Monday, June 3, 2013

Seize the day

On Saturday evening, I met with a group of men, most of them fishermen and workers, in a café in the village in the Nile Delta which I frequently visit. As usually these days, the talk turned to politics. A.I., part-time waiter in a café, part-time fisherman, remembered how he had complained to me about oppression and injustice back in 2009. „Now, it has only become worse,“ he said: „Mubarak wasn't good, but Morsy is a million times worse.“ He and his friends complained that there is no work, there is no money, there is a crisis in everything: There is electricity shortage, there is fuel shortage, and some days ago tap water was cut off for two days in the village. People had enough water in storage for drinking and cooking, but not for bathing, washing, or flushing toilets.

I write these notes two days later on my way back to Berlin form a short visit to Egypt in a moment of what felt like calm before a storm. Ethiopian plans to construct a series of dams on the Blue Nile are a cause of great concern, and president Morsy's suggestion on a TV interview that „we will rise our hands and pray to our Lord“ to make sure that there will be enough water reaching Egypt, does not sound like a well-thought strategy. There was a wave of lengthy electricity cuts in mid-May, and after a week of fairly reliable electricity, electricity cuts began again three days ago. There is a constant shortage of gasoline and diesel and long queues at gas stations. The economic situation is difficult, and a friend who works as a salesman of boat and ship equipment told that the even petroleum companies which so far have been the most reliable customers, have become unreliable when it comes to paying their bills. Political freedoms are getting further curtailed, several activists have been arrested, face charges, or are imprisoned. Most recently, on Monday, Ahmed Douma received a six months prison sentence for insulting the president (which immediately provoked an „Insult the President“ campaign on social media). While the Muslim Brotherhood is evidently failing to solve the urgent problems of the country, they are more successful in establishing their control over institutions of the state step by step, most prominently at the moment in the Ministry of Culture where the new minister of culture has started to change directors of cultural institutions in order to slowly establish ideological control over an institution of the state that until now has been an important leftist and liberal bulwark.

In short, Egypt is in a miserable shape. And it may be a golden hour for the opposition against the Muslim Brotherhood's rule.

After meeting A.I. in the café on Saturday evening, I went to see a Hagg F. and his wife, both teachers. F's wife and daughter were watching the latest Arab Idols show on television, while Hagg F. and his friend AA. were talking about poetry and politics. Minutes after my arrival, the electricity was cut off (for the second time that day), and remained so for an hour. In the darkness illuminated by a torchlight, we entered a discussion about the isolation of intellectuals in a conservative society. AA. argued that the problem of living in a village is that there is little distance between people of different opinions and visions of life, which is why one has to build high mental walls between oneself and others to avoid conflicts. Intellectuals from the village, he argued, essentially face three choices: moving away, going crazy, and isolation. Those who move away can come back on weekends, and for them life in the village is a holiday, a time out of the pressures of city life. For those who stay, it is very difficult.

While AA. elaborated his point with an anecdote about Nietzsche and the shared predicament of those who try to come up with progressive, exceptional ideas in conservative society, there was a knock on the door, and M., a cousin of Hagg F. in her mid-twenties walked in and asked if he could lend her his USB stick because she needed to print out more forms for the Tamarrud signature campaign to remove trust from president Morsy. „I'm doing the campaign at home, at work, wherever I can,“ she told. She is getting a lot of signatures.

The Tamarrud (literally rebellion, disobedience, insurgency) Campaign is the most ingenious move of the revolutionary current since quite some time. It was launched by a small group of activists in early May and has since then become extremely popular despite repeated arrestations and attacks against people collecting signatures. After too many endless battles with the police and Ikhwan supporters on the streets that over and again did not bring a result, the signature campaign is a peaceful and inclusive tactic of resistance and opposition. Most importantly, it is able to overcome the social isolation of the activist few, to mobilise people like M., and to reach out to a lot of people who could not be reached by revolutionary street action.

In the village, the campaign has encountered a very positive response. The success and ease of finding people who would sign with their name, address, and citizenship number against the president, has given the village revolutionaries a new sense of confidence and power in place of the isolation and frustration that had previously prevailed among them.

Nationwide, the campaign has the declared aim to collect 15 million signatures until 30 June, the first anniversary of Morsy's presidency. So far they have more than seven million, and they keep collecting. It has no binding legal force, however, and what exactly will happen when the campaign reaches its set deadline on 30 June is an open question. But already now, it has the immediate effect of raising the spirits of the revolutionaries and giving them a new sense of confidence and power – a power which they are also trying to actively excercise.

On Saturday morning, the head of the local council of the village (the same one who decided to cooperate with the revolutionaries back in spring 2011 and remained in office unlike the head of the city council who got into a fight with them), called a number of people to a meeting to rescue a public housing project for the youth from alleged theft and „Brotherhoodisation“ (akhwana). There is a plot of land behind the youth centre which the local council of the village bought back in the 1980's, and where the foundations for public housing had been laid weeks ago. A local businessman, however, produced an apparently false contract to prove his ownership of the plot of land. He was supported by the city council of the nearby town which is meanwhile controlled by the Muslim Brotherhood. The assumption is that the businessman is acting as an agent of the Brotherhood against the local council of the village which is still lead by men of the old system (like governors, also heads of city and local councils are appointed, not elected in Egypt). Now the head of the local council of the village was trying to mobilise the revolutionaries to support him against the Muslim Brotherhood.

Late at Saturday night, a group of men from the revolutionary circle gathered in a café near the main mosque of the village late at night to discuss what to do. There was a sense of energy and empowerment among them. They were already emboldened by the success of the Tamarrud Campaign, and by seeking their help, the town mayor had recognised them as a power in local politics. But they were determined to play their own game.

