By Aditi Surie von Czechowski // Photographs by Surie von Czechowski
CAIRO—On the afternoon of January 28th, better known as the “Friday of Rage,” I went out for one of my daily reconnaissance walks, to see what would materialize after scattered peaceful protests were brutally quashed by police forces a few days earlier. Having spent the last few months in Cairo researching urban spatial politics, the ways in which people appropriate public urban space, and riots, I couldn’t help but be fascinated by the events unfolding here. Just two days earlier, I was caught in a near-stampede near Midaan Issaaf downtown, where a peaceful protest of fifty people swelled into hundreds and culminated in a crackdown by the amn dawla (state security forces), who charged the crowd with sticks, water cannons and tear gas. As I turned the corner from my building in a shaabi (or popular) quarter of Cairo’s Agouza neighbourhood, I saw a deathly silent, traffic-free street, and a row of riot police blocking the entrance to the 15th of May bridge, one of the main access points to downtown Cairo and the all important Tahrir Square. Moments later, a steady stream of thousands emerged from down Gamaat al-Dowal street, chanting, walking peacefully but determinedly towards the blockade – men, women and children of all classes. There were families with children on their shoulders, educated young Egyptians, unemployed youth, veteran activists, labourers, local politicians, migrants from the south – the whole spectrum of Egyptian society.
No sooner had they approached than the police began to fire tear gas, beating back protesters who dared come too close. For almost four hours, the tear gas canisters shot into the crowds. The protesters turned back, injured, limp bodies carried to the sidelines; those who had been gassed went to the back and were replaced by comrades with tear-free eyes, and the march towards the bridge began anew. People had armed themselves with makeshift masks and scarves; many carried vinegar and onions to cut the sting of gas. Protesters were handing out water and vinegar and taking care of those who were injured. I watched as two older protesters dissuaded a group of teenagers from preparing firebombs, urging “muzahara silmeyya” (peaceful protest), a refrain I heard many times in Tahrir Square over the next few days. “Sawwari, sawwari,” they said. Take pictures. Show the world what Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak is doing to the country’s peaceful citizens.
The next day police had disappeared entirely from Cairo’s streets. Prisoners had escaped the jails. And baltaggeya (vicious thugs proven to be in the pay of Mubarak) were looting and mugging residents. My neighbours warned me to barricade myself inside and exercise extreme caution. As curfew came into effect, locals came out to patrol the neighbourhood with pistols, shotguns, and other makeshift weapons – including our neighbour’s 12-year-old son brandishing a samurai sword and the petite local makwagi (a person who irons clothing) with a hastily constructed Molotov cocktail. In an inspiring display of solidarity, local shopkeepers kept prices low, neighbourhoods organized watch groups and citizens banded together to organize security in Tahrir and to clean the streets of Cairo. External observers and foreign media marveled at how Cairenes came together in a time of crisis, like it was a new development in what seemed to them an eternally inhospitable city. In reality, Cairenes have long been engaged in grassroots activism and activities to obtain services and fill in the gaps of their inadequate government’s public services.
Scholars (like Salwa Ismail, Diane Singerman, and Asef Bayat) have all written about how ordinary people are changing the Middle East, from Yemen to Morocco; that Islamist activism has elements common to all social movements; and that at the very heart of this activism is always an informal network, whose members share a constantly transitioning collective identity molded by the distinct cultural and (repressive) political contexts they inhabit.
The solidarity and community organization during the days of uncertainty following Egypt’s well-publicized protests were an echo of forms of activism already common in urban Middle Eastern settings. Understanding the nature of networking and social activism does much more to explain what happened during the ongoing Egyptian uprising than the rather shallow, reactionary analyses that point variously to external factors, a ticking-time bomb of Arab resentment, or the revolutionary power of the Internet and social networking media. Furthermore, the failure to recognize the origins of dissent has important foreign policy implications.
Western media has clearly been caught up in a “dominoes” narrative of the Arab world, employing an all-too simplistic understanding that the Egyptian revolts were a sudden explosion of pent-up frustration with the regime brought on by the incredible, and literally incendiary, example of Tunisia. No doubt a catalyst, the Tunisian uprising clearly created a buzz in Egypt. But analysts and journalists have gone on to point out even more external factors, almost obsessively; Thomas Friedman’s article in the New York Times even pointed to what he conceded were “ ‘not-so-obvious forces’ that fed the mass revolt” in Egypt, like, well, the Beijing Olympics. Of course.
The real question is this: Why must Western media continue looking for external foreign influences or even, and perhaps especially, technological ones to explain what is happening in Egypt or other parts of the Arab world? It is apparently unthinkable that a desire for freedom and democracy can spring organically from within a country. A better course of action – and one that yields more pertinent conclusions – is to explain the domestic historical strategies of resistance that made these uprisings possible.
