Friday, June 17, 2005

The Changing Face of Egyptian Politics

Sayyeda Zeinab Protest, 15 June 2005. Photo courtesy of Wa'el Abbas.

New protest venues, new political language, new public actors, age-old struggles. Egyptians’ pent-up political energies are filling the public square, propelled by ill-understood young people falsely alleged to be uninterested in public affairs. The hoary activists are still there, full of commitment and experience, but the young people are making their debut: sending out the e-mails and text messages, manning the demonstrations, suffering the truncheon blows, plotting the next steps, and writing the narratives that will help us revisit these inebriating times. Just think: since “black Wednesday” a few short weeks ago on the 25th of May, species of citizen action have sprouted like bulbous white mushrooms in a dank hothouse. Lo and behold, the panicked and unimaginative want a piece of the action, pathetically trying to appropriate the very energies they fear and loathe. The irony is delectable.

Egyptians’ homegrown democracy demands are ever louder, bolder, more insistent, more luculent, more focused. In the past few weeks, writers, doctors, journalists, motley women, youth, and God knows who else are staking a claim to the reform juggernaut. Meanwhile, the lazy pipers of Egyptians’ “stagnation” and “apathy” who've been doing a brisk business for at least 10 years are now scrambling around like crazed lab rats trying to refurbish their punctured credibility by riding the “change” wave. The very wave, you understand, that they contemptuously scoffed at just six months ago when Kifaya came out on the High Court steps on 12 December. But that’s their problem. To quote the estimable Gamal Mubarak, son of the “glamorous” Mrs. Mubarak, the pundits’ exertions have “nothing to do with reality.”

New Faces

I feel compelled to point out that this is certainly not the first time we see young faces in the world of Egyptian politics. Let’s not let class bias and political blinders mask a painful truth: young Islamists and their families have been paying dear for their public activism for the last 15 years. As we speak, there are at least 16,000 of them in prisons scattered across Egypt, and none of them have ever come before a judge. Three hundred of them have been on a hunger strike in Wadi al-Natroun prison, but no one seems to care. Many of them go for years without seeing their families, by order of the Interior Minister who has the power to close off prisons to all visits from family and lawyers, in flagrant violation of Law 396/1956 governing prisons. This law, by the way, seems like the epitome of enlightened penal reform compared to the Ministry’s practices.

These young men are the non-telegenic ones, the ones we’ve all forgotten, all save for the heroic people at Muhammad Zarie’s Human Rights Association for the Assistance of Prisoners. al-Arabiyya did well to cover their female relatives’ sit-in at the bar association, these long-suffering women who yet have the presence of mind to tether their suffering to the ambient reform spirit. There’s talk that they want to form a league of mothers and wives of the detained. I hope they get all the help and encouragement they need, and the attention. Ignoring and remaining silent about their plight is a painful, serious issue that merits its own conversation.

Young people are active in Kifaya through the offshoot Shabab min Ajl al-Taghyeer (Youth for Change), the ones who carry the protest signs decrying the lack of employment and prospects and any semblance of a dignified future. There’s no doubt that this year has seen the political coming of age of many young people, but as always there are precedents. How could there not be in the past five eventful years? The spring 2003 anti-war protests ‘raised consciousness’ (as the charming old phrase goes), as did of course the Palestine solidarity campaigns, as noted here by the sagacious Amira Howeidy. Note especially Howeidy’s mention of the impromptu girls’ march to the president’s residence in 2002, swiftly aborted of course. Foreign journalists all agog at the presence of women in today’s protests would do well to read up on recent and not-so-recent Egyptian history. Meanwhile, the amazingly brave young women who were assaulted on 25 May are now being threatened and intimidated. “On Monday, two officers came and gave me 48 hours to withdraw my case against the government. They have threatened to arrest my father, make my brothers lose their jobs and threatened to arrest me or even kill me if I didn’t comply,” al-Destour journalist Abir al-Askari told the AFP.

