The Power of Memory

Collective hatred comes from narratives of cultural memory.

In 1916, anticipating victory, France, Russia, and Britain created the “Middle East” out of the remains of the 600-year old Ottoman Empire. Lebanon and Iraq were directly controlled, others kept in spheres of influence. Haifa, Gaza, and Jerusalem were an Allied “condominium.” Arms control was strictly European. The Arab powers learned of this at war’s end (1917). Agreements assuring Arab independence had disappeared. Continue reading

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Palestine is Still the Issue | Interview – The Angry Arab on Zionism, Syria, and more

 

He is known for his radical leftist political stances and, in particular, his emphatic support for the Palestinian struggle. However, he has recently received criticism from readers and former fans for his stance on Syria (he is against both the Assad regime and the opposition’s Syrian National Council).

In January, AbuKhalil was in the UK for a speaking tour of university Palestine societies titled “The Case Against Israel”. The day before his first talk at Goldsmiths University, I sat down with the professor in an Edgware Road cafe to discuss his thoughts on the Palestine solidarity movement, the historical significance of the boycott divestment and sanctions (BDS) campaign, the uprising in Syria, as well as other regional developments. I started off by asking him about his speaking tour.

As`ad AbuKhalil: I am going around to speak on making the case against Israel. I’m not going to be making any qualifications, or any disclaimers. I think I am of a generation who have seen too many Arab intellectuals, particularly in the United States, who used to get awkward and nervous whenever, after giving a long talk about the Palestinians, they are faced with a Zionist in the audience who would ask them: “But do you accept the existence of Israel?” And I’ve seen so many famous names dance around that question… I have become influenced by it in a way to be very categorical about it. When I started speaking publicly about Palestine in the United States, in the first few cases I was confronted by these same people who would stand up and say “But do you recognise the state of Israel?” And to that I would answer “Of course I wouldn’t!”

Asa Winstanley: So they don’t bother now?

AA: That never comes [up] anymore! And I felt like: that was so easy, why didn’t they all do that before? Since Oslo there is a trend in the pro-Palestinian community, particularly those with links to the PLO, to make the case for Palestine palatable with a case for Zionism. And that’s why I am here to oppose it.

AW: Why do you think Israel seems to be so sensitive to the boycott divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement?

AA: Since I left Lebanon in 1983, I have seen an erosion in the standing of Israel, especially in the eyes of Western liberals. When I left, these were the hardcore supporters… Public opinion in Europe has markedly changed over the last few decades. So much so that in almost all countries, even Germany, there is more support for Palestinians than for Israelis.

In Russia, after the rise of the supposed Islamic fundamentalist threat over there, there has been in fact a rise in the support for Israel, but if you talk about Scandinavian countries, or England, or France, and so on. I mean the public opinion is now, in England, more pro-Palestinian than pro-Israeli when they are asked that question. But now of course that does not translate into the political parties of the House of Commons or places like that.

In America, it has remained the same. It’s still 63 percent for Israel, versus [about] 12 or 13 percent for Palestinians. But what has changed even in America is that the bedrock of support for Israel has shifted from American liberals to hardcore Southern Baptists, Republicans, conservatives. So Israel is aware that they have an image problem, that they did not used to have a few decades ago, and they are particularly sensitive about college campuses… Why? Because they know this is their future generation of leaders, and if this bug gets to spread all around, it’s going to be hurting Israel in the long term. Assuming Israel’s going to be around by the time they reach power. In America, of course, there is such a big gap between college campus activism on Palestine (or any matter) and the very closed, conservative nature of Congress, that Israelis have less to worry about – and yet they seem to be worried.

AW: Why do you think BDS has taken off so much in the last five to six years?

AA: Israel does not do the just thing in the new world after the Cold War. Zionists still operate the way it did back in the 1880s, when they arrived in Palestine. They still use the same brazen and blatant racist resort to war crimes and massacres that they used all along, and I think they realise that it is much more shocking and horrific by the standards of today, and as a result there is an avalanche of reaction against Israel that has been generated in Western countries.

AW: What are the differences between the BDS movement in its modern form, and the more historical Arab boycott of Israel?

AA: The Arab boycott of Israel was much more strict… On the popular level it is [still] extremely strict: refusal of travel to Israel for any purposes – tourism of any form… There are disagreements about the visits, for example, some believe that if you go to Palestinian areas for activism and you can stay in Palestinian areas, spend money there and it’s fine, as long as you boycott any companies who trade with Israel.

The Arab boycott has been extremely effective – the loosening of it has been at the official level. When I was growing up, there was this simultaneous double boycott of Israel. There was the popular level that did not need any instruction, and then there was the official level, which was bad… So the BDS movement is a continuation, I think, of an Arab League official plan.

AW: What is your opinion of activists, quite often from Europe and America, who go to occupied Palestine?

AA: I have no problems with that whatsoever. I have a distinction made about Arabs who go there – those who have Arab citizenship, even if they have a passport from elsewhere. I am not against Palestinians who hold citizenship in America to go to Palestine, because that’s their home. But as long as Israel is occupying the land, and to abide by the Arab League boycott of Israel, I still believe we should adhere, and that all Arab citizens should not pass through Israeli soldiers’ checkpoints to enter into Palestine. If you do, it’s in areas where you do not have to go through them.

AW: So what’s the material difference there?

AA: That we have an Arab League boycott. The Arab League never did anything good! But they did [make] this plan of boycott of Israel, which I believe is something we should support.

AW: Many activists who go to Palestine are actually from Sweden, Norway, Scandinavian countries.

AA: Amazing. Those countries, when you go there, sometimes if you will stay for a week you will see a demonstration about Palestine somewhere – posters about Palestine everywhere – it’s amazing. Sweden, Denmark, the Netherlands – it’s advanced. Over there, being pro-Palestinian is becoming part of the definition of being a leftist. I mean it’s easy to be a leftist against war in general – the John Lennon version. The challenge is to be a leftist in a way that puts real challenge to the powers of government and the super powers around the world, because you can really expose the hypocrisy on the question on Palestine. This is why Palestine becomes more symbolic for many activists. It’s not only about Palestine, it’s about the hypocrisy of the Western world.