As they discussed the issue in detail, they agreed that the story stinks. They had no doubt that there was dirty game by the Brotherhood and the local businessman going on, a scheme of indirect takeover of power in the village by the Ikhwan (who have become so unpopular in the village that some new functionaries in the town have been advised not to set their foot in the village), and a blatant case of land theft and corruption. But they were also convinced that the head of the local council was after private interests of his own, that there was bound to be money flowing into his and his clicque's pockets through the construction project – and probably there would be manipulation in the distribution of the apartments as well.

Instead of joining one side or the other, they decided to mix up the game and play it by their own rules. The story is already out and soon it will be making rounds in the village. „There will be a lot of hugger-mugger“ said one of them. M.R. countered: „Hugger-mugger is our strength.“

M.R., a member of ElBaradei's Constitution Party, came up with a suggestion that convinced everybody present: The revolutionaries will make the whole thing public and demand that the entire process is made transparent, starting from the choice of a contractor to build the housing all the way to the distribution of the apartments and their prices.

The next day some of the men went to meet the head of the local council and photographed documents about the case. S. who lives in Alexandria, and D. who has started to work as a freelance journalist in Cairo are trying to use their contact to get television and press coverage, And everybody in the village will be talking about it.

This was a golden opportunity, they agreed while sitting and planning in the café late at night, a moment to seize the day and exploit the current unpopularity of the Ikhwan.

The talk turned to future elections (date not yet set). M.R. wants to run for the local council, the others encouraged him and promised their support, and the discussion moved to the question of party politics, especially whether the National Salvation Front will be able to agree on candidates from the many allied parties. In the electoral district, several parties as well as the independent farmers' union all have serious candidates to propose – many more than there are seats that can be realistically won. It will be a big fight.

As the discussion went on, I thought to myself that while these guys are determined to play their own game, at the same time they are about to take a crucial step away from revolutionary purity towards pragmatic politics with all the tricky negotiations and alliances of local politics involved. It is the moment of planned, intelligent, peaceful action in order to make a positive difference – but it will come along with all kinds of complications, problems and question marks.

But if the village revolutionaries currently do have a concrete plan, nationwide things look less clear. On Saturday evening I went with S. to a barber shop for a shave (a luxury which greatly enjoy in Egypt and miss in Europe). Y. the barber asked S. a question that people keep repeatedly asking: „Do you think that Morsy will go on 30 June?“ S. replied, sceptically: „It will be an uproar and it will be over.“ Y's hope was that the Tamarrud Campaign together with big demonstrations will force the Brotherhood to step down. This is an expectation I have heard repeatedly: „On 30 June, we shall see“. But what will there be to see? Y. he was certain about one thing: „There will be blood“.

„There will be blood“ is something I have heard very often these days. It is based on the assumption that the Brotherhood will never give up power peacefully, that violent confrontation is inevitable. This expectation, even hope for violence stands in a curious contrast with the non-violent success of the Tamarrud Campaign. I remain puzzled, and it is a puzzlement many others share with me. While people of different walks of life and different political visions come together these days in their rejection of the Brotherhood (I have met too few Brotherhood supporters on this trip to say something about their point of view), their visions about what to do about it, and what should come after them go far apart. Some hope for the return of the military. Some expect that the Brotherhood will stay in power but that their gradual takeover of the state needs to be stopped. Some put their hope in a transitional presidential council (which has been demanded by many revolutionaries since summer 2011). Many – perhaps the most – tell me that while they think that Morsy must go, they really don't know how it can be done, or who could possibly govern Egypt after the Brotherhood and do it better.

The current condition is unbearable, and its unbearable nature along with innovative tactics of opposition makes it possible to perhaps seize the day and change the condition. Now that hundreds of thousands have gone out to streets against Erdogan in Turkey, it looks like the grip of political Islam on power may be successfully contested even where it has been economically successful. But this sense of opportunity is shadowed by the realisation that there is a terrible lack of convincing alternatives.

The greatest failure of the Muslim Brotherhood has been its inability to create durable alliances with other political forces across ideological and social divides. They have dramatically wasted an opportunity to become the leading power of constructive political change – instead, they are struggling on all fronts, national and local alike, to establish control, creating opposition as they do so, becoming more and more authoritarian to protect their power, while having very little success in solving any urgent matters. They may continue doing so for many years to come, which is not exactly a bright vision of the future . But the bigger problem is that there is no reason to assume that anybody else could do better. None of the many competing factions in Egypt's social and political landscape is alone strong enough to run the country. Whoever will try to rule Egypt alone will fail, and face fierce resistance by everybody else. At the same time, it looks more difficult than ever to make durable alliances, to share power, and to accept others in spite of ideological differences. More and more people are recognising that this is a core problem – but also how exceedingly difficult to solve it is.

In this moment of confusion, the idea of bloodshed emerges as a terrifying promise of a fierce, decisive battle that may finally bring about a solution. But of course, It won't. It will most likely only destroy more. There will be blood. But what is needed is something else: tactical innovations, new ways of doing inclusive politics that can seize the day the way and unite different factions. The Tamarrud Campaign is prophetic of what may be possible one day, although that possibility does not have a recognisable shape yet.

Sunday, February 3, 2013

In the secret capital

“Our village? If the revolution ever reaches our village, then there really is a revolution in Egypt.”

These are the words of Mahrus, a supporter of the revolution from the village of Minyat al-Murshid who participated in “The Secret Capital,” a documentary film Mukhtar Shehata and I made about the Egyptian revolution from the point of view of Mukhtar's home village Minyat al-Murshid.

