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and to increase taxes (although many decisions, rapidly and haphazardly declared and implemented, have been quickly withdrawn again).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.”