AW: I think I read in one interview a Scandinavian activist saying that Palestine had become the Vietnam of our time.

AA: Yes, absolutely. And I’m glad that Jane Fonda is not on our side. Who wants her?

AW: Western activists who go to Palestinian demonstrations in the West Bank will quite often come into contact with Israeli activists, some of whom are anti-Zionist. You’ve said on your blog that you’re against any contact with Israelis, basically. Is that a fair understanding of your position?

AA: This is not an easy position, but that is my position. I have taken that position for a while. [Once] I was giving a talk at SOAS here in London and my hosts were sitting with me, and one of them was a graduate student and it was clear that she is one of the activists on Palestine. So suddenly it occurred to me to ask her, based on her accent, I said: “Are you Israeli?” and she said “Yeah, I am”. I said “have you served in the army?” and then she told me yes, that she was an instructor in the Israeli army. And then I had to tell her, “Well, let me tell you my position: I cannot talk to you.” Everyone around her, even her teacher (and one of her teachers is a good friend of mine) are telling me that she’s a wonderful person, that she has made a radical transformation, and I said “But that’s my position.”

And it’s not because of ideological dogmatism that I take this position, at all. It’s really, like, emotional. I mean, I get bothered – I just get bothered. To be sitting and chatting with somebody, and then thinking that this person may have killed a brother or sister… You know, I just can’t do that. Even with Ilan Pappe – I was telling [my wife] Farah – I was with him on a panel once, I didn’t ask that question. He’s done great work, but he served, right?

AW: I read in his memoirs that he did.

AA: Yeah, and as a result I remember I made a conscious effort not to shake his hand. So it bothers me. There is one known Arab here, who has been an adviser to Yasser Arafat and I told him, I said: “Don’t you have a psychological barrier?” Because it’s huge in my case and I don’t want to cross it and he told me “I do, but I feel like I have to cross it for another purpose”… I mean it’s psychological and personal… and for me, I am not for the categorical rejection of anyone. I have elaborated a position which [laughs] which basically…

AW: You wrote on your blog you’re opposed to contact with any Israeli, except where they’ve taken armed resistance against Israel.

AA: … they are resistant against Israel, or if they leave the land. There’s this socialist, anarchist Israeli who keeps sending me email, and he wrote an open letter to me one time. I never responded to him, I couldn’t.

AW: So do you think Westerners who make contact with Israelis are breaking a boycott?

AA: Not necessarily. I’m not dogmatic about that. They have a different experience, and I know their motives are very good, and I’m sure [the activist killed by an Israeli bulldozer] Rachel Corrie, who paid with her life for the cause, had dealt with Israelis, and I’m not in any way going to to delegitimise what she does for that… But this is for me – I’m not in any way saying that this is national or international policy, you know, this is suitable for me, it may not be suitable for someone else. I know many Arabs who disagree with me. Farah disagrees with me on this…

AW: There is a difference between a personal opinion and a general boycott strategy.

AA: Yea, yea, of course. This is the suitable position for me. There are Arabs I know who are activists, who deal with Israelis and I don’t reject them in any way, I’m not judgemental like that. But for me, I cannot.

Farah Rowaysati: The BDS [movement] does not call for boycotts against Israelis as persons, it calls for the boycott of institutions.

AA: But I am for super-BDS.

FR: I’m against dealing with Israelis who are Zionists…

AA: One time I gave a talk in Berkley, and this guy came up to me and said, “I’m an Israeli and I really agree with everything you say, I’m going to go back and work for human rights after I finish my law degree for the Palestinians” and I was like “Well, you know I don’t speak to Israelis” and he said “Yeah I know, I understand: I just wanted you to know” [laughs].

I’m happier like this, you know what I’m saying? I have a huge psychological block… We come from South Lebanon, both of us, which is so directly affected. We both grew up in homes that are within a few miles from Palestinian refugee camps.

FR:We’ve experienced several wars.

AW: What do you make of Gilad Atzmon? He is an Israeli saxophonist – a jazz musician who expresses support for Palestinians.

AA: I have declared him an anti-Semitic person based on things I’ve read. And that upset many Western supporters of this guy, and Arabs. I have refused any contact with this guy and, you know me: I’m strict about many things… and one of them is refusing any association with anybody who has the slightest tinge of anti-Semitism. And he has more than a tinge of anti-Semitism – he basically, writes against –

AW: ‘Jewishness’ is what he calls it… He’s a strange character because he keeps cropping up every few years and there keeps being controversy about him. He lives here [in London] by the way.

AA: Oh really? Call me paranoid – I mean that, please do, call me conspiratorial – I know there are genuine anti-Semites who creep into our movement, but I do worry that there are some infiltrators who pose as anti-Semites to stigmatise the movement. I’m not sure which group he belongs to, but either way I don’t want him [around]. It would be funny if he was sitting here in the cafe, right now.

AW: [Laughs] With all this news about Israeli organisations that want to sabotage the “delegitimization” movement [like the Reut Institute], people are getting justifiably paranoid about spies or infiltrators. Especially in London.

AA: It’s legitimate to be paranoid. I have heard enough by people in the United States about their experiences in the 1960s and 70, and many of them tell me that the loudest big-mouths during the 60s and 70s were the ones who turned out to be turncoats, the ones who would say during meetings, you know: “Let’s go and bomb that building!”

AW: You recently commented on your blog about Hamas being “for sale”. What did you mean?

AA: Al-Quds al Arabi had this story on the front page in which [Hamas leader] Khalid Maashal was cited – he was under pressure by the Saudis, that they would not have any dealing with Hamas unless he cuts all ties with Iran. And he was quoted as saying something to the effect that “I would accept that, if Saudi Arabia was providing the same support that I’ve been getting from Iran.”

So to me that indicated that Hamas is up for sale. I have always been suspicious of this guy, and never liked him (I’ve always felt that he is leading the movement on the footsteps of Fatah)… Look how [Hamas Prime Minister in Gaza] Ismail Haniyeh, when he went for his tour recently, asked to stop in Saudi Arabia.