I have spent the last three days in that village, showing the film to friends, relatives, and the people who participated in the events shown in the film. At the same time, a new uprising against the rule of the Muslim Brotherhood has erupted in the streets of the cities. Tens have died (most in the canal cities Port Said and Suez where the police used live ammunition against protesters, but deadly shots have also been fired at the police) and hundreds have been injured, and an urgent political crisis has evolved. There is an escalation of violence that hasn't been seen since 28 January 2011 when nearly a thousand people were killed. The Muslim Brotherhood has become politically increasingly isolated after their only major ally, the Salafi Nour Party abandoned them and changed to the side of opposition. However, they continue to insist on their election-based legitimacy to rule the country, and resort to language and policies very similar to those of the Mubarak regime in its last days. On Thursday, all major political movements signed a document prepared by al-Azhar against violence by any party involved. At the same time, an increasing split between a radical and a pragmatic current in the opposition has become visible. On Friday 1 February, new protest marches went out in the streets of the country. Everything remained peaceful until in the evening clashes evolved between protesters and and the security forces. It began with water cannons against stone-throwing, and later the police resorted to birdshot and live ammunition. One protester was killed by live ammunition fired by the police. Live television images showed policemen pulling an arrested person naked on the street and beating and kicking him. A speaker of the president's office called on Friday night all political movements to refrain from violence, and declared that they will protect institutions of the state “with utter consequence.” In this blog post I will not get into details of the events in the cities, however, but will tell the story of the revolutionaries of the village. Did the revolution reach this village? Has there really been a revolution in Egypt?

I already wrote about the village revolutionaries in three blog posts in March 2011 (The village revolutionaries, What is to be done?, Anamazing success and a spectacular failure) when a campaign initiated by a group of mostly young leftist men was still active trying to change local politics and to spread a new political consciousness in the village. They failed. Local politics remained the same. The village revolutionaries were for a large part made of people who worked or studied in the cities, and those who lived in the village found remained relatively isolated and unable to accomplish the radical change. In autumn 2011 and spring 2012, when we made interviews to accompany footage Mukhat and Mahrus had filmed earlier during the actions of the village activists, there was a state of frustration among the village revolutionaries, and a sense of confusion and uncertainty among people who had not been active in the events. There was a big hope, however, that the presidential elections would be a point of resolution and a step from the conflicts and confusion of the revolution towards a better future. al-Hagg Muhammad, an elder fisherman, declared: “The revolution is not over yet. The revolution won't be over until the new president of the republic enters office. With the new president the revolution will be over, for better or worse.” Another fisherman declared, however: “God willing, the revolution will come to Minyat al-Murshid, when there is a new president and he doesn't do what we want from him. Then the revolution will come to Minyat al-Murshid and everywhere, and bigger than the last time!”

This is where the story of the film ends. The story of the village revolutionaries does not end here, however. Since last spring, they have become active several times, and despite the sense of frustration and isolation that keeps haunting them, they have proven themselves capable of doing some things.

Before starting to tell their story, it is necessary to make a clarification: Who is a revolutionary in Egypt? Almost all political movements in Egypt today make claims to revolutionary legitimacy. The Muslim Brotherhood in particular sees itself as the legitimate and true force representing Egypt's revolution. „Revolutionaries,“ however, has become an established term of a wide oppositional current that has been variously described as liberal, left, secular, or a combination of the three (although there are also some Islamists among the revolutionaries). Their opponents prefer to call them idle kids, communists, or godless liberals. What does it mean, then, to count oneself to the revolutionaries?  I asked H., a self-learned computer technician living from odd jobs how he would locate himself in the ideological spectrum. H.: „Im neither for the bad nor for the worse. I'm against the Brotherhood and against the National Democratic Party (Mubarak's now dissolved ruling party).” I asked:  But what do you stand for, what do you support? H.: “I would want one those who started the revolution on 25 January to lead us.” I asked: But what ideas do you support? H.: „I would like to see one like Nasser, one who cares for the poor. That's why I support Hamdeen Sabbahi.“ I asked him if this would make him a socialist. H. agreed, but without emphasis. In a coffee house round some days later, I asked the same question from others from the same circle of friends. B., a teacher, explained: “We may personally agree with one or the other of these titles. Most of us are leftists, but there is one of who us sees himself as a liberal and not as a leftist. But in the end the difference of liberal, left, or secular is not important. What unites us is that we all want the good of the country, whatever the title you give it – unlike the Ikhwan and Salafis, or anybody from the Islamist current who reiterate whatever their leaders tell you. You can have a good discussion with one of them today but tomorrow he says again what his sheikh says, and it may be completely different from what his sheikh said yesterday. I know somebody on Facebook who is a Salafi. Three days ago, he would be fiercely attacking ElBaradei. Yesterday his tone got softer. And now that Hizb al-Nur has allied with the National Salvation Front, he is suddenly all friendly with ElBaradei.” B. emphatically draws a distinction between people who want the good of the country and do so out of their own accord and by using their own mind, and people who in his view only want the good of a specific group and divide the country into Muslims and Christians, believers and infidels. F., another young man in the group seconds: „Rather than leftist, secular, or liberal, I see myself as somebody who wants to change the society.” S. explains:  “In the village, parallel titles are used according to the actual political conflict line and one's position in it: from our side it's 'the youth' or 'the revolutionaries' against 'the beards', from the Islamists' point of view it's the  Islamic current against communists, liberals, idle kids – which for them is all essentially the same: infidels and enemies of Islam.”

The village revolutionaries (very much like their peers in the cities) are ideologically ecumenical, and what marks being a revolutionary is not a fixed ideology, but rather an affect of rejection (a double rejection in fact, aimed at the old system and Islamist politics alike), combined with a belief in rather diffusely defined ideals of social change and the common good, and an outspoken celebration of free and independent thought. It is an attitude that is oppositional not just by the circumstance of their party not being in power, but oppositional in essence: prioritising critique, change, and difference.

The village revolutionaries are usually young, but there are some older men among them. They are mostly well-educated, but not all of them are. Some come from families with a history of communist activism (communism was quite influential in the area until the 1980's). Some of the older village revolutionaries were or still are members of the Egyptian Communist Party, but the younger generation tend to support (if they support any party at all –  there is big distrust towards political parties among them) the newly established Constitution and Popular Current parties of Mohamed ElBaradei and Hamdin Sabbahi, respectively. Although actual communists are extremely few among the young generation, the communist heritage and the older men who carry it are an important source of inspiration for the new generation of revolutionaries. The most striking thing about the village revolutionaries, however, is that their overwhelming majority comes from families of fishermen. In a village that is approximately equally divided into families of fishermen and farmers (although most young people no longer work in these trades except seasonally), there seems to be something about the structure of fishermen's livelihood that makes them more likely to pursue oppositional paths.

