Nightingale, do not fear your song
Speak your complaint and tell of your ordeal
The song will not kill you but
Holding back song is what will kill you
Salah Jahin (1930-1986)
Watching Egyptians protest today is a sight I never thought I’d witness. Having studied urban protest in Egypt and Syria in the late Middle Ages, like other Arabs of my generation I had been beguiled by our political quietness, our seemingly unending, bottomless stoicism. I chose to work on premodern protest to say something about the present and argue for something in the future. The late middle ages offered a case of medieval Islamic regimes centered in Egypt and including Syria, before the arrival of European imperialism – and before “modernity.”
Egyptians have protested in the past, and nothing in their “culture,” or their “religious beliefs” precludes this. Today the Egyptians are protesting in what is considered the greatest and perhaps the only real popular revolution in their modern history. We are too close to the events, in the throes of them yet, for superlatives to be in order. But lessons from the past are still useful.
In the middle ages, Egyptians and Syrians protested most often when they perceived an injustice. They did not protest and riot automatically when prices increased or when food was scarce, but when they sensed that there was something wrong in the market, when they knew there were manipulations by senior men of state and merchants or excessive, burdensome taxation by the state. Their protests often indicated that they had a conception of what the “moral economy” was and objected when this morality was violated.
When they rioted, the people of Egyptian and Syrian cities did not cause senseless damage. George Rude and other historians of Europe have shown us that this is a trait of popular pre-modern revolts in other parts of the world too. There is usually a certain logic behind the choice of the targets of revolt – both individual and material targets.
Rioting was not unusual in late medieval Egyptian and Syrian cities, it was so frequent it was a way of practicing politics under a military regime that did not allow multiple channels for popular participation. Protest was often a way of making demands heard to the powers that be which had no other means of being heard.
Popular protest also often led to negotiation; in fact it was often meant to lead to negotiation. There are similarities today and differences; new tools and realities on the ground. There is a sense of injustice now too, exacerbated by powers that had grown too arrogant, too ruthless in their arrogance that injustice became unbearable. It is not simply the inflation and the soaring unemployment rates that have caused people to revolt this January. They have been protesting these over the past few years. But what pushed them was the sense of flagrant injustice; that prices increase while some cronies make billions; that certain social circles and groups monopolize economic opportunities; that power is also monopolized; that there are new groups rising, carving out their ever increasing territories and pieces of the cake and elbowing others out. Much has been written in the past few years on the restructuring of the Egyptian economy, often by excited, approving commentators with the necessary flowcharts and power-point presentations at hand. This restructuring has caused a disruption in the social system and has left many people unemployed and bereft of the social services of the quasi-welfare state of yesteryear. Simultaneously, new social groups rose, mostly making their (huge) profits on the remnants of the public sector. The economic disruption has made itself heard in the protests of the past five years. The social disruption has led to sharp polarization in society, increasing resort to the use of violence in both public and private space, and numerous signs of despair – from drug addiction to an epidemic of suicide. The rigged parliamentary elections of late 2010, under the auspices of the “new thinking” (sic) of the National Democratic Party (sic), left many more with their backs to the wall.
It is testament to such perception of injustice that the current revolution broke out on 25 January: Police Day, which was very recently made an official state holiday to commemorate 25 January 1952 date of the Battle of Ismailia, in which police officers in the city of Ismailia had battled against British colonial soldiers. By 2011 the police were no longer associated in the collective consciousness with patriotism and national honor. Instead, the security establishment has become in recent years the potent symbol of a repressive regime. Several cases of torture within the security establishment came to light and shocked Egyptian society. And while some of the officers involved in highly-publicized cases were taken to court and received punishment, there are numerous accounts that document routine violations of the law and human rights in police stations and establishments. The infamous case of Khaled Said, a young man from Alexandria allegedly dragged out of an internet café and beaten to death by two security officials trying to arrest him (and currently undergoing trial) galvanized public opinion. Several demonstrations were organized after Said’s tragic death in Alexandria and in other cities, and a Facebook group named “We are all Khaled Said” soon had a virtual following in the thousands. The Khaled Said case touched a raw nerve because many young people, especially young men, identified with him and saw that his fate could easily be theirs. It was a tangible sense of injustice that had nothing to do with prices and employment, but with personal safety, with the right to “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” This sense of injustice is crucial to understanding why young people are acting the way they are. The Khaled Said group was fundamental in calling for demonstrations on 25 January. It grew in a national atmosphere in which various groups and coalitions have been talking about “change” for several years.
The spear head of the revolution were young men and women from all the main cities of Egypt. They are educated, ambitious, global citizens of the world. They are very young. Over the past few days we have heard a spate of statistics but chief among them is that almost half the population of Egypt (52.3%) is under 25 (and 40% live under the poverty line). This is enormous social energy – and, given the poverty and repression levels, enormous frustration – to unleash on any entrenched system. It is the energy of the young that has hauled much of society behind it; the middle-aged, the middle-classed, the weary, the unpoliticized. We saw a sense of energy on the streets we never imagined possible. One that is not bogged down by the dismal experiences of the past decades, that (unlike the 60s generation) does not know or register the sense of defeat after victory and can therefore imagine victory.
