The naysayers who had been suggesting (or, in some cases, hoping) that the protests in Egypt were running out of steam have been proven wrong, once again, by the Egyptian people. By some accounts, the crowds in Midan Tahrir today were the largest yet — “hundreds of thousands,” according to the Guardian’s live reports — and many of those protesting today were coming out onto the streets for the first time. As I write this, protests continue in front of the Parliament building, with the possibility of a sit-in there; one tweet, from an Al-Jazeera producer, reported that a protester had “climbed on the front gate of parliament to put up a sign saying ‘closed until the downfall of the regime.’” Thousands gathered to demonstrate in Alexandria, there were protests in Ismailia, Assiut, El Mahalla El-Kubra, and Suez, and more demonstrations and strikes were scattered across the country, including a strike and sit-in by 6,000 employees of the Suez Canal Authority and a walk-out and threatened strike by thousands of Telecom Egypt employees, among other labor protests.
The persistence of the protesters in Cairo, and throughout Egypt, could only have come as a surprise to those observers who have fundamentally misunderstood the seriousness of the aspirations being espoused by those who have made the Egyptian Revolution, and the clarity of their political will, summed up nicely in the words of protester Ahmaad Mustafa from Tahrir last night: “the longer we stay, the more we are going to get.” The U.S. media, looking for an explanation for today’s huge turnout, has mostly centered on last night’s Dream TV interview with recently-released Google executive Wael Ghonim as the “game changer” that motivated today’s massive, and massively energized, protests. But again, although Ghonim’s words have undoubtedly inspired multitudes of people inside and outside Egypt, this explanation completely underplays the extent to which this uprising has, from the beginning, sustained itself. The protesters know, very clearly, that the space they have created needs to be guarded and defended if it is to remain open; they have taught all of us who are watching the real meaning of the term “democratic uprising.”
In particular, the protesters have given us a lesson in the power of spontaneity, when combined with persistence. One of the major caveats expressed by commentators before today was that the “disorganized” and “leaderless” nature of the protests did not bode well for the inevitable process of negotiation necessary for the transitional period that was bound to follow. Even among sympathetic observers, the concern was that the leaders of the protest movement would be outmaneuvered by more savvy political players (U.S. commentators in particular have been obsessed with the idea that the Muslim Brotherhood would “hijack” the political process). There was always more than a bit of condescension in this attitude; take, for example, this commentary from NPR analyst Lourdes Garcia-Navarro on Sunday morning, as part of a report about how “normalcy” was returning to Cairo: “politically speaking,” we are told, “the people in the square have always sort of been proud of the fact that they are leaderless . . . but we are starting to see some organization.” This last statement — “we are starting to see some organization” — seems puzzling, since one would have thought that the efforts needed to stage and maintain the protests for nearly two weeks had involved quite a lot of organization, albeit much of it impromptu and improvisatory. But it turns out that the particular kind of “organization” being praised here was a very specific sort: the “level of organization” necessary for protesters “to engage in talks with the government to negotiate the ouster of President Hosni Mubarak [and] basically what comes next.”
It’s worth staying with this last point, since this particular demand for Mubarak’s ouster, which has been an unwavering point of unity for the protesters (and, by and large, a point of sympathy for many observers outside Egypt), had also begun to come under question by commentators in the past few days. Again, to cite the NPR report, which is typical of much of the media discourse in the U.S.:
certainly in the square these protestors that have galvanized this entire uprising say they will not leave until Hosni Mubarak is gone. That`s the first thing that they want. And then they say they will have these talks. They will discuss what can come next. But other people inside and outside of Egypt say, listen, this can`t happen like this. There needs to be a slow transition. If not, it will lead to instability. Constitutional reforms need to take place. Opposition parties need to be legalized. . . . So, there needs to be a lot of different things that have to happen for the democratic reforms to really take root.
What those crazy kids in the square need to understand, in other words, is that it’s all much, much more complicated than simply yelling for Hosni to go, so slow it down.
Of course, the protesters know about all these complications, and indeed, the demand for Mubarak’s immediate ouster is an integral part of their overall analysis of and response to the current political situation. What analyses such as the NPR report completely ignore are the concrete demands that have come from the protesters themselves, which address all of the complexities listed above, and more. Given the circumstances and the restrictions placed upon them, the groups that have led the protests have been almost miraculously clear and efficient in getting their message out. They have done so through statements issued to the press, such as the “Statement of the April 6 Movement Regarding the Demands of the Youth and the Refusal to Negotiate with Any Side”; through op-ed pieces written by those who have been part of the protests; and even through a massive banner dropped in Midan Tahrir, listing their demands. The demands have been unified, unchanging, and clearly articulated; as enumerated in the April 6 Movement statement (and repeated, albeit more pithily, on the banner), they are:
Mubarak should step down from power immediately.
Dissolving of the national assembly and the senate.
An immediate end to the state of emergency.
Establish a “national salvation group” that includes all public and political personalities, intellectuals, constitutional and legal experts, and representatives of youth groups who called for the demonstrations on the 25th and 28th of January. This group is to be commissioned to form a transitional coalition government that is mandated to govern the country during a transitional period. The group should also form a transitional presidential council until the next presidential elections.
Drafting a new constitution that guarantees the principles of freedom and social justice.
Prosecute those responsible for the killing of hundreds of martyrs in Tahrir Square.
The immediate release of detainees.