And now back to their story.

In the first round of the presidential elections in May 2012, the province of Kafr el-Sheikh (where the village of is located) made headlines by being the only rural province won by the Nasserist socialist candidate Hamdeen Sabbahi (he won in many big cities, but was otherwise very weak in the countryside). Sabbahi won Kafr el-Sheikh with an overwhelming 62% of the vote. In Minyat al-Murshid, I've been told, he won even bigger. How was that possible?

B., a teacher living in the village and active in the Sabbahi campaign tells that the key event was when supporters of Sabbahi invited him for the Friday prayer here in the village on his way to a campaign trip to a nearby city. At the Friday prayer in the main mosque of the village, a senior local leftist policician gave him a good introduction speech, he went around the village with his supporters, and he spoke to the people in an accessible way, as a man of the people. The way he spoke reminded the old people of Nasser, which brought him a lot of sympathy. He also declared his engagement for the concerns of fishermen. All this brought him a lot of support beyond the leftist revolutionary circles that were supportive of him anyway (although not unconditionally – many of the village revolutionaries heed a fundamental distrust towards politicians of any colouring). The Sabbahi campaign in the village recruited its activists from a number of families of leftist and Nasserist leanings and from cricles of friends with revolutionary and leftist sympathies. They gained a lot of credibility because the people in the campaign paid the costs from their own pocket, printed posters and went to campaign events all around the district. The campaign events were simple and modest, in contrast to Morsy's who gathered the Muslim Brothers of the province in the stadium in Kafr el-Sheikh City. However, B. adds, this is only a part of the story: There was also the very important factor of regional affiliation: Sabbahi comes from the city of Baltim on the Mediterranean coast, not far from the village. Lots of people voted Sabbahi because he was “from here”, “one of us” not only in a populist sense, but also from the same region. This played a major role in a rural society that thinks more in terms of concrete issues and family relations than ideology. It compelled AA., a long-standing Marxist, to change his mind: “I wanted to vote Khaled Ali but then somebody insulted Sabbahi and claimed that a guy from Kafr el-Sheikh cannot be a president, I felt insulted aswell and decided to vote Sabbahi.”

Although regional affiliation was instrumental for Sabbahi's success in Kafr el-Sheikh, it only worked in combination with existing networks in the cities of the villages of the region, some of which predated the revolution, while others had formed only in 2011. This was a battle where the village revolutionaries certainly were successful, even if Sabbahi remained third in the national vote.

Following the first round of elections, there was a renewed sense of activism, and when Hosni Mubarak received a life sentence and his sons were released, the village revolutionaries (who, like many others, would not be satisfied with anything less than death penalty) together with their peers from the nearby town organised two demonstrations in the town which gained approximately one hundred participants. It was a big success, and there was a sense that the village revolutionaries were capable of moving things after all. But then, nothing happened. Morsy won the second round of the elections and the revolutionaries could find sympathy for neither, although some voted for Morsy or, more precisely, against Shafiq. Summer vacations began, people who lived in the city were back in the village again, but with no urgent issues at hand, no new actions took place, and life took its normal course again.

Some things had changed, however. Hagg L., brother-in-law of my host S., participated in the formation of the village branch of the independent union of fishermen on lake Burullus, which after a year-long struggle managed to get registered and organised. The material possibilities of the independent union are very limited, and they have faced a lot of resistance from both the old guards of the state-affiliated fishermen's association as well as the Muslim Brothers who tried to form their own association to compete with the independent one. But the very existence of the independent union tells that a significant part of the fishermen – who suffer heavily from land-winning projects, pollution, and the illegal planting of water hyacinth to attract fish – put their hopes in neither the old nor the new political powers.

At the same time, the Muslim Brotherhood's rise into power began to quite quickly erode the image of a religious uprightness it enjoyed especially in the countryside. The village revolutionaries, however, continued their ordinary lives, expressing their visions of life and politics mainly on social media and in coffee house rounds in their evening. Only after the crisis caused by Morsy's constitutional declaration that granted him immunity against the judicative, did things start to happen again. Some of the young men from the village travelled to Cairo or Alexandria to participate in protests. And when the constitutional referendum was announced, they became visibly active in the village again. A campaign to vote “No” was launched by people who had been active in the actions in spring 2011 and in the Sabbahi campaign. On Friday 10 December, a large protest march started from the village and joined other protesters in the nearby town. Graffiti against the constitution and the Muslim Brotherhood was sprayed around the village. L., a shopkeeper from the leftist revolutionary circle printed loads of leaflets at his own expense, and the village revolutionaries went campaigning. However, B. adds: „it was somewhat chaotic and unorganised. There was not a clear idea about who was doing what and who was responsible for what. In the end, we reached only half of the people.” “Only half of the people” means that in the end the no-vote reached 47% (but the figure includes the surrounded hamlets where the Yes-vote prevailed, so that probably in the village itself there was even a slight majority of the No-vote). On rural standards, it was a huge success of oppositional politics, and although many of those who voted No did so out of anti-revolutionary dislike for the Muslim Brotherhood rather than support for the leftist revolutionaries, it proved that there is some solid sympathy for a revolutionary opposition among a big part of the villagers.

But the circle of friends who told me about the campaign were not quite happy of the outcome. It could have beenmuch better, if it hadn't been for the women.

