Wednesday, February 02, 2011

Early Days of the Protests

With demonstrations having gone into a second day and the levels of violence, especially by the forces of order, rising Cairenes are considering what will happen over the weekend which begins tomorrow, Friday. There have been calls for renewed and intensified demonstrations and a nearly frantic effort last night to spread the word over Twitter and Facebook amid fears that the government would shut down access to those sites as well as its decision to ban any further demonstrations. These fears seem plausible, at least judging by my inability last night to access either Facebook or my email account registered outside the borders of Egypt.

“Are we in the middle of a revolution?” friends have asked. None of us have any experience living through one and in fact most Egyptians have had nothing but experience with repressive regimes, albeit of varying levels of ferocity and expertise over the past 50 years. If by revolution we mean the involvement of broad sectors of the population in a political movement against a wounded state which seeks to transform relations of sociability and economic power, then we are far from one. If, however, as political scientists who worked in the 1930s believed revolutions involve higher levels of uncertainty then Egypt is certainly on the cusp of one. Whatever else is happening at least for now no one knows what tomorrow will bring, a notion that is at once exhilarating and frightening. And there is a widespread sense that, as the columnist Amr Shobaki put it today, a threshold has been passed so that a new reality—whose outlines are far from clear but which will include a citizenry less fearful and more willing to undertake activity—is coming into view.

Although there have been large demonstrations in downtown Cairo which have been dispersed by tear gas, rubber bullets, and clubs, the most intense conflicts appear to be elsewhere. Suez, port city and a site of domestic and even international contestation (during the wars with Israel) appears to have seen the most severe violence. There are reports of attacks on the headquarters of the ruling party and the use of Molotov cocktails as well as violent fighting between the police and the demonstrators in the largely industrial city on the Canal. There is little doubt that what the government fears most is that the political confrontations in Cairo which are probably still limited to the young and the liberal somehow should become connected to the widespread discontent among the industrial workforce whose strikes and protests dominated the headlines a couple of years ago. Indicative of the levers of control that the government retains and which, certainly differentiate Egypt from Tunis, is that the leader of the official and state-controlled trade union movement, Hussein Magawer, today announced that his organization will monitor the workers’ situation, “hour by hour” to prevent them from showing solidarity with the protestors. The official union movement has long been part of the repressive apparatus of the state; it remains to be seen whether local activists and wildcat leaders have either the resources or the will to challenge the government’s control in so central an area of economic and social life. Should they choose to do and do it successfully it will clearly be mark a significant step forward.

The opposition press continues to explain events in terms that undermine not only the government but also much of the traditional political opposition. The Muslim Brothers appear, for the moment, like deer caught in the headlights of a truck moving down on them. They refused to participate in the demonstrations until they were forced to by young activists more or less at the last minute. They realized, correctly as it turns out, that the government would use this as yet another opportunity to lay the blame on them and then excuse its repression by claiming it was saving the country from the threat of Islamic extremism. They then announced that they were participating like other citizens. And the government has arrested more or their leaders and activists and tried to link them to acts of violence. Yet, as they attempt to evade government blame and repression they inevitably appear to be more fearful, less well organized, and also less connected to popular outrage than in the past. Muhammad al-Baradei, the former head of the International Atomic Energy Agency, and once hoped-for candidate for the presidency was outside the country (evidently in an undisclosed location) during the initial demonstrations which has probably further tarnished his image as a possible leader. Liberal political leaders have taken the opportunity to enunciate some stirring demands that echo popular discontent. Leaders of the Wafd party and the Democratic party for Change have called for a creation of a popular government and resignation of the provincial councils. The antagonism of the Christian clerical hierarchy to the demonstrations has probably not helped their image and the official Islamic hierarchy inside and around the Azhar has been silent. Of course official leaders expect the government to resolve the situation in its favor and will, no doubt, find plausible excuses should the demonstrations force it to back down.

What is completely unclear is what kind of disagreements or splits there are within the ruling elite itself. Some members of the National Democratic party have made conciliatory, if not wholly believable, statements on television. Citizens, they assert, have the right to protest and question the government. The problem, as many Egyptians have noted, is that these rights enshrined in the Egyptian constitution do not seem to have been very prominent in either the discourse or the decisions of the ruling party until this week when demonstrators forced the issue.

A popular question is “why now?” Since no one, apart perhaps from the more or less unknown activists who called the initial “Day of Rage” demonstrations seems to have foreseen events remotely like what have occurred it is necessary to note the ad hoc nature of the answer. I am sure that, especially outside Egypt, experts are explaining why now and what next. Here things look less certain.

