“You are miracle workers, Youssef. You will ring forever throughout history; Egypt, of course, was there at the beginning of human civilisation, and it and its people continue to be so. Momentous and magnificent, what you’ve done.” – the British writer Niall Griffiths in a private e-mail, 15 Feb, 2011
Having travelled east from Tunis, the principal slogan of the revolution in Egypt remained, unusually for Cairo demonstrations, in correct standard Arabic (and despite the co-option of the term since 11 Feb by every other guard-puppy of the former regime, every shameless beneficiary, and every lying bastard, I still feel utterly entitled to call my revolution by its true name). Hard to say in retrospect whether the incredible evocative, multi-layered power of the four words was already latent within them or was lent them by events and blood, but incredible evocative, multi-layered power they indubitably have:
ASH-SHA’B YUREED ISQAAT AN-NIDHAM.
Ash-sha’b, a word so completely misappropriated by the military in the 1950s and so often abused since then that, until 25 Jan, it could only be uttered ironically, is finally reclaimed, not in the discourse of the revolutionaries but, meaningfully, in their discursive acts. Overnight, a sha’b really does appear on the streets, ready to sacrifice work, home and comfort, even life, to make a point; it is real, it has flesh and blood, it is even capable of being killed (something the guardians of the status quo, predictably enough, demonstrated in a variety of ways). And it exists in sufficient numbers to suspend and overshadow everything else: terror, apathy, expediency, the machinery of repression. At last the word can be used to mean something real, something that can be confirmed instantly by sight.
Yureed: to want, to wish, to will; to have a will. An army conscript ends up as a police officer’s domestic servant; a physician in training is the Doctor’s errand boy; a journalist reports not from the scene of the event but from the office of the government official responsible; the student’s target is neither epistemological initiative nor professional aptitude but the certificate as a token of entitlement (to class, position, rank, kudos); and certificates too, PhDs in particular, can be bought, obtained by pulling strings: it is not simply a matter of corruption; life is hollow, unreal, drained out. As far as it exists at all, deprived of the right to gather, decide for itself, fight back, to say or to be, the people, which in recent memory has only exited as an abstraction, has absolutely no will.
Once again, miraculously, this changes overnight; and thanks to the machinery of violence and untruth, a nidham that has nothing to count on but fear and ignorance, the change very quickly becomes permanent. Before anyone has had time to think, ash-sha’b yureed is the central reference – amazingly, objectives are agreed on without discussion or premeditation, without leadership as it were, and they are shared by every protester regardless of background or orientation – although many, outside the arena of slogans, insist that the instigators and the agents of the revolution are in the end not so much sha’b as shabab (the young, who make up some 60 percent of the population anyway). I would personally take issue with the accuracy of calling this the revolution of the young, but no matter.
In the past, even when it existed enough to protest – as a trade union, a wannabe party or a brutishly repressed organisation of political Islam – ash-sha’b had focused on needing change or imposing it by force, not willing it. Now, overnight, it can actually will.
And what it wills, unequivocally is isqaat an-nidham:
the bringing down (not the changing or reforming) of the regime, the order, the manner of arrangement of things. There is space within that for willing other, grander and more complicated or conventionally organised things: things Arab, things Islamic, things quasi-Marxist, things civic above all… But the point of the revolution is the freedom in which to will those things and the right, eventually, to institutionalise them, the freedom to expose mechanisms whereby, until its outbreak, they could not be collectively willed: plurality and multiplicity within the scope of what everyone can agree on in their capacity as citizens of a modern, independent, self-respecting state.
As yet I can think of three gargantuan obstacles in the way of these freedoms, to which the revolution has been a revelatory, all but divine response: sicknesses that still glare hideously out of the dead body of an-nidham. Interestingly the one thing they have in common is the way they draw on existing and apparently ancient values which may not be undesirable in themselves but have not been holding up in the electronic age.
The postcolonial legacy is similar to that of the Eastern Bloc (centralism, bureaucracy, thought control and Leader worship) – and like the “socialist consumerism” of Party hacks in eastern Europe, since 1970 in Egypt, the police state has lived happily with capitalist excess (since 1981, what is more, and I am not alone in thinking this, the Leader has had neither vision nor charisma).
What this means in practise is that people have to use the technically illegal implements of capitalism (interest and profit) while at the same time pretending to abide by a once meaningful grand notion (if not Free Education then some other benefit of the Virtuous State); hence the informal economy on the one hand (private tuition, to follow through the example) and, on the other, bribery, extortion, wasta, nepotism and the ability of businessmen to monopolise essential products.
Salaries at the state’s invariably overstaffed institutions are kept unrealistically low to provide for the accumulating fortunes of the top five percent of employees in most cases, and perhaps also to keep people busy making ends meet. The last long-standing chairman of the board of Al Ahram, for example, took a cut of advertising revenues for himself while the institution was plunging into debt, not to mention maintaining a private retinue with vehicles and bodyguards at the expense of Al Ahram. That chairman of the board was to Egypt’s strongest “national” press conglomerate precisely what Mubarak was to Egypt: an incompetent promoter of incompetence able to make unthinkable amounts of money in return for being meaninglessly glorified. Controlling the incomes of everyone as if they came out of his own pocket, locked to his position of power with impunity even after he has fallen completely out of touch, for decades on end he rendered his constituency little or no service.
