The Architects of the Egyptian Revolution
On February 11, 2011, President Mubarak finally resigned, less than twenty-four hours after he refused the protesters’ demand—“Go Mubarak Go!”—that had been echoing across Egypt for the past two weeks. The euphoria that swept the crowd gathered in Tahrir Square cannot be described in words: all those tuned into Al Jazeera (Arabic or English) witnessed one of the most moving events of our lifetime as Egyptian demonstrators roared in victory over what they had achieved. The reverberations of this historic turn of events are being felt all over the region as Algerians and Yemenis take defiantly to the streets. If the Tunisians inspired the Egyptians to rise and scream “Enough!”, then the Egyptians might go down in history for giving a new meaning to Maya Angelou’s prophetic cry:
You may write me down in history
With your bitter, twisted lies,
You may trod me in the very dirt
But still, like dust, I rise….I rise. I rise. I rise.
The questions that continue to occupy many observers of Middle Eastern politics are: How could a people chided for their political apathy achieve such an organized and revolutionary mobilization? How could a country that recently seemed on an escalating path of inter-religious and sectarian strife unite to create one of the most seismic events of our times in the Arab world?
Alexandria, where only a month ago a well-executed car bomb killed twenty-three Christians, has been host to demonstrations in which Copts and Muslims have prayed together. Churches, along with mosques, have served as centers for the congregation of protestors. As millions have poured out on the streets, not one church has been attacked, not one sectarian incident has been reported—all of this despite the fact that the Coptic Pope, Shenouda III, announced his unequivocal support for Mubarak on the first day of protest.
So what are the factors that birthed this historic expression of synergy and resistance? There is no doubt that the Tunisian uprising served as a catalyst, inspiring Egyptians to take to the streets. The Tunisian government, as everyone knew in the Arab world, was more repressive than Egypt’s: if the Tunisians could oust their brutal dictator, why not the Egyptians? Tunisia might have lit the fuse, but there are a number of longer-term critical transformations in Egypt’s social and political landscape that also account for the revolution. In recent years, Egyptians have increasingly had recourse to demonstrations and street politics to voice their demands and shake the cultivated torpor of their rulers. Since 2004, Egypt has witnessed a growing number of strikes and sit-ins staged by health and textile workers, pharmacists, doctors, lawyers, judges, transportation and postal workers and even real estate tax collectors. Their demands? Better wages and working conditions; relief from the grueling poverty that has afflicted most of the population while the rich got conspicuously richer and public institutions that once served ordinary Egyptians fell into disrepair and jobs dwindled.
Despite the escalating strikes over 2009 and 2010, there were few victories: most of them were either ignored by the government or brutally broken and suppressed. The rare and slim victories were largely due to the sheer tenacity of the protesters. They got the government to raise the minimum wage to 400 Egyptian pounds (about $70), nearly four times what it had been but hardly enough to address the rising inflation costs. They also successfully formed two independent trade unions and an independent trade federation, an unprecedented break from the suffocating hold the government has exercised over labor activism since 1957 (see Joel Beinin’s “Egypt at the tipping point?”).
These partially successful strikes created a simultaneous sense of despair and possibility noted by those who cared to listen to the beat and rhythms of Egyptian street life. Among them was Hossam Hamalawy—a prominent Egyptian blogger and consummate ethnographer of Egyptian street—who posted the following as far back as October 31, 2010: “There is something in the air in Egypt. It could be Mubarak’s Autumn of Fury, as I and increasingly many people around me sense. Not a day passes without reading or hearing about a strike. No one knows when the explosion is going to happen, but it seems everyone I meet or bump into today feel it’s inevitable.”
The fact that this simmering anger was most potently felt by “the youth” who were the worst victims of the Mubarak regime was widely acknowledged by Egyptians of all ages. In the same post, Hamalawy quotes an aging old man addressing two young women: “I think your time now is worse than the time of the war [referring to the 1967 war with Israel]…. And who said the war is over? The real war only started. Look at the poverty, corruption and hunger. It’s an internal war. It’s worse than the war with Israelis. May God bless you and give you strength. Your generation is at war. It’s a disaster, a bigger disaster than our generation faced.”
As if this was not enough, the legendary brutality of the security police had become only more entrenched, violent and impudent over the last several years. The victims of their torture were not simply political activists but ordinary citizens picked up for one reason or another, tortured and humiliated for crimes they never committed. “Amn ad-dawla” was and is the most hated institutions of the country—far more than the underpaid police force that was ubiquitous in Egyptian cities but which vanished into thin air in the first twenty-four hours of the protests. The fate of Khalid Saeed, the blogger and Internet café operator who was beaten to death publicly and subsequently became the icon of the pro-democracy movement, is only one example of the legendary ferociousness of the security police. It is no wonder that the protestors have resoundingly rejected Vice President Omar Suleiman as an honest arbiter for any transition to democracy: he served not only as the former head of security police but also the chief collaborator in the CIA’s rendition program in Egypt.