It is true that Egyptian activists met with pro-democracy activists from Serbia and Ukraine to learn tactics of non-violent resistance. It is also true that in today’s world, with technological advances and near-limitless access to information, that Egyptians, like all of us, are influenced by what is going on in the world around them. (It is certainly worth noting, however, that the Internet penetration rate in Egypt is only 15.4%, with only one-million households having access to a broadband connection.) But a narrative that focuses on the uprising as a sudden reactionary movement, inspired by external events and forces, is opaque: It discolours our understanding of Egypt’s rich tradition of social movement activism and political resistance.
Pundits heralding Twitter and Facebook as the new harbingers of social change and revolution all too easily overlook labour protest movements, food riots, football riots and Islamist social activism as various forms of so-called “contentious politics” and part of the political fabric that made today’s uprisings possible. Charles Tilly and Sidney Tarrow have defined contentious politics as “interactions in which actors make claims bearing on someone else’s interests, leading to coordinated efforts on behalf of shared interest or programs, in which governments are involved as targets, initiators of claims, or third parties.” Collective claims are thus made on the basis of historically determined repertoires of action. For example, residents of Calcutta frequently engage in labour strikes, while Britons turn to petitions to engage in claim-making; both follow from long traditions of striking and petitioning to demand rights. Similarly, in Egypt, mass protests and riots have always been the tool of choice for resistance, well before the protests captured the world’s attention via the immediacy of the 24-hour news agenda and social networks.
In Egypt, in late 2006, workers in the industrial town of Mahalla went on strike, an action that inspired other labour uprisings. This was followed by protests over the price of bread in 2008. Already, people were rising up against what they perceived to be a wholly inefficient and illegitimate government. This was also reflected in regards to sport, an arena commonly used in Egypt as a tool to stir up nationalist sentiments. In football riots following games between rivals Egypt and Algeria in 2009, victory and defeat were seen metaphorically as a reflection of political might rather than skill on the field. The nationalist sentiments endorsed by the Egyptian government quickly gave way to an expression of dissatisfaction with the regime. An Egyptian fan in Sudan noted: “How can Egypt, the Arab symbol of strength, be humiliated like this in the streets of Khartoum? And if we really are a strong country, why aren’t we doing something about it? Nobody had ever insulted the Egyptians to this degree. This issue revealed so many things, it woke up the people.” Many commentators saw this so-called “football war” as propaganda designed or orchestrated to distract Egyptians from their very real domestic problems. But under a repressive regime, where group gatherings are prohibited, large groups of football fans seized this opportunity to effectively undermine the regime. Despite its prohibition of most public gatherings, the Egyptian government tolerated and even encouraged football rioting in the streets of Cairo, before and after both matches; a performance initially condoned by the regime was transformed into a valve for dissent. This forms part of football’s long history in Egypt as a tool of resistance against colonialism (the Egyptian football club Al-Ahly, for example, was founded as a meeting place for opponents of British colonialism and its players still wear the pre-colonial flag colours). More recently, Egyptian youth movements decried rioting after a match between Egytian club Zamalek and Tunisia’s Africain club on April 2 as “counter revolutionary” violence.
Football, not Facebook, is embedded in the political vocabulary of Egyptians, despite the prominence and motivating factor behind the “We are all Khaled Said” Facebook group started by Wael Ghonim, a Google employee of Egyptian descent. The tradition with football, though, goes back further than the most recent protests. Many also compare these football riots to the environmental protests in Bulgaria in the late 1980s, which were actually an outlet for anti-communist sentiment. These vocabularies of contention also came into use in the 2011 protests: Prominent blogger Alaa Abd El-Fatah noted in an interview with Al-Jazeera that, “The Ultras [a group of hardcore al-Ahly fans] have played a more important role than any other political group.” They also provided social services for demonstrators in Tahrir square, and organized themselves to regulate security and fight against government forces. Indeed, “leisure culture has powerful effects on political culture, and hence on both the demands people make on the political system and the support they bring it.” In other words, Egypt’s strong history and traditions of dissent through protests and rioting in the public and sporting arenas directly influenced the 2011 uprising.