AW: So how do you think those comments are related to the wave of Arab uprising the previous year, and the rise to prominence of the Muslim Brotherhood?

AA: [Many Palestinians] are worried that the Arab uprisings are marginalising the coverage of the Palestinians, and I share that kind of worry. Ismail Haniyeh strikes me as much more sincere than Khalid Maashal despite my opposition to the ideology of the movement and its practices. On the other hand, I think they also want to take advantage of the rise of the horrible Muslim Brotherhood, and I think the lousy Muslim Brotherhood is one of the reasons why I find Hamas to be very problematic.

It is a by-product of the Muslim Brotherhood which has contributed really nothing to the struggle for Palestinians… Look at Rashid Ghanuchi [leader of Tunisia’s Ennahda party], who flies all the way to Washington DC to prostrate and speak before Zionist groups and offer to not include in the new [Tunisian] constitution an article that will ban normalisation with Israel — which tells you that they buy and sell.

AW: I put on Twitter that I was going to interview you, and I got several Syrians angrily Tweeting questions.

AA: On Facebook, if you read Arabic… both sides are very unhappy with me, and the Syrian regime side, they have a lot of supporters. And both sides are unhappy. What can I say? I have nothing to apologise for. If anything, I think the positions taken by the Syrian National Council have reinforced every single suspicion and doubt that I have harboured against them all along. I do believe there is a real conspiracy, and I believe there is an attempt to hijack a legitimate uprising against a repressive regime.

AW: One question on Twitter was: “How does it feel to be called a regime apologist?”

AA: If some intellectual goons of the Syrian National Council think that they can intimidate me or delegitimize what I do, by calling me a “regime stooge” or something like that, of course that’s not going to bother me, because I know myself. I mean, as long as I get a daily barrage of criticisms, and sometimes insults – not as obscene as the ones I get from the other side, but still from the side of the regime – I know where I stand.

When I was opposed to the Syrian regime in 1976 when they invaded Lebanon, to crush a great leftist movement at the time, these people who are criticising me now were not even born. So I don’t need any sermons about the stance against the Syrian regime. Their intellectual method is very clear. It’s quite funny, in fact – you may be opposed to the Syrian regime, you may call for its overthrow, you may support armed rebellion against the Syrian regime. But – if you don’t support the Syrian National Council, you are for the regime. What the fuck is that? It’s absurd. In other words, I want to reassure my enemies that their attacks on me and name-calling do not bother me in the least, and the more they come, the better. I want to make the life of my enemies miserable…

I don’t support the Free Syrian Army. Now I have received information that the Free Syrian Army of Riad al-Assad comes from the background of Hizb ut-Tahrir [a political-religious movement]. No, I don’t support that. I don’t support pawns of Turkish, Islamist intelligence. But the principle: I am in favour of the right of every Arab population to raise arms against its government. Absolutely, and I make no apologies about that.

AW: The Tunisian government as well?

AA: Absolutely!

AW: One of your criticisms of Al-Jazeera [the popular Arabic satellite TV channel owned by the royal family of Qatar] is that they now rely on anonymous sources a lot. Someone on Twitter wanted me to ask: “why then do you use anonymous sources on your blog?”

AA: I am not a newspaper. I am not a TV station. I am a blogger who is doing a very personal thing. I share whatever information I have, and even rumours. Sometimes I receive rumours and I share them with people. Sometimes they are true, sometimes they are not – and whenever I am given evidence that something I have put is wrong, I always say that I’m correcting it, and I don’t change it. I have a policy of never re-editing things I have posted after I’ve posted them.

On Al-Jazeera [Arabic], when they used to air Bin Laden’s tapes, they used to put the disclaimer every time: “We have not yet authenticated this statement” — even when it was very clear it’s Bin Laden! [But now] whenever they put various clips from YouTube, they never have any disclaimers…

AW: So don’t you think journalists might have reason to be using anonymous sources in Syria?

AA: I did not in any way oppose the use of anonymous sources in journalism. I was making the point about how Al-Jazeera is now comical. This is like a caricature of propaganda TV in the Arab world…

AW: What accounts for the shift? Is it purely [Qatari] reconciliation with Saudi Arabia?

AA: Absolutely… Basically, Al-Jazeera have become to me much more malleable, much more obedient in its service for the shifts in Qatari foreign policy than I’d expected. But it has become a campaign by Qatar and whatever Qatar represents… It has become so feverish, the campaign is so comical, it’s so lacking in credibility, and therefore lending an undeniable, unwitting hand to the Syrian regime.

AW: A final question on Palestine and Palestinian solidarity: what do you think is the main thing to focus on, strategically?

AA: Non-compromise on the total rejection of Israel. I believe the total rejection of Zionism in Palestine should be in the platform and the plan of every movement. I think all these attempts to reconcile Palestine and Israel, and “let’s live together as Israelis and Palestinians in two separate states” – all that is going to be at the expense of the lives and the cause of the Palestinians. And for me, any movement that does not reject – categorically – Zionism, is akin to a movement against apartheid South Africa that basically wants a reconciliation with apartheid, and there should be no doubt about that part. You know, we should insist on that part.

AW: Thanks for your time.

Asa Winstanley is a freelance journalist based in London who has lived in and reported from occupied Palestine. His first book “Corporate Complicity in Israel’s Occupation” has been published by Pluto Press. His Palestine is Still the Issue column appears monthly. His website is www.winstanleys.org.

When I ran out of birth control in Iran

 

I recently had to extend my trip to Iran and ran out of birth control. No biggie, I thought, contraceptive pills are easily found in pharmacies throughout the country and you don’t even need a prescription. I walked into a pharmacy in Tehran two nights ago, showed the pharmacist my own birth control pills from the United States, and asked for something similar. “We don’t have anything like this,” he said, “our choices of birth control have become extremely limited the past few months.“With the same tired look he also responded to questions from other customers, repeatedly forced to say the same thing: “We no longer have that. You have to check on the black market.”