What makes these demands so strong is precisely the fact that they are all non-negotiable; they defy the “realist” position that the protesters need to negotiate with the current regime. By refusing to take part in the window-dressing “discussions” carried out by Omar Suleiman with a few “opposition” figures on Sunday (“Suleiman’s tea party,” in Paul Amar’s memorable phrase), the protesters have exposed these discussions, as well as Suleiman’s subsequent “concessions” (none of which, protesters have been quick to point out, match up with their actual demands), as a sham. By many accounts, the demands made by the protesters have appealed to the more youthful reform wing of the Muslim Brotherhood. This may be one reason why, despite all the media’s ballyhoo about the inclusion of several Brotherhood leaders in Sunday’s talks, the organization’s official position continues to be that no substantive political reforms can move forward until Mubarak steps down. In turn, young leaders of the uprising have praised the actions of the Muslim Brothers in supporting the protests, particularly during the attacks by Mubarak’s baltagiya on Thursday. Rather than leading to a splitting of the opposition, then, the non-negotiable demands of the protesters seem to have in fact unified the opposition, and indeed, as Amar suggests, those who have stepped forward to try to serve as negotiators, such as the self-proclaimed “Council of the Wise,” are finding themselves outflanked by the more progressive elements that have been the true guiding forces behind the protests.
If all this is true, however, it is only because the protesters have managed to put their bodies behind their words. The strategy of refusal carries with it the threat of invisibility: refusing to take part in negotiations, similar to boycotting an election, can all too easily lead to disappearing from the scene. Today’s protests made that refusal eminently visible; their refusal could be heard as loudly as the chants and songs that filled Midan Tahrir and many other sites around the country. Even as the vague noises about the dual need for “reform” and “stability” filter in from politicians in the U.S. and Europe, the demands of the protesters continue to gain momentum, supported by statements such as that issued by the Faculty of Law at Cairo University in support of the protesters and their demands, especially those regarding constitutional reform (a large contingent of faculty joined the protest in Tahrir today), and by initiatives such as a petition lodged by twenty Egyptian lawyers charging Mubarak and his family with stealing state funds. They have also won the support, if polls are to be trusted, of many people in the U.S.: according to a Gallup poll, 82% of Americans surveyed “support the protesters who have called for a change in the government in Egypt.” Given the telling lack of support of the Obama administration for the protests, coupled with the scare tactics of pundits crying “Islamist power-grab,” these are startling statistics. Equally startling, given the short attention span of American readers and viewers (Stephen Colbert noted last week that the continuing protests in Egypt constitute “a major test, not only of the power of democracy, but also of the American attention span”), is the fact that coverage of the protest has continued to dominate television news in the U.S.: according to the Pew Research Center, the uprising in Egypt is the most-discussed international story in the U.S. media since their studies began in January 2007, and one of the biggest stories of any kind during that period, with coverage rivaling that of the 2008 election.
All this may have repercussions for the people who continue to put their bodies on the line in Midan Tahrir and throughout Egypt in support of the non-negotiable demands that represent the only real possibility of democratic reform. And this support may become more and more crucial in the days to come. The regime has clearly felt the challenge posed by the Egyptian people today. In an ominous statement this evening, Suleiman set out a series of veiled and unveiled threats to the protesters. The government “can`t put up with continued protests” for much longer; the regime doesn`t “want to deal with Egyptian society with police tools”; there will be “no ending of the regime” and no immediate departure for Mubarak; calls for a campaign of civil disobedience are “very dangerous for society and we can`t put up with this at all”; and, finally, if the protesters refuse to negotiate on the government’s terms, the only alternative “is that a coup happens, which would mean uncalculated and hasty steps, including lots of irrationalities. We don’t want to reach that point, to protect Egypt.” This last threat remained opaque, perhaps intentionally so, but it was clear that a line was being drawn, if only a rhetorical one. After today’s victory for the protesters, it is unclear what tomorrow will bring.
The demands by the protesters for a complete removal of the regime seem especially crucial now, as U.S. and European support for Suleiman crystallizes. In spite of the words of support for Mubarak by his flunky Frank Wisner, and in spite of Hillary Clinton’s fond memories of the Mubaraks as “family friends,” it’s clear that Suleiman is Washington’s man; today’s conversation between Joe Biden and Suleiman, in spite of the faux tone of U.S. demands for prompt reforms, cements Suleiman’s status as the chosen facilitator of the “transition.” There is little surprise here: long before he was seen as the force of “stability,” Suleiman was Tel Aviv’s favorite candidate to succeed Mubarak and, as Lisa Hajjar has tirelessly documented, he has been the CIA’s man in Cairo. The sorts of real constitutional reforms being demanded by the protesters seem to be one of the few options for stopping Suleiman’s ascension: as Hossam Bahgat points out, if elections were to be held under the current rules, Suleiman would win easily. Needless to say, such an outcome would be the ultimate insult to the democratic aspirations of the Egyptian people. In the short term, it remains to be seen whether Suleiman will attempt to back up his threats with violence in the days to come.
I had been working on writing a completely different article today, a more analytic piece, while keeping one eye glued firmly to what was happening in the streets today. In the end, it seemed that the most useful thing that I could do was simply try to echo the demands that have emanated, so clearly, so articulately, and so bravely, from the protesters on the streets themselves. Perhaps this is the most worthwhile solidarity that can be carried out from here right now: in addition to following events in cyberspace and signing petitions (like this one), it seems crucial, while this story manages to maintain some staying power in the American mind, to help the demands of the protesters to be heard in all their eloquence and all their necessity. They need to be understood for what they are: the only meaningful version of democratic reform in Egypt. In all their non-negotiability, these demands refuse to be silenced. In whatever way we can, we owe it to the people in the streets to help their voices to be heard.
An invaluable set of links related to today`s events in Egypt can be found here.
Samer Shehata has usefully profiled some of the "wise men" who met with Suleiman on February 6. Meanwhile, the New York Times is scrambling to figure out who to annoint as the "leader" of the protests. That said, Times coverage of the ongoing protests and strikes has actually been surprisingly good, as has (shockingly, for many of us), CNN`s coverage.