It is not difficult to see why youth activism is a deadly development from the regime’s point of view. The very presence of articulate young people with cramped life chances is a ticking time bomb. They’re that much more threatening when they voice lucid critiques of their situation, not buying the drivel fed to them about overpopulation and all the other official arguments. So dissenting young people must be quelled no matter the costs. Remember the death of Alexandria University student Muhammad al-Saqqa, 22, on 9 April, 2002. He died from rubber bullet shots to the face and chest, according to the medical report of the University hospital (see the EOHR’s account here). What’s even more threatening to the powers that be is not participation in demonstrations but steady involvement in politics evincing any kind of creativity. This is why Youth for Change members Muhammad Shafiq and Ahmad Saad (both 28) were ordered detained for 15 days by the State Security Prosecution. Their offense: distributing leaflets in the metro stations written in colloquial Arabic exhorting citizens to come together to think up means of change. Kifaya has called for a gathering at the bar association today from 11am to noon in solidarity with Shafiq, Saad and the threatened women journalists.

More new faces are in the newly minted women’s gatherings “The Association of Egyptian Mothers” (Rabetat al-Ummahat al-Misriyyat) and “The Street is Ours” (al-Shar’i lana). These are a mélange of seasoned activists such as Aida Seif al-Dawla and Laila Soueif and newly active women outraged by the vile assaults of women on 25 May. “The Street is Ours” evokes Egypt’s proud history of women’s street activism since 1919. Back then, when women first marched the streets and chanted anticolonial slogans at the top of their lungs, they did so fully clothed and veiled. The 1st of June “day in black” gathering was a wonderful show of Egyptian women’s sartorial diversity. There was no whining here about the backwardness of the higab bla bla bla (except maybe from Dr. Nawal Saadawi). The issue is not what Egyptian women wear and how much they cover up, the issue is how they all banded together to resist attempts to get them off the streets. (I can’t help noting here as an aside that it’s not the bogeyman “Islamists” who represent the greatest threat to women’s citizenship rights, at least in Egypt, but that’s right, it’s the regime). Would that the Association of Egyptian Mothers and the Street is Ours band together with the mothers and wives and daughters of the detained Islamists, as indeed they did briefly at the 9th of June meeting.

Finally, globalisation has brought in more new faces. Like so many others, I was delighted and touched to no end by the South Korean Kifaya solidarity protest in Seoul last week. My favorite slogan, “Stop repressing true democracy in Egypt!” It’s no wonder. South Korea’s transition to democracy in 1987 is a perfect instance of regime change spurred by popular action; student demonstrations in particular have a long history in that country. The South Koreans are more than able to “handle” democracy; that some of them saw fit to support the Egyptians’ struggle in a symbolic, meaningful stand is a gesture that will not be forgotten.

New Modalities

With the new faces and the youthful energy have come new ideas for tackling the Achilles’ Heel of many political movements: how do you reach the general public? How do you transform a small gathering into a tangible phenomenon? Personally, I think this is already underway, in ordinary people’s living rooms and qahwas and on street corners and in taxis and workplaces and microbuses and everywhere else Egyptians talk to one another. Everybody is talking about change, everybody is wondering whither this regime, everybody wants to know what’s going to happen in Egypt. That it may not be visible doesn’t mean it’s not there; only someone who doesn’t interact at all with the street and shuttles about in air-conditioned car from one air-conditioned venue to the next can fail to grasp the palpable ambience. Having the foreign and pan-Arab media spotlight on Egypt sure helps thicken the reform mood, but young activists are not relying on this alone.

I was particularly struck by Muhammad Shafiq and Ahmad Saad’s action. Not only were they distributing leaflets, a very daring act sure to get them nabbed, but written on those leaflets in Egyptian ‘ammiyya is a beautifully crafted citizen’s call. I’ve only seen portions cited in press reports, such as: “We’re a group of youth protesting the current condition of no health, no education, no work, no housing, no humanity, no freedom. That’s why we decided that it’s necessary to change all that. We’re sure you too feel as we do, let’s think together and act together so we can live well.” If that’s not a powerful demand for basic rights, I don’t know what is.