Where interests clash, the law can be invoked arbitrarily by a powerful enough player at any time, interrupting existing modes of interchange but only to a specific, usually personal end. In itself, this generates a self-sustained system of policing where everyone is always by definition wrong and subject to punishment but where everyone is watching everyone else as well, not so much to catch them doing wrong as to catch them doing right: refusing a bribe, performing the task for which they are paid, standing by each other against injustice, telling the truth, daring to challenge state-stamped authority. All such technically legal acts, moving counter to the age-old preference for hierarchy, homogeneity and dependency, actually disrupt the totalitarian order; they delay tasks, they make trouble for individuals; they can ruin lives.
For 15 days among the protesters in Tahrir Square, while order was spontaneously kept from each according to his ability to each according to his need – while security was collectively maintained through ID checks and meticulous searches at entry points – while public services included effective rubbish collection and crime prevention, even the banning of obscenities from slogans and chants – while necessities were transported and distributed, resources divided, space claimed, down to the installing of outdoor bathrooms and the setting up of camps for sleeping in the rain – all that is civic and public and state-operated about life was smoothly undertaken with infinitely more efficiency and conscience than anybody had ever known anywhere in Egypt.
Kafka, as it turns out, is not the price that we have to pay for stability; Kafka is what the problem has been all along.
For Egyptians, I believe, this should be evidence that the sha’b can always get on perfectly without its nidham. There need not be hollow pyramids, doublespeak or universal sameness for Egyptians – Islamists, Copts, seculars, liberals, leftists, even the angry rabble – to be able to live productively and peacefully together; and it is that ability, nothing else, that constitutes the greater good.
Last night there were fireworks in Tahrir. To see fireworks in Tahrir – and no one has ever seen fireworks in Tahir before – it took 18 days of uninterrupted protesting all over the country, the defeat and sudden disappearance of all security forces and the army taking over the streets on the third day, the deliberate disturbance of the peace and the spreading of rumours about protesters and journalists covering their protests – to maximum reactionary and xenophobic effect, the eventual entry on the scene of ruling-party militias and secret-service snipers attempting to disband protesters, some 350 dead and thousands injured, the very reluctant, silent stepping down of a very old president who has been implausibly in power for 30 years and whose family and private army of sycophants controlled and systematically robbed the economy, the eventual dissolution of the so called parliament and, oh yes, oh yes, a certain amount of constitutional emptiness in the meantime (constitutional emptiness is what the last-minute vice president and other government cronies kept invoking as an excuse to stop the president from stepping down, as if their nidham had ever respected any constitution).
The fireworks were not part of a ceremony as such, but celebrations in Tahrir since 11 Feb have been the closest thing to a true people’s ceremony in Egypt; the reason it occurs to no one to describe the celebrations as a ceremony is that the very notion (as in former communist states) has been hijacked by the state – and the state being what it was, ceremony was totally emptied of meaning. Even outdoor concerts routinely, unnecessarily involved vast numbers of Central Security (and they were not above harassing women in the dark). I would say this about a lot of things in Egypt besides the regime as such: religious experience, intellectual engagement, media discourse; all have been shells thoroughly voided of substance, and they acted to turn a predominantly young country into a little old witch of a lady: conservative, malicious, paralytic – a liar.
Some day soon, I hope, people taking to the streets spontaneously to celebrate (a thousands- or hundreds of thousands-strong, heterogeneous group of people exercising the right to use their own public space without being subjected to tear gas bought with their own money) will be the norm in Egypt.
As yet people are only just discovering rights previously, mercilessly denied them – the right to be addressed politely by members of the police, for one relatively widespread example – rights they have been repeatedly told would undermine personal and public safety and national stability when in fact all they really undermined was illegitimate power. Such discourse, like the president, is very old; it belongs with an age during which, unjustifiable as it remains, state control could be justified by lack of information, populist will, a nationalist (anti-imperialist, or proto-Soviet) scheme.
Until a few days ago, agents of the former regime still had the nerve to call such extremely hard-won political participation sedition, lamenting the alleged necessity of bloodshed to prevent it, and to warn of foreign agendas directing events, when everybody knows that no Egyptian government has made it its business to incite sedition or implement agendas as much as Mubarak’s: evidence has surfaced that the former Ministry of Interior was behind the recent bombing of the Saints Church in Alexandria, for one thing; in 2006, in the name of the war on terrorism targetting Hamas, Tzipi Livni announced Israeli war crimes to be committed the next day against the people of Gaza from the presidential headquarters in Cairo; and while Gaza was being bombed, the government refused to open the frontier to injured civilians.
