There has been significant interest in the uprisings in Egypt and Tunisia among Italian authors, but the majority of works on the topic follow a very traditional scheme: a narrative of the events in the context of mainstream discourses on liberalism and democracy, usually imbued with implicit normative claims. The only exception to this trend is represented by two books that Agenzia X, a Milan-based activist publishing house, published in 2012: Lorenzo Fe and Mohamed Hossny’s In Every Street: Voices of Revolution from Cairo and Fulvio Massarelli’s The Rage of the Casbah: Voices of Revolution from Tunis. The authors—activists who travelled through North Africa as well as southern and northern Europe to follow the protests—talk about the rationale of their works and discuss the protest movements that have gained momentum between 2011 and 2012. In this first installment, Fe and Hossny discuss Egypt.
Paola Rivetti (PR): You recount the Egyptian revolution from an unusual point of view. Your book is in fact a book for political practice. It offers a sort of “aesthetic of action” rather than focusing on analysis. What was your goal in adopting this perspective? Talking about political action, do you remember any moment as particularly meaningful and inspiring?
Lorenzo Fe (LF): There are two reasons for adopting this style. First is that is my inspirational source is Marco Philopat, my teacher and editor at Agenzia X. He has his own approach based on oral history, which allows a very different narration to emerge. Marco’s book La banda Bellini has been particularly important to me. Marco narrates the story of the Italian radical left in late 1960s and 1970s through interviews with anti-fascist militants in Milan—the Bellini gang or Casoretto group—involved in “securitizing” left-wing activism from right-wing encroachment. Marco manages to get a very rich first-hand account of historical facts from a particular point of view, and this allows a different narrative and perspective of the period under scrutiny to emerge. By combining the voices of the protagonists into a sort of “collage,” the narration unfolds with fluidity and gives a clearer idea of the events. This technique contributes to a deeper understanding of what happened at the individual level during mass demonstrations and political actions. Second: narrating, not analysing, defiance and resistance allows the reader to identify with the protagonists of the book. In this, I was inspired by Wu Ming, an Italian collective of “guerrilla novelists.” This is in line with the spirit of our book as it tries to enhance the communication among activists on the two sides of the Mediterranean. It was surprising how easy it was to connect with Egyptian activists despite our different backgrounds. Such easiness is also manifested in the migration of protest repertoires: Guy Fawkes’ masks, the Occupy discourse, the centrality of the square as the locus of the protest, and recently even the “black bloc.” The references to Tahrir Square have been a crucial trait within the Occupy and indignados movements. On 15 October 2011, St. Paul’s Square in London was renamed Tahrir Square. This was a political message. In Europe, activists have been able to create transnational organizational links among them but we are very far from having stable connection between European and North African movements. I attended the Tunis Social Forum, which has been itself an important step in this direction: a positive example of the international coordination among activists was the establishment of two self-managed media centers in Southern Tunisia promoted by the Italian Zapatista organization Ya Basta! However, the difficulties to build lasting relations and stable networks beyond the forum itself are still with us. Shared cultural factors, such as hip hop, have been important to convey messages of defiance and can make it easier to connect. Hacking and graffiti also are shared practices in this process of internationalization.
Mohamed Hossny (MH): I think that the most important events during the eighteen days that defeated Husni Mubarak were the “day of rage” and the Battle of the Camel. Despite the Army’s controversial stance early during the Revolution, their decision not to disperse the demonstrators the day they were deployed in cities distinguished the Egyptian Revolution from their Syrian and Libyan counterparts. The Battle of the Camel, in particular, was the turning point for the soon-to-be revolutionary movement. After Mubarak’s speech on 1 February there were many who talked about reconciling with the regime since the situation was in a stalemate. After the Battle of the Camel, the Muslim Brotherhood sent orders to their men to withdraw from the square. Since that moment, it was up the youth to keep the square and even young Muslim brothers disobeyed and remained. This action was in synch with the nation-wide strike that the trade-unions organized, paralysing all critical establishments in the country. The workers’ contribution to the struggle was fundamental, as highlighted by Austin Mackell in contribution on the Mahalla uprisings we published in the book. This put local and international pressure on the regime to deal with the problem and eventually to throw out Mubarak. Our demand was unified and clear, and it was Mubarak’s dismissal.
LF: I remember being in Tahrir Square on the first day of Ramadan in August 2011. Suddenly I saw some kids armed with sticks running towards one end of the square and beating with the sticks on the road signs to call our attention. So I ran in their direction and I saw rows of policemen and army trucks. That was an inspiring moment because you have angry people facing hundreds of policemen and none of the occupiers was prepared for eviction, everyone was determined to stay. Even if eventually the square was evicted, to me that moment was an impressive example of the fact that people during revolutions have an inclination to defy massive danger. Social movements are about emotions as well, and we tried to convey emotion through the book as best as we could.