I knew that Western sanctions against Iran had made it difficult if not impossible to procure many vital medicines. Cancer patients, sufferers of multiple sclerosis and those with numerous others serious conditions have turned to buying medicine on the black market for exorbitant prices, and at times not finding them at all. But I never thought there would be shortages of medicines as routine as birth control. Juggling requests and questions from an anxious crowd of other customers, the pharmacist barely looked back at me: “Ma’am, the only thing I can offer you is Yaz or Yasmin. That’s the best we have in Iran right now.”

I was deeply worried, as Yaz was bad news. I had taken it four years ago only to develop blood clots and extreme mood swings, and gained weight. Yaz and Yasmin are the same birth control brands that now face major lawsuits in the United States because they have been established to cause heart attacks, strokes, pulmonary embolism, deep vein thrombosis, and blood clots in women. Distributed by Bayer Healthcare Pharmaceuticals, there are currently over 9,000 pending lawsuits against these brands of pills.

I could not believe that the best birth control left in Iran – an Iran whose pharmaceutical market has been decimated by sanctions – were the same pills facing court action and considered a serious health threat in the United States. I visited several pharmacies that same day, and received the same answer from one beleaguered pharmacist after another, all of whom had grown tired of telling their customers they no longer had the medicine they needed.

For years, there has been a plethora of birth control pills and other contraceptives easily available and extremely affordable in Iran, a country that boosts one of the most successful family planning programs in the world. It is only in the aftermath of cumulative American-led sanctions against Iran’s banking and financial sectors that most of these options have disappeared from pharmacies. Up until two months ago, pharmacists told me, there were simply no foreign made birth control pills available at all. Many doctors are wary of prescribing the Iranian-made pills because sanctions have made access to the raw materials required to produce them nearly impossible, making many of these drugs unreliable.

“My face completely broke out and I vomited on a daily basis from the birth control pills I took,” said Negin, a 33-year-old architect I spoke with. “I tried every pill on the market this past year, and each was worse than the other. It got so bad that I now have my aunt in Germany send me a packet of birth control pills every month.”

Neda, a 28-year-old engineer, recounted a similar experience. “The month that I took birth control in the winter was the worst month of my life,” she told me. “I have never experienced such extreme highs and lows in my mood. I thought I was going crazy.” She said her gynecologist eventually advised her to stop taking the pills and to find alternative types of contraception.

I went to a gynecologist to see if she could prescribe something for me that was close enough to the pills I take back home. I told Dr. Leyla Eftekhari that I was not willing to take Yaz or Yasmin given my prior experience with them. “I know how horrible they are,” she said, “but you only need to take them until you get back to the U.S. I don’t prescribe anything else to my patients, because they’re simply worse. This is the best we have in Iran now.” And she proceeded to write me three other prescriptions: one in case I had nausea, one in case I experienced spotting, and the other in case I developed extreme headaches. “You’ll have to put up with the potential weight gain and mood swings. But if you get a blood clot, come see me immediately.” I walked out of her office with four prescriptions in hand.

Astonished that good birth control that would not make a woman sick had become so difficult to find, I traveled to pharmacies throughout Tehran and Karaj the next day. In Karaj, a burgeoning city 20 kilometers west of Tehran, a pharmacist told me that when it comes to such medicines specifically for women, most are no longer available. One pharmacist put the situation in perspective like this: “Two months ago, we didn’t even have access to foreign birth control– at least we do now, even if it’s Yaz or Yasmin. But go searching in all of Iran, and you won’t find any vaginal creams or vaginal antibiotics. And for women who are undergoing IVF treatment, they have to search high and low to buy their medicines on the black market. There’s nothing left in the pharmacies.”

What all this means is that women suffering from yeast infections, urinary tract infections, and other vaginal infections have no recourse to modern medical treatment for extremely common, painful maladies. And for a woman undergoing IVF treatment and hoping for a child, well, the black market with it’s back-breaking prices awaits, with no guarantee that the medicine she buys to inject into her body are actually the drugs she thinks she’s paying for.

Some have suggested that Iran’s birth control shortages may also be due to the Ahmadinejad government’s push to reverse the country’s family planning program in a bid to boost the national birth rate and increase family size (today, Iran has a population growth rate of 1.2 per cent and a fertility rate of 1.6). I posed this specific question to pharmacists and manufacturers, who are working at the frontline of shortages.

They agreed that mismanagement and internal conflict over public health policy play a role in medicine shortages, but on the issue of birth control, they didn’t think it was the government’s doing. Foreign brands of birth control went missing for five months at precisely the same time that other foreign medicine became hard to find in the country. Nearly three months ago, Yaz and Yasmin returned to the market, but other foreign brands that used to be widely available did not.

Throughout this, however, Iranian-made birth control pills have remained on the market. Some raised the issue of IVF treatments, arguing that if decreased access to good birth control pills was government policy to increase the birth rate, then where were the necessary injections for IVF treatment? Women who were actively trying to get pregnant could not find the medicine they needed to ensure their pregnancy. And why have vaginal antibiotics and creams disappeared, which have nothing to do with increasing the population? “In short, what is going on is that medicine for women has become increasingly difficult to find–all medicine for women, and no one talks about it,” said a pharmacist in Tehran’s Vanak Square.

Last week the U.S. Treasury Department, which oversees all American sanctions, announced that it was adding additional items to its general license for medicine export to Iran. The export of medicine has always been allowed under the current sanctions regime against Iran, yet there is still a severe shortage of medicine in the country. At this point, actions like this from the U.S. have become comical for those of us who travel to Iran frequently. Which bank is willing to make the transactions necessary for the medicine to reach Iran, given that sanctions have choked off Iranian banks from the world? Which company is willing to ship the medicine to Iran, given that almost all shipping routes have been sanctioned? The U.S. Department of Treasury can appear to be making a humanitarian gesture, but without making actual changes to banking and trade sanctions – which have been and will continue to block the sale of medicines to Iran – nothing will change.

And in the meantime, millions of women in Iran will continue to suffer the consequences of compromised U.S.-made birth control pills and the lack of any medications at all to treat the other gynecological problems they may have. American policy makers, who ironically invoked the plight of women in the Middle East to enact their wars in the region after Sept. 11, should know that their policies in Iran are quite literally making women sick.

