Egyptian History X

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Al-Ahram Weekly: Mohamed Mahmoud Street, Youssef Rakha and Egypt’s new culture of violence

As of 28 January, 2011, the protests in and around Tahrir Square were never quite as peaceful as people would in later months reflexively claim they were. But no one thought that what had started on 25 January as a call for rights and freedoms, and on 11 February forced Hosny Mubarak (Egypt’s president for 31 years) to step down, would turn into a kind of hopeless vendetta against the police and, later, albeit to a mitigated extent, also against the army—to a point where people could no longer credibly make that claim.

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Fuloulophobia: What I talk about when I talk about 30 June

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Nearly a week ago, some little known Kuwaiti newspaper reported that President Mohamed Morsi had negotiated, it wasn’t clear with whom, “a safe exit deal” for himself and 50 leaders of the Muslim Brotherhood (MB) — in anticipation of 30 June.

It was obvious misinformation but it was tempting to believe, partly because it suggested the very implausible prospect of the MB leaving power peacefully, lending credence to the idea that 30 June will be “the end of the MB” anyhow.

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Open Letter to Dr. Mohamed ElBaradei

[Mohamed ElBaradei at the World Economic Forum in Davis, Switzerland on 25 January 2007. Image from Wikipedia.]
Mohamed ElBaradei at the World Economic Forum in Davis, Switzerland on 25 January 2007. Image from Wikipedia.

First posted on 19 June 2012

***

Dear Dr. Mohamed ElBaradei:

Happy 70th and thank you! Truly, thank you: for refusing to be part of this travesty of presidential elections, for rejecting any form of putsch or “revolutionary justice”, for insisting on a sound constitution and political pluralism, for understanding democracy at a time when those fighting military dictatorship have completely missed the point. I’m sure you feel sufficiently vindicated and at peace to enjoy your birthday; and you must realize by now how many Egyptians respect you…

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Three Versions of Copt: Sept 2011/Doors: April 2013

This is a repost of my “Maspero massacre” piece on the occasion of yesterday’s events, with a series of seven door pictures made with my iPhone 5 and a video with footage of the September 2011 events and the Coptic Church version of the Lamentations of Jeremiah

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THREE REASONS I WILL NOT VOTE

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1-The Martyrs. It seems utterly insensible to start holding this “national wedding” – as Egypt’s first “free” parliamentary elections have been called – within hours of the death of over 40 demonstrators at the hands of both police and military, the latter also being the overseers (with unequivocal American cover) of a democratic process neither compatible with nor possible without such crimes against humanity (crimes now divested, even, of the excuse of terrorism). I am no longer very sympathetic with the younger activist movers and the shakers of the revolution, but the fact that the overwhelming majority of the dead and the injured since January are unaffiliated with either parties or ideologies makes the posturing of even well meaning candidates a betrayal not only of revolution but of the most basic patriotic and human fellow feeling.

2-SCAF. It has been over 59 years since a military coup, on the pretext of expelling the British and adopting progressive ideologies, not only put an end to what vestiges of democratic process and civil rights were there under the monarchy but also (and always on grandiose pretexts) negatively impacted actual and potential urban planning, education, agriculture, industry and social-cultural development. The People of Egypt are as responsible for this as the in-power-until-dead-presidential Regime, but it is precisely out of complacency about illegitimate military power that, over six decades, things had got as bad as they were when people took to the streets on 25 January. Until the incompetent generals hand over power to competent civilians, whatever the means to making them do so and whatever Washington’s position, no elections can be effective.

3-The Candidates. The irony of the so called revolution, its greatest triumph and its worst tragedy, is that it has no political direction. Obstructed by SCAF as much as the Islamists – the very religion-mongers and reluctant (if not counter) revolutionaries whose oppositional relation to the regime and insatiable appetite for power has placed them in the best possible position for winning the elections today, Egypt’s hitherto more or less apolitical revolutionaries – my only possible representatives – have not had the time or wherewithal to set up parties, let alone form support bases among politically retarded constituencies who had been more or less against the revolution anyway. I will not be party to the very process whereby people died for freedom – only to pave the road for agents of unfreedom to be in positions of power.