H. volunteered at the ballot box in a local school, and told that there had been three distinct waves of voters: Muslim Brothers and Salafis arrived with their families in the morning, all voting Yes. Then at noon came students and civil servants voting mainly No. Then towards the evening came a wave of uneducated people, mainly many women who voted Yes because the Muslim Brothers had told them that it would please God, and because they were not used to saying no. H.:  „Our problem in the village is that we don't have girls among the revolutionaries. We are only guys, and we don't reach the women in the village. In the village society, I cannot and talk with women who are not my relatives.“ The Muslim Brotherhood, in contrast, masterfully mobilised the female vote. Wives and daughters of Brotherhood families went from house to house on the pretext of a friendly visit, and then took up the issue of the constitutional referendum, typically in a religious context arguing that voting yes for the constitution was voting yes for Islam. The revolutionaries, in contrast, have a huge problem to to mobilise and to reach women. B.: “Name three leftist women in the village!” S. names his wife and the mother and sister of one of the village revolutionaries. B. points out that they are from the village, but they all live in Alexandria. Fathi: “Here, the women are simply not allowed to.” B. points at the paradox that while women are the most oppressed part of the society, they are also the most conservative part of it, least allowed to develop their own visions and paths. Men enjoy an entirely different freedom of movement that also opens the paths of developing a revolutionary consciousness. The key gathering space of the village revolutionaries are cafés, which are strictly off-limits for women. And although families that share a strong revolutionary attitude have brought out some women (way more than three, by the way) with an outspoken oppositional consciousness, even the women in revolutionary families are usually quite apart from the men's gatherings and discussions. Furthermore, while coming from or marrying into a revolutionary family seems to a key condition for being a revolutionary woman in the village, leftist families do not excert an ideological power of conformity on their female members – partly because it is against their ideals, but perhaps for the bigger part because in their domestic lives leftist men still act very much according to the logic of patriarchal family, let women take care of the household, and reinforce conventional female roles of domesticity and invisibility. In the big cities of Egypt, women (usually from middle class or bourgeois background) make up a very important part of the revolutionary movement. In the village, it is very difficult for women to develop the revolutionary ethos of rejection and critique, and almost impossible to express it in public (with the exception of those few families which actively encourage their female members to do so).

Also among the male population of the village, the village revolutionaries remain somewhat isolated in their community because their topics of discussion, their outlook at the world, and their expectations do not click with that of most of their neighbours. And many if not most of them sooner or later migrate to Cairo, Alexandria or abroad, and only return on holidays. Add to that the notoriously disorganised nature of the revolutionary movement. The Hamdeen Sabbahi campaign was the closest to an organisation that the village revolutionaries ever had, and it is still functional as a network of friends who are well connected both locally and nation-wide. Otherwise, however, the village revolutionaries meet at cafés and guest rooms, spend a lot of time talking, and most of the time do little more. When tempers rise, when there is a sense of urgency, then a wave of collective enthusiasm overcomes them. Newsletters are printed and distributed, debates and marches organised, neighbours and relatives convinced, even if in a disorganised and chaotic manner. But such enthusiasm also recedes quickly, and it is difficult to regain it. There is no leadership, and in fact there is no desire for leadership. There are certain key persons who are able to motivate others and get things done, but the shared revolutionary ethos of thinking for oneself and acting out of one's own accord does not go well with hierarchical leadership or relations of command and obedience.

Last Thursday, when Mukhtar and I showed the film to a group of the village revolutionaries in his home, one theme of debate was a demonstration was announced to take the following day in the nearby town. Since a week, fierce protests and clashes had been going on in the province capital, and there was a sense that it would be good to do something here again as well. One of the persons present suggested that it was about time to go and occupy the city council, following the example of stormings (some attempted, some successful) of provincial administrations in several cities. Another countered: What's the point of occupying the city council on a Friday? (Friday is the first day of weekend in Egypt). Do you want to sit there and wait until Sunday when the civil servants come to work? A third argued that he was against the storming of public buildings in general. As people left, it was agreed that people would go to the town after Friday prayer, and would coordinate themselves on the phone. But there was no enthusiasm, no furor. And in the night a seasonal storm covered the village in pouring rain and cold wind that continued for two days. The next day, people I met did not even talk about it. It was forgotten. There was no spirit. Some people may have gone to the town and there may have been a protest, but most people stayed in the village, and no news from the town reached me. This was not the first non-action by the village revolutionaries. Small as their numbers are, they cannot rely on an active core group keeping up the spirit even when others are unmotivated. They are themselves the active group, and few (some dozens) as they are, there has to be enough energy for everybody to move, otherwise nobody does anything.

So, to return to the question raised by Mahrus in the beginning of this note: Has the revolution reached the village? I think that it certainly has. There exists a small oppositional core group that is able to attract like-minded people and sometimes to make punctual actions. More importantly, there is a wide-spread sense of discontent that is much more specific in regard to its direction and possible paths of action than the discontent that prevailed before 2010. Right now, in the extremely agitated atmosphere that evolved since 25 January last week, it is expressed in very outright anger towards the rule of the Muslim Brotherhood. A barber in his late twenties (not a member of the circles of the revolutionaries) told to me: „The revolution had to break out again. The revolution originally broke out because of the prices. But after Morsy came in power the prices have gone up even more. Now why did we have a revolution if it's just like before? I hope there will be big demonstrations and a fight on Friday, and the rain will only do it good.“ I have heard such comments from others as well. But what marks the arrival of the revolution more than anything else, is a sense of political polarisation in a place where political stances have historically been of little importance in people's interaction. This blog note reflects that polarisation. It is an extremely partial one, telling the story of those who think that revolution was the solution to Mubarak, and will be the solution to the Muslim Brotherhood. The views of those, in contrast, who think that the Islamic current is the legitimate heir of the revolution and the liberals and secularists up to no good (as well as the views of those who long back to the old system) are missing in my account because political polarisation has reached such a point that even in a village, revolutionaries and Brotherhood supporters prefer to go out of each others' way, or change the topic when it comes to politics. However, while the polarisation is doing some terrible things to Egypt right now, and also limiting my vision of many of the different things going on, it is part of a process that as such is not so terrible at all.