One might still ask at this point: Why Egypt? However horrible these conditions were, they were not all that different from many other third world countries—such as Pakistan, India and Indonesia—where people continue to suffer but do not topple the governments responsible for their misery. What made Mubarak’s rule distinct, however, is that there was no aspect of the system that did not carry Mubarak’s personal imprimatur. In India and Pakistan, for example, people might blame the corrupt political culture of their country or the institution of the military, but there is no stable symbol of power that has persisted over the past three decades. In Egypt, Mubarak’s personage symbolizes the repression of the system at large—not unlike Saddam Hussein in Iraq. Hence the insistence with which Egyptians cried in unison: “Irhal Irhal Ya Mubarak” (Leave, Leave O Mubarak!).
What made the Mubarak regime distinct from Saddam’s Iraq, however, was the careful balance he maintained over the years between keeping his authoritarian and increasingly brutal control over power and granting limited freedoms to his restive populace in order to maintain Egypt’s pride-of-place as America’s chief ally in the Arab Middle East. Whenever the White House made noises about “bringing democracy to the region,” Mubarak minimally loosened his leash to abide by such empty calls. One important effect of this has been the creation of space, however limited, for Egyptians to engage in civil and political rights activism through bursts of protests (nothing like the scope we are witnessing now) and through NGOs and legal aid organizations.
The most conspicuous and relatively new face of this activism in the last five years has been the blogosphere. The current Egyptian rebellion has been dubbed the “Facebook revolution.” There are countless articles and commentaries documenting how social networking websites played a crucial role in mobilizing the sit-ins and demonstrations. Yet one needs to think beyond the techno-centric view that characterizes these commentaries. Such technology, after all, is available worldwide but has seldom been mobilized to serve the ends it is currently serving in Egypt.
The Egyptian blogosphere first came into existence around 2004 with the birth of the Kifaya! (Enough!) movement and its sizable demonstrations, which were brutally crushed, its leaders jailed by Mubarak. Many of the prominent young bloggers date the beginning of their online activism to these demonstrations. By 2005, the numbers of blogs had jumped from a handful to the hundreds and are now estimated in the thousands. Currently there are over 3 million Facebook members—still a relatively small percentage of the 80 million population. Despite their relatively small numbers in a country that is also overwhelmingly illiterate, these bloggers have put a face and a voice to the ubiquitous police brutality that most Egyptians have experienced but seldom saw reported or condemned in the news media. YouTube videos, shot with shaky cell phone cameras, of innocent Egyptians tortured and violated for crimes they never committed were a regular feature of these blogs and Facebook pages. By 2008, when I was living in Cairo, the blogs had become a surrogate form of journalism that circumvented the censorship laws in Egypt.
These blogs cut across the Egyptian political spectrum—Islamists, nationalists, secularists, liberals and leftists. Their political demands have coalesced around a four-point agenda that has now become the beacon call of the current demonstrations: (1) an end to Mubarak’s rule; (2) the rejection of “tawrith,” the succession of Mubarak’s son Gamal Mubarak as president; (3) expansion of political freedoms and the creation of democratic institutions that would yield to free elections; and (4) an immediate stop to state violence and prosecution of its perpetrators. These were demands behind which the vast majority of Egyptians could unite—regardless of their religious and political affiliations. In a country where Muslim-on-Christian violence was increasing at an alarming rate, the activist blogs provided a rare space where a new ethics of political engagement could be forged. As Charles Hirschkind notes, this was partly due to the political platform that cut across customary political divides and partly due to the protocols internal to the individualized medium of the blogosphere itself. The blog and Facebook format, with its personal profile page, allows for individual bloggers to fashion a political persona that transcends the Islamist-versus-secular divide, allowing young women and men to write critically about hot political issues. Once a topic would acquire momentum in the blogosphere (such as sexual harassment or HIV/AIDS), participants who might “not have been inclined to address such an issue were led to engage the issue openly as a condition of sustaining the arena of discourse” that they had collectively forged.
Initially the activist bloggers were secular, but they were soon joined by those sympathetic to the Islamists. These Islamic-minded bloggers were, like their secular compatriots, equally disillusioned with the aged leadership of the political parties that purported to represent them. They too were tired of the inertia, fear and claustrophobia that characterized these older formations. Hence they broke with the geriatric wing of the groups they had belonged to and joined hands with those Egyptians who in the political language of the 1990s would have been deemed their enemy. For example, the young bloggers who wrote for the website Islamonline.net (initially a traditional Islamic website) were a part of this generation. As their contributions grew more critical, the gulf-state funders of Islamonline decided to shut down the website in 2010—convincing many of these Islamic bloggers that the only effective avenue of change would have to be one nationally manufactured.
