Saturday, March 19, 2011

After the revolution

As I write these final notes from the Egyptian revolution on my way back to Germany, I once again curse my amazingly bad timing regarding key events of the revolution. I arrived in Egypt on my first visit three days after the Friday of Anger, the dramatic key moment that made the old system lose its balance. I left five days before Hosni Mubarak resigned. I arrived on my second visit one day after Essam Sharaf’s caretaker government took over. And I am leaving in the early morning hours of the constitutional referendum that will determine which way Egypt will be going in the coming months.

This decisive moment is just one of the many that Egypt has seen and will continue to see during this year. But as it is the moment when I leave Egypt, I seize it to offer some preliminary conclusions about the Egyptian revolution and the social and emotional dynamics it has released. I make no pretensions to neutrality. My account of the Egyptian revolution is an extremely partisan one, and I would consider it a failure if it weren’t so. There are times to look at things from a neutral distance, and there are times to take a stance. But while taking a stance, I have tried to be fair towards those whose views and actions I do not agree with. It has been difficult.

In November 2010 I spoke with the Egyptian journalist Abdalla Hassan who told me that there will be a revolution in Egypt soon. I replied him that there is no way there will be a revolution in Egypt, and in any case, I find a revolution a bad idea because in revolutions things get broken, people get killed, and in the end the wrong people seize the power. I was obviously wrong about the point as to whether there will be a revolution in Egypt or not. However, at the moment it looks like that all my three reasons to be opposed to a revolution are turning out to be true. And yet I continue to think that the revolution was a good thing, one of the best things that have happened to Egypt since a long time.

To start with, things don’t look too good to be honest. There is strong mobilisation for a “No” vote for the sake of a new democratic constitution to finish the job of the revolution. The activists of the “No” vote who for too long a while were focussed on demonstrations, the press and the Internet, have finally taken to debating and spreading leaflets in the streets. But they are facing a much stronger mobilisation by an unholy alliance of Mubarak’s National Democratic Party, the Muslim Brotherhood, and the Salafis, for a “Yes” vote, with tacit support of the army. A “Yes” vote will mean a consolidation of what remains of the old system, and it will mean early elections that are likely to be dominated by an alliance of the old system and Islamists. In Cairo the “Yes” and “No” campaigns appear to have approximately equal strength, but in Alexandria, where the Salafis are especially strong, they have been not only speaking out loudly for their point of view, they also quite reject the possibility of there being a different point of view. According to newspaper reports, they have been aggressively trying to prevent the “No” campaign from spreading its message in Alexandria. Despite the widely publicised measures to guarantee a transparent election, there are already reports of vote-rigging on the countryside and in Upper Egypt. The odds are at the moment that the “Yes” vote will prevail due to a mixture of trustful expectation of a quick return to normality among a very large part of Egyptians, the organising power of Islamist movements, the tacit “Yes”-campaign by the state media, and some fraud. But the outcome is not certain, and that in itself is a major progress in Egypt. (For more details on the arguments for and consequences involved in a “Yes” or “No” vote, see my previous post)

I spent yesterday, my last day in Egypt, from the morning until the evening meeting my friends in Cairo. They represent a very particular selection of Egyptians. They are all going to vote “No”, and they all think that Egypt needs more social and gender equality, more freedom, and a civil state ruled by a democratic government, without the Muslim Brothers if possible. But their assessment of the situation is different, each coming up with a different scenario of Egypt’s future.

My friend from southern Cairo is the most pessimistic one. She sees that the Muslim Brothers and the Salafis are about to take over, be it directly or indirectly, and that there is a grave danger that the promises of democracy and freedom will be betrayed by a conservative religious turn that will put an end to the little bit of freedom there was for different ways of life in Egypt under Mubarak. In her view, the nationalists and leftist were very naive to join the Muslim Brotherhood in the temporary alliance to overthrow Mubarak because the Muslim Brothers are the ones who will profit now due to their superior organisation. She argues that since the system was so weak that it fell after less than three weeks of demonstrations, it would have been very well possible indeed to gradually reform it. A gradual reform of the old system, she argues, would have been better because it would not have given the Islamists the chance to dominate which they are offered now. Maybe, I say, but now things are as they are. So what to do now? She does not have a plan, but she points out that whatever its political consequences, the revolution has released a longing for freedom and unsettled the logic of gender relations. This shift can substantially change Egyptian society in the coming years, but it needs to get the chance to evolve.

F.E., a long-standing socialist activist, is much more optimistic. “Whatever the outcome of the referendum, we have already gained a lot.” Many socialist and communist movements that were previously working in illegality are now working publicly. Some of them are well connected with the new free trade unions in Egypt’s industrial centres. Left wing parties and organisations are mushrooming. The crucial issue, in F.E.’s view, is to create a functioning network to facilitate their work to compete with the Muslim Brotherhood and the NDP. In F.E.’s view it is in a way good that the Muslim Brotherhood decided to join the “Yes” campaign because by doing so “they have proven to everybody what we already knew: that they are a part of the system”. In F.E.’s view, there is a likelihood that the Muslim Brotherhood comes to power in alliance of parts of the old system. But it won’t be a disaster since it will only be making official what has been unofficially going on since the 1970's. With the gradual withdrawal of the state from its role as a service provider in the course of economical liberalisation, the Islamist movements and religious actors in general were given the role of non-governmental service providers in the new neoliberal system of governance. Due to this deal, F.E. says, the Muslim Brothers have a societal advantage which the socialists and the labour movement now have to catch up with by entering the streets and the popular neighbourhoods and defeating the Islamists in their home ground. A part of the plan is to raise lawsuits against Muslim Brotherhood-dominated charities which often link their services with ideological conditions, which is against the law on charitable institutions (F.E. is lawyer by training, he knows). But the crucial point is to be there for the people, to offer services and to be socially active: “The poor people cannot afford to be ideological. If you go to them and offer them assistance, they take it. It doesn’t take much ideology to tell the difference between one loaf of bread, and two loafs.” In F.E.’s view, right now is the finest hour of the Muslim Brotherhood, but their days are counted because in the end they are a part of the corrupt old system, and will not be able to solve the problem of social inequality - the issue that took the people to the streets.

W., also a long-standing socialist and since years a cultural activist, is a little less enthusiastic about the networking capacities of the leftist movement. He, too, has been intensively involved in the revolution, and as I meet him in the evening, he is exhausted. Not only has he been participating in a number of cultural activities and a leaflet campaign on the eve of the referendum, he is also a member of the citizen’s checkpoint in the area of the cultural centre where he works. Yesterday he attended the founding meeting of yet another socialist party. He is not so worried about the splintering of leftist parties, however. What troubles him is that trade unions are at the moment so busy presenting their demands to the ministries that they have no concentration for the wider political situation. These demands, which typically involve improved pay and a change in management structures, are known in Egypt currently as “the demands of professional groups” (matalib fi’awiya), which has become something of a curse word. For activists like W, they are an ambivalent business, partly a crucial part of political action, partly detrimental to coordinating the pursuit of more general objectives.

Dr. A., a psychologist concerned with the spiritual aspect of religion as a way to help people find agency in their lives, says that he is neither a pessimist or an optimist: Pessimism and optimism, he argues, are attitudes of the time before the revolution, now is a time to work. He says that when people discuss the referendum with him, he doesn’t say what he will vote, but only encourages them to vote and take the decision in their own hands. He will vote “No”, he says, but what is more important for him is the level of political consciousness and spontaneous activity by young people who never had that experience before. “When I was at the Friday prayer today, after the prayer there were people spreading ‘Yes’ leaflets and others spreading ‘No’ leaflets, people whom I had never before seen being socially active. I went to the guy with the “No” leaflets and thanked him for just that.” We discuss what will happen to this drive of activity if the majority vote will be a “Yes”. I’m concerned that a victory of the “Yes” vote, which would be the first major setback for the revolutionaries (excepting, of course, the Muslim Brothers who go for “Yes”), will cause a major wave of frustration and make many people give up again. The question, Dr. A. replies, is about turning the spirit of revolution into experience. The revolution is an emotional state, and as such it is transient even if it leaves a strong trace on one. But it also comes with a practical experience, and that practical experience is changing a significant part of Egypt in these very days.

That change will be a contradictory one. A revolution is a sledgehammer, good for breaking the walls of oppression and frustration. It is a way of changing things that causes a lot of damage, it is risky, and there is no way to tell how things will eventually turn out. One can draw so many comparisons to the Iranian revolution 0f 1979, to the Russian revolutions of 1905 and 1917, to the revolutions of the Eastern Block in 1968 and 1989, and the youth revolution in western Europe and Northern America in 1968 - but the only thing that one learns is that revolutions are fundamentally unpredictable. Afterwards, we will be able to name the actors, the groups, the dynamics, and the decisions that determined the course of events. But beforehand, nobody knows.

What I do know is this: Egypt’s revolution of 25 January built on a number of social dynamics that were present in Egypt already years before, and which have now been partly magnified, and partly transformed.

Number one is the reintroduction of capitalism since the 1970's after a period of Arab socialism, and the enormous social impact of neoliberal governance that gave enormous wealth to a political-economical elite, some wealth to a new middle class, and an enormous gap of promises and reality to the biggest part of the population. Egypt in the age of Mubarak was a liberal dictatorship, with vast opportunities for investment, beautiful new malls and resorts, space for different lifestyles on the condition of sufficient funds, an extremely stratified class society, and a brutal and arrogant security apparatus that treated citizens like criminals and had criminals on its paycheck. As Walter Armbrust (http://www.jadaliyya.com/pages/index/717/the-revolution-against-neoliberalism) has argued in an early and very fitting analysis, the revolution of 25 January 2011 was directed first and foremost against this conglomerate of big money, class and family privileges, and everyday oppression, and whether and to what degree this conglomerate will change in favour of ordinary Egyptians, will be the primary measure-stick on which the people who undertook the revolution will measure its success.