The ambitious young people of Egypt also have at their disposal some of the new tools of communication. Globalization has often been associated with strengthening parochial identities and breaking down larger ones, but this time around the tools of globalization allowed for the strengthening of larger identities, both within Egypt and within the Arab world.
Thanks to technology, the young people of Egypt — and undoubtedly the rest of the Arab world — have seen other people, just like them, with two eyes, two ears and a mouth that speaks in Arabic, rise up and grab their freedom with their own teeth. They saw the Tunisians do it a few weeks ago, and regardless of all the talk of the pundits on the death of Arabism, they recognized a commonality with Tunisians and with the rest of humanity, much of which lives in conditions of more freedom. And on Tahrir they met with the “other within” and realized this commonality. Pious members of the Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamist groupings met with Copts, secularists, leftists, football fans, housewives, professionals and realized they had common aspirations.
The targets of protest:
It is important to keep in mind the targets of any protest because they reveal much about the nature of discontent. The main targets of attack on Friday 28 January, the first day of “anger,” were police stations and offices of the ruling NDP. Like other protests elsewhere, these were not sporadic targets, but ones replete with symbolism. The significance of targeting the police establishment cannot go unnoticed. On the other hand, the NDP had grown in membership over the past decade (3.5 million in a country of 84.6 million, by some accounts), recalling the one-party systems of totalitarian regimes. Members joined usually as a means to get more opportunities from within the system, or to avoid the ire of the system. In the last parliamentary elections NDP members alienated many sectors of society, both players in the political system and the overwhelming silent majority left out of it, by monopolizing the election process from nomination to election, resorting to any and all means necessary to keep non-NDP candidates out of parliament house; gerrymandering, intimidation, detention of opponents (especially Muslim Brotherhood members), old-fashioned rigging, physical violence — any and all means possible. In fact, the former party officials were boastful of their achievements which they took as testament of the popularity and weight of the NDP on the street. It was just too much. It alienated many people even more.
Thus there was much anger on the streets, especially among the young, the educated, the semi-educated, the semi-globalized citizens of Egypt, when on 25 January 2011 they decided to celebrate Police Day by protesting against the system.
It was a revolution that took many by surprise, but which many forces — both within Egypt, in the region, and on the international stage — are trying to rein in and manipulate to their own advantage or to jump on its bandwagon. The Egyptian men and women in Tahrir square, however, are clear about their demands. The regime is trying to negotiate, to circumvent, to offer oranges when they demand apples, to lengthen its life by any means possible. If the regime manages to negotiate its way out of this, to accommodate and normalize Tahrir Square, the Egyptian state would have reinvented itself yet again. It will have done what it has been doing for millennia. If the Egyptian men and women in Tahrir continue fighting for a change of the nizam itself, (The main slogan of the Tahrir demonstrators is “The people want to overthrow the nizam” which means: regime, order, system) then they will have shifted the paradigm and moved to a different arena than their historical protesting ancestors. Instead of negotiating for limited gains within the system, they might be able to create a new, fairer, transparent system, in which all stake holders are represented and in which the human values of liberty and equality are respected. They will have been able to give birth to a “Second Republic” in Egypt. One of the other main slogans is: “Change, Liberty, Social Justice.”
Despite the roller-coaster changes of the latter days, and the swinging pronouncements from Lord Obama of Washington, there is much that is new so as to give hope. In addition to technology and the zeal of the young, there is a new spirit of imagination in the air in Tahrir, a lack of fear, and a new sense of unity. This might have been what it was like elsewhere in the nineteenth century when nations started imaging themselves. Some people surmise that this is a spirit that had died in Egypt since the 1919 Revolution, when the national movement was struggling for independence from colonial rule after WWI. In Tahrir we see people from all walks of life, who probably would not agree on many things; their tastes, their whims, their dialects, their dress, their faith, differ strongly. But they agree on some things: they agree that together they are Egypt, and they agree that they imagine and demand a better future for themselves and their offspring, and they agree that better means free. The protestors in Liberation Square are not fighting for limited, direct demands — higher salaries, fewer taxes, more perks. They are fighting for values such as freedom and dignity. And they understand this to mean self-rule, democratic representative government, human rights, a dignified life. This they agree on. And this is new.
They are opposed by the old, the uncreative, the impatient. They are opposed by a tired discourse that is conservative, that favors the status quo and is satisfied by “the devil we know.” They are opposed by those who are ready to accept the minimum, to settle for less because they dare not imagine more, to compromise because they are not used to being in a position to bargain and hold stakes or believe that they deserve it all.
Thus the Saviors in Tahrir face daunting obstacles; the corrupt, deeply entrenched regime they are trying to push out armed only with their determination and grit, and the people of little faith at their backs.
To the honest people of the world watching as Egypt rises from the dead, I ask you not to expect less of us than you would of other people, and not to accept from our leaders less than you would of other leaders. To liberated Egyptians everywhere: do not give up in the last mile and do not fear your song. You have shown us the latent energy in our country and unleashed the melodies from our chests, don’t stifle them now. We depend on you: don’t let us down.