Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Demonstrations not riots

I seem to have several worried emails from friends worrying about riots in Cairo based on what I assume must have been some pretty interesting coverage about the massive demonstration in Cairo and across many of the cities of Lower (northern) Egypt yesterday. Probably the most important thing to realize is that what happened yesterday were demonstrations and political protests not riots. They were certainly the biggest demonstrations about domestic politics since the 1950s and perhaps among the biggest ever. They didn’t shake the regime that way that the food riots of 1977 did or the revolt of the conscripted troops in 1984 but they were large and the government is clearly taking them as a kind of warning. The most remarkable thing about them, I think, is that they were a spontaneous response to a call by more or less unknown leaders who themselves have no well-founded organization. As such they indicate not only profound discontent with the regime and its policies but also what may be the rejection of what many here call “the culture of fear.” Husni Mubarak is not likely to be taking a plane to Riyadh anytime soon but the events yesterday may have crystallized much of what has been happening here for the past year.
Although there were significant confrontations between the police and the demonstrators, it’s apparent that the government decided not to use the massive force of which it is capable in one swift gesture. It didn’t, in other words, mow people down in the streets but it did use the kind of force which it has routinely used against demonstrations in the past including clubs, water cannon, and tear gas.
I’m going to try to write more later but for the moment there are two quite hopeful things that stand out.
The first is that the demonstrations were initially called through the Facebook page “We are all Khalid Said” which has been leading a major and successful effort to organize protests against police brutality, primarily through publicizing the brutal and deadly beating of a young citizen, Khalid Said, in Alexandria last year. The major political organizations—including the Muslim Brothers—stood aside from the call for yesterday’s demonstrations until virtually the last moment. It appears to have been young people who more or less forced the hand of the established opposition parties and organizations so that they all endorsed the demonstration by the hours before it was due to start. Yesterday was a holiday—and I’m sure the irony wasn’t lost on the organizers—national police day. So it was a day off and it seemed more than appropriate that people use the day off to demonstrate about how the police are used as well as about economic issues that have roiled the country for the past several years, leading to many strikes in the industrial heartland of the Delta. The regime’s nightmare has long been that the strikes of the industrial workers might some day link up with the demands of political insurgency. Yesterday might have been a step in that direction.
The second hopeful thing is how strongly the initially quite peaceful demonstrations focused on Egyptian issues and the demand for political reform, freedom, and some amelioration of the economy. These are all issues that the opposition press has been stressing ever since events in Tunis which clearly had some catalytic impact here. As far as I can tell there were no demands for Islam as the solution and no particular concern with the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. These are, of course, not issues without resonance in Egypt but yesterday Egyptians focused on Egypt. One sign carried by a demonstrator, “Tunis is the solution,” was clearly something of a rebuke to the Muslim Brotherhood whose slogan since the 1930s has been “Islam is the solution.”
For those who claim that Egyptians somehow don’t know what’s going wrong in their own society or can’t be critical of their own government this was also something of a watershed.
Where things go next is hard to tell. Unlike Tunis, the army is probably quite willing to use force to back up the police. The army does benefit from the current institutional arrangement. Nothing says this to me quite as much as the immense growth over the last 30 years of the Officer’s Club in Zamalek, a very affluent section of Cairo, which now has a luxury hotel, an outdoor restaurant, and (at least as nearly as one can judge from peeking through gaps in the very high and solid wall) an extremely relaxing oasis of a club in this island in the middle of the Nile.
There are of course very real problems, not least of which is tension between the Muslim majority and the Christian minority. From the drive-by shootings in Nag’ Hammadi in the south a year ago to the suicide bombing of a church in Alexandria in the past month there has been a persistent anxiety. This is heightened in that it seems to be very much the policy of the government to claim that it is protecting both the Copts and the majority of the Egyptian people from Islamic extremists. To do so, it says, it must maintain the state of emergency which I notice the western press says has been in effect since Anwar Sadat’s murder. Not untrue, that ignores the reality that with the exception of an 18-month period Egypt has been ruled either by martial law or some other form of exceptional rule for most of the last 50 years.
Where do things go from here? It’s hard to say but one thing does seem to have changed: this will be a much more interesting time to be here than I would have thought six months ago.