Number two is the wave of a very particular kind of religious conservatism that Egypt has been experiencing since thirty years. In the past decade this religious conservatism took a markedly unpolitical, primarily socially engaged shape, but it now turns out that this was very much due to the constraints of the Mubarak system that worked systematically to depoliticise social movements. Now religious conservatism has become an openly political (and so have left wing cultural projects, by the way) again, thus also creating new kinds of divisions. Some of my colleagues have argued that the revolutionary protest has offered a new language of dissent, a new logic to think about the relationship of state, society, religion, and the individual which is “asecular” in the words of Hussein Agrama (http://blogs.ssrc.org/tif/2011/03/11/asecular-revolution/), because it stands outside the contrast of the secular and the religious. This could indeed be the impression if one focusses on the utopian moment of revolutionary protest. But that was, indeed, the utopian moment of a revolutionary protest and now we are entering the period of transition. The shared spirit of protest has become impossible to hold once the common goal was reached, although it is likely to have some positive effects on Egypt’s politics in the next years. The political developments of the transitional period are providing for a spectacular comeback of that contrast in new forms, most disturbingly in the shape of the Salafis with their rejection of the very idea of democracy as un-Islamic, but also in a less destructive way in the way leftist and nationalist political actors are now rearranging their ranks to face the alliance of the old system and the Muslim brotherhood. Applying Agrama's analysis of secularism to its opponents, I argue that re-politicisation of religious conservatism is providing not so much specific norms - after all, Egypt is for the biggest part a conservative and religious society anyway - than specific questions that it obliges Egyptians to ask and answer (I am thinking for example, about the discussion about the Islamic state between R. and Y. in my note from 15 March).

But more important than who will run the country in the next four or eight years is the peculiar nature of this religious conservatism as an integral part of the neoliberal system of governance as F.E the socialist pointed out. The power of Islamist ideals of politics and society over Egypt is interlinked with the experience of an increasingly amoral society moving away from a conservative communal experience towards a competitive, fragmented social experience where morals are learned from the book. The power of the Islamist promise of good life rises and falls with the neoliberal capitalist utopia/dystopia. While I am not much of a socialist myself, I therefore think that socialists and the labour movement may have more to say in future than may seem right now.

Number three is the strained relationship of ordinary people with the state, which for a long time has been marked by seeking the patronage of the state/business authorities, and cursing the humiliation which one experienced while doing so. Burning the police stations on 28 January was a radical, impulsive reaction against this experience, and it has released highly contradictory dynamics. Until today, there is very little police on the streets of Egypt’s cities, although technically the police should have been able to return weeks ago. Partly it has made things better, as people have to suffer a lot less insults and derision than they used to. Partly it has made things more colourful, with street vendors who used to play cat and mouse with the police now working freely in Cairo’s shopping streets. But for a big part, it is a serious problem in face of the increase in crime - and in fear of crime - that followed the revolution, further aggravated by the large number of police firearms that got into private hands on 28 January. The fear of crime and violence is the strongest argument in the hands of those who want things to get back to as they were. Those who want to push for the sake of continuing revolution tend to place the blame on the police itself, seeing in the delayed return of the police to the street a continued campaign of intimidation. But I think that more is at stake. A main reason appears to be that the police officers are very hesitant to take their new role as servants of the people. There is very strong resistance in the police force against criminal investigations against police officers. In the beginning of this week, police forces in Alexandria marched out of the courts they were supposed to protect in protest against court cases against three police officers accused of killing protesters. This spirit was most arrogantly marked by the video circulating on the Internet in early March, showing a police chief telling the policemen that “we are the masters of the country.” The burning of the police stations has been a traumatic event for the police force, and an ambiguous one for the citizens who note the new politeness of the few police officers in the streets with great satisfaction, but also suffer from the new insecurity of violent crime. The relation of the citizens and the police will remain an open question for a while, and while there seems to be no return to times past, it is unclear whether a new sound base for policing will be found. The relationship will remain strained. And the weapons that moved to private hands will stay that way, and violent crime is likely to become a more permanent menace in Egyptians’ daily life.

Number four is the crisis of patriarchal authority so dramatically marked in the Oedipal father murder which the revolutionaries committed on Mubarak, the clientelistic father-godfather of the nation. I wrote more about this point back in February, at the moment I want to point out that this was by no means a shared undertaking by all Egyptians. A lot of people did not believe that Mubarak would go until he actually did, and did not dare or care to go out to the streets. These people, too, are now claiming the revolution as theirs, but for them it has a different emotional significance. And those who did believe that Mubarak would go and who put their faith into a revolution without visible leaders, had quite different ideas of what would replace the figure of the respected and feared collective father. Things are in the movement, and some are searching for new reliable sources of authority while others are claiming the freedom to speak out what is in one’s heart and yet others are experimenting with non-hierarchical organisation and pluralistic debate. This shift in authority and in the entitlement to a voice will be the biggest and bitterest struggle that Egypt will face in the next decades.

This is why I think the Egyptian revolution is a good thing although things have been broken, people have been killed, and the wrong people are likely to seize the power. Egypt of the past decade was marked by an enormous contrast of great promises and high expectations on the one hand, and a sense of humiliation, depression and frustration. The 25 January revolution opened up a different way to feel about the world, and things got into movement. Some things will get back to the way they were, some will get better, a lot of things will get worse. But they are not just happening to people. One can do something about one’s share in the world. So many people in Egypt felt that nothing can be done, and many of them now feel that something can be done after all. They will do that something now, for better or worse.

Revolution is indeed an emotional state, and it is an intense, nervous and stressful one. One cannot go on that way for very long. The turn from the state of revolution to a state of transition is also a time of exhaustion and bad nerves. R., an artist, is sick with a “post-revolutionary flu” as she calls it. Like many others whom I have met, she is emotionally exhausted, and says that the past month and a half has been the most stressful time in her life. Although I myself have spent only three weeks in Egypt since the revolution began, my nerves are wrecked, too. I have started smoking again, and I sleep very badly. And yet unlike many others, I haven’t been through any really bad experiences. But there is a constant anxiety, and it is of the same kind of the anxiety of M. who found it so wearing to find this country one’s own. Like so many Egyptians who share this feeling, I am anxious because I care. Having lived so long in a country that seemed so stalled, so doomed to face just more and more of the same, it is not a bad thing to be anxious in this way.

Greetings from Egypt in transition!

Samuli

Friday, March 18, 2011

Yes or No?

(This note is from 17 March but it was posted after midnight)

Today, there is only one issue to any discussion in Cairo: whether to vote “Yes” or “No” in the constitutional referendum that will take place on 19 March. The constitutional amendments, which were proposed by a committee of constitutional experts assigned with the task by the army in the end of February, are supposed to offer a temporary solution to hold free presidential and parliamentary elections soon, and to pass a new constitution afterwards. The draft consists of amendments in laws regarding presidential and parliamentary elections and state of emergency, and it contains a new chapter that degrees that a new constitution will be passed six months after parliamentary elections. The amendments do not touch the powers of the president in any way, leaving Mubarak’s elected successor with the same near-divine powers that Mubarak had. This solution was at first received with reserved optimism by the opposition, but after conferences by constitutional and legal experts in early March, the tone of most of the opposition soon changed into a largely unified rejection of the amendments, and a demand for an altogether new constitution now, before presidential and parliamentary elections. Three major players support the amendments, however, and they have a lot of influence: The old ruling National Democratic Party, The Muslim Brotherhood, and the Salafis. They have different reasons to do so. The National Democratic Party and all the folks of the old system hope to keep any change as limited as possible. The Muslim Brotherhood seems to partly trying to prove themselves as a reliable coalition partner towards the NDP, and partly trying to have the elections as soon as possible due to their vast advantage in organisation and outreach as compared to other political movements.

These are the options: A “Yes” means presidential elections in the summer, with a new president who has the same powers which Hosni Mubarak had, followed by parliamentary elections in September, and a new constitution to be drafted by the parliament. A “No” means that the Army will issue a temporary constitutional declaration that determines key points of how the country is to be governed in the transitional period, and a constitutional committee drafts a new constitution, which will be subject to a referendum before elections. For most Egyptians, the situation is confusing, because all arguments both for a “Yes” and a “No” vote argue with the need for a democratic constitution and political and social stability, and evoke the fear of a new dictatorship.

The schedule of the referendum is hasty to say the least, and it is clearly not very well planned - it seems to me the army did not even seriously consider the option of there being a major “No” campaign in the first place. State media are officially neutral, and a lot of effort is made to make the referendum transparent (international observers are allowed, a first in Egypt). But there is a lot of tacit campaigning by state media arguing for the need of the citizens to take their decisions slowly and carefully and not hastily. And there is a television campaign with the slogan “Yes to participation in the referendum”, which without being a “Yes” campaign, features the word “Yes” in a very suggestive way.

For the past week, there has been a huge amount of arguments against the amendments in the press and on the Internet. But on the streets, the “No” camp has been slow to emerge, and the Muslim Brotherhood and others have had plenty of time to cover much of Egypt with “Yes” posters, leaflets, and meetings. Only today has the situation changed, and in Cairo there are now plenty of “No” and “Yes” leaflets alike being distributed. In Alexandria, friends of mine were also organising a big leaflet campaign for a “No” vote. In the village, my friends held a public meeting on Wednesday, and are talking to people today and tomorrow. The problem of the “No” camp is that especially in Cairo much of their campaigning is still confined to a very limited geographic area. There is a geographic blindness due to the class society that makes the intellectual and political activists focus on particular areas of the city, and ignore many of the most populous and thus most important areas in the outskirts of the city.

This noon I went to see M. whom I hadn’t met after I had left for the countryside a week and a half ago. He was in a rather depressed mood because of the dominance of Islamist factions and the old system in the popular areas (like the one where he lives) and the social isolation of the intellectuals, to whom he belongs. He says: “You know, in a way I am tired of the revolution. In the past we just lived here, and we didn’t care because it wasn’t our country. Now that this is our country, I’m all the time worried about it.”