Jadaliyya: Three Versions of Copt

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Not quite a day later, a secular Muslim employee at one of Egypt’s largest media institutions begins to unpack the events of 9 October at his office, not far from the site of blood in downtown Cairo

-I-

Yesterday evening, while I sat at this desk dreaming up cultural content for the pages I am in charge of, Twitter began turning up news of protesters being fired at and pelted with stones – but not run over by combat armored vehicles, not beaten repeatedly after they were dead, nor thrown into the Nile as bloodied corpses. Not yet. The location was outside the Radio and Television Union Building, along a stretch of the Nile known as Maspero.

This fact (of protesters being fired upon) along with some of the slogans suggested that the march under attack was Coptic. I in fact knew that most of those tweeting from the location of the shootings were Muslim, but every Coptic protest since 11 February had included Muslims. Ironically, no Arabic term has been coined that might translate CNN’s far more civil “pro-Coptic,” which is also the more accurate by far.

Realizing that this was the first major event in quite some time, I must confess to excitement. Perhaps a terminally deflated revolution was picking up speed after all? I must also confess to the hope that the demonstration was not, or at least not solely, pro-Coptic.

I had distanced myself from Maspero – the Tahrir Square of “the Copts” – because demonstrating for specifically sectarian rights seemed beside the point. Such rights would presumably be granted anyway, once freedom was institutionally enshrined. This was motivated less by sectarian affiliation than anti-sectarianism. However, I was to discover soon enough that there was plenty of room for confusing the two.

***

I should explain at this point that as a Muslim-born Cairo-dweller, I grew up in an atmosphere of sectarianism partly justified by its allegedly being more intense among Christians. It was normal to be told by a quasi-religious acquaintance about a third party, for example, “True, he’s Christian – but he’s actually a good man!”

Unlike the average Copt, who will just be careful about who they are speaking to—saying little if anything on the topic to an interlocutor they deem unsympathetic, an educated urban Muslim will reflexively, categorically deny the existence of a sectarian problem in Egypt, citing religious, patriotic, or pragmatic arguments to say that—in effect—the position of the Copts in Egyptian society could not possibly be better than it already is.

Since the rise of Islamism in the 1990s, in place of denial, anti-Coptic sectarianism has taken on variously sinister motifs: identifying salib (Arabic for “cross”) with salibi (Crusader), for example, an adherent of fanatical dogma might suggest that by virtue of who they are, Egyptian Christians are in fact the enemy. In this way, the historically pro-Muslim Conquest Copts – and Copt simply means “Egyptian”, as opposed to the equally Christian but Greek rulers of the land – are turned into allies of “the Jews and the Americans” (as in those responsible for the existence of Israel and their Roman-like, Muslim-hating patrons).

***

But even among “moderate” Muslims, arguments for “national unity” fail to take into account centuries of inequality including occasional persecution. And national unity is a concept which, though an essential part of the regime and accompanying rhetoric established by coup d’etat in July 1952, has systematically been rendered meaningless by excluding Copts from positions of power and employing the majority’s bias to discriminate against them in public affairs, encouraging both Coptic deference (often through Church-dictated conservatism) and Muslim complacency.

Had a truly secular state ever emerged in Egypt, perhaps it would have made sense to blame Copts for their sectarianism. As it is, surely Coptic sectarianism can only be seen as part of the struggle for an effective concept of citizenship?

Still, here as with protests involving a specific portion of the population—and some trade-specific strikes had seemed ultimately distracting –I felt it was rather more important to come up with a political formulation of an alternative to military dictatorship under pressure from political Islam. The Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) has, after all, been ruling the country dictatorially since Mubarak stepped down on 11 February, while various factors conspire to make Islamism—in many ways the political current least relevant to the protests that got rid of Mubarak—the most visible and powerful on the political landscape.

-II-

A week later, I could remember every minute of that hour or so at the office. Already, while I wondered whether this might be the “third revolution” promised but not forthcoming since April, pandemonium was striking downstairs, with word of the demonstrators attempting to storm the building in anger over the false news that had come out of it since the march set off. Already, TV anchors working out of the Union, absurd as that seems, were calling on the Egyptian people to defend their national army against protesters.

I tweeted, “They are shooting Copts.”

