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Everything Is Illuminated

Protest in front of the Egyptian Mission, New York City [Photo by Anthony Alessandrini] Protest in front of the Egyptian Mission, New York City [Photo by Anthony Alessandrini]

Everything is exposed. Every crack is showing. Protesters throughout Egypt have put their bodies on the line day after day, their vulnerable, breakable bodies, and with their bodies, they have forced, each day, a bit more of the story to become illuminated.

Anyone familiar with the combination of brutality and tactical expertise possessed by the Mubarak regime could not have been surprised by the savage strategy that has been aimed at unarmed protesters in Cairo and throughout the country over the past few days. The signs of a scorched earth strategy became apparent early on: the “mysterious” disappearance of security forces from the streets followed almost immediately by the “mysterious” appearance of looters and rioters (some armed with guns that looked “mysteriously” like those carried by security forces), the “mysterious” escape of thousands of prisoners from several jails.

It has taken several days, but the tactics of the regime have now become so clear that even the New York Times is willing to say what everyone can see. Here is Nicholas Kristof’s report today from Midan Tahrir:

The events were sometimes presented by the news media as “clashes” between rival factions, but that’s a bit misleading. This was an organized government crackdown, but it relied on armed hoodlums, not on police or army troops. The pro-Mubarak forces arrived in busloads that mysteriously were waved past checkpoints. These forces emerged at the same time in both Alexandria and Cairo, and they seemed to have been briefed to carry the same kinds of signs and scream the same slogans. They singled out foreign journalists, especially camera crews, presumably because they didn’t want their brutality covered. A number of journalists were beaten up, although far and away it was Egyptians who suffered the most.

It’s worth noting that as recently as Monday, a CNN commentator referred to reports that the security forces were responsible for looting and street violence as a “conspiracy theory.” As Lisa Hajjar notes [“The ‘Anderson Cooper Effect’ on American TV Reporting from Cairo”], one major reason for the turn-around in mainstream media coverage has to do with the “Anderson Cooper effect”: the all-out crackdown on the media has meant that American media stars such as CNN’s Cooper, NBC’s Katie Couric, and ABC’s Christiane Amanpour have been threatened or physically attacked by pro-Mubarak forces. These incidents represent only the tip of the iceberg, of course, given the much more widespread attacks upon and detentions of journalists, according to the ongoing documentation of the Committee to Protect Journalists and other groups. Attacks on journalists by U.S. and U.S.-supported forces in the region are of course nothing new — CPR has been documenting the deaths, injuries, detentions, and disappearances of journalists in Iraq, Afghanistan, Palestine, and elsewhere for much of the past decade — but again, the level of visibility of these attacks is something quite new, and at least in terms of affecting mainstream coverage of events, seems to represent a potential turning point.

What needs to be said, and constantly repeated in the days to come, is that the only reason that the “chaos in the streets” narrative has come to be challenged, and the dirty tricks of the regime exposed to the light of day, is because the overwhelmingly peaceful protesters have simply refused to be beaten back. Their sheer continuing presence in the streets is the only reason commentators can begin to describe the regime’s strategy of using armed thugs as a “strategic blunder” — although it remains to be seen whether whichever forces of the regime are orchestrating the response are not betting that they can gain enough time through a drawn-out war of attrition against the protesters to be able to take control of, and thus negate the meaning of, the “transition” that everyone seems to agree will follow current events. In other words, Mubarak, Suleiman et al may simply be hoping that a strategy of wounding, starving, and repressing the people in the streets may work to their ultimate advantage in the long run, however ugly it appears to the outside world in the short run; in doing so, they may be counting on the notoriously short memory of Western governments and citizens when it comes to the suffering of people in the Middle East.

Certainly, the strategy of trying to disable coverage of events and simultaneously take control of the narrative is still ongoing on the part of the regime. One of the most chilling events of today was the raid by military police on the Hisham Mubarak Law Center in Cairo, where several hundred members of human rights organizations and NGOs were gathered. According to the most recent available report, approximately 29 people working for the Hisham Mubarak Law Center and the Egyptian Center for Economic and Social Rights, Human Rights Watch, and Amnesty International were arrested and are being detained, including Ahmed Seif, Nada Sadek, Mohamed El Taher, Mona El Masry, Khaled Ali, and four others; their whereabouts are still unknown as I write this. Reuters has reported that Human Rights Watch researcher Daniel Williams was detained in the raid, Amnesty International has reported that one of its staff was also detained, and four activists who are part of the April 6 Movement (part of what has come to be called the “Facebook movement”), including Amal Sharaf, one of the core organizers of the movement, were also arrested in the raid.

Eyewitnesses reported that the offices of the Hisham Mubarak Law Center and the Egyptian Center for Economic and Social Rights were searched by the military police and their equipment was confiscated. The mobile phones of several staff were also confiscated. Armed men who presented themselves as pro-government supporters also reportedly entered the Nadim Center for Rehabilitation of Victims of Violence, which provides legal assistance to victims of torture, and threatened the personnel of the organization. According to eyewitnesses, security officers and others on the scene announced that those who were being arrested were Hamas sympathizers and foreign agitators. This, of course, is in keeping with the regime’s current strategy, found most clearly in Omar Suleiman’s address today in which he blamed “outside forces” and “foreign elements” for the protests. This was as Ahdaf Soueif (among others) had predicted:

Their next trick will be to say that the young people in Tahrir are "foreign" elements, that they have connections to "terrorism", that they've visited Afghanistan, that they want to destabilise Egypt. But by now the whole world knows that this regime lies as naturally as it breathes. What was it one American literary diva said about another? "Everything she says is a lie including 'and' and 'the'?"