Y. whom I also met at noon was equally concerned about the containment of the “No” camp in relatively limited circles. He was also having an ongoing debate with his fiancee who was supporting the “Yes” vote. Her arguments were that we have already realised what we wanted; that we should take it slowly and not change everything at once; and that we cannot work with all the demonstrations going on and need to get back to normality. Y’s fiancée was at one of the Tahrir demonstrations herself, but her arguments are similar to those offered by people who weren’t participating in the revolution in the first place. Y: “Those of my colleagues who were against the revolution at first, and who wanted Hosni Mubarak to stay, are now all claiming the revolution for themselves, and they want to vote Yes in the name of the revolution which they were opposed to in the first place.” Now this is, of course, an analysis coloured by Y’s own commitment to support the “No” vote. But he has a point. All arguments are now made in the name of the revolution, while lots of Egyptians were sceptical of the revolution, and Egypt’s most important counter-revolutionary instance, the National Democratic Party, is running for the “Yes” vote.

However, this doesn’t mean that people who want to vote “Yes” would automatically support the old system. Y’s fiancée doesn’t - she is just hesitant about rapid change. A Taxi driver who took me to Sayyida Zaynab, an old popular area in the south of Cairo, argued emphatically for a Yes vote in the name of realising democracy. His argument (and it is an argument that follows the argumentation of the Muslim Brotherhood) is that the military government must give way to a civil government as soon as possible so that the situation can stabilise and the army can return to the barracks, the country has a democratically elected president and government, and then there is time to draft a new constitution. Many others, too, tend to vote “Yes” because of the promise of a quick return to normality and a new democratic constitution, combined with the fear of a military dictatorship.

Sheikh N. whom I met in Sayyida Zaynab, however, was strongly for a “No” vote: “The system has fallen, and so will the constitution fall.” His view, which is quite representative of the various arguments for a “No” vote is that the old constitution is a very bad one, a cornerstone of a dictatorship by giving the president practically unlimited powers. It is a dead body for which any treatment comes too late: It can only be buried. The “No” argument is that if Egypt is to be a democratic country, and if it is to have an orderly transition with a quick return to normality, a new and democratic constitution must be the first step, and amending the old constitution opens the door to a new dictatorship.

Th., a local real estate broker from the Sayyida Zaynab district, offered a third point of view. He is not going to vote at all, and he is telling his family not to vote either. He thinks that the revolution has brought Egypt nothing except additional crime and chaos, and that Egyptians are a hopelessly selfish and corrupt bunch: “Nothing will ever change in this country. They changed the president, and who is ruling the country now? The National Democratic Party, and the army. The old system, that is. It will be just like it always was, and we will be ruled by a bunch of thieves, the elections will be a show where you can earn 200 pounds by voting for the right candidate. I know it, I have seen them rigging the last elections with my own eyes. I have been abroad, and I have seen how things are elsewhere. In Italy, they have a respectable health insurance. I just had to pay several thousands for a heart operation that was supposed to be covered by the insurance. In Lebanon, you buy bread by the kilo and don’t have to queue for a dirty loaf like here. Those countries have civilised people and respectable governments, but it will never happen in Egypt.” Few months earlier, I would have taken Th.’s bitter cynicism as entirely normal, a realistic assessment of the way things really are. Today, it stands in a striking contrast with both the optimism of wide parts of the population, as well as the anxious worry of the activist revolutionaries. Sheikh N. who spent the revolution from 25 January until 11 February demonstrating, argues to Th. that things have already become a little better, and they will become a lot better, but it will take time. Th. won’t buy it. He knows how the system works, he plays his bitter and cynical part in it, and unfortunately, he is not entirely wrong. Corruption, side-businesses, shady deals, election-rigging, and police brutality will not simply disappear. They continue to be a part of Egypt also under conditions of democracy, and the best of expectations is that they will become less. This will be a major cause of frustration in the coming months and years. It may become so already on Saturday if there is major vote-rigging or violence against voters on the referendum day (with Egypt’s long history of spectacular election fraud, it is not out of the question, and there are already first reports about bribes and intimidation:
http://www.facebook.com/notes/%D8%A7%D9%84%D8%AD%D9%85%D9%84%D8%A9-%D8%A7%D9%84%D9%82%D9%88%D9%85%D9%8A%D8%A9-%D9%84%D8%B1%D9%81%D8%B6-%D8%AA%D8%B9%D8%AF%D9%8A%D9%84%D8%A7%D8%AA-%D8%A7%D9%84%D8%AF%D8%B3%D8%AA%D9%88%D8%B1-%D9%85%D8%A7%D8%B1%D8%B3-%D9%A2%D9%A0%D9%A1%D9%A1/%D8%B4%D9%87%D8%A7%D8%AF%D8%A7%D8%AA/117958388280111).

From al-Sayyida Zaynab I took the metro to the Opera grounds where a public meeting on the constitutional amendments headed by the novelist Alaa El-Aswany was going on since three hours. In the metro, there were a lot of leaflets, the bigger part arguing for a “Yes”, and many arguing for a “No”. Whoever got leaflets in their hands was carefully reading them. Most people still do not quite know what exactly the meaning of a “Yes” or “No” vote is, what the amendments are about, and what consequences they would have. There is a huge thirst for information.

At the public meeting, practically everybody present was going to vote “No”, and the debate was less about Yes or No, and more about developing the arguments for a “No” vote. Y. who was covering the event was discontent, because he wanted to see the people pass on leaflets all over the city rather than sitting in the Opera grounds. But during the meeting, leaflets were distributed in order to be photocopied and spread. Y. got two different ones, one which he found unhelpful, only convincing towards those who already know that they want to say No, and another one detailing the specific problems of the amendments, and suggested solutions. He took that leaflet along with him on the way home, and later when I called him he told that he had joined another man in support of a “No”-vote and gotten a group of people involved in a debate. They were at first for a “Yes” vote, and rather than opposing them Y. offered them his analysis of what that would in practice mean. Their first reaction was confusion because they had thought that they knew what to vote, and finally they were convinced that their vote shall be a “No”. Indeed there are a lot of people around who are undecided, or will vote “Yes” just because it seems more commonsensical. In this situation where people want to make an informed decision but feel that they lack information, the argumentative strategy of analysing the situation employed by Y. makes a good impression.

In the taxi on the way back to the apartment where I’m staying, the taxi driver found the whole business with the referendum confusing. On his dashboard he had a “Yes” leaflet that had been passed on by someone on the street, and as we drove through the city, someone gave us a “No” leaflet. He had no idea what to vote. I said to him: “Well, You can read these two and make up your mind. It’s the first time they are asking your opinion.” The confusion of being asked to make a decision about such a complex matter as a constitution is not just due to a shortage of knowledge. It is an altogether new experience in a country where elections and referendums have been nothing more than a show in the past decades. For the first time, people actually are expected to make an informed decision. Right now it seems that the better informed people are the more likely they are to vote “No” (which is not to deny that there are a lot of people who are making the well informed decision to vote “Yes”, but they seem to be relatively fewer) . The referendum is on Saturday, and it is a race against the clock.

Greetings from the Egyptian revolution!

Samuli

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Among the left wing, or the dark side of military rule

(This note is from Wednesday 16 March but it was posted after midnight)

This was a day which I spent almost entirely with people from the intellectual left wing scene of downtown Cairo, heavily involved in the revolution, and much more worried about its success than most Egyptians.

Today was the birthday party of Aly Subhy who had been detained on Tahrir Square on 9 March and released four days later thanks to a campaign for him on the internet and by human rights lawyers. This evening his friends threw him a party in the roof terrace of a small hotel in downtown Cairo, a regular meeting place of left wing activists. He received a hero’s welcome, and everybody was very happy to see him, and yet the party was a little subdued in mood. Too many people are still detained, more were detained today, and the discussions circled around that, and the problematic role of the army. Aly himself was marked by the experience. There was a kind of sadness to him that I hadn’t seen in him before. He told that when he was arrested he was heavily beaten in a haphazard fashion - not in order to press a confession, but just as an act of brutality. It was so bad that he started to recite the Muslim creed, expecting to die in that very moment. But he lived, and he says that the experience did not break either him or any of the others who were with him. “Everybody who got out, got out stronger in heart and commitment.” Here is his full account in English translation: http://www.facebook.com/notes/wiam-el-tamami/my-testimony-by-aly-sobhy/10150167640300348

In the afternoon., before I went to Aly’s party I met E., an outspoken feminist and human rights activist. She was in a worried and pessimistic mood, especially because of the number of people who have been arrested since 9 March. Some have been released, others remain detained, and there are new detainments. Most recently today: After a press conference about the role of the military in arresting and torturing demonstrators, a small number of people went to demonstrate in front of the Egyptian Museum that not only houses Egypt’s Pharaonic antiquities, but also a detainment centre in the basements. Most people who were detained in Tahrir Square were first held there. Predictably, a number of the people demonstrating in front of this place were arrested. This development makes E. very anxious these days. A feminist activist, she has put an enormous effort into the revolution. After Mubarak was ousted, she was collecting names of women who were killed in the revolution. But she says: This time I felt that I shouldn’t care only about women, but everybody who was killed, women and men. for several weeks after 11 February, she and a group of others ran a call centre for people injured in the revolution. While doing this, they also received information about people killed, and she says that the real number of people killed is much higher than the official figure of 365. In Cairo alone - the are where they were working - they got a list of more than 600 names. Then, two weeks ago, the database was stolen. She has been unable to retrieve it, and she says that she has also encountered quite some fear among some of the people who were working with her. Also with the new age of freedom, lots of people are afraid, and not entirely without reason, as the recent wave of detainments shows. At the moment, E. is busy with two things: Running a campaign in Ismailiya where she studies to vote “No” in the referendum on constitutional amendments, and collecting information on the people detained and trying to reach people within the army. The problem with the army, she says, that it is split within. There are very respectable people in the army who support her work, and there are others who would rather like to see the Mubarak era continue, only without Mubarak. This creates strange and terrible contradictions, she says. On the one hand, military police is arresting and torturing demonstrators apparently quite randomly. On the other hand, she has met with high-ranking generals supporting her cause, to hand them documents about the detained people.