I remember this because coworkers who immediately saw the tweet berated me lightheartedly for spreading unconfirmed (mis)information. What their notebooks and iPhones, as well as security personnel in the building, were telling them was that it was a mob of Copts who were wreaking chaos and, inexplicably armed, firing at the Central Security and Military Police personnel who were attempting to control them.

No one was in fact armed in any way. To cries of silmiyyah, Obama’s pet word for the Arab Spring, meaning “peaceful”, the Muslim mob had responded, violently: Islamiyyah. But such is the insidious nature of Egyptian sectarianism and the fear of chaos instilled in the people by the former regime, then the military, that no one stopped to ask questions.

Lying through their teeth, pro-SCAF news personnel from this building and elsewhere reported seven, then nineteen Armed Forces casualties. It would later be revealed that only one soldier actually died, as opposed to nearly thirty confirmed deaths among the protesters, many of them with grotesquely battered skulls).

***

But what was really happening as I sat here watching my Twitter timeline? A pro-Coptic march had set out to Maspero from the nearby neighborhood of Shubra, then?

Then the march was subjected to stone and Molotov cocktail attacks from mobs of Muslims, where practically all-Muslim Central Security and, especially, Military Police troops—aided not only by misinformed “honorable citizens” (as the military has taken to putting it) but apparently also by baltagiyya or the hired thugs deployed by the authorities against protesters since January—proceeded to massacre “the Copts” by every means available, not excluding live ammunition and at least one armored vehicle purposefully crushing heads. The carnage, widely recorded in downtown hospitals, was horrendous.

And why were Copts protesting in such numbers? Because, during a TV appearance, the governor of Aswan (a Muslim and a retired military general, by default) commended the burning of a church under his jurisdiction on the pretext that it was not officially registered as a place of worship (hundreds of functional churches across Egypt are not registered because of official—Muslim—reluctance to give Christians the right to practice their faith).

A fact-finding committee had recommended the immediate dismissal of said governor on Tuesday 6 October, indicating in its report that failure to act would result in large-scale unrest. It is now 21 October and the governor retains his post.

-III-

So … It has been nearly three weeks since Sunday 9 October and I am astonished. Not so much by the war crimes of the army or the actions of the mob that so readily “came to its aid”; I am astonished, rather, by the responses of educated Muslims, including allegedly secular intellectuals.

Condemnation of the massacre has not been nearly as vociferous or as unanimous as you would expect. With very few exceptions (notably the human rights activist Hossam Bahgat), the discourse has centered not on the Council’s sectarianism as an unchanged wing of the Mubarak (and by extension the July 1952) regime, but on the Council itself –the the regime—as a conventional object of dissent in conveniently dire straits. Evidenced by the indubitable fact that the instigators of protests on 25 January were neither traditional dissidents (left-wing or Islamist) nor politically organized except on the Internet, such dissent (exemplified most clearly by the Muslim Brothers) seems in retrospect to be not only opportunistic and rhetorical but also futile by default.

Once again the discourse of the mainstream Left regarding human rights abuses is practically identical with the discourse of the powers that be; once again, the proposed transcendence of religious affiliation rings hollow in the absence of a viable concept of citizenship for which enough people are prepared to die. Even the Copts, it strikes me as if for the first time, are only prepared to die for Jesus. And so does the patriotic identification with nationalist, Marxist and pan-Arab constructions that have long since proven untenable. Why if not for the resounding failure of the postcolonial nation state would a creed that had remained more or less depoliticized for centuries re-emerge as the only, quasi-fascist framework for opposition, ideology and “struggle”?

***

In the wake of 11 February, “Islamic thinkers” along with the Muslim Brothers and other agents of political Islam had quickly allied themselves with the Council. While the latter remained silent, Muslim intellectuals railed against “sedition” and dictatorship, but people spoke as if sectarian hatred had nothing to do with it. In subsequent televised discussions, out of three popular left-wing commentators—Ibrahim Eissa, Alaa El Aswany and Bilal Fadl—only the last paid any attention at all to the sectarian dimension of events.

Fadl is evidently a true believer, just not of the nut-case persuasion; yet, in a Muslim Brothers-style move that has quickly become the standard “grassroots” reaction to “sympathy with the Nazarenes,” the point he made clearly about what happened being hurtful to Muslim conscience was appropriated and subverted into a question about his own religious correctness, seamlessly substituting the relevant discursive space for another, infinitely more trite one: from “what was done to Coptic protesters because they are not Muslim” to “is Bilal Fadl a true Muslim based on what he said.” Thus paving the way, however subtly, for a justification of sectarian violence.