Narges Bajoghli is a Ph.D student in anthropology at New York University, and director of the documentary film, The Skin That Burns (2012), about survivors of chemical warfare in Iran.

Article origionally published an Iran News Wire

 

The Arab Spring: The end of postcolonialism

by; Hamid Dabashi

The world keeps discovering, keeps inventing, keeps overcoming itself. Because of the Arab Spring, the world is once again pregnant with better and more hopeful versions of itself. The crescendo of transnational uprisings from Morocco to Iran, and from Syria to Yemen, are turning the world upside down. The task facing us today is precisely to see in what particular way our consciousness of the world is in the midst of transforming itself – by force of history. The world we have hitherto known as “the Middle East” or “North Africa”, or “the Arab and Muslim world“, all part and parcel of a colonial geography we had inherited, is changing, and is changing fast. We have now entered the phase of documenting in what particular terms that world is transcending itself, overcoming the mystified consciousness into which it was colonially cast and postcolonially fixated.

In understanding what is happening in North Africa and the Middle East, we are running out of metaphors. We need new metaphors. Even the word “revolution” – understood anywhere from Karl Marx to Hannah Arendt – needs rethinking. Such a new language of the revolution will cast the impact of “the Arab Spring” on national and international politics for generations to come. These uprisings have already moved beyond race and religion, sects and ideologies, pro- or anti-Western. The term “West” is more meaningless today than ever before – it has lost its potency, and with it the notion, and the condition, we had code-named postcoloniality. The East, the West, the Oriental, the colonial, the postcolonial – they are no more. What we are witnessing unfold in what used to be called “the Middle East” (and beyond) marks the end of postcolonial ideological formations – and that is precisely the principal argument informing the way this book discusses and celebrates the Arab Spring. The postcolonial did not overcome the colonial; it exacerbated it by negation. The Arab Spring has overcome them both. The drama of this delayed defiance Arabs have now called their spring; and I will use the occasion to make a case for our having entered the phase of the end of postcoloniality, delivered from exacerbating a historic trauma.

The transformation of consciousness, and precisely not through dogma or violence, is the inaugural moment of discovering new worlds – not by willing what does not exist but by seeing what is unfolding. As I write, the Arab revolutions, each with a different momentum, are creating a new geography of liberation, which is no longer mapped on colonial or cast upon postcolonial structures of domination; this restructuring points to a far more radical emancipation, not only in these but, by extension, in adjacent societies and in an open-ended dynamic. This permanent revolutionary mood has already connected the national to the transnational in unexpected and unfolding ways, leading to a reconfigured geopolitics of hope. That the Arab revolutions are changing our imaginative geography is already evident in the interaction between the southern and northern coasts of the Mediterranean in terms of modes of protest, with the spread of Tahrir Square-style youth uprisings evident from Greece to Spain, and indeed to the United States and the Occupy Wall Street movement – with even Aung San Suu Kyi comparing her campaign for democracy in Myanmar with the Arab Spring. These revolutions are not driven by the politics of replicating “the West” – rather, they are transcending it, and thus are as conceptually disturbing to the existing political order as to therégime du savoir around the globe. The ground is shifting under the feet of what self-proclaimed superpowers thought was their globe. These variations on the theme of delayed defiance hinge on the idea that the revolutions are simultaneously a rejection not just of the colonial oppression they have inherited but, a fortiori, of the postcolonial ideologies that had presented and exhausted themselves as its antithesis in Islamist, nationalist or socialist grand narratives.

The mystical consciousness our world has inherited hangs around the binary of “The West and the Rest”, the most damning delusion that the European colonial map of the world manufactured and left behind, with “Islam and the West” as its most potent borderlines. It is precisely that grand illusion that is dissolving right before our eyes. But that is not all: the challenge posed by these revolutions to divisions within Islam and among Muslims – racial (Arabs, Turks, Iranians, etc), ethnic (Kurds, Baluchs, etc), or sectarian (Sunni and Shia in particular) – has at once agitated and (ipso facto) discredited them. These revolutions are collective acts of overcoming. They are crafting new identities, forging new solidarities, both within and without the “Islam and the West” binary – overcoming once and for all the thick (material and moral) colonial divide. The dynamics now unfolding between the national and the transnational will, as they do, override all others. The synergy that has ensued is crafting a new framework for the humanity they have thus embraced and empowered. Those dynamics are checked, to be sure, by counter-revolutionary forces that are now fully at work – and that have much to lose from these revolutions.

The world, and not just “the Muslim world”, has long been dreaming of these uprisings. Since at least the French Revolution of 1789, the European revolutions of 1848, the Russian Revolution of 1917, since the British packed their belongings and left India in 1948, since the French left Algeria, the Italians left Libya, the world has been dreaming of the Arab Spring. From the time the colonial world began lowering European flags, and as the postcolonial world was raising new ones, the world has been dreaming of the emblematic slogan, now chanted by people from one end of the Arab world to another: Huriyyah, Adalah Ijtima’iyah, Karamah, “Freedom, Social Justice, Dignity”.

To pave the way for an open-ended unfolding of these revolts, the public space has been expanding for a very long time, and the political act is now being charged and redefined to accommodate it. But the public facade of unity across social classes and between different political tendencies, which has characterised the uprising from the very outset, has been and will continue to be fractured. But these fractures will expand the public space, not diminish it. That societal expansion of the bedrock of politics will not be along ideological lines. In the world beyond Christian dogma, people are not born in a state of sin, for this to be forgiven by way of communal declaration. As there is no original sin, there is no final forgiveness – and thus no grand illusion, no master-narratives of emancipation. The ideals remain open and grand, as they must, but demanding and exacting their realisation require painstaking and detailed work by particular voluntary associations beyond the reach of the state – labour unions, women’s rights organisations, student assemblies – all by way of forming a web of affiliation around the atomised individual, thus protecting her, thus enabling him, to resist the ever increasing power of the emergent state.