 Polarisation is for a big part the outcome of a shift in political roles on the societal (and not just on the governmental) level. The problems the village revolutionaries face are the same problems which the revolutionary opposition faces also in the big cities, only graver and more evident. But before 2011 they did not even exist as a political force in the village. Their success does not lie in a capacity to transform society as a whole and to seize power - at least not yet. Instead, they act as constant catalysts of their visions of life, attracting young people to their circles, and influencing the atmosphere in their families. Rather than the society around them, they are busy transforming themselves and those who find sympathy with their doing so. And occasionally, when big and urgent things happen, they get active, march and campaign. Even if punctual, such activist events leave traces. Until last year, the only political graffiti in the village has been by the Muslim Brotherhood, focussed on women's veiling and liberating Jerusalem. This winter, the walls of the village are covered with oppositional graffiti that marks a presence of a revolutionary current just like the Brotherhood graffiti (which interestingly has been discontinued since the revolution) marked the presence of  an Islamist current. The leftist revolutionaries have occupied the position of moral opposition that once belonged to the Brotherhood. For better or worse, there really is a revolution in Egypt.


You can watch the trailer of The Secret Capital here:
The film will have its first screening in Cairo on Monday, 4 February at 7 pm. in Medrar, 7 Gamal El Din Abou El Mahasen St. Garden City, Cairo, and more screenings in Cairo will follow. The European premiere will take place at the Arabiske Filmdager in Oslo sometime between 19-21 April. An untranslated version will be available on the internet in a few weeks. If you want to buy a copy with subtitles or to organise screening, let us know via

Friday, January 25, 2013

The second anniversary

Two years have passed since the outbreak of the revolution in Egypt. Today, there is no end in sight.

Since more than a week (I returned to Egypt last week for the first time since the end of October), a tense mood of anticipation and preparation for the second anniversary of the revolution has prevailed. There has been a lot of anxiety that the protests might turn violent. At the same time, Egypt has entered a renewed economical crisis. After receiving an IMF loan, the government has allowed the Egyptian pound to lose much of its value against the dollar, and has started to cut public subsidies and to increase taxes (although many decisions, rapidly and haphazardly declared and implemented, have been quickly withdrawn again). Numerous train accidents (whereby tens of people have died) have shown in what terrible shape Egypt's infrastructure is. Supporters of the leftist and liberal opposition entered a sense frustration following the success of the Muslim Brotherhood and its Islamist allies in pushing through the constitution in spite of widespread protests in November and December. But today was their day, as they entered the streets again to revive the revolutionary movement against Egypt's new Islamist rulers. (The Brotherhood and their Islamist allies have abstained from demonstrations today, and the Brotherhood's press organ Freedom and Justice called citizens to celebrate the anniversary by building up the country.) It has been quite a day, and I'm not sure yet whether it has been a success or a defeat for the opposition.

Quite a day

In this sense of renewed anxiety, the second anniversary was expected to be a tense day, and a lot of people expressed the fear (and some expressed it as a hope) that there will be clashes. S., my host in Alexandria, originally wanted to demonstrate together with his wife R. and their children. But by this morning, R. decided that it was too risky to take the children to the demonstration, and stayed home with them. At noon, as I arrived at al-Qa'id Ibrahim, the customary starting point of demonstrations in Alexandria, I could see that a lot of people had thought likewise. Protests of the liberal/left opposition often have a high number of women, easily making up a quarter or third of the crowd. But today at al-Qa'id Ibrahim there were very few women and almost no children in sight. There were lots of people, but not as many as in some of the big protests against the Constitutional Declaration last November and December. Clearly many people had preferred to stay at home, fearing violence.

No route had been determined for the protest march today. Instead, various marches departed from al-Qa'id Ibrahim and other parts of the city into different directions, trying to make the protests felt all around the city. I met R., one of the active protesters who go to almost every demonstration since 2011. She was with a group of other young women and told that they were going to the City Council to see if there are clashes. I walked around the streets of downtown Alexandria that were filled with different marches. One of them was also heading to the City Council and I decided to go there as well. The City Council is a located in the former security directorate in Kom al-Dikka quarter, between the Roman amphiteatre (one of the city's tourist attraction) and the railway station, and it is one of the few visible sites of the central government in Alexandria. Arriving there, I found a police line blocking the entrance to the street, and a few hundreds of protesters standing directly in front of them. Here the crowd was different from al-Qa'id Ibrahim square. The people were young, many of them wearing Palestinian kufiyas and masks for protection against teargas, and there were lots of women. Here was the gathering point of the hardcore revolutionaries experienced in clashes with the police and supporters of the Ikhwan throughout the past two years. They had headed for the place where it was most likely that troubles would happen. And very soon, they happened.

The most recent group in the radical revolutionary spectrum are the black blocks which have very recently been established in Egypt following the example set by the autonomous radical left in Europe. They arrived on the scene in a moment when tempers were already rising after a protester had ripped off a part of the sign of the city council. Heading the march from al-Qa'id Ibrahim, tens of young people, dressed in black and carrying a large flag, arrived right in front of the police cordon and tried to push forward. From where I was standing I could only see the heads of the people, but a friend of mine who was in the first row told that between the protesters and the police, there was a line of thugs in civil who were taking orders from a police officer. According to my friend, it was the thugs who initially attacked the protesters who were pushing against the police line. From my point of view, I could only hear loud bangs and see that people started running. I ran with them for some ten metres and took cover behind a corner. As I took a look at the scene seconds later, tear gas was being shot from the side of the police, and rocks were flying from the side of the protesters. (It was quite an aesthetic sight, I must admit). A street fight evolved, and I moved slowly backwards with the crowds as more tear gas entered the street, while bit by bit more people entered the streed to aid the protesters. On my way, I heard comments like: “Look at what Morsy is doing to us!” I took a different street to walk back to downtown where I met S. and K., an editor and cameraman who was there equipped with a high-end camera to take photos and videos. We headed back to the Roman amphitheatre were we found rapidly growing crowds of protesters. Otherwise, the protesters would have headed for Sidi Gaber, but as soon as the clashes began, everybody's attention turned to the City Council.