Among the human rights activists and the intellectual left, the new Egypt appears as a rather sinister place at the moment, and the grave human rights violations involved in mass arrests and military trials are the most striking case in point. Today, a press conference was held at the Press Syndicate in Cairo to discuss the human rights violations by the army. It was mostly attended by foreign press and human rights activists - the Arabic language press remains silent on the issue for contradictory reasons. (There is a strong sense among many that the alliance of the revolution with the army is a necessary and tactical one, and that the dark side of the military rule needs to remain uncovered for a while because revealing it would create a fear and distrust towards the army that would be destructive and counterproductive.) The demand of the activists at the press conference was not just that demonstrators detained by the army should be released, but that there should be an end to military tribunals on civilians altogether. Also thugs deserve a fair process in a civilian court.

My friend. is now beginning a campaign for Muhammad Ezzat Abdallah Khalifa, also known as Muhammad Israili, a street kid in his teens who was detained at the same time with Aly and whom Aly met in the prison. He has been participating in artistic activities organised by Aly and J., and everybody considers him an extraordinary person of great potential. But with his background as a street kid, he has a difficult stance. He is not a known artist or activist for whom it is easy to run a campaign, and he doesn’t come from a good family that could help him. People from poor backgrounds have the toughest time in military courts, and need most help. Right now J. is trying to trace Muhammad’s birth certificate because if he is under 18 he has the good chance of getting away with a suspended one-year sentence. But if he is over 18, things will be very difficult for him. Here is more information: http://www.facebook.com/notes/jakob-lindfors/1632011-1250-am-stories-of-detention/10150122332099228

There is much talk in downtown Cairo now about Muslim Brothers, who many in the left feel have betrayed the revolution by their “Yes” campaign. The old fear of the Islamists among the secular end of the political spectrum is emerging again, and not without a reason. Some people like E. are more worried about it, and others, like Sh., a teacher and part-time actor from a poor background, less so. He says that there is too much distrust towards the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, no matter how well organised they are. My bet is that in the coming elections, Islamic parties and candidates will dominate, not because Egyptians would necessarily have strong Islamist sympathies, but because they want an honest and God-fearing government, and the Muslim Brotherhood is most capable of offering that promise to a wide audience at the moment - unless, of course, the nationalist and leftist groups manage to mobilise enough people to vote for a God-fearing and honest government more focussed on issues of economical and social justice and less on a religious agenda. A programme focussing on economical equality and social justice has the potential of gaining a lot of support in Egypt, but it requires successful mobilisation. We shall see. But whatever the outcome will be, I think about the key demand of the demonstrators before 11 February: We don’t care who governs us, but how we are governed. My concern about the Muslim Brotherhood is not that they are fundamentalist conservatives. If the people of Egypt want a fundamentalist conservative government, it is their right in a democratic system. My concern is that the Muslim Brothers have become deeply entrenched in the system in the past years, and that they will not solve the problem of corruption and economical exploitation that originally took the people in the streets. Then the issue that matters is that Egypt will have a robust democratic system that will allow for electing a different government four years later. After all, that’s what a democracy is for: circulation of power.

E., and like her many of the left wing intellectual scene who frequent downtown Cairo, is very aware and worried about the current power of the Muslim Brotherhood and elements of the National Democratic Party to reach a wide audience in a way the downtown intellectuals who played an important role in the initial stages of the revolution do not. “When we were on Tahrir Square and we were attacked by the thugs, the people on the front line defending us were Muslim Brothers. They worked in shifts and were very organised and experienced in a way we are not.” She is hardly in downtown Cairo these days, precisely because she sees that there is much more to be done in Ismailiya. But she is aware of the unequal power of different political movements when it comes to reaching a wide audience. This shows very clearly now that the Muslim Brotherhood have declared their support for a “Yes” vote in the referendum. The Muslim Brotherhood has the activists, the money and the experience to run a big public campaign around the country, and at the moment they are campaigning big time for a “Yes” vote in an unholy alliance with the National Democratic Party which campaigns for a “Yes” as well, however with leaflets that do not reveal who stands behind them - the NDP does not have a particularly good reputation these days. This is a move by the Muslim Brothers clearly aimed at proving that they are a reliable coalition partner - a move which stands in a decades old tradition of the Muslim Brothers trying to gain power indirectly rather than directly. Among the left wing and other revolutionaries, this raises the concern that after the elections we may see a coalition of the National Democratic Party and the Brotherhood ruling the country, which would certainly be a highly problematic scenario. But probably it is also because the Brotherhood would profit from early elections as long as its competitors do not yet have the same outreach across the country.

And this is indeed a key problem which E. and many other people from the leftist intellectual scene whom I met today: Influential as it has been in the early stage of the revolution, and influential as it remains in the media, the intellectual left has little outreach in the popular districts and in the countryside, and also much less money. And there is the problem that much of the supporters of the revolution spread their views on Facebook, which is only accessible to a small percentage of Egyptians. There are way more “Yes” leaflets than there are “No” leaflets being distributed in the streets these days, and leaflets reach a lot more people than the Internet. My gut feeling is that the heavy leaflet and media campaign for a “Yes” these days from different directions is likely to make the referendum end with a majority vote for a “Yes”. But the result is still open, and my gut feeling may still turn out to be wrong. No matter what the outcome of the constitutional referendum, it is already now a lesson to the activists of a Facebook revolution: Revolutions may be mobilised partly over social media, but referendums and elections are won and lost in the popular districts, the provincial towns, and the countryside. If Egyptians will vote “No” they will do it not because of Facebook but because they simply think that a new Egypt needs a new constitution now.

E. continues to work hard for the sake of political mobilisation and for the sake of the people detained. She has decided to delay a planned trip abroad in the spring because she thinks that her place is here. But anxiety and worry are her strongest feelings at the moment. And this is the atmosphere among many of the left wing activists (most of them weren’t activists before, but they have become so in the course of the revolution), who are much more pessimistic about the situation than most Egyptians. Unlike the majority of the population, they face and know the dark side of the military government. And after the revolutionary coalition to bring down Mubarak has ended and different groups now run their own programmes, their comparable weakness becomes evident. Some are drawing the consequences and starting to work to spread their version of political consciousness across the country. It is a difficult task, but those who are seriously about pursuing it, are also the ones spreading most optimism to me (no way I could be an impartial observer these days - I certainly hope that the intellectual left’s vision of new Egypt will play a significant role in the coming months and years). The most optimistic was Sh.. He is less worried because of the positive energy he sees among the ordinary Egyptians. At the school where he works, glossy leaflets were spread for the sake of a “Yes” vote, and at first people agreed, then one female teacher started arguing against it, and eventually convinced the teachers about a “No” vote. People change their minds easily, Sh. says, but what is important that they all talk about politics, and that in itself creates an enormous political consciousness.

As so often, I end this day with this contradictory note. On the one hand, there is a serious campaign against a part of the revolutionary movement by the military government or parts of it, causing among them a serious sense of crisis and fear. On the other hand, there is an enormous degree of political consciousness and debate. In a shop to buy food, I witnessed a discussion between a customer and an owner. The customer was concerned that there was a rumour that some questionable figure of the NDP was going to run for presidency. The owner: “Why not? If there are respectable and clean elections, it doesn’t matter if whoever runs. It’s not like in the old elections for Mubarak when the dead would rise from the grave, vote for the president and go back to the grave again (the lists of people eligible to vote were full of names of people long time dead). If we have really free and respectable election, a belly dancer can run for presidency, but you can vote for the one you want and it matters. And when we get a respectable president, then we will also take care of the army, because now nobody is talking about how many millions they have been earning, and what they have been doing under Mubarak. But their time will come, too.”

Greetings from the Egyptian revolution!

Samuli

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

In transition, where to?

The last few days in Egypt have been marked by a move from revolutionary tension to a rather contradictory normality and entirely new issues and problems. The question now is: How to change the society, and in which direction? The views go far apart.

What to write?

On Saturday 12 March I met in a little bookstore in Alexandria with a group of young literates and literature enthusiasts to discuss the motivations to write. It turned into a discussion about the shared concern of all the people present: how writing can change the world.

Next autumn, I plan to come to Egypt for a new fieldwork to do research with people who write - poetry, short stories, blogs, novels, social satire. It is a project still in the stage of early development about writing itself as a social and imaginative practice, about its significance as a daily practice and the relations young beginning writers build through their writing. One of the people with whom I have been discussing the theme previously is Z., a female schoolteacher from alexandria who also writes short prose. She offered to organise a meeting with some of her friends who are also interested in literature, and on Saturday noon we met in a small bookstore near the university. Not surprisingly, the revolution was in everybody’s mind, but rather than talking about the events of the revolution itself, we discussed at length the question how writing can change the world, and what one can write about now. There has been a flood of books critically describing the social situation in Egypt in the past years, most notably in the form of a new genre of social satire, and of best-seller novels like those by Alaa El-Aswany. These books are often written in accessible style and many literates look down at them (Aswany is not considered much of a novelist on the high standards of Arab literary critique), but they have contributed to a great increase in readership and publication. To make a long story short: social critique has been a key theme of writing in the past years, and this puts these young writes into a position where on the one hand what they do is extremely relevant, but on the other hand they have to reposition themselves.

