‘Rescue the Revolution’

Notes from Cairo

By Michael C. Hudson

For those of us that thought the Egyptian revolution had run out of steam, the experience of last Friday’s marathon “happening” in Tahrir Square was firm evidence that any death knell remains premature. Equal parts political rally, religious celebration, Woodstock (Egyptian style), carnival, and family outing, this was Egyptian society–suddenly free–and exuberantly expressing itself. I watched toddlers happily having their cheeks painted the colors of the Egyptian flag, a group of veiled women camped out under a bush taking refuge from the hot sun, a teenager beating a drum while held up by his buddies, an old man with his granddaughter on his shoulders proudly displaying a handmade poster proclaiming “rescue the revolution,” a couple of guys sitting and chatting with a poster reading “Facebook… Reload” propped up beside them, and the eminently entrepreneurial souvenir sellers. The enthusiasm and optimism evoked the spirit of an American political rally — with the buttons and banners showcasing the “January 25 Revolution” to boot.

On the whole, this was a youngish crowd of middle class Egyptians — almost everyone was plugging at mobile phones and cameras — alongside laborers and others. I saw a few bearded men but not many: the two main Islamist tendencies, the Muslim Brothers and the much more radical salaffiyin, were not discernibly present. More significantly and conspicuously absent were the military and the security forces. Hard as I looked I could not find any uniformed men or tanks. In fact, even the armored personnel carriers lined up in front of the old Nile Hilton just the day before were nowhere to be seen. I heard that this demonstration would be bigger than any other since Mubarak’s downfall, and it was. At any one point there must have been tens of thousands in the square.

The collective expression of Egyptianness — “raise your head, you are Egyptian” was the slogan of the day — was unforgettable. But the other remarkable thing about it was its length. People just couldn’t get enough. I got to Tahrir around noon while a large crowd was observing Friday prayers led by an imam delivering a sermon that fused religion and protest. I mingled for a couple of hours and then decided that was about it. But when I came back three hours later the crowds were even larger, and they remained there well after dark. By that point there were a half dozen grouplets of demonstrators eddying here and there through the square: a handful of teenage girls led by a fiery young woman in full niqab; a very elderly Coptic priest assisted by young followers; young men on a makeshift stage, replete with powerful loudspeakers, exhorting the crowd to “rescue the revolution.”

And the revolution does need rescuing.

Despite the carnival-esque atmosphere, these people were in Tahrir on serious business: they sense that their revolution is in danger, and they are right. The Higher Military Council who sent Mubarak packing to a comfortable retirement in Sharm al-Shaykh has so far been opaque in its decision-making, and answers to nobody.

The military, led by Field Marshall Mohamed Hussein Tantawi, rushed through a package of constitutional amendments with minimal consultation but via referendum, which set a speedy timetable for elections next September. (The rapid pace certainly favors the best-organized political tendencies, the Muslim Brothers and the apparatchiks of Mubarak’s National Democratic Party, which have been playing at Egyptian politics for decades — longer than most of the revolutionaries have been alive.) They proposed rules that would severely discourage strikes or demonstrations that might adversely affect the economy. Further, the Council has been suspiciously slow in bringing to trial Mubarak’s closest cronies–men like Safwat Sharif and Fathi Suroor–on corruption charges (not to mention the President himself). The protesters, students, think tank experts, and professors I spoke with fear that Egypt may be trading in one dictator only to have him replaced with another form of authoritarian rule. Will the old structure minus its longtime boss actually recreate itself?  Some think it hasn’t disappeared at all. One newspaper commentary was headlined “Egypt is still Mubarakstan.”

Granted, the Egyptians have achieved something unprecedented in the modern Arab world: the ousting of a dictator through popular will. But it remains unnervingly uncertain whether genuine civilian government will emerge to complete the revolution. It’s difficult to avoid observing that the revolution has to come to terms with some enduring political realities.  One is the army. The other is the Islamists.