By the time we returned to the amphiheatre, the protesters had been able to push back the police and occupy the street in front of the City Council. S., K., and I headed that way and arrived nearly at the point where the clashes had started, when tear gas started raining on the protesters again, and people started running back to the roman theatre. Shortly thereafter, clashes started in the side alleys between protesters and thugs in civil, stones were thrown both ways, and shots of birdshot were heard (whoever was shooting was apparently firing in the air, because all injuries reported were caused by teargas). The thugs on the side streets were pushed back, the numbers on the square increased and the radical revolutionaries with their kufiyas were joined by young men from popular quarters on motorcycles and armed with wooden sticks, as well as a big and mixed crowds of protesters, some of whom headed forward to face the police, while others stayed back to chant slogans against the government, and yet others carried bottles and spray bottles with medicine and vinegar to treat the effects of teargas. That treatment was urgently needed, because there was a lot of teargas, and it was sharp. According to people who had been regularly inhaling teargas in the past two years, this gas was sharper and worse than what they were used to. From then on, the clashes took a repetitive pattern: People would arrive on the square and push towards the police, teargas was shot (from quite some distance), and people were forced to retreat to breath freely, and as soon as the air was clean again, they would push forward again. At noon, the wind was blowing from the sea towards the police, but by the afternoon it turned so that the gas moved towards the protesters. While new marches kept arriving at the site, many people could not hold out very long in the gas and left again, and bit by bit the protesters were pushed back from the City Council to the square next to the amphitheatre. By 7 p.m. it was clear that the situation was going to stay that way, and we went to have a glass of tea with friends in one of the nearby cafés. In downtown of Alexandria most shops were closed, with the exception of snack food restaurants and cafés - and those were crowded with protesters taking a break.
We took the minibus back to Mandara, and at home on television we could see that the situation in Alexandria was calm in comparison with Suez where several protesters and one policeman were killed later this evening, and late at night the army entered the city to restore order. And during the evening, also Tahrir Square and its surroundings have witnessed clashes, teargas, and shooting. In other cities there have been demonstrations and clashes too, and several offices of the Muslim Brotherhood and its political wing, the Freedom and Justice Party have been stormed.

A friend of mine who stayed in the protest until the end, reports that late at night, as the numbers of protesters had significantly receded, the police started arbitrarily arresting people in downtown Alexandria.

Oppositional attitudes

Today's clashes did not come as a surprise. The demonstrations between the Constitutional Declaration and the constitutional referendum in November and December witnessed an increasingly sharp polarisation, as well as a growing amount of violence. However, that violence was mainly between supporters of the government and the opposition, and the police was rarely involved. Now it is between protesters and the police again. Since a few weeks, Egypt has a new Minister of Interior, invested with the power to make the police work again. And unlike in November and December, the police is now working hard in support of the government again, and the gestures of deescalation that could be seen in December, were quite absent today. The police is back very much in the shape in which it was seen during the first days of the revolution.

However, the violence was partly also due to a change in the attitude of a big part of the leftist and liberal revolutionaries. These are the circles I know best in different social contexts, be it in the leftist intellectual scene, teachers in the poor suburbs, and supporters of the revolution in the countryside. Among people in these milieus whom I have met during the past week, there is a striking shift in attitude between last autumn and now. Critical distrust towards the Muslim Brotherhood has given way to outright hatred. And a lot of people have lost faith in peaceful action. H., a determined revolutionary from the village says that he is against the old system, and against the Brotherhood, and that he is ready to pick up a fight with both anytime. Another man from the village claimed in the heat of a debate in a café that the only real solution would be to go from house to house and kill the Brotherhood members. An artist from Alexandria, when asked whether he was going to demonstrate on 25 January, told: “I only go if there are clashes.” The failure of the opposition to force Morsy to make serious concessions after the Constitutional Declaration or to thwart the Brotherhood's constitution in the referendum has made many people feel that the only way to change things is through direct confrontation.

This view is contested by many others in the revolutionary spectrum who argue that such confrontation will only lead to the loss of the popular support which the opposition has been able to mobilise since Morsy entered office in the summer. They are also worried that the polarisation between the Brotherhood and the opposition compels the revolutionaries to make alliances with the wrong people. In a meeting of teachers and poets in a café in Asafra some days ago, these were highly contested issues. One of the people in the round argued that we should criticise the Brotherhood for their real mistakes rather than spread wholesale enmity against them because such wholesale rejection would only make the opposition to the Ikhwan lose its credibility. Another person in the round accused the first for heeding sympathies for Brotherhood, which the first of course denied. A third argued to me that he was very worried that the National Salvation Front that was formed by various opposition groups in November was also accepting former NDP members candidates in the future elections. He believes that the revolutionaries alone will be able to gain sufficient popular support, but they have to do it the right way. For him, no enmity towards the Brotherhood would justify alliances with the old system: I know the Islamists want to hang me on my feet and lock up my wife and prohibit my daughter from going to school. But the guys of the NDP killed our people. If it is the Brotherhood against the National Salvation Front with people from the NDP in their rows, I won't go to vote. If there is a clean revolutionary list with not a single person from the old system in my electoral district, I vote them.”