Amr Izzeddin who has written three collections of social satire says that right now he faces the problem that he will have reorient. He has been critiquing the system in its everyday implications, but now he wants to find ways to build. Islam Musbah who has written two novels, the first one of them about a violent and bloody revolution in Egypt, says that “the revolution has stopped the market for my writing. Now I don’t know what to write.” Shamei Asaad has published a book based on a blog, with the aim of making the everyday life of Christians known to Muslims who often know very little about Christians. His focus is on the details and relations of daily life, and since the issue of Muslim-Christian relations is now more urgent than ever, he has enough stuff to write about. Husam Adil, a student who had written a collection of short stories that focus on the little interactions of daily life, tries to offer moments of constructive moral critique. Mukhtar Shehata has published one novel and has another one as a manuscript, but after the revolution began he has postponed finishing the manuscript, and is looking for entirely different media to express his concerns.

The original question of the motivations, grounds and experience of writing remains marginal in the discussion, which is about changing the world. The agreement is that any writer wants to change the world even if only to a limited extent. But a writer first of all changes her- or himself. The question is, how. What most of the people in the circle share is the look at everyday social relationships rather than the big picture or dramatic events, in Shamei’s words: “changing things from the base and not from the top.” Relate this to the way the Egyptian revolution emerged: as a popular movement with no charismatic leadership. It was a revolution directed against the top of the system, but its movement was bottom-up. Relate this to the way the change in expectations and moods precedes and is a condition of institutional change. These writers are from different angles touching upon a key moment, but at the same time their own uncertainty as to what to write now shows how open the situation is. As the revolution is turning into a period of transition, the question is, where to? Revolutions often bring forth strong transformations of literary and artistic production, and I’m curious to see what kind of answers to that question young writers will be providing in the next years.

Remembering the dead

On the evening of Saturday 12 March the good news reached me that Aly Subhy and three others held by the military had been declared innocent and released. This made my spirits rise greatly, although the destiny of a great number of others detained remains open. For the first time since a few nights I slept well.

In the past two days, I have for the first time heard detailed accounts about the events in Alexandria on the Friday of Anger on 28 January, the day when the police force tried to violently crush the protest, and hundreds were killed all around Egypt. D. tells that when he returned to his home in central Alexandria, he saw the entire waterfront marked by fires and smoke in an apocalyptic scene that looked more like war footage from Iraq than anything he had known in Egypt. S. finally comes up with his memories of the Friday of Anger. On that day he told his wife that he is going to work, but instead he joined a demonstration, lead by local Muslim Brotherhood activists, moving along the seafront and gathering more people, until they faced a row of police in Sidi Bishr, which forced them to move to the side streets where they found another row of police attacking them with tear gas and hitting them with iron rods with peaces of concrete on them taken from a nearby construction site. A young man, named Khalid, was hit on his breast by a teargas cartridge from three metres distance. S. and three others took him away from the scene and to take him into a mosque nearby. It was a Salafi mosque run by people who S. - who himself had been attracted by Salafism for some years - knew. The sheikh of the mosque refused to let the critically wounded man in, locked the door, and made clear that he was in favour of the police attacking the demonstrators. Khalid died. S. was hurt on his foot and shoulder by an iron rod, and was carried from the scene by other protesters. Only after a couple of hours did his injured foot carry him enough to return home, without telling his wife or anybody else what he had been through.

My friend R. was in Agami in western Alexandria on 28 January, and arrived on the scene of demonstrations only in the afternoon, after four people had been killed and the police station had already been set in fire. With no television in his apartment, and internet and mobile phones cut off, he had no idea of what was going on, and when he found out what was going on, he couldn’t believe his eyes. Increasing numbers of people were on the streets facing the police, four police trucks were set in fire. After a while the police retreated, R. joined the demonstrators who were waiting for the police to come back, ready to die. But the police didn’t return. R. Describes the contradictory feeling: “I felt that after we had been so long being treated like chickens, Egypt will be a paradise tomorrow. But at the same time I asked: Why burn the police station? It will be rebuilt with our money.” He, too, saw scenes of violence which he had never before seen, and which still trouble him. He saw a man’s hand get broken very badly, and says that it was as if he himself was hit.

Egyptians have every reason to be proud of their peaceful revolution, especially when compared with the terrible and brutal violence which popular uprisings face around the Arab world right now. In most Arab countries, the iron hand of what the West has gotten accustomed to calling “moderate Arab states” is crushing demonstrations without mercy (and I’m not talking about Libya but Yemen, Saudi Arabia, Oman, Iraq, Bahrain). But the terrible death toll of 28 January reminds me that also the Egyptian revolution only became peaceful after an attempt by the government to turn in into a bloodbath. Along the Corniche in Alexandria there are photos of martyrs of the revolution - there are altogether 83 of them in Alexandria. In central Alexandria there is a temporary monument guarded by volunteers, with a list of the names of everybody who was killed during the revolution around Egypt. Yesterday night I read on the internet about the brother of L whom I met on the plane to Cairo on 31 January. She was travelling to Egypt to search for his brother Ziyad Bakry who was missing since 28 February. On Friday the news reached me that his body was found on 10 March in a mortuary where is body had remained unrecognised for more than a month. He had been shot twice in the head on the night of 28 February. I have a heavy heart when I think about these people, most of them very young, who had to die because of a regime that had the arrogance to shoot at its citizens because they wanted to be treated with respect and dignity.

As Egypt remembers the martyrs of the revolution these days, it is rather oblivious of other things. While the bigger part of the population is enjoying the pleasure of freedom and new hope, steps have been taken that clearly aim at silencing the most active parts of the revolutionary movement. As the military government is releasing political prisoners who were detained for years, it is at the same time detaining activists of Egypt’s peaceful revolution in downtown Cairo. Not only do many people detained earlier remain in custody, but on Friday 11 March several more people were arrested in downtown Cairo, this time in an action more evidently targeting activists. Twelve names of people detained have been confirmed, and there are others detained whose names are not known yet. There is no information about their whereabouts. A lot of people here do not want to believe that the army could be involved in detaining and torturing peaceful protesters. While some people I have met see the alliance of the revolution with the army as a purely tactical one determined by necessity, and have no illusions about the army being a morally superior instance, others hold tight to the slogan that the people and the army hold together, and do not want to consider that this may not be the whole story.

So much has been made possible, so much has been changed, but the success has been partial, and the price has been terrible.


What to build?

Revolutions are a tricky business. They take place in moments when a gradual change is made impossible, and the only way out is to overthrow the system in order to break out of the stalled situation. Because of this, revolutions initially break more than they build. That is what they are good for: breaking the “knot of fear” of the citizens towards the government, breaking the power of the system, breaking the narrow closed circle to which people’s action was limited. By breaking the narrow circle, people undertaking a revolution are able to open up a new world of possibilities, and the immediate act of going out and saying “No”, the revolution has created in those people an enormous sense of empowerment and a completely different outlook on what they can do. But what exactly can one do? What will Egypt`s future look like? Key issues these days are economy, religion, and the constitution - and from a more long-term perspective, the expectation of a deeper social change.

On Sunday I took it easy in the morning until in the afternoon S. and I took the minibus to downtown Alexandria. On the way, we looked at all the wall paintings and graffiti along the seaside, some of them spontaneous writing on the wall, some sponsored wall paitings celebrating patriotism and the revolution, some banners sponsored by local businessmen in the style of the old Mubarak age, welcoming the police back in the streets, some political slogans of different colouring. S. tells me how these streets looked like in the days of the mass protests, before the campaign to paint everything in red white and black began after 11 February. Months before the revolution somebody had sprayed a verse of poetry by Amal Dunqul all over the corniche: “Don’t dream of a better world / after every dead emperor comes a new emperor”, a verse in a striking way expressing the political sensibility of the past years. As the demonstrations began, spontaneous graffiti with slogans such as “down with the system”, “down with the tyrant”, “no to Mubarak” rapidly spread all over the city. Some were painted over by Mubarak’s supporters, some were covered by the new wall paintings that spread after the revolution. In side streets they can still be spotted. At the site of a demolished building in central Alexandria there is a large graffiti saying: “demolition order of the system by the people of Egypt, in force by 25/1/2011” There are numerous shops that have spontaneusly changed their names into “Revolution market”, “Martyrs café”, “25 January jeans”, etc., usually employing the colours of the national flag which are all over the place these days. But there is also an emerging wave of stickers that do not employ the national colours. These are stickers by the Salafis who have started a big campaign for Egypt to be an Islamic state. And as one moves out of the city centre, they get more and more numerous.

From central Alexandria I continued to Agami, an area in the far West of Alexandria where I met my friends R. and Y. Like most of Alexandria, Agami is split into a wealthy seaside and a poor inland area. The part where R and Y (they are brothers) live belongs to the poor inland side, at the border between a 1970's government housing area known as Masakin Siniya (Chinese Housing, called so because it was built as a cooperation project with China), and a hillside owned by Bedouins who are the original inhabitants of the area. R. and Y. have put together the family savings and built a small house there. Other houses are being built right now - while Egypt’s economy has otherwise come to quite a standstill due to the revolution, construction is running well. In the absence of police and government inspectors one can build for half the price because there are no bribes to be paid. I’m curious about what happens when they come back.

Half as a joke, half seriously Y. explains to me that a major contributing reason to the revolution was a severe shortage of hashish. A few months ago, a major drug dealer who until then had closely collaborated with the police got into disfavour with the ministry of interior after a police officer was shot dead by drug dealers. In result, the police who until then had covered him, closed the supply of hashish, and for a few months, it was exceedingly difficult to buy hashish. Y: You know how people live in Egypt: They get up, they go to work, they go shopping, they come home, they eat, and in the evening they get stoned. When the supply of hashish was cut, they couldn’t take it anymore.” Ever since the revolution began there has been good supply of hashish again, however.

R. and Y. were of quite different minds as to whether they should be optimistic or pessimistic these days. R. told that he had been really happy all the time until the past few days, when he had started to feel that the army wasn’t much of an expert in managing the country, and that many things will not change, that there will still be bribes to be paid and politicians stealing the people. Y., in contrast, was rather optimistic. He had just been in central Alexandria to meet a girl in the university institute where he had studied. The students were holding a demonstration demanding, among other things, that the student union should be dissolved. In Y’s view things were in movement, even though there was in his view still much too little political consciousness among the people.