Aswany, for his part, took it upon himself to preempt possible attempts—led by the Coptic-American activist Magdi Khalil, admittedly, a rabidly sectarian partisan—to bring the relevant parties from the Council to international justice, while Eissa made his usual neither-here-nor-there critique of the performance of “the rulers.’”

***

Two weeks on, past months of thinking about the Arab world, particularly the tribulations of Iraq since the 1990s, it strikes me more clearly than ever before that, while the politics and economics of the world’s powerful (and at least originally Christian) loci are ultimately inhumane, they are heterogeneous enough to provide institutional frameworks for something approximating justice. Such frameworks have simply never existed in the Arab-Muslim world.

This has nothing to do with the substance of each creed. It just must be admitted that, where the predominant (post-Christian) civilization is racist, murderous and hypocritical, so too are the quasi-civilizations that purport to do battle with it, including the post-Ottoman Arab state. Six or seven decades on, the anti-imperialist struggle has resolved itself into the nauseating mirror image of imperialism, prompting the people in some cases to call on the former imperial powers themselves for help against criminal “leaders.”

The Maspero Massacre, as it has come to be called by the more rational among us—and, especially, the heinous aftermath of the Maspero Massacre, which has yet to be described—demonstrates that even revolutionary Egypt’s sense of self lacks not only an effective concept of citizenship but also any collective capacity for non-sectarian conscience.

Holier than thou wherefore, O Anti-Imperialist Hero?

Judging by what happened and what was said about it, when people speak of “loving Egypt” they mean something that is only Muslim or at least more Muslim than either Christian or secular. In much the same way as the British Empire ruled over subjects it deemed not fully human, Egyptian patriotism involves an individual and national self-definition that places non-Muslims in subjugation with impunity; and once again reflecting colonialism, the most disturbing part is how people are capable of perpetuating such thinking without even realizing, let alone admitting they are doing anything wrong.

***

Many were offended by a subsequent tweet of mine: “Ashamed of being a Muslim.” I even lost some Facebook friends following a status in which I replaced “Islam” with ‘almaniyyah (secularism) in the well known slogan, “Islam is the answer.” Others, I am sure, have labeled me an apostate or a traitor or an agent of the Zionist-American Conspiracy. All of which, in a manner of speaking, of course, I am. I would have been eager to latch onto something I could be proud of whatever it was called. But there is no longer much room, in the human rights context, for differentiating between “misguided Muslims” and “Islam”. And there is no longer a halfwit crusader from Texas to fuel the false sense of victimhood that underlies all political Islam.

The fact to note is that Saudi Arabia remains America’s closest ally in the region after Israel, and that whatever else Magdi Khalil will do to “soil Egypt’s reputation” (to use the retarded “nationalist” expression), Washington approves of SCAF; even after our homegrown crusaders were massacred en masse, in much the same way as it maintained a client government headed by Mubarak, Washington blesses the military dictatorship to which his regime gave way.

Looking, behaving and speaking in exactly the same way – to the point, indeed, of using Quranic expressions among themselves in daily life—Egyptian Christians are just as dispensable to present-day Rome as their Muslim counterparts. Perhaps it makes sense to vehemently condemn the international community after all, but the nationalists and Islamists who do so unthinkingly forget that it was in the defense of Muslims against Christians in Bosnia and Herzegovina that the international community rose up.

If the Arab Spring is not the occasion for nationalists and Islamists to practice self-questioning regarding their own racism, murderousness and hypocrisy – if it is not the occasion to unequivocally denounce not only Muammar Gaddafi and Saddam Hussein but also Omar Bashir and supporters of the Assad regime, not to mention the cold-blooded murder of their own compatriots on the streets, perhaps the Zionist-American Conspiracy is the answer, after all.