Nevertheless talking to friends there are a few things to keep in mind. Having allowed some space to the opposition, especially the Muslim Brotherhood, in the 2005 parliamentary elections the government’s decision to eliminate all opposition in 2010 seems to have been egregious and demeaning. It was one thing to prevent people from voting and falsify the voting while leaving a certain margin for opposition. It was something else to willfully eliminate the opposition while intensifying the falsification. Widespread as vote-tampering was (and has been for decades) there was something especially shocking about a widely circulated video clip from last fall that showed an election official turning out falsified ballots in a polling station with a dispatch and gusto rarely seen in the activities of civil servants here.

The sense that the institutions of the state are not only repressive—which after all they have been at least since Nasser if not in fact during the socalled liberal era—but simply no longer function with any degree of effectiveness also weighs on people. The government was caught napping when the countries of the upper Nile basin decided, last spring, to challenge the existing allocation of war to Egypt’s possible detriment. The government responded to “swine flu” by exterminating Egypt’s porcine population which caused significant damage to the environment (the pigs helped to dispose of garbage by eating it), elements of the Christian community (which owned them), and reaped additional scorn from the intelligentsia (which realized that, despite its name “swine flu” does not pass from pigs or pork to people so that the destruction of the animal population did not make humans safer). The government, despite its aggressive opposition to Islamic extremism, hasn’t been able to protect the Christian community from several outrageous acts of murderous assault. The attack on an Alexandrian church this year caused more death but the one in the south last year that involved a drive-by shooting appears to have been linked not to religious gangsters but to the electoral politics of the ruling party itself.

The new media played some role in all of this. It is now possible within hours, if not minutes, to see gruesome pictures of citizens beaten to death by the police (Khalid Said), vote tampering, massive crowds in the main square in downtown Cairo, and vicious satires of the ruling elite. It is also possible for people to connect with each other quickly and relatively securely. But it is also true that this is, while certainly not a free or liberal polity, one in which there has been significantly greater freedom of expression and access to the external world than in the past. Thirty years ago the secret police could (and did) round up almost anybody for a night of interrogation or several years in jail or a concentration camp. Thirty years ago if you wanted any news except that given by the government press, you sat in an internal room of the apartment (so no neighbors would hear) and you listened to BBC or the Radio Monte Carlo Arabic service turned down as low as possible while still being audible. Today you turn on the television and watch Al-Jazeera, Dream, or CNN and whatever you miss intrepid reporters in the opposition printed press will bring you in the morning.

Connectivity, itself often identified with the new media, also matters. As in much of the third world the paucity of landlines brought the mobile phone into massive use. Cell phone stores and cell phones abound. It’s not necessary to be particularly literate or numerate to use them and, perhaps even more important than Facebook and Twitter, they encourage oral rather than written interaction. Since social scientists have long tended (probably wrongly) to associate modernity and upheaval with literacy, it may come to be a shock to them as they need to begin to think more about orality, rumor, and face to face (however mediated through electronic mechanisms) interactions.

So far the government has tried to minimize the effect of the past days’ events. Although it has, quite brutally, cleared the downtown Cairo squares in the late evenings and responded with even more force to events outside the capital, it has resisted imposing a curfew. It has also refrained from unleashing massive violence. Clearly the government is and has to be worried about the effect of a loss of confidence (among its supporters) and the continued loss of fear (among its opponents). There is much broader public opinion and the government is far more dependent on society than in the past. One simple, and perhaps to American ears, not very meaningful example is the effect of the last days on the Egyptian stock market and the value of the pound: both have falling dramatically. The fear that investors might abstain from the Egyptian economy or that people are beginning to send money abroad was not very compelling for the government when it occurred in 1954 (the last time there was a functioning stock market during a period of massive unrest). However this is not an economy that can do without links to the international economy any more nor can the government reverse the years of privatization and hope to re-install a nationalized industrial system. That is a road that has pretty clearly shown itself to be unworkable.

And a curfew? The government can send 30,000 troops to contain 30,000 demonstrators in the center of the capital and it has. But can it actually enforce a curfew on a conurbation of 14 million people. People have been stocking up on food just in case but, again, this is a society where regular food shopping remains a fact of life and where most shopping begins at 6 pm and socializing routinely begins at 8 pm. Those with long memories in the government may recall the late President Sadat’s attempt to “discipline the streets” in 1980 by forcing European closing hours on stores. Despite using riot police and elements of the army, the government gave up the attempt outside of the center of Cairo within days and abandoned the effort there within weeks. What if the government imposed a curfew and nobody obeyed it?

1 comment:

Cuphound said...

Thanks, Ellis, for this rich piece! Please be careful.