R’s sense of disillusionment is related to the general shift in the situation from a revolutionary state with enormous emotional intensity and rapidly changing news to a period of consolidation and transition that is marked by less dramatic but more contradictory developments. Egypt has changed, but not in every respect. People can demonstrate freely, but demonstrations are sometimes forcibly removed and people arrested - most recently today when the army removed a week-long demonstration mainly by Christians in front of the television centre. The police returns to the streets in Alexandria in a mixture of watchful control and discussion on the one hand, and sponsored banners greeting them exactly in the way banners were used to celebrate the government in the days of Mubarak, on the other. There are huge question marks about Egypt’s future and much discussion about where to go from here. One of the most urgent ones regards the Salafi movement, that promotes an extremely rigid reading of Islam as the total way of life to solve all problems.

In the Chinese Housing, there was a public meeting organised by the Salafis who are very strong in this area. Y., R. and I went to see them but arrived too late, finding them already packing the tent where the meeting with the title “Values and Concepts” had been held. But the Salafis, most of them from the area, had left behind a huge supply of stickers which were now decorating half of the shops in the area, in glittering green, declaring: “Life is transient, everything is transient, only our Islam is solid: Don’t touch the article 2. of the constitution,” “Islam is religion and state: Don’t touch the article 2. of the constitution,” “The law of God and not the law of tyrants: Don’t touch the article 2. of the constitution.” (The article 2. of the constitution states that Islam is the religion of the state and that Islamic law is the source of positive law.) These and similar posters with slogans such as “Islamic Egypt” or “Separating religion and politics is the shortest way to unbelief” are present all over Alexandria, but in the West of Alexandria they dominate. Unlike on the Corniche, there is little in terms of any competing discourse in the posters and wall writings, except for that of the Muslim Brotherhood that uses slogans that are less divisive, calling people to build their country and overcome corruption in a common effort.

Alexandria is the most important centre of Islamist movements in Egypt, and both the Salafis and the Muslim brotherhood enjoy more support and have a stronger social base here than anywhere else in Egypt. And they are at their strongest in the eastern and western outskirts of the city. The Muslim Brotherhood is a bunch of experienced politicians cleverly searching for influence in a way that unites rather than confronts. The Salafis are pursuing a very different, much more radical and divisive path. Unlike the Muslim Brotherhood which is quite credibly committed to democracy, the Salafis want to establish an Islamic emirate, and they go for radical and wholesale demands of subjecting Egypt under a very rigid moral regime of a very strict interpretation of Islamic law.

Right now, the Salafis are emerging as the surprise player of the beginning transition. Before the revolution they presented themselves as an unpolitical piety movement exclusively concerned with disciplining oneself, one’s wife and one’s children to a dedicated life for God only. Now it turns out that they were doing this in part of an agreement with Egypt’s secret police that allowed them to spread their message (and by doing so limit the influence of the Muslim Brotherhood) on the condition of staying away from politics. They fulfilled their part of the deal very faithfully, and during the mass protests they were busy telling that protesting against the ruler is forbidden to Muslims. But after the fall of the Mubarak and the suspension of the State Security, the Salafis are developing extremely quickly from a piety movement into a political one.

In the west of Alexandria, one can thus hardly avoid discussing the issue of the Salafis and an Islamic state. R. and Y. are both very critical of the Salafis. R. was himself a Salafi for a year, and used to have a lot of respect for the Salafi interpretation of Islam, but now he is very concerned. He thinks that the Salafis have had an agenda all the time which they now publicly speak out. Y. and R. think that the Salafis will not be able to gain a political majority even in Alexandria because they are too rigid and radical. Most Muslims here respect them as religious people who know Islam (“knowledge” in the sense of textbook knowledge of facts has become the key mode of religiosity in Egypt in the past decades), but wouldn’t want to go as far as the Salafis would. But while the radicalism of the Salafis is not shared by most people, they are very successful in claiming to speak in not in the name of their particular ideology, but of religion as such. This gives them an argumentative advantage which showed in the way R. and Y. struggled with the theme of Islamic state. I. is a man of a very secularist views for Egyptian standards, and likes to draw anything in question and to play with ideas. He challenges R. to say what exactly is wrong with the call for an Islamic state: “I as a Muslim should live according to the commandments of Islam, and therefore an ideal state must be an Islamic one that applies the law of God, which He has wisely designed for our best.” R. tries to slip away from the question of saying yes or no to an Islamic state, but eventually he says: “Yes, as a Muslim I am for an Islamic State, but it cannot be forced upon us at once. It should to happen step by step, and it should come from the people themselves and not be forced upon themselves. Otherwise we will all end up walking with our finger bound to our foot (an expression of being forcibly constrained).” Critical of the Salafis and also of the Muslim brothers as they are, R. and Y. nevertheless find it hard to disagree with the idea of an Islamic state. If Islam stands for the good and for justice, how can you deny the idea of a good and just state? At the same time, Y. is a determined supporter of a secular constitution. He wants to abolish article 2 of the constitution: “If the majority of the people want it, then that’s fine, that’s democracy. But I’m against it because it forces a religion upon the people.”

On Monday, as I met D. in his office at the leftist cultural centre, I shared with him my concern about the Salafis who seem to be quite uncontested in the poorer areas of Alexandria. He is less worried because while Alexandria has a strong base of Salafis, most people dislike them because of their rigidity and also because of their collaboration with the secret police. But there is a problem of political consciousness, he agrees, and much too few people still have a proper understanding of what a constitution is about, what democracy is about, etc. Less visible than the Salafis with their stickers, a movement of intellectuals and artists is running a campaign of their own, going to cafes in groups of three and taking up discussions and getting the people involved. But at the moment, their capability of mobilisation remains limited in comparison. In any case, says D., the main issue right now is the referendum about constitutional amendments, backed mainly by elements of the old system and by the Muslim Brotherhood (clearly eager to negotiate a good position in a future government), and opposed by most of the opposition, including all presidential candidates. The referendum, D. says, will be an indication of the popular opinion regarding the parliamentary elections that are due in September. If the majority vote in the referendum is Yes, we can expect a dominance of elements of the National Democratic Party and the Muslim Brothers in the next parliament. If it is No, then we can expect a dominance of other parties and of revolutionary movements not yet organised as parties. “But anyway the issue is not who is going to govern us in the next years,” says D., “and if it is the Muslim Brothers. What matters is that we build a democratic system, and after one term we can get the Muslim Brothers out of the government again.”

As I arrived yesterday for a short visit in a village in central Nile Delta, I encountered two different ways to think about the current situation, quite marked by a generational difference in my host family. As we watch the news about new legal steps against former president Hosni Mubarak, the mother starts a discussion about all the money that was stolen from the people, how to get it back, how the people had to pay too much for food and had too little money under Mubarak. Right now the price for meat has gone down, and the story goes that it is because there is lots of gazelle and ostrich meat derived from a farm owned by Gamal Mubarak that was serving his private receptions. This is a way to talk about revolutionary transition that is highly personified: it is about catching the thieves and getting our money back. Her daughter T. shares the concern with getting the money back, but has other concerns, too. She is also busy with the question what kind of a country Egypt shall be in the future, by what kind of laws it shall be governed, and what kind of freedom will people gain. She has been talking about the constitutional referendum with her brother and asks me for my opinion. Rather than my opinion, I give her my understanding of the arguments for either a “no” or a “yes” vote. T. says: “That’s how I understood it, too. I will vote No. Since we have had a revolution and we want to change things, let’s change them properly.” T. asks me whether the article two of the constitution is also subject to the referendum, and I say no, it isn’t. She says: “Anyway, I’m against Article 2. The constitution shouldn’t force a religion on people. And the Christians must be able to feel that this is their country, too.”

But more than constitution, T.’s concern is with freedom: “With the freedom that we have gained with the revolution, are we now really free to say what is in our mind, or are our minds still chained? In our Oriental society (mugtama‘ sharqi) we keep so much to ourselves and don’t talk about it. Shortly before the revolution I was with my brother in Cairo and spoke long about it with him. Why is it that he can call a girlfriend on the phone and I can know it, but if I have a male friend, even if there is no romance in it, I have to hide it from him?” For her, more important than the change of political system is a change in the relationship between men and women, a freedom to express one’s feelings and concerns and to build social relationships without having to expect stupid comments. Hers is a point of view that is at once a conservative one, grounded on ideas of religiosity, marriage, and family which she by no means questions, and a radical one with its demand that freedom is not just political freedom, but a freedom of the heart.

Egypt’s revolution is a politically radical but a socially conservative one. There are far-reaching demands regarding the rule of law, accountability, parliamentary rule, and more. Issues of gender and family relations are discussed much less, and the prominent role of Islamist movements in the religion means also a prominence of conservative gender ideals. And yet while it is clear that the new Egypt will have quite an Islamic and socially conservative colouring, albeit a democratic one, under the surface the revolution has brought up issues of the intimate relationships between people. This will be the slow social revolution that Egypt is likely to experience in the coming twenty to thirty years. It is unlikely, however, that it will lead to western style liberalism. Egypt and other Arab societies in transition may be up to something of their own making, as T. pointed out: “Now we can build our country anew, and we don’t have to look abroad for models. We can do it the way that suits us.”

As Dr. Saad Kamel argued to me last week, patriarchal authority is in crisis. But it is kicking back hard, and we do not know what will replace it. In any case, the social transformation of intimate family and gender relations will be one of Egypt’s key social conflicts in the coming decades. But it will be inherently linked with economical developments, and neither the revolution nor what will follow after it can be understood without taking into account the neoliberal intertwinement of economy and politics. The social conservatism of the Islamic revival that marks Egypt since the 1970's is not by coincidence a contemporary of neoliberal governance in Egypt. There is a link between the two, as religion has emerged as the key site for moral certainty in a society where social relationships are turned increasingly into economical, amoral ones.