Talking in ordinary people’s language has always been a concern for activists steeped in street politics, people like Muhammad al-Ashqar and Kamal Khalil. Khalil as we know is gifted at coining impromptu protest slogans that tug at the hearts of ordinary passersby, as he did at the 1st of June day in black assembly. He addressed the Central Security Force conscripts directly, sloganeering about their terrible work conditions and inhumane treatment by superiors. The young Manal and Alaa Abdel Fattah and Wa’el Abbas and their creative co-conspirators are at the cutting edge of building bridges to the hallowed but ill-understood normal Egyptian citizen.

Precisely this impulse drove the Sayyeda Zeinab gathering on 15 June, when young activists thought up the idea of invoking a popular ritual at a popular venue to bring the reform caravan to ordinary people. “Kans al-Sayyeda” or sweeping the Prophet’s granddaughter’s tomb-mosque comes from Egyptians’ rich trove of popular religion. Sweeping the mosque entrance with those old-fashioned straw brooms is considered both a literal act of paying respects to the mosque and a symbolic call for aid from the beloved Zeinab’s spirit. When all else fails and one is at the end of one’s tether, seeking spiritual assistance (madad) against all manner of injustice is a Sufi-inflected mode of popular resistance that Egyptians have long invoked against tyrants, usurpers, and today, police brutality and immunity.

Amr, Masrawi, Mohammed, Zamakan, and Africano have stirring accounts of that day. The idea was embroiled in heated controversy, with many arguing against using “backward” folkloric beliefs that also exclude Coptic citizens and others warning against the dangerous gap between articulate elites and ordinary people. Whichever side one takes in this important debate, I focus on two more general points. That the debate is happening at all is salutary and welcome, and we need much more of it. And that protests have not just become a weekly event (remarkable in itself) but show clear evidence of new ideas, new language, and new props (brooms and candles) is doubly salutary and welcome. In ’19, young Egyptians created the template for the modern street demonstration in Egypt, complete with its own rituals and slogans but fused with older accoutrements. Today too, new traditions are being filigreed over the old, in what I can’t help but admire as a rich palimpsest of popular politics.

Old Struggles

Egyptians have been struggling for decades to get democracy, with very modest results as we see all around us. But that’s the nature of the beast. It’s a truism by now, but no less true: democracy is the business of a couple of centuries, not decades but also not millennia. It would be utterly missing the point to dismiss today’s upheaval as fleeting or chaotic or confusing or ‘unorganised’. It’s the name of the game, political struggle is messy and noisy and above all, confusing. Even if it all ends tomorrow, it will still have added enormous value to the process of public deliberation that will surely revive on another day. Let’s not get bound up in the admittedly fascinating details and ignore the prize: movement, ferment, debate, disagreement, new ideas twining with old practices, even mistakes, charlatanism, perfidy, and all the rest. Getting democracy is not a fairy tale story but a noisy, chaotic canvas where even the ‘bad guys’ can be incorporated into the game peacefully. The real bad guys are those who would deny Egyptians and Arabs the right to have their noisy debates and struggles and the right to publicly deliberate on their institutions, policies, and other public choices. Bad guys want to shut down debate to ram through their own designs and neat little ideas for how others should live.


The trees are dark ruins of temples,
seeking excuses to crumble
since who knows when—
their roofs are cracked,
their doors lost to ancient winds.
And the sky is a priest,
saffron marks on his forehead, ashes smeared on his body.
He sits by the temples, worn to a shadow, not looking up.

Some terrible magician, hidden behind curtains,
Has hypnotized Time
so this evening is a net
in which the twilight is caught.
Now darkness will never come—
and there will never be morning.

The sky waits for this spell to be broken,
for History to tear itself from this net,
for Silence to break its chains
so that a symphony of conch shells
may wake up the statues
and a beautiful, dark goddess,
her ankles echoing, may unveil herself.

*Faiz Ahmed Faiz (1911-1984), “Evening”