PR: Your “voices from the revolution” emphasize the anti-neoliberal nature of the protests and the demand for social justice. Considering the electoral victory of the Islamists, who do not plan any radical measure of wealth redistribution, do you think that the anti-neoliberal spirit of the protests is still there?
LF: The revolt against Mubarak was anti-neoliberal for those who started it; for others, notably the Muslim Brotherhood and its affiliates, who joined the protests later, it never was. These groups were united during the eighteen-day period that brought Mubarak down and later split. The submissiveness of the Muslim Brotherhood to the tutelary role of the SCAF made this contradiction worse and it all exploded in December 2012, with clashes between the Islamists and those who opposed Muhammad Morsi’s presidential decrees. The former neoliberal elite have been replaced by a new one, which is neoliberal-like but Islamist and well-connected with society. This has helped them in getting votes.
Hopefully the Islamist hegemony will turn out to be only one moment in the Egyptian transition. In Latin America, we had a strong continuity in the economic policies after the fall of military dictatorships. However, this continuity has partially come to a halt because of the failure of neoliberal reforms to deliver widespread benefits to the majority of the population and a new, more leftist-oriented era has begun. Latin America could become a sort of inspirational model for Egypt and also for Europe.
MH: I think that the Egyptian revolution was a revolution for social justice. Many groups, such as Kifaya or the 6th April Movement, had already set the ground for this demand. Before 2011, they had protested against vote-rigging and constitutional reforms but they connected with the wider population through demands for social and economic justice. Economic preconditions were already there, such as unemployment and the pauperization of the population. ‘Ala al-Aswani wrote many articles wondering why Egyptians were not revolting considering how bad the Egyptian economy was doing. I think it was the economic factor that led the people in the streets, much more than our need for democracy and rights.
As for Latin America, I do not think it could be a working model for Egypt. A predominant role of the state in the economy would not be beneficial for Egypt, for we have many “bureaucratic failures” and corruption. I think privatization is the way to go, with full protection of workers’ rights and a strong welfare state protecting the citizens.
PR: Lorenzo, in the appendix of the book, you describe the development of the Egyptian revolutionary movement in the summer 2012 as being partially characterized by a “circular dynamic”. You underline its immanence opposed to the normative idea that revolutionary movements become political parties after the revolutionary stage. You also stress the centrality of the people’s demands in establishing political scenarios. This reminds me of Michael Hardt and Toni Negri’s idea of the constituent power of the multitude. What is the theoretical perspective or your practical experience informing this view?
LF: I think that my personal political experience shaped this view. In Italy, I am a member of ZTL Wake Up, a group engaged in illegally occupying empty buildings for social purposes. I came across Negri’s works and post-structuralism at university, in fact the very idea of “immanence” is taken from Hardt and Negri’s Empire and from Deleuze. What I found in Egypt is the tension, if not the contradiction, between the “immanent search for desire,” which belongs to pre-figurative social movements, and the need of pursuing a policy goal. On the one side, we have the loosely organized, sometimes non-hierarchical and non-bureaucratic youth groups from the slums or belonging to the middle class, some of which are related to the sub-cultures of hip-hop and graffiti. On the other side, we have hierarchical and powerful state structures that still existed in Egypt. What mattered to me was the relationship between the movements and more established and hierarchical organizations, such as the Muslim Brotherhood, which has been able to significantly impact the state structures.
However, it seems to me that the Egyptian movements put a lot of effort in channeling their aspirations into clear demands and policy goals. This is somehow similar to what happened in Bolivia, with the crucial difference that social movements in Bolivia have been able to emanate a party sensitive to their demands while maintaining a significant degree of autonomy (Dangl 2010). Although the Egyptian political dynamic seems to go in a different direction, my wonder is whether the Bolivian model could travel to other contexts. Let me also add that in general we represent social movement organizations as more fluid and less organized than they are. The Muslim Brotherhood is a social movement organization but it is very well organized and hierarchical.
PR: Mohamed, you are aware that the Occupy movement in Europe and the United States saw Tahrir Square as a model. What is your view on it?
MH: We know that Western movements were constantly referring to Tahrir Square. This made us proud and had a positive effect on Egypt. The feeling of influencing others is great! However, I saw a lot of failed attempts in the West to achieve goals or to influence policies. I think that their main weakness was the absence of a clear, achievable and unifying demand. The Occupy movement gained attention from the media but less from ordinary people. It mostly consisted of well-educated middle class youth groups who speak a different language from the working class. The situation is now becoming very similar to leftist groups in Egypt.