Saturday, January 15, 2011

Kaman wa kaman

I'm going to try the blog thing once again although I realize this is, by now, a technological antique. But since only a small number of people are going to read it (friends and few colleagues although some of you friends have been with me since around 1970) I'm guessing that's ok. Like so many other people around the world I've been energized by events in Tunisia and I seem to have things to say that otherwise aren't being said. And a few of you have even been kind enough (or foolish enough) to ask me what I thought about current events. So I'll begin with Tunisia and over the next several months while I'm in Cairo I'll comment, occasionally, on other things.

Three things really stand out in my mind about the last several week's events in Tunisia. The first is how these events should really put the endless and ultimately not very enlightening debate about suicide bombing in a completely different light. Remember the questions and the answers (sometimes that came before the questions): does Islam condone suicide? Do Arabs or Muslims think life is cheaper than other people? And on and on. I haven't heard anyone condemning Muhammad Bouazizi, the distraught and despairing college graduate whose vegetable stand was confiscated, for setting himself on fire. Nor have I heard anybody argue that he should have strapped a bomb to himself and attacked Ben Ali (or Sarah Palin or Benjamin Netanyahu). Nor have I heard anyone say he was just a worthless vendor (although this I suspect some people did say behind closed doors in various Tunisian ministries) whose life didn't matter. What seems to have happened was that this terrifying and terrible act caught people's consciences in some profound way (although that might not always be the case) and made it plain just how unbearable the situation in Tunisia had become. I don't know what anybody else thought but I found the picture of Ben Ali blankly visiting Bouazizi who was then dying in (one hopes) a haze of drug-induced unconsciousness nearly unbearable.

Does this mean that more people should immolate themselves? I don't think so and given what an intensely painful way it is to die, as the nerve endings and blood vessels decay in shock (if you haven't read Young Men and Fire by Norman McLean this may be the time to do it) I certainly hope not. But it does suggest how intensely valuable human life is and is seen to be in contemporary Tunisia.

Second, although there has been some talk about the repressive character of the regime it simply is worth noting that, long before the Islamist movement had been reborn and then crushed, the Bourguiba government drowned a trade union general strike in blood in 1978 for daring to oppose the regime's liberal planning agenda.

Third, for all the talk of twitter and facebook (and facebook seems undeniably to have played a role) perhaps we need to re-read all that literature on "the crowd". From George Rude to Ervand Abrahamian historians and sociologists used to pay attention to how human beings came together in large numbers. Can the new technology help? Probably it can. Is it decisive? Probably not. When the new technology was the broadside and the coffeeshop in 18th century London and Paris, people managed to "swarm" without a single keyboard in sight. Images help, of course, but they help because--even if only for a moment--we can imagine ourselves like those who are the victims of arbitrary repression and because--if even for only a moment--we can imagine ourselves as powerful enough to end it. The new technology may make imagining easier but it's not what makes it possible.

I haven't spent a lot of time in Tunis but I do know the downtown area somewhat and a small portion of the interior. Avenue Bourguiba is a broad boulevard where people go, especially in spring and fall, to stroll. It's lined with little kiosks and men (as well as women) often purchase jasmine blossoms to wear while walking between the Bab al-Bahr (the somewhat misnamed "Sea Gate" since it marks the direction of the sea from the Old City including the ancient mosque of Zitouna but is not anywhere near the water) and the terminal for the port (La Goulette or the "Gullet"). That end of the Boulevard is also the location of the Interior Ministry building which has, certainly for the last two decades, been literally nearly unapproachable. In the tumult of the past couple of days the entire broad street was overwhelmed with people and the police held a narrow cordon around the Ministry building. The president has left and the Prime Minister now seems intent on taking his place, although he claims it will only be "temporary." During the day it was, of course, night in Tunis and the government declared a state of emergency. Whether the troops will fire on people or, as has happened occasionally in the past few days, fraternize with them remains to be seen. There have been striking images of police saluting the corteges carrying the dead to funerals and protestors and security agents in full motorcycle regalia embracing on the street. There have also been images of police wielding batons on defenseless demonstrators and snipers shooting into the crowds. Tunisia has a relatively high literacy rate (albeit significantly lower for women than for men) which is probably a fairly accurate reflection of the reality. It's also a very urban country and it has a fairly politicized and even liberal population in many ways. It was, in peculiarly strange mirror of France, at once the most "Liberal" and the most repressive of the Arab police states. The official and public media were nearly unreadable--almost like what you would expect to find in North Korea--with their thin and treacly accounts of the wonderful things the President was doing. Tunisians in private conversation and writing, especially from France, were of course quite different. So now the real country and the formal country will have to look at each other tomorrow in the daylight.