From the Editors
“Yes We Can”
Since the flight of Tunisia’s Ben Ali on January 14th, there has apparently been a breakthrough in the imaginary of the possible in the Arab world. I was in Egypt at the time, and reeling as everyone seemed to be from the bombing of the Coptic church in Alexandria, attention soon became fixed on Tunisia, and a moment of national unity in reaction to the tragic event in Alexandria, soon developed into a movement of national unity that dared to conceive of and act toward an alternative to their own regime. Like many others, I have also been riveted to coverage of the demonstrations that Tunisia’s revolution inspired in Egypt, a revolution that remained on message rather than devolving into a mess. A revolution moreover whose message is one of a real national and democratic unity, and a determination to oppose a regime that not only does not represent Egyptians, but has served its own and external interests.
Since then we have learned that despite the shutting down of the internet, despite the lack of direct involvement and dare I say manipulation of these demonstrations by organized political parties, despite the lack of conventional leadership, an organic, truly popular and democratic movement for regime change has emerged. How, when and why has been asked by many far more informed individuals than I, and they have already proffered a variety of causes, motives and means ranging from the attempt to reproduce the Jasmine revolution in Tunisia (but then again Egypt and Tunisia have very different economic conditions, populations, state institutions), frustration with lack of economic opportunity and corruption (but then again, the crowds reflect far too diverse a range of classes and social groups to be characterized by a singular victimization – in short, this is not just about foul and taamiya), to social media (but then again they were shut down along with the internet and al-Jazeera at a critical moment in the evolution of this revolution), and of course Islam, in this case in the form of a Muslim Brotherhood, lurking, stalking, and waiting to lunge.
The reaction of the regime to the two weeks of demonstrations in Egypt has been unsurprising . On the one hand the regime cheaply and cynically deployed the rhetoric of state paternalism in its propaganda, and on the other hand it showed its true colors first in a crude attempt at repression through its bizarrely staged assault on the peaceful pro-democracy demonstrations in Tahrir Square on February 2nd, and then in a series of “concessions” (which on balance and to date have not resulted in anything concrete). For his part, Mubarak confessed to Christiane Amanpour of ABC, that while he was “fed up” with being a put-upon president, he feared “chaos” among his putative children. His Prime Minister, while striking a note of contrition in apologizing for the violence the state and its allies clearly instigated against the pro-democracy demonstrators, also chastised the “youth” for humiliating Egypt’s image and reputation in the world. Meanwhile the newly appointed Vice President Omar Suleiman noted again to Christiane Amanpour that he asked the “parents of those demonstrating” to call their wayward and irresponsible children home.
Such rhetoric aside, the regime also fomented discord and played on the fears of the public by forcing mobile companies like Vodafone to send pro-regime messages to its customers, and enjoining pro-regime interests to encourage, threaten, and bribe counter-demonstrators to provoke and assault pro-democracy demonstrators, while the army had clearly been told to stand aside and watch. Otherwise it has maneouvred its henchman into positions that make them indispensable to any transition, all the while engaging in legal sophistry about the constitution (itself a document that has all along been developed as a template to keep the regime in power), about which in any case nothing has actually been done yet.
The Kids are Alright
If there was a silver lining to the tragic death of 300 and the 5,000 or so that were injured in the unfolding of this revolution, it has been to expose the fraudulence of the regime’s promises and the extent to which repression was and is still a weapon in its arsenal. But since the use of violence against the pro-democracy demonstrations doesn’t play well in the media, the strategy of the regime has changed, even if its intentions haven’t. Amazingly, the pro-democracy demonstrators understand this, and have remained steadfast in their demands for regime change. After all Mubarak is still in power, his military henchman are defending him and the discussions they are having are being conducted with forked tongues – striking a note of victimization to the Western press designed to remind its consumers that nothing but disaster to a range of their interests would result from the regime’s exit, while using the fist in a velvet glove of “negotiations with the opposition” and the “council of the wise” to coopt the revolution, and civil salary raises in an attempt to draw away some of its supporters.
