, and arresting certain businessmen with close connections to Hosni Mubarak and the former regime in order to assuage public opinion, and at the same time to freeze their bank accounts and conduct investigations around them.  The family of the president have begun to come under scrutiny, and that’s under extreme pressure from the masses.

But we also have to understand that it will not do for the friends of Hosni Mubarak to try Hosni Mubarak.  That Public Prosecutor was put there by Hosni Mubarak.  The generals in the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces who are currently running the country—the situation is a part of the machinery of corruption present in Egypt.  Why should we think that the armed forces are the only arm of the state that is pure and has not been touched by any corruption during the last 30 years of Mubarak’s rule? ?  They are part of the machinery.

They are part of the regime.  I personally want to know how much money and wealth and financial assets Tantawi’s and the rest of the generals of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces.  It’s my right as an Egyptian citizen to know this—it shouldn’t be a secret.  So I am not optimistic that the Egyptian people’s wealth will be returned so long as the current regime remains in power.

B:  What is your overall opinion, as an activist, journalist, writer, analyst, an Arab, an Egyptian, of what is going on in Bahrain, Yemen, and especially Libya?  Wednesday, 23rd February.

H:  Firstly, I am very, very proud that the efforts we made in Egypt on the way to toppling Hosni Mubarak inspired and was the source of the campaign of our brothers in neighboring Arab countries.  And the domino effect has even reached China.  I read a Reuters report that talks about arrests among the ranks of activists in China inspired the Arab revolution and the Egyptian revolution and the Tunisian revolution and their fighting spirit and now they want there to be a “Day of Rage” in China.
The revolution that’s underway right now in Libya and Bahrain and the demonstrations in Algeria and the demonstrations in Morocco calling for reform, and the demonstrations of our brothers in Yemen and the demonstrations in Jordan…all of these, in our opinion are demonstrations that give us hope.  The success of our revolution in Egypt, which is not yet finished, will be contingent upon the spread of this uprising, or the spread of this uprising through the region.  Every corrupt or client Arab regime in the region that fell, that, in our opinion, that was a step and a push forward.  Every defeat of any Arab revolution in the region, that is, in our opinion, is a defeat that pushes us backwards, for us in Egypt.  The Egyptian revolution in the condition of completeness will have the effect of an earthquake in the region.  America will lose its biggest ally, or the biggest client, to put it more accurately, in the Arab world:  The regime of Hosni Mubarak—and the post-Hosni Mubarak regime—which is the second-biggest recipient of foreign aid from the United States, after Israel. The army gets $1.3 billion every year from American taxpayers, and there’s $200,000 that used to go to the government under the rubric of economic aid.

If we succeed in removing the regime that is dependent on American aid, then we will start talking about:  One, a strong defense of the Palestinian revolution and our brothers in the Occupied Territories when they begin to rise up.  Secondly:  strong defense of our brothers in the rest of the Arab world that are also asking for an end to the dictatorships that are assisted by America.  If the countries that ring the Zionist entity were to fall into the hands of revolutions—I’m talking about Egypt, Jordan, and Syria, and Lebanon of course—these countries, if revolutions were to break out in them, if Israel was surrounded by countries in revolution, Israel will fall without a single shot fired.  People have to understand this.  American hegemony over the region that has been an impediment to development and growth in the region and an impediment to gaining our freedom, that hegemony will disappear.  For this reason, I shout in solidarity with all the Arab peoples that are rising up today, and wish them success.  They also are in solidarity with the Egyptian revolution; we share the same destiny.
B:  What is your opinion of what is going on in Libya, with respect to the use of airplanes to attack civilians and demonstrators.  Of course, I know your opinion, but what is your reaction as….