Twitter and Facebook were instrumental in mobilizing people (though, particularly the young), in disseminating information and in updating protest locations and providing new information about ongoing state-sponsored atrocities. But these protests weren’t made possible by new technology – new technology was simply a tool that harnessed years’ worth of political resistance. And though the overall tone of the uprisings has been secular and change-driven, Islam has also played a role – one that has been almost completely ignored by the Western media, which is more familiar with painting the Muslim Brotherhood and Islamists as extremists to be feared, and are generally loathe to associate Islam with positive connotations. Mosques – historically and in this particular uprising – were also a crucial venue for political organization, since many of the protesters organized together at mosques after Friday prayers. (Under Mubarak’s repressive regime, Islamism was more of a social movement that co-opted political institutions and used existing modes of discourse to articulate dissent; mosques and piety groups were some of the few places where group gatherings were permissible.) Articles like “Few Focus on Islam in One Cairo Neighborhood” heralded the arrival of a new attitude towards political change, one unfettered by religious concerns. In a polarized depiction of Egypt alternately threatened by a “hijacking of the revolution” and by the tone of political demands, there is not often room for middle ground; but the reality is that Islam remains socially and politically significant, and is likely to have an evolving role as necessitated by shifts in the political and social climate as the uprising takes on different forms with time.
As the conflict in Libya rages and we gain more distance from the galvanizing, early events of Egypt, commentators still insist on focusing on external inspiration and the “incredible” power of social media and the Internet, sensationalizing homages to Facebook and Twitter on the ground as evidence of their role. This reflects the West’s long-standing inability to ascribe historical and political agency to Arabs, and a refusal to see Arabs as meaningful and significant political actors, as capable of writing their own histories and making their own choices. At best, this view is naive and patronizing; at worst, it is dangerously neo-orientalist.
All of this is compounded by the ethically inconsistent international responses to events in the Middle East and North Africa. Since the formulation of the Atlantic Charter, one of the first iterations of human rights as we know them today, economic and security concerns have long been linked to human rights and used as a justification for intervention; war is never “war” per se, but intended to variously spread democracy, end terrorism or bring freedom to far away lands. Ironically, embattled regimes like Libya and Yemen have adopted this very language, claiming that their violent responses to uprisings or rebellions were not against civilian protesters but were morally just responses to “terrorists.” (The same type of justification is now common all over Central Asia, and has even been adopted by China.”
It is these economic and security concerns that still drive U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East and North Africa (and indeed, everywhere else). Western nations, especially the U.S., slowly and selectively dole out military assistance or harsh words to dictators and monarchies facing unsatisfied and striving populations, acting not in the interests of democracy and human rights but rather, unsurprisingly, in a calculated and cynically realist fashion, as evidenced by the excruciating lag in distancing themselves from key allies in the region. European nations were initially worried about alienating Libya’s tyrannical and deranged leader Muammar Gaddafi, who is crucial in controlling the flow of illegal immigrants to their shores; while Yemeni president Ali Abdullah Saleh was seen as an important ally in the fight against Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula; to say nothing of American military and economic interests in the Gulf.
It is only when situations are beyond repair – or move beyond dull, drawn out repression into blood-soaked massacres – that condemnation ensues. I remember well a quote by Weimar-era journalist Kurt Tucholsky that was graffitied onto the Israeli security wall surrounding Bethlehem: “A country is not only what it does, it is also what it tolerates.” Dictatorships – whether by cult of personality, monarchy or military – have been tolerated and supported by the international community for too long. It may be naïve to hope for a foreign policy approach driven by humanity and mutual respect, but in a strategically crucial region, it is time for the West to recognize the agency and power of an overwhelmingly young, globally-influenced population that has the education, the communication tools and the means to make a difference both locally and across borders – and to make good on its professed commitments to, and unending rhetoric about, human rights and democracy.
Events from Bahrain to Libya are still stuffed under the subheadings that speak of “Arab Revolutions” and the “spread of the freedom impulse” in this so-called “Arab Spring.” Tunisia and Egypt may have ousted dictators, while Libya and Yemen are perhaps on the brink of such events. But change is harder to come by elsewhere, even when it is also much needed, like in Algeria, which has been all but written off after its recent and violent civil war (and is unlikely to receive international support for fear of recidivism).
Even in Egypt, the truth is that we are far from a true revolution. As the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces moved to criminalize protests once again, few seem to be paying attention to the fact that the battle is not nearly over for Egyptians. Two words, almost too insulting to the masses that mobilized against Mubarak, appear almost too harsh to utter: Military coup. Despite the promising developments that led to the dismissal of Mubarak and members of the ossified regime he helmed, one form of authoritarian rule has simply been replaced by another. Echoes of Mubarak’s regime trickle back in, with old hands like Zahi Hawass, Minister of Antiquities, being reinstated in office. True change is not quite yet in sight – first, a democratically elected government must come into power. Only then, and only after significant economic, political, and social change – which is sure to draw on the country’s long traditions of social protest – has taken place, can we call this, or indeed other events in the region, a revolution.