The spectre of that emerging state will keep the democratic muscles of these revolutionary uprisings flexing – for a very long time, and for a very simple reason. The world we have inherited is mystified (Marx’s term) by the force fields of power that have at once held it together and distorted it. Fighting the military and economic might of counter-revolutionaries goes hand in hand with deciphering the transformed consciousness that must promise and deliver the emerging world. The colonial subject (now revolting beyond the mirage of the postcolonial state) was formed, forced, and framed as the object of European imperial domination, with multivariate modes of governmentality that extended from the heart of “the West” to the edges of “the Rest”. Europe colonised the Arab and Muslim world from one end to the other precisely according to the model of power by which it was itself being colonised by the self-fetishising logic of capital. It was, by way of partaking in the making of the fetishised commodity, being alienated from itself as it was forcing that massive alienation on the colonial world. Postcolonialism was instrumental in conceptually fetishising colonialism as something other than the abuse of labour by capital writ large. It is not, and never has been.

The postcolonial subject, which was none other than the colonial subject multiplied by the illusion of emancipation, was thus released into the force field of that very same colonial history on a wild goose chase of ideological certainty before and after political convictions. For more than two hundred years – the 19th and 20th centuries – colonialism begat postcolonial ideological formations: socialism, nationalism, nativism (Islamism); one metanarrative after another, ostensibly to combat, but effectively to embrace and exacerbate, its consequences. As these postcolonial ideological formations began epistemically to exhaust themselves, the position of “subalternity” travelled from South Asia and became a North American academic fanfare, before it was politically neutered and soon turned into the literary trope of a “native informant”. Thus colonialism and postcoloniality combined to place the Arab and the Muslim (as its supreme and absolute other) outside the self-universalis

ing tropes of European metaphysics, where the non-Western (thus branded) was never in the purview of full subjection, of full historical agency.

The world was thus sealed in a self-sustaining binary that has kept repeating, revealing, and concealing itself. Finally coming to full historical consciousness in terms of their own agential sovereignty and worldly subjection, “the Arab” and “the Muslim” are now exiting that trap, having identified it as the simulacrum of a renewed pact with humanity – beyond the European entrapping of “humanism”. Arabs and Muslims in revolt have no crisis of the subject, no problem with their cogito.

“The work of our time,” Marx rightly declared is “to clarify to itself the meaning of its own desires”. Indeed – and in that spirit I have written The Arab Spring.

Hamid Dabashi is Hagop Kevorkian Professor of Iranian Studies and Comparative Literature at Columbia University in the City of New York. The Arab Spring: The End of Postcolonialism is now released in London by the Zed Books.

 

Adorning Afghan Walls

by Nagmani

After Tunisia and Egypt, it was Afghanistan’s turn to be covered in the bold and beautiful colors of graffiti. It all became possible because of one young woman’s unflinching determination. She stood up and vowed to help her country; she is Afghanistan’s first female graffiti artist. Her cry for freedom is an example of the serious changes she wants to see across the Middle East. But it was not an easy ride for the twenty-four year-old Shamsia Hassani—who highlights injustices against women in conservative Afghan society.  Continue reading

Women, War and Fundamentalism in the Middle East

by  Haideh Moghissi

A constructive discussion and dialogue about Islam and gender has never been free of its controversies. The task has been how to explain the stubborn survival of traditions and practices hostile to women in Islamic societies without adding to the arsenal of racist imagery about Islam and Muslim women, targeting diasporic communities in the West. How to challenge the inferiorizing stereotypes about Islam and Muslim women without resorting to apologetic and self-glorifying accounts of Islam and Muslims Continue reading

War of Position and War of Maneuver: Sexperts, Sex Pervs, and Sex Revolutionaries

 

by Sima Shakhsari

The recent issue of Foreign Policy on sex has instigated critical feedback from many who have rightly challenged racist and Orientalist representations of gender and sexuality in the Muslim and Arab worlds. Several critics have rightly pointed out that essentialist approaches to culture that rely on facile binaries of men/women, freedom/oppression, and West/East lack any meaningful analyses of geopolitics, economy, colonial and post-colonial formations, and historical nuances. Most of these responses, however, have focused onMona El Tahawy’s article, which reproduces discourses of violent Arab masculinity and victimized femininity.

Here, however, I want to take up Karim Sadjadpour’s “The Ayatollah Under the Bed(sheets),” an anecdotal character study-like article that seeks to understand the perverse mentality of the Iranian mullahs and the practicing Muslims who emulate them. Sadjadpour tells his readers that “for those in the West who seek to better understand what makes Tehran tick, the regime’s curious fixation on sex cannot be ignored.” He continues by warning us that “the outwardly chaste nature of Khomeinist political culture has perverted normal sexual behavior, creating peculiar curiosities—and proclivities—among Iranian officialdom.” Conflating the “regime” with “the mullahs” and deeming “the mullahs” to be characteristically perverted, Sadjadpour seems to suggest that the way to defeat “the regime” is to kick it where it hurts: its sex organ!

Both a war of position to gain hegemony and a war of maneuver for a (sexual) revolution, Sadjadpour’s article seems to be a part of a constant battle between the diasporic “experts” who seek to topple the “regime” and the Islamic Republic, which like many states, seeks to discipline and regulate the life of its citizens. While the role of the (sex)perts in this war is concealed, the “regime” in Sadjadpour’s article is reduced to the iconic perverted “ayatollah” who preys on the heterosexually-imagined Iranian people.

In this war zone, and in a time when the liberatory forces tell us that a sexual revolution is long due in the Middle East, I echo Maya Mikdashi and Sherene Seikaly and say, “let’s talk about sex!” But, as Foucault has taught us, I approach this “sex talk” with skepticism, asking why and how we talk about sex. How is sexuality put into discourse during the “war on terror” and how do complex international and transnational networks of people, information, and capital impose strategies of regulation and discipline? In other words, I am interested in the way that sex is a form of transnational governmentality in this neo-liberal and neo-colonial age. Governmentality, as defined by Foucault, is an ensemble that includes institutions, procedures, analyses, calculations, and strategies that enable a complex form of power (biopower). This form of power targets the population, uses political economy as its form of knowledge, and utilizes the apparatus of security in its normalizing work. According to Foucault, government is not just limited to political structures of states, but includes the way in which the behavior of individuals and groups might be conducted by non-state entities and individuals.