On Sunday evening I met with G., a leftist independent artist who was preparing to leave to Jordan to run a workshop where she had been also during most of the revolution. She was in a rather pessimistic mood because she felt that while there has been some real political gain, the key problem of the neo-liberal system of economy and politics is much more difficult to change: “If we have just political change but no economical change we remain turning around in the same closed circle, and the problem is that that’s what the west wants, too.” Shocked by the earthquake in Japan and the nuclear disaster that followed, she is also concerned about environmental issues which hardly anybody in Egypt is speaking about at the moment. G. was in Jordan during the revolution where she was of course very emotionally involved. But she also says that she didn’t need the revolution for herself: “I’m already free. I have liberated myself long ago. I’m a revolutionary since twenty years. To whom this revolution matters are all those people who had no sense of hope, felt that the world was closed on them and cursed that they were born.” The question, she says, is how long it will take for this revolution to turn into substantial social change. The revolution of 25 January emerged from a sense of frustration and anger about the relationship of the citizens and the state. It was not immediately directed at social relationships such as age gender relations, family, class, etc. But with the effect it has had on the young people who took part in it, G. thinks, it will bring about more fundamental changes, but it will take time, decades at least.

As I write these lines on the train to Cairo, I realise how limited the selection of people is with whom I have spoken in the past week and a half. Most of them expect a lot from the revolution, they look forward to a far-reaching political and social change. While the opinions go apart as to how to reach this change, and what its content should be, I have not heard many people who would want things to stay as they were. Almost everybody I have met in the last days is very much in favour of revolution and democracy, busy learning what that means in practice, and often also demanding Egypt to be a religiously neutral state while having strong religious convictions. I wonder if it is because I have unknowingly systematically selected rather open-minded people as friends and contacts across social and regional limits, so that I get a very partial image of what is going on? Or is it that despite the good organisation and big poster campaigns of the Muslim brothers and the Salafis, and the attempts of the old system to ride the wave of revolution in order to limit its extent, there really are a lot of Egyptians who don’t buy any of that anymore, and search for new ways?

Greetings from the Egyptian revolution!

Samuli

Saturday, March 12, 2011

Consolidation, for better and for worse

(This post is from Friday 11 March, but it was posted after midnight)

Today I left the village for Alexandria, Egypt’s second-largest city, and one of the most intense sites of demonstrations during the revolution. During the great demonstrations in late January and early February the number of demonstrators of Alexandria was as much or even more than in Cairo, which is four times larger than Alexandria. In Alexandria, things have also taken longer to calm down, there has been especially much fear of crime, and a return to normality has taken longer. Schools opened in most of Egypt this week, but in Alexandria they will remain closed for another week. But tonight the shopping streets were busy and Fathallah shopping mall in Muntazah district where I am staying was packed with people. The storefront is still covered with a temporary brick wall after the windows were broken on the night of 28 January, but the shops are all open.

As normality is returning to Alexandria and the police is returning to the streets amidst a strong sympathy campaign by state media, they receive a somewhat contradictory welcome. After a period of strong fear of crime the presence of the police is welcomed, but this welcome is conditional on humane behaviour of the police. S’s landlord whom we met in Fathallah mall showed a particularly ambiguous attitude. On the one hand he told that he himself helped a police officer to restore his authority towards minibus drivers who treated him with lack of respect that is due to the officer of law. On the other hand he was proudly showing everybody a mobile phone video showing how inhabitants of a nearby district displayed on a pickup truck the bound and heavily injured police officer involved in the killing of protesters who he had been caught three days ago by the inhabitants of a poor neighbourhood, and beaten up badly, possibly killed.

Everybody who has something to say in Alexandria these days writes it on the wall: Death penalty for armed robbery, Revolution accomplished, Revolution continues, Unity of Christians and Muslims, Make Egypt an Islamic state, We are all Egyptians, Let’s respect each others, Don’t forget the Martyrs of the revolution.... In Alexandria, a stronghold of the Salafis, there are remarkably many stickers demanding an Islamic state especially on the side streets, while the seaside Corniche road is marked by large wall paintings (made by volunteers and sponsored by the local administration and an advertisement agency) celebrating the revolution. It is a wild mixture of spontaneous expressions, political and religious movements pressing for their point of view, and the army and local administration riding the wave of the revolution to consolidate their power.

This is a moment when everybody speaks in the name of the revolution, but with very different aims. On Facebook, revolutionary activists campaign to release the people arrested the protesters who were arrested on Tahrir Square on Wednesday. The state-owned newspaper al-Gumhuriya, the most faithful voice of the Mubarak regime, reports about citizens volunteering to renew Tahrir square after the violent removal of the sit-in as an act to complete the revolution. A large hand-written poster in the outskirts of Alexandria reminds that the revolution will only be completed when State Security is permanently abolished and all political prisoners released. A banner in Alexandria’s central square clearly aiming to prepare the return of the police to the streets declares that the people, the army and the police hold together for the sake of the January 25 revolution. Critics of the constitutional amendments hold conferences and write in the press arguing that a completely new constitution is necessary both to ensure the success of the revolution and also in order for the judicial system to work properly. On Corniche road in Alexandria, leaflets were distributed in the name of an until now never heard-of group “Youth of the future” urging people to vote “yes” for the sake of a continuation of the revolution.

While the revolutionary spirit of hope is all over the place, we are now entering the process of consolidation, negotiations, constitutional debate, and political mobilisation. After a period marked by the general demands of revolution that were designed to avoid party difference, now political groups are arguing for their programmes, presidential candidates are beginning their campaigns, and different movements begin to mobilise their supporters. In Alexandria one can follow this directly on the walls of the houses, with posters, graffiti, stickers and leaflets all over the place.

Looking back to the past week it seems that the resignation of prime minister Ahmad Shafiq and his replacement by Essam Sharaf, and the suspension of the State Security and the occupation of its headquarters by protesters marked a turning point. After that moment and amidst confessional clashes and fear of criminality as people were looking forward to a consolidation of the situation, the sit-in in Tahrir with its pressure to change the entire system came under pressure and now there is a different tide, and it is a very ambiguous one.

The way in which the military government is evoking the revolution while working hard to limit its extent is seen as nothing less as a counterrevolution by the dedicated revolutionaries. This view is loudly expressed on the internet and in informal discussions. But there is strong hesitance in the independent press to name the problems involved in the role of the military - its wealth, the fact that it is a core part of the old system, the human rights violations by the military police. I ask a journalist friend of mine whether I’m paranoid or whether the press avoids certain issues, and he says that I’m not paranoid.

Demonstrations for the sake of national unity of Christians and Muslims took place today in Alexandria and Cairo in the framework of the series of Friday demonstrations that have been going on ever since the begin of the revolution. In Cairo where the confessional clashes had taken place, the demonstrations were fairly large. But in Alexandria where there have been no news of confessional clashes despite the general tension and anxiety, the demonstrations were small today. Partly this was because for most people in Alexandria were a little tired of demonstrating, but also partly because some political activists think that more important than demonstrations at this moment is political mobilisation and consciousness-raising.

The latter was the point of view of leftist friends of mine who are running a cultural centre in downtown Cairo. Their centre served today as a site for demonstrators to prepare their banners, but they themselves were more busy thinking about how to reach students at the university and people on the street in face of the coming referendums and elections. Alexandria being a stronghold of the Salafi movement and of the Muslim brothers, there are lots of stickers here calling for Egypt to be an Islamic state, and my friends at the cultural centre see their role in pushing a more secular and leftist agenda, focussing on issues of equal rights and social justice. They are right now busy planning a poster and sticker campaign.

The university term began in Cairo in the past week, and it begins in Alexandria this week. Before the revolution, universities were guarded by a special force of the Ministry of Interior which was feared and hated among the students. This force has been now dissolved and replaced by a civil security service. This has now turned the universities into sites of intense political activism. In Cairo University last week, students were demanding that the president and deans should be elected. A wave of political activism is sweeping the universities, and all political movements, old and new, are busy trying to play a role.

While attempts of consolidation by the army are evident - and greeted by many who look forward to things to calm down a bit - for most people this has not diminished the sense that one can now finally breath freely and dream. As I walk with A on the Corniche he looks at the sea and says: “Even the sea looks different after the revolution. The things themselves remain the same but the way you look at them has changed.” At the cultural centre where my friends work I meet G who despite her many worries about the future of the country is full of enthusiasm and optimism: “In the past years this country got so oppressed that one wouldn’t want to get up from bed in the morning. Now I can finally dream. I don’t want so much, I just want the Arab world to be a reasonable place. I don’t expect a utopia, just a reasonable place where I can travel throughout it freely and where people can live in peace.” The spirit of freedom in its widest sense, including the freedom to define what freedom means, is strong these days.

But I have to end with a more pessimistic note. Aly Subhy and other demonstrators detained on 9 March on Tahrir Square remain in custody (http://english.ahram.org.eg/News/7439.aspx). The last witness saw Aly being transported to military arrest in a grave physical condition showing traces of torture. Even worse, there are reports that more people have been arrested today, in an operation apparently targeting leading figures of the Tahrir Square sit-in. This throws an even darker shadow on the role of the army, and if this campaign can continue covered by the consolidation campaign of the state press and the hesitation of the independent press, there is a serious danger that much of the newly won freedom will be lost.

International pressure helps. Please pass on the news about the detained protesters, and write to the Egyptian ambassador in your country. People are being detained and tortured by a military government that claims to be in service of a democratic transition, and yet has to prove that it means it.

Greetings from the Egyptian revolution!

Samuli

Friday, March 11, 2011

An amazing success and a spectacular failure

(This note is from Thursday 10 March, but it was posted after midnight)

This was a day of contradictory news. While the army is running a brutal counterrevolution on Tahrir square, in the village the spirit of democracy was running strong today. As problems have been increasing, the spirits, too, have been rising today.