And indeed, revolutionary opposition by peaceful means has not really failed. This was pointed out to me by N., one of the village revolutionaries, at a meeting of friends in a café in the village. As the discussion inevitably turned to politics, H. stated clearly: “We failed”, and added that while he was convinced that he was on the losing side of the battle, he would fight. Another in the round agreed with H.: “There must be a fight.” But they were contradicted by N., who argued that actually the campaign against the constitution had been very successful in the village. The outcome of the referendum in the village including the rurrounding hamlets was 47% no against 53% yes, and with the inhabitants of the hamlets voting largely “Yes”, in the village itself the “No” vote actually had a majority. Compare this to the 63% victory of the Yes-vote nationwide, and to many rural provinces voting “Yes” with more than 80% of the vote. For N. the question was not about fight, but about winning over people. Some people voted No just because they were against the Brotherhood, but even without them, the revolutionary current enjoyed sound support, he argued. And among those who voted “Yes”, there were people who could yet be convinced. Convincing the people – that was the task according to N. He was contradicted by H.: “Convince the people! You're joking!” N. replied: “Yes, I know how to convince people, seriously.” What emerged in the discussion between N. and H. is a split between two oppositional attitudes: One of a principled rejection and determined struggle for the sake of the right thing, even if one knew one was losing; and another of a search for ways to make partial gains in a struggle over people's minds and hearts.

Getting high on teargas

However, the split between principled rejection and pragmatics of persuation is not enough to interpret today's events and the shifting attitudes among the revolutionary spectrum. Had N. been able to come to Alexandria he would have joined the protests. For him, convincing the people in his village and fighting the government in the streets do not contradict each other. L., one of the teachers whom I met in the café in Asafra some days ago and who took a cautious and non-confrontative stance and rejected the idea of Egyptians fighting each others, was among the protesters today. Although he was critical about the way the escalation of the protests had made them less capable in gathering mass suport, he went and inhaled his dose of tear gas at the City Council as well: “My friend and I went as far into the gas as we hated Morsy. I hate him 75% so I only went so far, my friend hates him 200%, so he went further ahead.” Both those who search for a common ground as well as those who no longer believe in peaceful action were inhaling tear gas today, and described their doing so with a certain sense of enthusiasm. There is a sensual quality to protess and clashes that attracts and transforms people. And teargas is its most explicit symbol. (I wrote about the longing for the smell of teargas already in November 2011, but after inhaling a good dose of it today, I think there is more to be said about it) Shortly after the clashes began I ran into E., a musician from the intellectual leftist scene, his face already white from medicine spray against the effects of teargas. I offered him a sandwich that was left over from my lunch. He replied: “No thanks, I'm getting high on teargas.” Later the same day, another person commented: “Egyptians have become addicted to teargas.” Getting high on teargas is in fact a running joke that I have heard several times today. But inhaling teargas is actually very unpleasant. One's eyes and face burn, one starts to cough heavily and it becomes difficult to breath and see. All these unpleasant sensations are combined with a general sense of confusion as people start to run away to avoid the gas cloud, and one has to run along while coughing and trying to keep one's eyes open. Heavy exposure to teargas can be lethal. How could one get addicted to something so unpleasant?

The first time one faces teargas, the reaction is to run. There is a sense of panic. Today, people were mostly walking away from the gas cloud in an orderly fashion and then walking back as soon as the air was clear. It becomes an annoyance rather than a hazard. And most importantly, getting exposed to teargas without being defeated by is part of the formative experience of protesters for whom demonstrations, sit-ins, and clashes are among the most beautiful and meaningful moments of their life. The people I met at the protest today were angry and upset, but they were not frustrated, not depressed, not cynical. They knew that they were struggling for the good cause, and they were surrounded by friends and like-minded people. While the protesters moved back and forth towards the police and then away from the gas, they were at the same time involved in countless warm-hearted encounters with friends, shaking hands and hugging, joking and exchanging news. Coming together in struggle makes life meaningful, and teargas is an olfactory embodiment of this experience.

What comes in place of fear?

However, even this is not quite sufficient. There is yet another aspect that is important in order to understand the escalation of the events today. And contrary to tear gas addiction, it is one that is shared by a much wider part of Egyptians: loss of fear. The by now proverbial “breaking of fear” that marked the outbreak of the revolution has been widely cited as one of the few true accomplishments of the revolution. It is not simply a condition of fear or no fear, however. Many people were afraid to join the demonstration today, while others were not, and yet others were looking for confrontation. S. who is not a hardcore protester like R., but who has nevertheless participated in numerous protests in Alexandria since 28 January 2011, noted to me today that back in the first 18 days of the revolution, he was much more afraid than now. “Today, we were standing in the middle of the street watching the fighting in the side alley. We heard several shots, and saw a guy on a roof with a gun. But we didn't think about running away or taking cover. We were tense and anxious, but we weren't afraid.” In the course of the past two years, a part of the revolutionaries have grown quite fearless, not only in demonstrations but in their lives. Many of them have started to live much less conventional lives, and have stopped to worry about what others say. But I also know of people who have turned violent in their domestic lives. And there can be a lot of trauma underneath the loss of fear. So things are rather complicated, and the loss of fear is not always a good thing. It breaks much of the reflexes of oppression people had once internalised, but it can also do quite some damage. Loss of fear is not an accomplishment in its own right. The question is: What comes in its place?

After two years, fear has not simply been replaced by positive sentiments. Instead, the prevailing sentiments are anxiety and unrest, mixed with hope and emboldenment (See also my post from March 2011 where I thought about anxiety). If the first months of the rule of Muslim Brotherhood were marked by a period of certain relaxation, since November anxiety and nervous tension are in the increase again, and today has marked another moment of escalation. A question that remains is: Where will this escalation of anxiety and unrest lead to? Does it help the revolutionary opposition in excerting effective pressure, or are they losing support of all those people who do not want to be part of a destructive escalation and polarisation? Will it help the Muslim Brotherhood in presenting itself as the constructive power, or will it further undermine its already shaky legitimacy? Is it part of a necessarily antagonistic struggle on the way towards a better Egypt, or is it a destructive power that may eventually bring back the same kind of criminal rule that wrecked the country for decades?

This morning, S. was sceptical. He said that all the talk about the loss of fear was in the end only serving the Muslim Brotherhood to conceal the fact that the revolution has changed nothing. But tonight, after returning home from the demonstration he said: “I'm certain that after all these struggles, Egypt will one day be one of the fines and freest countries in the world.”