Sadjadpour’s article is an example of the way that “experts” participate in normalizing the sexuality of the Iranian population while taking part in the regime-change discourses that neoliberal, neocolonial and geopolitical agendas espouse.

Perhaps to make his sex talk “sexy,” Sadjadpour claims that “for a variety of reasons—fear of becoming Salman Rushdie, of being labeled an Orientalist, of upsetting religious sensibilities—the remarkable hypocrisy of the Iranian regime is often studiously avoided.” Unlike Sadjadpour’s claim, however, several feminist scholars such as Minoo MoallemAfsaneh Najmabadi, and Homa Hoodfar, among others, have written about the state (and non-state) regulation of sexuality in pre and post-revolutionary Iran. These scholars have tackled a range of issues from colonialism to nationalism, fundamentalism, heteronormalization of sexuality in modern Iran, historical accounts of sexuality, and the post-revolutionary state’s control of sexuality. Minoo Moallem, for example, has written extensively about Islamic fundamentalism as a modern transnational movement (and not, as Sadjadpour claims, a pre-modern atavistic regime). Engaging the Islamic Republic as a modern nation-state that disciplines and regulates gendered and sexed identities, Moallem has shown how the hegemonic masculinity of the citizen/subject is a site of contradictions between the pious masculinity of the clergyman and the secular masculinity of the citizen. Let us not forget, however, that the Iranian state is not an exception in disciplining and normalizing the citizens. The tensions over gays in the military, gay marriage, birth control, and abortion in the United States are all examples of the state disciplining and normalizing practices.

Yet despite this broad-ranging and critical feminist scholarship on gendered and sexed identities in modern Iran, it is only hegemonic accounts of sexuality that garner attention in mainstream media and academic circles. These sensationalized narratives often juxtapose an untamed, perverse, traditional, rural, and religious sexuality to a sanitized, modern, and urban Iranian sexuality. Conflated with tradition, Islamic sexuality comes to mean bestiality, sodomy, pedophilia, and polygamy, while a heteronormative (and more recently homonormative) sexuality is constructed as modern and revolutionary. We are told by sexperts that young urban Iranians are challenging the “theocratic regime” by having sex in the private sphere. In this framework, talking about sex or having sex (of the acceptable form) becomes a sign of resistance to the Iranian “regime.”

Thus the marketability of accounts of sexuality is predicated on the binary of repressed sexuality in Iran and freedom of sexuality in the “West.” (Debates that followed the publishing of half-naked pictures of Golshifteh Farahani in a French magazine are examples of this trend). As many scholars have pointed out, women (and increasingly queers) become markers of freedom or oppression within colonial discourses. During the war on terror, native informants who write about the oppression of women and queers in the Muslim and Arab worlds have increasingly become best-sellers and star academics who act as neoliberal self-entrepreneurs, circumvent the tenure processes, and work as “experts” in think tanks that are closely connected to academic institutions.

Interestingly, despite the strategic political appropriations of queers among these (arguably homophobic) groups and individuals, Sadjadpour seems to have missed the chic of queer bandwagon. He denounces “sodomy” and bestiality (which he equally abhors) as abnormal obsessions of Khomeini, suggesting these deviant practices to be familiar to the backward and anti-modern mullah. He claims that:

[s]cholars of Shiism—including harsh critics of Khomeini—emphasize that such themes were the norm among clerics of Khomeini’s generation and should be understood in their proper context: Islam was a religion that emerged out of a rural desert, and the Prophet Mohammed was himself once a shepherd.

There is much to be said about the elitism, nationalism, and anti-Arab sentiments implicit in this statement. In this anti-regime brand of the Iranian nationalistic discourse, “mullahs” become representatives of the Arab other, and the Iranian revolution of 1979 becomes the signifier of a “second Arab invasion.” Needless to say, representations of a temporally fixed Islam and depictions ofperverted Islamic masculinity are consistent with Orientalist discourses that inform the rampant Islamophobia of the war on terror. Maya Mikdashi and Sherene Seikaly rightly point out that Sadjadpour dismisses “the centuries old tradition of practicing Muslims asking and receiving advice on sexual and gender practices.” In fact, Sadjadpour is fixated on the backwardness and deviance of the religious advice on sex. Of course, it does not take an expert of Islamic jurisprudence to know that most practicing Muslims constantly negotiate Islamic codes of conduct though the concept of ijtihadand interpretation. It is exactly because of this concept, for example, that not too long after the 1979 revolution, Khomeini issued a fatwa deeming sex reassignment surgeries to be religiously permissible. Not surprisingly, Khomeini uses normalizing concepts borrowed from modern medical and psychological discourses of his time (and not the Prophet Mohammad’s time!), including Harry Benjamin’s The Transsexual Phenomenon. In fact, modern medical and psychological discourses and religious ones are not necessarily contradictory, but often congruent in normalizing the modern citizen/subject.

Relying on binaries of modern/tradition, secular/religious, public/private, and state/society, Sadjadpour misses the messy overlaps between these discursive oppositions, thus positing a unified traditional Islamic state against a modern homogenous Iranian society, captive to the monstrous and pre-modern sexuality of mullahs. Sadjadpour agrees with Mehdi Khalaji, a Washington-based think tank “expert” who claims that “Islamic jurisprudence hasn’t yet been modernized. It’s totally disconnected from the issues that modern, urban people have to deal with.” Yet, according to Sadjadpour, because there is no separation of religion and politics in Iran (as though this distinction is clear in liberal democracies such as the United States), this perverted Islamic sexuality is dangerously trickling down to the public sphere and dragging Iran down the temporally regressive path: “Because religion is politics in a theocracy like Iran, uninformed or antiquated notions of sexuality aren’t just confined to the bedroom—they pervade the country’s seminaries, military barracks, boardrooms, courtrooms, and classrooms.”