I start with the bad news. Yesterday evening the army forcibly removed the sit-in on Tahrir Square after it had already been attacked by thugs earlier the same day. This seems to be rather well orchestrated, allowing the media to report that the army intervened after clashes between supporters and opponents of the sit-in. But news that reached me later the same nights and today noon give a much more sinister picture of the role of the army. As many as 170 people participating in the sit-in, including 17 women, were arrested. Many of them were released today, and some of them had been subjected to serious torture.

(For a witness account with photo of traces of torture, see
http://www.facebook.com/notes/salma-said/%D8%B9%D8%A7%D8%AC%D9%84-%D8%B4%D9%87%D8%A7%D8%AF%D8%A9-%D8%B1%D8%A7%D9%85%D9%8A-%D8%B9%D8%B5%D8%A7%D9%85-%D8%B9%D9%86-%D8%AA%D8%B9%D8%B0%D9%8A%D8%A8%D9%87-%D8%B9%D9%84%D9%89-%D9%8A%D8%AF-%D8%A7%D9%84%D8%AC%D9%8A%D8%B4-%EF%BF%BD/10150115309683463 )

Many others are still detained, including my friend Aly Subhy who accompanied me and H through much of the time in downtown Cairo at the time of the big thug attack on the square on 2 and 3 February. Aly Sobhy is an artist and clown, and has been participating in the revolution from its beginning. He is currently detained at the Military Prosecutor’s office and may face a military court. Military courts are used at the moment to give ultra quick judgements to maintain law and order, or that is the claim. A “court hearing” typically takes five minutes, without witnesses or defence, and the sentences are typically around five years. The worst news came tonight, as Egyptian TV Channel One showed a photo with the text “a group of young violent thugs (arrested at Tahrir yesterday)” In the front line of the young men, all with hands tied on their backs, and sitting on the ground, was Aly Subhy.

Just a few days ago, the army introduced a law introducing the death penalty on “thuggery” in attempt to calm down the fear of criminality. In the worst case, Aly may face charges for thuggery in an attempt by the army to scare the demonstrators while giving the general public the impression that they are protecting them from thugs. The Egyptian army is playing a very sinister double role, and there is good reason to doubt their intentions now more than ever.

My friends are starting an internet campaign to free Aly and the other arrested demonstrators, hoping that international publicity will help to put some pressure on the army. Here a film about him in Arabic:
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zx2v3Wkf1Z0&feature=player_embedded#at=51

But while the news from Cairo are troubling today, there is also a lot of positive energy around. In the village this was a good day, with a big public meeting with the head of the village council and afterwards a long meeting of the local revolutionaries arguing why Egypt needs an altogether new constitution.

Yesterday the village revolutionaries were frustrated, defeated by their own sense of declining enthusiasm. Lots of things were supposed to be done for the meeting today, but there was absolutely no energy around. Today morning A came by, and some friends came by and asked why there isn’t any advertisement for the meeting by leaflets and mosque loudspeakers, only on the internet. Then things slowly got back to movement, and then quite suddenly everybody was busy sending for photocopies and envelopes, and then some went to distribute the leaflets (addressed to people personally). A film edited from video footage made during the graveyard cleanup campaign on Tuesday is screened on the local cable network. Suddenly the spirits go up again.

As I went with a group of young men from the activist group to the youth centre where the meeting was to take place, there was at first a moment of worry. The centre was still closed, and the mayor announced that he will be late. People doubted that he may be trying to delay his attendance in order, and at first only few people were there. But then more and more people started arriving, and the mayor and his secretary arrived, too. Responsible people from the administration who had announced that they would come did not show up, but the mayor being there was good enough. The attendance reached more than one hundred people, all of them men (the girls from secondary school who had announced their participation didn’t show up), the more senior in the closer circle, the younger around.

It was a strange and fantastic meeting, at once an amazing success and a spectacular failure. Only at this meeting I truly realised what it means to live in a society in a state of revolution. It was a mixture of respectful recognition of authority and angry rejection of all authority, of careful argumentation and chaotic shouting, and it would have been absolutely inconceivable just one month ago.

The mayor and the preacher of the village mosque were greeted with special honours. So far, the framework of a patriarchal and authoritarian society seemed intact. But the discussion was critical from the start, and after the more senior and socially high-standing people had made expressed some more constructive remarks on the system of bread distribution in the village, a wave of angry critique emerged from every direction. The organisers actually wanted to discuss possible solutions, but there was so much suppressed anger about the thoroughly corrupt and inefficient way in which the village was run, that it was almost impossible to lead a structured debate about solution, and instead there was most of the time an angry and noisy choir of critique. The organisers from the activist group and some of the men in the first row tried over and again to get the discussion back to the topic of suggestions for improvement, and occasionally good suggestions were made, and the mayor could give his reply. After a while the discussion turned again into a chaos of angry shouting, and towards the end the meeting became more and more chaotic. In the end, the organisers barely managed to state that the village administration was expected to take notice of the suggestions that were made regarding the distribution of bread and gas and the cleaning of the streets, and that its initiatives in improving these points would be discussed in a next public meeting on the first Thursday of April, and then the meeting dissolved, with some heading home while others forming small groups of people debating and arguing loudly.

The assessment of the meeting by members of the activist group was accordingly contradictory. Some said that the chaotic nature of discussion where most people just wanted to make statements and didn’t listen to others proved that Egyptians, after living under oppression and fear so long, had not yet learned how to make responsible use of their freedom, and that they had a long learning process ahead. Everybody was discontent that they hadn’t been able to go through the list of points they wanted to discuss and because it was so difficult to have a constructive discussion. At the same time, they were very happy because so many people had shown up, because the mayor had shown up after all, and because the people had really come with their problems and demands, and spoken out freely and without fear. In S’s view, the meeting was at once a success and a failure - a failure because so many people couldn’t distinguish between democratic debate and chaos, and a success because it has never happened before that the head of the village assembly has to answer serious questions and angry critique and not just friendly greetings.

On a more practical level, it once again appears that a decent PA system is a necessary part of any revolutionary’s toolkit. The chaotic nature of the meeting was for a significant part due to the lack of a microphone and loudspeakers that would have made it easier for one person to speak at a time.

Chaotic or not, the public meeting made the spirits of the activist group dramatically rise. They had successfully organised a major event of public debate, and the sense of frustration they had felt on Tuesday was all gone.

After the meeting, twelve men crowded S’s guest room for a calmer more constructive round of debate about the proposed constitutional amendments. (In February, a commission of constitutional experts appointed by the military government came up with proposed amendments of six articles in the constitution. These amendments, which have been widely criticised by both legal experts and supporters of the revolution, are subject to a referendum on 19 March.)

In this rather left-wing crowd there was complete consensus that the proposed constitutional amendments were completely insufficient, and that Egypt needs an altogether new and significantly better constitution before the elections. They will all vote “no” in the referendum on constitutional amendments. There was a long and detailed discussion about the Egyptian constitution, its problems, about different forms of constitution both in the history of Egypt (the most democratic constitution being that of 1923) and abroad, and the improvements which the people expected. It began with a long talk by A.M., an old Marxist teacher and an extremely learned man who gave a long introduction into the general theme of constitution. A.M. argued, among other things, that not only had the constitution been de facto overthrown by the revolution - it had in fact been overthrown by the regime itself, with many of Egypt’s laws being in open contradiction to it. The most blatant example is article 1 of the constitution that states that Egypt is a socialist country, which is blatantly contradicted by its neoliberal policies and laws in the past decades. A.M.’s exposition was followed by questions and comments, especially regarding the powers of the president, which almost everybody in the room wanted to limit in favour of a parliamentary system. The extensive knowledge of A.M. combined with the critical questions and suggestions by the people present, and the laptop connected to the internet to check the exact phrasing of the proposed amendments, allowed for a very high level of debate.

The general spirit of the debate was in favour of a radically democratic Egypt ruled by a parliamentary government and a president whose power would be restricted to representative functions. The basic argument is that the current constitution was tailored to serve a system of corruption, and if the revolution is to realise its central demand, the downfall of the system, then the constitution is a part of the problem. - the central They see the proposed constitutional amendments are really a disguised continuity of the old system in the guise of the army, in itself a part of the old system and as such an ambiguous ally of the revolution at best.

This is probably not the majority opinion in Egypt, and it seems likely that the constitutional amendments will successfully pass the referendum, and after the transition to a civil government Egypt will continue to be ruled by a president equipped with almost unlimited powers. But among the village revolutionaries, there existed a strong consensus that the for the revolution to be successful, it must guarantee that power is in the hands of the people. What exactly the new constitution should contain - except for a more parliamentary system that would prevent the concentration of power in too few hands - was less of an issue. In this regard, the activists showed quite a lot of trust that Egypt has capable constitutional jurists who can draft a good constitution that serves the needs of Egypt.

I was assigned the task to record the entire debate on video, and as soon as I have finished these notes, I will edit and upload it on the internet where the activists hope to use it as means for increasing the political consciousness.

After yesterday was such a tense day marked by such frustration, today has been a day of renewed optimism and enthusiasm although the factual state of the affairs is very much the same - and while it is better than it was before Mubarak’s fall, it is still not that good, now that it becomes more and more clear that the old system has not really fallen, it is still in power in the shape of the army that plays a complex and dirty game. But a change of spirit changes the situation to a certain degree, and that is what a revolution is all about. I talked about it with S’s wife who also for quite personal reasons is very happy that yesterday’s knot of frustration has been broken. She, S. and I agree: If yesterday was a difficult emotional state, “a strange day” in A’s words, today seems much better even if the problems ahead seem bigger. Not only the revolution is an emotional state. The counterrevolution, too, is inside you.

Greetings from Egypt’s revolutionary countryside!

Samuli