http://www.jadaliyya.com/

Patriotism galore

‘Uyoun Ra’at ath-Thawrah (Eyes that Saw the Revolution), Ibrahim Eissa, Abulela Madi, Ahmad Mekki, et al, Cairo: Dar Dawwin, May 2011
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The first relatively comprehensive, in-the-eyes-of-style compendium of responses to the Egyptian revolution (25 Jan-11 Feb) makes for a surprisingly dated read. One wonders whether this has to do simply with timing or with being too emotionally invested in subsequent events without having a break from discourses by now not only reiterated ad nauseum but also, and depressingly, as separate from everyday reality as politics has been for as long as anyone remembers.
This not unexpectedly rough-and-tumble paperback features 43 relatively well-known authors from all kinds of backgrounds, arranged alphabetically by name, who each give an account of their experience in Tahrir Square and surrounds or, more precisely, their take on events that happened there. It proceeds without the benefit of any editorial intervention, the preface or introduction presumably deemed superfluous as text since the factual and circumstantial background to the writing must exist in the first-hand, still flustered consciousness of the reader. Contributors include media figures, activists, politicians, judges, academics, bloggers (note that the name of the press, dawwin, is the imperative form of the verb to chronicle or to blog), artists, poets and members of the intellectual constituency — many of them brought together for the first and perhaps the last time.
All through the book there is a degree of honesty, a drive to give definitive testimony with an eye on History or posterity, but little spontaneity or verve and, perhaps as a result of the rhetorical straightjacket, surprisingly little dynamic engagement with ongoing history itself. Perhaps the greatest value of this book will be as window onto the mental processes of a nukhbah (elite or intelligentsia) too enthusiastic about the idea of change to truly contribute to its unfolding on the ground. But perhaps this is too preemptory a remark or too harsh a judgement. Part of the problem with the book, as with so much else that has been written about the revolution, is that it seems to have been completed a little two early, prior to the April referendum on constitutional amendments, prior to the brief but horrid return of Central Security to Tahrir on 28 June, and certainly prior to the “second revolution” of 8 July.
***
In the opening piece by one of the best-known oppositional (press and TV) journalists to have spoken out against the Mubarak regime in the last decade, Ibrahim Eissa, the principal protagonist or subject is “Egypt”, whose 18 days of insurgency not only “shook the world” but, more significantly, reclaimed “seven thousand years of civilisation” — a discourse alarmingly like that of the former regime itself, since, while very late Islamic Egypt under the British may indeed be relevant to what is happening now, the Pharaohs really have nothing to do with it — part of the bite-size, free-for-all patriotism that traditionally covers up self-hatred and inferiority while promoting tourism having always been, in official and oppositional discourse alike, to refer in self-aggrandising terms to the glories of a past further removed from reality than even the least convincing fantasy. The blood of her children was the price Egypt paid for freedom — never mind that no such freedom actually happened, much.
Eissa concedes that society, at the time of writing, is still in the process of dealing with the shock, comparing Egypt to a patient who has just undergone a difficult surgery and is slowly recuperating, but the joyful incredulity he speaks of, a true enough facet of the period directly after Mubarak stepping down, conceals the fact that true change was a more or less false promise in the light not so much of the military take-over as of the global balance of relations it has been safeguarding. Then again, oppositional figures like Eissa have seldom sought anything but the most superficial and convenient truth or presented it with any depth.
***
For his part the seasoned, high-brow political commentator Salama Ahmad Salama, having worked more cautiously and often far more meaningfully within the framework of the establishment, writes a celebratory if not a congratulatory piece. He stresses the nature of the instigators and the means they employed, their youth, their familiarity with Facebook and their ability to transcend a status quo, including an oppositional status quo, that had remained “hostage to the 20th century” well into the 21st. Unlike the so called revolution of July 1952, this, Salama is quick to note, is no coup d’etat; it is a “white revolution” of the people, the Internet-savvy and the young, and it is in this capacity that it made “the sun of freedom” shine on Egypt, with the middle class and then other social sectors rallying behind the young online activists who sparked it, having shed “the shackles of subservience, humiliation and corruption”.
Salama also stresses that the ambition of the revolution was to bring down the regime, not merely its personages or techniques, making what seems an increasingly contentious point. The truth is that, while the slogan “The people want to bring down the regime” had arrived safe and sound from Tunis, it is clear that few people initially understood it or took full stock of what it actually entailed. The instigators had targeted the Ministry of Interior, whose systematic abuses (backed by the former regime and evidently also by the military establishment) have yet to be seriously dealt with — even now.