This transformed political consciousness that cut across the old divide between Islamists and secularists was on ample display among the demonstrators who coalesced around the revolution. A clear example of this was evident on February 3, when the Mubarak regime set loose its armed thugs on the crowds in Cairo and Alexandria. As Hossam Bahgat, one of the leading figures in the human rights movement in Egypt, reported in an interview on Democracy Now!, members of the Muslim Brotherhood were at the forefront of the crowd, protecting the protesters and standing guard against the attacks throughout the weekend. Asked if he would oppose an alliance with the Brotherhood, Bahgat responded that while he continues to disagree with their stance on a number of issues (including women's and minority rights), as a civil rights activist he cannot in good conscience oppose their full participation in the political process. They are, just as much as he and his comrades, an integral part of the revolution unfolding in Egypt, committed to the same set of goals.
Much has been said about the absence of central leadership among the protesters, an absence that makes the task of forging a new government difficult if not impossible. Some commentators in the US State Department and the media have gone so far as to suggest that figures from the Mubarak regime must be retained in order to ensure order and stability. But this line of argument is wrong for two important reasons. First, the rebellion was so effective precisely because there was no central and singular political authority organizing it. Indeed, if the largely corrupt political parties had been in charge, it would have been infested with the symptoms of the dying order. Second, many of the young men and women who participated in this rebellion are not simply naïve and idealisitic individuals. Many are savvy and experienced organizers capable of ordering themselves.
Consider, for example, an early op-ed piece written for the Washington Post by Hossam Bahgat and Soha Abdelaty, both leading figures in the Egyptian civil rights movement. In the early moments of the Egyptian uprising, they laid out the constitutional transformations that needed to be put into place before Mubarak resigned in order to secure the conditions for free and fair elections—including an end to the thirty-year-old state of emergency and the annulment of a series of constitutional decrees passed by Mubarak that made elections a sham. Bahgat and Abdelaty are representative of young human rights activists who cut their teeth on Egypt’s compromised judicial and political system. Given the suffocating hold the government had exercised over the political process, Egypt’s brightest minds turned to non-governmental and legal aid organizations to pursue economic and social justice. In the process, these young men and women learned the ins and outs of the maze of Egypt’s legal and political structure. They are not extraneous to the business of the realpolitik of the country but are an essential part of it. One needs to think of them as giving real direction to the country’s future—rather than as bystanders who birthed the demonstrations and must now withdraw to their offices to let the politicians do their business.
With Mubarak’s resignation, these architects of the Egyptian revolution face a series of daunting tasks—key among them ensuring not only civil and political rights for the vast majority of Egyptians but also economic justice for the millions who exist on less than $2 a day. While there is no doubt that the new order in Egypt cannot do without the civil and political liberties characteristic of a liberal democracy, what is equally at issue in a country like Egypt is an economic system that serves only the rich of the country at the expense of the poor and the lower and middle classes. The vast majority of public institutions and services in Egypt have been allowed to fall into a dismal state of disrepair. Countless Egyptians die in public hospitals for lack of medical care and staff; Egypt’s universities are no longer capable of delivering the education of which they once boasted. Lack of housing, jobs and basic social services make everyday life impossible to bear for most Egyptians, as do declines in real wages and escalating inflation. It is these conditions that prompted the workers—from the industrial and service sector—to stage strikes and sit-ins over the past ten years. These workers were an integral part of the demonstrations over the past two weeks in Egypt; various unions formally joined the protests in the days immediately preceding Mubarak’s resignation, prompting some to suggest that this was a turning point in the evolution of the protest.
While a new democratic regime might ensure civil and political rights within the framework of a liberal democracy, it is unclear whether the reforms necessary for addressing economic injustice and inequality can be implemented within this framework. Since the 1970s, the Egyptian economy has been increasingly subject to neoliberal economic reforms by the World Bank, the IMF and USAID at the behest of the United States government. Egyptian elites have been beneficiaries of, and partners in, these American-driven reforms. Will this sector of Egyptian society accommodate the demands of the poor, the unemployed and the workers who have so far been equal partners in their struggle against political corruption and autocracy? Will the protestors in Tahrir Square continue to fight for economic justice even as they gain political and civil rights in the months to come?
The role the US government plays in all of this will be enormously consequential. While the Obama administration has reluctantly yielded to the demands for democratic reform, it is highly doubtful that this administration will tolerate any restructuring of US economic interests in Egypt and in the region more generally. Even in his domestic policy, Obama has shown no signs whatsoever that he is willing to rein in the rapacious tendencies of neoliberal capital. There is no reason to believe that he would do otherwise when it comes to the suffering of non-Americans whose votes do not even count in his re-election. As a result, whatever economic transformations might be wrought in the life of ordinary Egyptians would have to come by their own doing and despite the opposition they will face by the elites of their country and the Western neoliberal order. All this sounds immensely difficult—but based on what we have seen in the last two weeks, Egyptian have indeed achieved the impossible. Whoever the rulers of Egypt may be, there is no doubt that they will have to play to a different calculus. All eyes are no doubt riveted on this momentous struggle of our times.