This strategy is also apparent in the regime’s use of state television to spread rumors that Israeli spies had infiltrated the demonstrations disguised as Western journalists.

When I wrote recently about the bravery of Egyptian political activists, human rights workers, and journalists who have been involved in the painstaking and heroic work of documenting and combating political repression for decades, it was precisely the people working with, and alongside, groups such as the Hisham Mubarak Center, the Nadim Center, and the Egyptian Center for Economic and Social Rights that I had in mind. If they are being raided and arrested today (something that they have experienced many times before, it must be said), it is precisely because of their crucial work in supporting the protests, but also because they provide such a clear example of what the work of a people’s movement for political and social rights might look like.

Watching from outside Egypt, especially from here in the United States, we need to say it again and again: it is the Egyptian protesters in the streets who have made everything possible. Possible for the people of Egypt but also, we need to admit, possible for us. In exposing the farcical nature of U.S. policy, the hypocrisy of a discourse that promotes “Democracy” but is premised around the denial of democratic aspirations for millions of people, that believes “stability” can be built and maintained through repression and brutality (the current pious declarations of U.S. officials are belied by decades of U.S. policy, not to mention the “Made in the USA” labels on the tools of oppression in the hands of the thugs of Egypt), in revealing more clearly than ever the repressive role played by the Israeli government and its supporters and the obvious fact that this policy is completely unsustainable — in standing up and refusing to be sent back home, the protesters in Egypt have done more to expose the true nature of U.S. policy in the region than those of us who consider ourselves “activists” in the U.S. have been able to accomplish through years and years of efforts.

Let’s not sulk about this, or give in to self-lacerating guilt. Let’s simply say it: they have done everything for us, and we have done, comparatively, so little for them. But this struggle will not be over anytime soon; whatever the outcomes in the short term, whatever the successes in forcing out Mubarak, Suleiman, and the rest of the old regime and cleaning the slate for a transformed political process, whatever the “domino effects” elsewhere in the region, this is a fight that will need to continue, and there is plenty of room for solidarity.

In the short-term, this might involve, for a start, trying to change the narcissistic world-view of Americans (well diagnosed by Alex Parene) whose only question is “What do the protests mean for America?” — or, in its Fox News version, “Who’s our guy in Egypt?” — into one with a more internationalist orientation (or, less optimistically, at least one that would demand that the U.S. government get out of the way of democracy movements and allow for people in the region to determine their own destinies). It would involve looking closely, and talking widely, about the role played by the U.S. in Egypt, as well as the role played by the Mubarak regime in U.S. policies such as extraordinary rendition and torture (see, for example, this timeline that documents Suleiman’s role in U.S. rendition and torture efforts since 1995). It would mean re-opening the question of where U.S. military support goes in the region, and changing certain aspects of our strategy as thinkers and activists: for example, rather than the sometimes too-narrow focus on U.S. funding to Israel, we have the opportunity to show, based on the way the players are lining up around the current uprisings, that U.S. funding to Israel, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Tunisia, Yemen (after the Yemeni regime canceled elections in 2009, its aid package was quintupled) — indeed, any of the repressive governments in the region — is in fact part of the same execrable policy, and that it is this larger policy that needs to be fundamentally jettisoned. It might even lead to some real popular uprisings here in the U.S., where, as has been noted, the scale of income inequality — which has been widely projected as a leading cause for the people’s revolutions in Egypt and elsewhere — is actually significantly worse than that in Egypt, Tunisia, and Yemen.

“Anything could happen, but anything is better than nothing” concludes an account of the protests on Tuesday, when the mood, and the level of violence being aimed at protestors, was significantly different. Nevertheless, the statement hold true. This is, we must repeat and repeat, because of the people on the streets in Cairo and throughout Egypt. They have illuminated everything for us. We have to, sooner rather than later, find our way towards them, to somehow join them in making anything possible.


1) The Center for Constitutional Rights has called for people to flood the White House and State Department with messages of support for the protests and requests for President Obama to unequivocally demand that President Hosni Mubarak stop the attacks against his people and heed their call for his government to step down, and to end the more than $1 billion in U.S. military aid to Egypt until this brutal anti-democratic Egyptian government steps down.

Contact the White House through this email link and call 202-456-1111 (comments), 202-456-1414 (switchboard) or 202-456-2461 (fax).

Contact the State Department through this email link and call 202-647-6575 (comments) and 202-647-4000 (switchboard).

2) For those in the New York area, there is a call for a solidarity march on Friday, February 4, gathering at Times Square at 3:30pm and marching to the Egyptian Mission at 5:30pm.

3) For a report on, and an invaluable (and sobering) analysis of, today's events in Cairo, see this interview with Khaled Fahmy, Chair of the Department of History at the American University of Cairo.

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1 comment for "Everything Is Illuminated"


An excellent piece. You may also have noted that today,s N.Y.Times published a table showing that economic inequality in the U.S. is greater than in the Middle East.

Irwin Nack wrote on February 05, 2011 at 09:10 PM

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