For the Islamicly oriented political commentator Fahmi Howedi, for the celebrated oppositional 1970s vernacular poet and lyricist Ahmad Fouad Negm (the partner of the late blind composer Imam Eissa, many of whose lines were chanted during the revolution), for the pragmatic leader of Al Ghadd Party Ayman Nour as much as for Salama, the revolution is, justly enough, a vindication and a moment for tear-jerking patriotism. It is well to ask, however, what else the revolution might be, and whether this is the extent of the discourse it can be expected to generate.
***
Bringing down the regime in reality has two very serious implications that neither the revolution nor the authors of this book seem to recognise: that it would mean controlling or subduing a good half of the population; and that it would require either opposition to the global order or the admission by an overwhelming majority that Egypt remains dependent. While the population remains largely oblivious of the latter fact, while the forces of change fail to recognise how the interests of far too many people including indeed themselves are bound up with the former power structure, the regime in its deeper sense must live on.
Still, the oppositional “Islamic” writer Safinaz Kazem — a scholar as well as journalist whose perspective is always original, and the once wife of Negm whose daughter, Nawwara Negm, a blogger and activist and another contributor to the book widely seen as one of the leaders of the revolution — describes the revolution as “a vote” to bring down “Mr Serial Killer and his cronies”, a fair and persuasive assessment, and as such points to the more interesting and lasting value of events: a relatively radical change in the political consciousness of the people. Even if “stupid evil” manages to harm the revolution, she says, we will have nonetheless opposed that evil and exposed it, solving — as she puts it — the mystery of murder and church bombing alike.
***
Nawwara Negm feels that the Egyptian revolution happened “by the hand of God” — a statement, as she points out, also made by an Israeli official — referring to the fateful evening of 28 January when unarmed civilians truly defeated Egypt’s brutal and well-equipped riot police and were the divinely fearless receptacles of martyrdom.
The novelist Mohammad El-Mansi Qandil writes entertainingly on the difference between a very thin young woman protester and a frighteningly corpulent pro-Mubarak political commentator who both appeared on television at more or less the same time.
The columnist and screenwriter Bilal Fadl tells of his family’s response to the news that Mubarak stepped down: how his little daughter, for the longest time deprived of her cartoons on television, made her own demand following the news, “Can we watch the cartoons now?”; and how her elder sister, though a committed revolutionary in her own right, wondered, “I feel sorry for Mubarak, though; what job will he have now?”
The journalist Mohammad Abdel-Quddouss recalls being brutalised by Central Security at the Press Syndicate on the outbreak of the revolution, and how he recognised the events for a revolution, no mere intifada, while under arrest.
The scholar and novelist Youssef Zaydan reminisces about a conversation he had with the Nobel laureate Ahmad Zuwail, in which he described the essential problem of Egypt is that social relations are structured on the principle of one party despising another, identifying the value of the revolution in protesting the endless humiliation.
The novelist Bahaa Taher distinguishes between the true agents of the revolution — the young, killed and injured, and its beneficiaries, whom he links with his own older generation, pointing up one of the most significant difficulties posed by a white revolution: those who, riding the wave of events, have shed their pro-regime skin like snakes.
The economist Galal Amin contends that this “wonderful development” that beset young Egyptians almost unseen requires an explanation. He suggests a range of reasons from greater access to other parts of the world to the genius of the fellah.
The writer Khaled El-Khamissi produces a moving account of the mythological vision of armageddon during what came to be known as Black Wednesday, the Camel Battle, when thugs hired by the regime attacked the Tahrir sit-in.
The legal scholar and judge Tarek El-Bishri proposes a definition of revolution in the kind of “structural change” to which it gives way, concluding that what has happened is a revolution by any standard…
***
It is hardly surprising that no one has anything vaguely negative to say about the events. What is interesting and perhaps indicative of the time of writing is that no one attempts to place them in the wider perspective of a society and a population that did not unanimously contribute to or even support them. It would be a cliche to say that momentous and historic moments produce negligible writing — and a lot of what is in this book truly is not negligible — but the more interesting question is how much of the enthusiasm of these authors has survived and how what they say about the revolution measures up to political and especially social reality today.
Many points that did not seem at all obvious or relevant while events unfolded now look completely self-evident, and foremost among these is the question — touched on by almost everyone but never tackled — of how a white revolution is to survive not only in the socio-political sphere but even also in the minds of its instigators and supporters, considering that, so long as it remains white, so long as it disrupts neither everyday life as we have known it in Egypt nor the global political-economic order, its only victims will be the young and more or less apolitical revolutionaries themselves.
Reviewed by Youssef Rakha