Nevertheless, another silver lining, as I see it, has been the evidence of the irrelevance of the state itself. In support of the anti-regime demonstrations, Egyptians have shown an incredible degree of self-reliance in their new found sense of community and nation. Streets have been patrolled, food and medicine have been distributed, garbage collected, and defense of Tahrir Square in particular have all been undertaken without the police, the army, and other institutions of state. Meanwhile Tahrir Square itself has taken on the attributes of an independent and sovereign state – the people within it have established their own borders, evolved their own army and arsenal for defense of its borders, their own foreign policy with regard to those outside it, their own police for the maintenance of law and order and detention of enemies within it, a system for the distribution of food, shelter and medical care, and their own “parliament” or at least forum for public expression in the center of the square. Giving lie to the assumptions of the paternalistic state, clearly the people don’t need it –they have evolved their own. In the microcosm of Tahrir Square, a secular, democratic state of, for and by the people has been established. That officials within or affiliated to the current Egyptian regime, not to mention those jockeying for validation among the opposition, have had to make pilgrimage to this functioning and secular democracy, is rich to say the least. The qibla of the alternative is Tahrir as it turns not, not the geographic Mecca. And because of what people have achieved in Tahrir, regime’s concessions appear desperate and irrelevant.
And yet another silver lining that has resulted from these two weeks of demonstrations, has also been evidence of the irrelevance of the traditional opposition. While all along analysts and observers have wondered how long this movement against the regime can be sustained without a conventional leadership, it has clearly not been necessary. Not only were the established opposition figures and parties not responsible for instigating this revolution, and slow to participate in it, their role as possible spokesman for it have clearly been compromised by their inability to represent the demands of the demonstrators. Certainly the Muslim brotherhood by virtue of its identity as a religious social movement, cannot embrace much less represent the multi-confessional and secular character of the movement created by the revolution, and other opposition parties which have formed around equally specific constituencies or issues are inadequate to the task. In addition to which of course is their record of relations with the state, which have been marked by postures, positions and platforms that have attempted to ensure their enfranchisement within the existing system, a system which of course the pro-democracy demonstrators are rejecting. That the regime persists in presenting its negotiations with an opposition it created, over a constitution passed by its own parliament, as a “concession” in no way constitutes a valid response to the demands coming from Tahrir Square. And the people in the square understand this. They continue to speak for themselves, and in doing so, again reveal the irrelevance of the “concessions” offered by the regime, as well as the “chaos” it threatened would occur without it.
Of course in speaking for themselves those involved in this revolution are hewing to the ante that was raised by the Jasmine Revolution in Tunisia, where a similar attempt to reshuffle regime elites was rejected, and where ultimately a new slate of individuals, technocrats, and officials not affiliated either with the previous president’s family or his party have turned to the business of a hammering out a new constitution as well as representative and accountable government. Clearly this is the bar which revolutions now have to meet; the time for “concessions” has clearly passed. The demands emanating from Tahrir Square in Cairo likewise call not only for the deposition of the president, but also rightly identify those that currently inhabit the institutions of state as illegitimate partners in negotiations going forward, along with the political party of which they are members, and the document they have used to create the legal fictions of acceptable authority.
As for the role of Islam? It would be hard to deny its presence if only because the most striking of images broadcast by those covering the revolution have been the manner in which prayer, especially Friday prayer, has as a ritual cohered a community in a resolutely peaceful response to the state-sponsored violence and divisions it has encountered. This is not the revolt of Islam, rather its olive branch; as such, a face of Islam that will force a reconsideration of the assumptions about its hegemonic intent.
Ultimately and sadly, the results will no doubt reflect what Israel needs, as brokered by the US and implemented by the Egyptian army. Egypt is not Tunisia after all; it’s too big, and armed, and strategically located unlike Tunisia. I will leave to those that are familiar with the calculi of the powers that be to fathom and form a coherent explanation of how they are to ensure an antiquated order in which Israel’s profile in the region is not eclipsed by Egypt in addition to Turkey and Iran. But the example of an alternative posed by Tunis and Tahrir will not be easily forgotten, and its reminder that lack of accountability has its perils.
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