To some extent, we are experiencing the same as we lost the capability of formulating achievable demands. During the eighteen days we have been able to do that, and we achieved our goal. Now, it is much more difficult, we are divided and the Muslim Brotherhood has a lot of popular support. Protesting in front of the presidential palace and organizing big demonstrations is not going to change much of the drafted constitution passed by a popular vote. Only little concessions can be won by what seems to be an outdated strategy. A combination of public resentment of Morsi’s right-winged economic policies and creative ways to pressure the regime can be keys for change in the future.
PR: Lorenzo, you have first-hand experience of how Europe is mobilizing against austerity measures. What are the similarities and differences between the squares you visited?
LF: Compared to Tahrir Square, the social coalition that supported the Occupy movement in London was smaller. Of course I am not blaming the Occupy activists; we are talking about two extremely different contexts. The Occupy movement seems to fit Claus Offe’s description of new social movements as composed by post-materialist, middle-class constituencies and marginal groups. In Egypt, the protests succeeded in involving broader portions of society and the people from the working class areas defended Tahrir Square along with middle-class people. In the UK, we had the Occupy St. Paul’s on the one side, and the 2011 riots where the disenfranchised from poorer areas were the protagonists on the other side, with no connection between the two.
I think the Western Occupy movements marked an interesting development of meaning and priorities from the global justice movement of the 2000s. The demands of the global justice movement about the fairness of corporate labor strategies in the global South were largely perceived as a moral problem and an ethical issue not connected to wealth distribution in the societies of the global north. The Occupy movement is clearer in focusing on the conditions of life in the global north too, and resents neoliberalism for failing to deliver the wealth it promised. The consequences of this shift in the communication strategy have been huge. The Occupy also disavows the predictions scholars such as Anthony Giddens made about the future of the left. He seemed to argue for a sort of “political bifurcation,” defending radicalism in lifestyle and identity politics but supporting “extreme moderation” on economic issues. As we know, this philosophy inspired Tony Blair and the New Labor’s idea of Third Way. The Occupy movement is the very evidence of how wrong they were. It highlights that the issue of wealth distribution is central for both the North and the South of the world.
PR: An exception to the diffusion of the Occupy movement in the West is Italy. This is despite the presence of well-established anti-neoliberal movements and despite the fact that Italy is often regarded as an example of the “convergent (il)liberalism in the Mediterranean” (Cavatorta 2010; Teti and Mura 2013), which underlines the political and economic similarities between South European democracies and North African regimes. Lorenzo, what are in your opinion the reasons for the lack of an Italian occupy movement? Some argued that Beppe Grillo’s Five Stars Movement has prevented the flourishing of an Italian Occupy by hijacking popular discontent. Do you agree with this?
LF: I think that in Italy the field of political opportunities was already “occupied” and no room was left for the Occupy. Beyond Grillo’s 5SM, the social centres movement has given continuity to social and political struggles in terms of logistical support and content, making the need for an Occupy weaker. In the case of Italy, an analysis in terms of social classes is more difficult given the inter-class political sociability we enjoy. This is particularly true in the case of the social centers movement, which is composed of a national network of illegally occupied spaces where socially and politically relevant activities are carried out. Social centers are of crucial importance in fostering an interclass socialization outside state institutions such as, for instance, the educational system. I think it is great that a university student like me crosses the invisible boundaries of social class belonging, which constrain our habits in the spare time in particular, and hangs out with working class comrades on a regular basis. Following on from this, it is arguable that those who would have been the hardcore organizers of the Italian Occupy were already engaged in the social centers movement, while the potential Occupy sympathizers ended up siding with Grillo. Antonella Della Porta has recently published an article arguing that Mario Monti’s technocratic government has not allowed a broad protest platform to emerge as institutional actors - among them the main trade unions--were engaged in supporting a sham super partes, expertise-based government whose mission was to save us all. Furthermore, the riots that occurred in Italy on the international day of rage led to two distinctive dynamics. On the one hand, they demonstrated that the Berlusconi-led government could not implement the austerity measures Europe was asking for. The removal of Berlusconi was the outcome of pressures coming both from Europe and from domestic mobilisation. On the other hand, the violence that had characterised the protests probably ruled out the possibility for a broader anti-austerity alliance to come about. But it is too early to say that the absence of the Occupy movement in Italy was an evil per se. The Occupy was great but after all it did not achieve much in terms of policy change. So we will see what the future holds for Italy and Europe.
PR: Mohamed, what do you wish for Egypt?
MF: The Muslim Brotherhood has come to power in a very particular moment of Egyptian history, and they are now setting the rules of the political game and drafting the constitution. They are going to play by their own rules and this is evident if you look at Morsi’s attitude. He is not interested in meeting any demand of the opposition. For this reason, I do not see a bright future unless the opposition finds a way to pressure the Muslim Brotherhood into their demands for a better constitution and electoral law.