H:  A crime!  What’s happening in Libya is a crime!  All our lives we’ve  made fun of  Qaddafi and have said he’s crazy, he’s stupid, but what’s been going on there lately is a crime; there’s no other way to describe it. And I don’t think that any one of us thought that his madness and bloodthirstiness would reach the point where he would be attacking people with heavy weapons and airplanes.  At the same time, though, something that gives me hope is the disobedience seen now in the Libyan army.  There are airplanes going to Malta, refusing to fire on demonstrators.  Today another one of its planes was brought down because it refused to unleash bombs on the demonstrators.  All of these things give hope.  I really hope the Libyan revolutionaries are successful, and here in Egypt there is an activist campaign to show solidarity with the revolution in Libya and the rest of the Arab countries.

B:  How?  With Libya specifically?

H:  Egyptian activists have organized some demonstrations right now in front of the Libyan embassy in Cairo and in front of the Consulate in Alexandria.  There has also been a campaign to collect donations of food and medical supplies and to transport them to Salloum and bring them in from there.  There are now videos on YouTube of this assistance entering Libyan territory and being received by revolutionaries.  Right now Eastern Libyan is not under Qaddafi’s control; it’s under the control of the Libyan opposition.  The Libyan brothers, between them and me a blood connection.  We’re neighbors.  There were more than a million Egyptians residing and living in Libya.  And at the same time, we have common concerns, oppression, and dictatorship, so there’s nothing that will help us more than the action of Arab brothers.

B:  Thank you very much.  Do you think an end to American hegemony and the “domino effect” that will affect American hegemony and affect Israel—do you think this is something automatic, or is there a role that can be played by activists like yourself in Arab countries to drive these developments to this outcome?  Not just thinking that surrounding the dictators or the state of Israel or American hegemony will settle the matter, without action, of course serious action, but without deliberate action available with every means of oppression.  I’m asking about this because there is great optimism among at least those of us those of us who’ve been around for 40 years, when we think about this with respect to dictatorships, with respect to the apartheid system in Israel with American hegemony…but is the optimism automatic…?

H:  No, nothing is automatic, and nothing is inevitable.  If the revolution had been inevitable, or if success were assured, we would have gone home these last few years and waited in bed sleeping and not bothered to make a revolution, but no, the whole we’ve been organizing ourselves and have been staging interventions in the political sphere, the whole time, the activists’ role has been to agitate the masses to act, and to raise awareness among them.  I always say that if any truly democratic government comes to Egypt or any Arab country, the result will not be one that will please America or Israel.  The general feeling among most Arabs from the Ocean to the Gulf, are feelings that, number one, are hostile to America and its role in the region supporting dictatorships and around the world, its military presence in the region and its occupation of an Islamic country like Afghanistan or an Arab country like Iraq.  Second, the viewpoint toward Israel.  The great majority of the Arab people hate Israel.  They hate Israel, not out of hatred toward Jews, but out of hatred of its imperialist history and its atrocious crimes against the Palestinians.  So if we get a democratic, elected government, in a manner that is transparent, fair, and without any interference of any kind here in Egypt, this government will surely be hostile to Israel and hostile to America, or, more precisely, hostile to American imperialism and hostile to Zionism.  But the rise of the new revolutionary regime that we aspire to, this is not automatic.  First, if we are not well-organized; if we don’t know how to organize workers in factories into nation-wide networks, becoming trade unions capable of coordinating strikes; if we don’t know how to coordinate the workers’ and students’ movements; if we don’t know how to connect the political demands of the revolutionaries in Tahrir with the economic and social liberation demands of the workers and fellaheen in Cairo and the countryside; if we have a role in making these connections and we fail in that, the revolution will fail.  True, the revolution was spontaneous, but the organization and the activists’ role in it can’t be done away with.  This is what will differentiate us in the coming stage, the second stage of the revolution.

B:  Thank you very much Hossam, and we hope that you and your colleagues will succeed, especially since what’s happening is a dream.  I’d like to thank you for your time; maybe I took up a lot of your time, but we’ll speak again.  Good night, and I hope you wake up to revolution tomorrow!

H:  You too, in America!