Anticipating 8 July

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And its discontents
Anticipating 8 July, Youssef Rakha discusses revolution
Tomorrow is “the second revolution”. I am no longer enthusiastic about the term. Not that I have the least ambivalence towards what is happening, what has and has not yet happened: if meaningful change is to occur, if justice is to be done, there is no escaping more and more sustained protest; I shudder to think there is no escaping more violence too, though in the light of Central Security (the Egyptian riot police) striking back, violence seems inevitable. An effective as opposed to puppet interim government and an end to both police and military abuses are the very least starting point for the promised new Egypt; naturally, as it now seems, neither has been forthcoming. Despite the appearance of relative stability, sooner or later something must explode; I say this analytically, not emotionally: whatever the powers that be are thinking, however much the quasi-official media continue to churn out misinformation, the current situation is not tenable. As far as we support the 25 Jan-11 Feb protests, perhaps we should be grateful that stability remains a brittle veneer. In some ways, of course – for 30 years prior to 2011 – stability was a veneer anyway. Yet protests have been repeatedly decried as a threat to stability and as such identified with disturbance of the peace (in much the same way as protesters have been identified with baltagiyya or thugs and subjected to military trials). There is a sense in which the discourse of revolution has been co-opted by some and marginalised by others, in which the uprooting of corrupt dictatorship has reduced to hollow patriotism, “bringing down the regime” to “loving Egypt”. In just over four months, dependency on the army has facilitated both a rise in reactionary (as in positively counterrevolutionary) Islamism and (coupled by a string of minimal, essentially cosmetic interventions) business as usual for all the elements constituting the former social-political order, media, security and Muslim Brothers not excluded. My gripe with “revolution” is that, all things considered, it seems to have struck an unprogressive chord with the silent majority; and the Historic Achievement of the Egyptian People – so far little more than a symbolic gesture – has reduced to a term. Even in daily discourse, the events of those 18 days have become synonymous with a period of time, the martyrs to a social group: people say “at the revolution” as if they are saying “last Ramadan” or “during the holiday”; and references to “the families of the martyrs”, stripped of any ethical prerogative, are juxtaposed with references to other social strata with a direct interest in the political future.
Tomorrow is “the second revolution”. One assumes the majority of the intellectual community will, at some point in the day, make their way to Tahrir Square and, with characteristic timidity, join in the chanting of slogans probably created by the “ultras”, as the organised, often uniformed football supporters-cum-male cheer leaders who have made up the bulk of Tahrir Square protesters in the last two months are now called. They will dissolve in the multitude, if multitude there is. They will be theorising about developments as developments occur. A very potent question is whether they will be there as protesters or in the presupposed capacity of “the conscience of the nation”. In just over four months, it has been fascinating to watch the intellectuals take part and, especially, comment on events while at the same time seeing how they might pragmatically benefit from the incumbent developments – assuming positions in the ministry of culture, for example, or allying themselves with people who have. It is not so much that they are on the wrong side of the moral divide. The important thing is to realise how, in much the same way as the ideological grand narratives, hero worship and tutelage that characterised the emergence of postcolonial national states in the Arab world have come to an impasse, so too have the discourses of an intellectual “margin” which, positing itself as the enlightened, progressive and selfless counterweight to an ineffectual, vacuous and often criminal mainstream, when the time came for it to make sacrifices, to turn itself into a self-respecting page, ended up producing little more than bystanders’ remarks. Should revolution pick up where it left off, now, what would be the intellectuals’ role in it? And other than prematurely exaggerating the significance of what happened through rhetoric and/or making sagely, often idiotic or patently counterrevolutionary statements about where to go from here, what was the intellectuals’ contribution to “the first” revolution? If enough people show up tomorrow, if the situation sufficiently escalates, one assumes there will be, around intellectuals and ultras alike, huge numbers of Central Security armed with freshly imported tear gas and a vengefulness for protesters, plainclothes operatives directing anti-riot operations as well as baltagiyya to aid and justify them, perhaps also snipers stationed on rooftops or elsewhere, perhaps arrests. A small core of committed activists – peaceful to the last – will be calling for an indefinite sit-in and, if the situation develops, eventually sealing off the square. If all this happens, if there are enough people to make it happen, “the revolution” will have happened again; in rhetorical tones, the intellectuals will express joy and concern, they will espouse ideological grand narratives and tutelage, but it is clear by now that they will not have answers to the only relevant, nearly intractable question of how to actually implement the demands of the revolution.