Of course, one condition for silence before sheer age – and age is venerated for its own sake in Egyptian culture – is the separation and isolation of discursive spaces. A poet, for example, can be a reactionary agent of the regime in one space (some official post at some division of the Ministry of Culture) and a prophet of radicalism in another (the almost never-read text). As a socio-economic being, that poet’s existence is circumscribed, sufficiently policed to make it either a mouthpiece of the status quo (opening up space for upward mobility) or a container of silence; it is rendered an organic part of an-nidham. Elsewhere the poet is left to her own devices, but confined to the space in which she has nothing in common with fellow citizens – the private, unconventional, oppositional, atheistic space in which poets have been locked up – she can only reach out to another poet. She too is afraid for her personal safety and what stability she might benefit from as a lone progressive lamb among the grassroots wolves.
In Tahrir, spaces were opened up and, for the first time in our lifetimes, we could see that once the regime left us alone we had a lot more in common than we had ever thought possible; there is a necessary and beautiful space where we can all be together – and it is nowhere near as narrow or negative as the space in which we reject the nidham, although the latter proved to be the only gateway to it. Slogans also referred to freedom, peace and unity. During the protests, in the open air, there was painting and music and theatre as well as prayers (Muslim and Christian); there were creative and hilarious responses to the oppressor outside and the apathetic onlooker at the doorstep. There was a flowering of graffiti; giant drawings seemed to crawl on the asphalt. Many of the smaller signs were literary gemstones, and video footage was quickly converted into songs. Photos were made into artworks of immediate relevance…
Kites in the colours of the flag were constantly flown high in the sky; and the military helicopters, which the protesters did not always trust, seemed to circle them.
Psycho-socio-historians will have a bonanza in Oedipal readings of the 25 Jan Revolution: a work of art that should generate endless departures in the world of the mind. Egypt being the mother (and it was so called in one slogan drawing on traditional patriotic discourse), the absolute ruler – called an idol, a serial killer, a thief as well as a dog – was the hated father. Among the working classes in particular, patriarchy in the form of feeling sorry for “our president” continues to register. (It is easy enough to point out that, with his family fortune estimated at US$70 billion and so much innocent blood on his hands, our president can go to hell. Even if the patriarch were desirable, surely it would have to be a righteous patriarch who cared for his sons? And with references to filial duty consistently invoked in the context of the dirty fight to keep the regime alive – Goliath posing as David’s wronged begetter – I for one can only see respect for this patriarch as a form of eternal self-hatred, a denial of the true messiah, the vomit of treason.) But – and this remains the more relevant point, by far – 25 Jan was, as well as the defeat of the police, an occasion for patriarchy to vapourise.
Just like hierarchy, just like the false homogeneity imposed by the segregation of discursive spaces, patriarchy eliminating the life impulse completely broke down in Tahrir. Sexual harassment, a chronic illness that has dogged public space for as long as anyone remembers, was instantly and completely cured in Tahrir. Female participation, a supposed objective of both government and Islamists somehow never sufficiently realised, was patent and profound. Counsel was imparted irrespective of age but no viewpoint was imposed; and the stifling, father-headed structures of oppositional bodies of the past – modelled as they were on structures of power – spontaneously broke down. A revolution without leaders: the more precise description is to call it a revolution without fathers; even the fathers inside it were creative agents of freedom, the freedom of children, and their designation as fathers did not blind them to the ugliness that besets age when it is disfigured and corrupted.
The authority of the collective will eliminates fear. While the protests went on in Tahrir, patriarchy lived on in the myopic terror of “the popular committees” who, failing to realise that attacks on homes were orchestrated by the regime with the purpose of aborting the revolution, carried their kitchen knives and broom sticks outside and just stood there. For hours on end they moped, obtuse, at the entrances of streets and buildings; they formed checkpoints to search cars, mimicking the notorious checkpoints of the police. They were concerned about their private property first and foremost, and they often blamed the revolution for the threats to which they were subject. They acted tough, but it would take only a gun shot for them to piss themselves freely.
Patriarchy lived on in the attitude of parents who objected to their children participating in the protests, often out of fear for their safety, but just as often out of complacency and paralysis. Other parents brought their infants to Tahrir, painting their foreheads with the word Irhal – “Go away”. The parents of the martyrs gave speeches, urging the protesters to hold their ground.
One elderly gentleman – the father of three – sat next to me on the pavement at the Front, as we had taken to calling Abdulmoneim Riyad Square where the attacks of Black Wednesday were concentrated. That was on the next day, towards sunset, and it was very quiet on the Front. A young woman wearing a cardboard and tin helmet started chanting, “Down with Mubarak.” People were too tired to join in, but the elderly gentlemen kept staring at her, a smile of awe starting to form on his face.
Suddenly he turned to me and pointed in the direction from which the girl’s voice was coming. “You know,” he said. “When I see the likes of her I feel that I’ve wasted my life.” With a mixture of sorrow and delight he started laughing softly. “If she can do that at this age,” he muttered, “what does that say about people like me? When I see the likes of her,” he enunciated loudly, “I feel like a piece of crap.”