Ultimately, Sadjadpour’s point is that the key to the liberation of Iran is not bombs, but sex! Revolution is achieved through taming the unruly sexuality of the mullahs who are obsessed with bestiality and sodomy, and encouraging “modern” and normal sexuality among youth, whose ‘”frustrated” and “pent-up” sexual energy would otherwise turn into unhealthy and dangerous acts (Basiji youth are pathologized as violent beings whose frustration comes from not “screwing”!)

Elsewhere, I have discussed the production of expertise in think tanks as part of insurance technologies to manage the “risk of terrorism.” These strategies involve the production and division of populations into those who pose the risk of “terrorism” and those who are threatened by it. The experts’ job is to produce, predict, calculate the probability, and eliminate the risk that threatens the interests and values of the “international community.”

Interestingly, Sadjadpour’s speculations about the outcomes of a repressed and perverted sexuality (terrorism) and his choice of “experts” are in line with this management strategy. Not surprisingly, the expert Sadjadpour introduces as a “scholar of Shiism,” is Mehdi Khalaji. A disrobed seminary student, Khalaji got a job at a US propaganda radio service in Prague and migrated to the United States. Despite his lack of formal academic credentials, Khalaji has been working at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, a think-tank that seeks to protect Israeli state interests. Given his choice of “experts,” Sadjadpour’s recommendation that “the sexual manias of Iran’s religious fundamentalists are worthy of greater scrutiny, all the more so because they control a state with nuclear ambitions, vast oil wealth, and a young, dynamic, stifled population” is quite predictable.

It is also not surprising that Sadjadpour blames unhealthy sexual behavior on the Iranian regime’s repression and internet censorship. There is no doubt that the Iranian state is increasingly limiting access to the internet through filtering, censorship, and harassment of internet users. Yet, US concernwith internet censorship and its campaigns to lift what Obama has termed Iran’s “electronic curtain” in Iran are hypocritical, to say the least. While the United States’ government has worked diligently to circumvent internet censorship in Iran, it has imposed its own filtering criteria. Sadjadpour is correct in pointing out that pages containing the word “sex” (including Essex University) are filtered in Iran. Yet, he fails to mention that it is not just the Iranian state that is obsessed with the sex life of its people. For years, the US government has been contracting private companies such as Anonymizer to send free anti-filtering proxies to Iranian internet users. The US provided proxies, however, block certain words to prevent moral deviation. Incidentally, for a long time, in order to discourage Iranians from surfing gay porn sites, US sponsored proxies filtered the word “ass. Apparently, the US freedom/security apparatus did not realize that its filter-breaking proxies were filtering all words that contained the letters “a-s-s,” including the American Embassy!”

The irony of it all is that while the liberatory forces are so concerned about rights and freedom in Iran, harsh sanctions that deprive the Iranian population from food and life-saving medicine are not considered human rights violations. As I have discussed before, as a trope, the “people of Iran” constitutes a population, which is produced through the discourse of rights, while being subjected to death exactly because of those rights. In fact, the protection of the rights of the Iranian population is presented as the raison d’être of sanctions and/or war. Shuttling between biopolitics and necropolitics, the Iranian population is subjected to the normalizing techniques of liberal democracy, while being disposable as that which contains the threat of terrorism. Not reduced to bare life, but produced through the discourse of rights, the Iranian population lives a pending death (through economic sanctions or the hovering threat of a military attack) in the name of rights. As enticing as it is to be enthusiastic about the alleged “sexual revolution” in Iran, the politics of rightful killing renders the hippie motto “make love not war” meaningless, when making love is implicated in a war machine that marches to the tune of “killing me softly with your rights.”

 

Iran, Women’s Rights and the Arab Spring

For each woman that is imprisoned, another will take her place and swell the ranks of the women’s movement. –Shrine Ebadi, Iranian Noble Peace Prize winner, 2004.

The stories of sweeping reform across the Middle East has captured the attention of many of us. In this week’s Weekly Rights Podcast, Minky Worden, Director of Global Initiatives at Human Rights Watch, talks to the Campaign about the effect that Arab Spring has had, and will have, on women. She talks about her new book, The Unfinished Revolution, which is a collection of women’s stories of struggle and defiance from around the world. Her book includes essays from Nobel Peace Prize laureate Shirin Ebadi and women’s rights activist and member of the One Million Signatures Campaign Sussan Tahmasebi, who discuss the status of women in Iran. Minky also discusses the role of women in the protests and uprisings in Iran, and how they have affected women in the Arab Spring.

International Campaign for Human Rights in Iran – Podcast 49: Women in Iran with Minky Worden.

An Islamic School for Girls

 

by Julia Meltzer and Laura Nix

In 1982, when she was just 17 years old, Houda al-Habash opened the doors to her Qur’an

school for women and girls at the Al-Zahra Mosque in Damascus, Syria. Houda is representative of a pioneering generation of women in the Middle East who have begun to study Islam within the mosque like their fathers, uncles and brothers — a trend that is reshaping the region. We made the film because despite the influence of schools like Houda’s, stories about them are still rare.

In the film, inside her organized and lively school, Houda teaches her students about women’s rights within Islam and encourages them to take their secular education seriously. She and her students are engaged in a debate about women’s roles in the modern world, similar to the debates we find in our own culture. In the end, we were more compelled by the similarities than the differences in that debate.

The Syria we left when we finished shooting in November 2010 has drastically changed because of the popular uprising against PresidentBashar al-Assad’s regime. Houda is no longer teaching at her school; like many Syrians with the financial means, she and her family left the country to live in the Arabian Peninsula. Houda’s daughter, Enas, has said, “A light has gone out in our community,” because it is no longer safe to go to the mosque. It is impossible to know what will happen in Syria, but Houda certainly gave her students a foundation of faith and discipline to face the challenges before them.

This Op-Doc is adapted from “The Light in Her Eyes,” a feature-length documentary about Houda al-Habash.

Julia Meltzer and Laura Nix are the directors and producers of “The Light in Her Eyes,” which will be broadcast on the PBS series “POV.” Ms. Meltzer’s work has been exhibited at the Whitney Biennial and the Sharjah Biennial. Ms. Nix’s work includes directing the feature documentary “Whether You Like It or Not” and producing “The Yes Men Fix the World.”

 

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.