Tomorrow is “the second revolution”. The demands of the first revolution, which were more or less willingly left for the army to respond to and have therefore not been met, will be made more forcefully, once again. It is as if the revolutionaries are suddenly discovering that the army had been part of the regime all along, and shared more or less the same interests. The stepping down of Mubarak is, as if for the first time since 11 Feb , seen for what it actually was: a significant enough concession to the social-political transformation posited by some eight million taking to the streets to remonstrate with the political status quo, more than 800 of whom were killed and nearly 2,700 seriously injured, but one that could not in itself lead to democracy. In the absence of guiding principles, planning or leadership, there remains one very significant question about an essentially liberal and middle-class revolution that started out as a protest against police abuses and ended up bringing down the president: for what, precisely, would such a revolution have an army that was technically under the authority of said president try him and the pillars of his regime? Crimes that would seem to be side-effects rather than substantial ailments of Mubarak’s dictatorship – financial corruption, lack of respect for the right to live, let alone the right to true and free political representation – continue to conceal the much greater crime of a once purposefully ideological political order rooted in the coup d’etat of July 1952 but now with absolutely no moral substance to it. I am not arguing with the culpability of Mubarak and his many cronies, a number of whom, including the former minister of information Anas El-Fiqi, were acquitted of some charges on Tuesday, generating greater outrage in the buildup to 8 July. I am personally against capital punishment, but I am not arguing with the right of the martyrs’ families to see the killers of their loved ones from Mubarak down receiving the harshest possible punishment. What I am arguing against is the idea that the extent and/or nature of the crimes committed by the Mubarak regime could be legally demarcated at all. Too many people were (are?) directly or indirectly involved with the former order, too much legal evidence has been destroyed since Feb, too many private interests would be done too many disservices should justice truly prevail. If 25 Jan is to remain both a white and a decentralised, non-ideological revolution, how can we expect adequate retribution? Perhaps the only true slogan of the revolution is Down with July, but neither intellectuals nor ultras nor even allegedly politicised Islamists have had the vision or the courage to chant it. Down with July, anyway.
Tomorrow is “the second revolution”: another step on the way to “the second independence”, which it has been persuasively argued is what the Arab Spring – an anti-police state, anti-theocratic and by extension anti-military dictatorship movement, if nothing else – is truly all about. But independence implies economic and military self-dependence, which thanks to the trajectory of July is far more than Egypt can say for itself. To have a revolution in any meaningful sense is to admit that this is where six decades of military dictatorship has brought us, all things considered: mobs burning up police stations while the government or agents of the government briskly go about the business of killing the people, and notwithstanding more or less retarded versions of Islamic theocracy, not the faintest horizon of an alternative way forward. To have a revolution is to say that, rather than a Zionist conspiracy or an extension of imperialism per se, what we have had for six decades is shades of rhetoric, and that insofar as we survive at all, we survive thanks to a global order that subsidises our existence in return for some human, mostly natural resources including our geographic location. Without aid, without tourism, indeed without peace with Israel – considering our standards of education and our performance in fields like agriculture, technology or trade – were on earth would we be now? It is not clear to what extent the first revolution has been successful in revealing just what a horrendous mess the military-led nationalist state founded by Nasser has ended up becoming. Perhaps the second revolution will bring home the even more significant and naturally more devastating fact that it was not Mubarak’s policy of conciliation with an unjust unipolar global order that was wrong with Mubarak, it was not Mubarak’s failure to “support the cause”, whatever that might me, that brought Mubarak down. It was Mubarak’s incompetence. And there is absolutely no hope in any revolution contributing to any better future until we are prepared to admit exactly how much we share that.