The military has been the backbone of republican Egypt since the Free Officers’ coup of 1952 that brought Gamal Abdel Nasser to power. The three men who have ruled Egypt since then, Nasser, Anwar Sadat, and Hosni Mubarak, were all military officers. Over the years the armed forces have garnered popular respect, especially for the October 1973 War in which Egypt, partnered with Syria, scored a moral victory against Israel. Thanks further to generous American aid contracted into the peace treaty with Israel, they have become a substantial and wealthy institution, carving out for themselves something of a parallel economy and holding major shares in Egypt’s biggest companies. It is hard to imagine a civilian president stripping them of their perks.  And let us not forget that the military enjoys intimate contact with and support from the Pentagon.

The Muslim Brotherhood, long suppressed, outlawed, and feared, now present themselves as moderates along the lines of Turkey’s democratically elected Justice and Development (AK) Party. Neither Egypt’s old opposition parties like the Wafd and the Tagammu nor, so far, the youthful protesters in Tahrir have the organizational capabilities of the Brothers. Mustapha Kamel Al-Sayyid, an eminent Egyptian political scientist estimated that the Muslim Brothers might get 30 percent of the vote in a free election but that its actual influence in the People’s Assembly would be even better due to its discipline, while the other 70 percent would be distributed among small fractionated groupings. Yet if we have learned anything from this new generation of Egyptians, it is that their collective will cannot be underestimated; one of Egypt’s tycoons, Naguib Sawiris, put his name and fortune behind the creation of a new liberal Free Egyptians Party earlier this week and is fast gaining support.

There is still another grouping whose influence cannot be so easily estimated. The Islamists of the Salafi movement are the new boys on the block — or Square, as it were — and are far more radical than the Brothers. As apparent ideological successors to the al-Gama’a al-Islamiya, mercilessly repressed by Mubarak in the 1990s, the extent to which their radical Islamist orientation will find an echo remains to be seen.

Maybe the most realistic outcome the protesters of Tahrir can hope for would resemble the Turkish model of the post-Ataturk period in which the military allowed long stretches of significant party politics and competition. Unlike Turkey today, in those years there was no doubt as to who was in charge when push came to shove: every decade or so the Turkish army would push aside the civilian politicians and reset the system to their liking. One veteran insider told me that the Egyptian officers are quite uncomfortable being in the spotlight at this moment of transition; they much prefer the shadows. Whether down the road Egypt might continue to emulate Turkey, where the military no longer plays that decisive role, and moves toward a genuinely civilian political system is certainly a possibility. In any event, the Egyptians of Tahrir, heady with freedom and empowerment, and mobilized as never before by the new satellite and social media, are not going to let their revolution, incomplete as it may now be, slip away.

Michael C. Hudson is Director of the Middle East Insitute at the National University of Singapore. The views expressed herein are his own.

This piece first appeared on Foreign Policy’s Middle East Channel and can be downloaded here: Insight 20 Hudson.

Syria at Risk? A country divided

By Rana B. Khoury

I was simmering with emotion after spending a day amid the rubble of razed houses, wrecked mosques and churches, a shot-out hospital, and with Israeli military outposts in the distance all the while. But my outrage was only partially a result of the scenes of destruction in the city of Quneitra, the former capital of the Golan Heights handed back to Syria after the Israelis razed everything in sight and sent thousands of refugees packing in 1974. Rather, my anger was at the apathy of the Syrians that was to me even more disheartening and unacceptable than I had previously thought. But my grandfather swiftly humbled me. Placing his hand on my shoulder, he explained, “when the body hurts for so long in so many places, eventually one stops saying ouch.” His eyes that had seen so much – his country’s liberation from the French, countless coups and political experiments, the occupation of the Golan Heights and Palestine, the inside of a prison cell in which he refused to renounce his leftist politics, and an opening to the West – turned away. His hand remained on my shoulder.

Despite my frustration at the time, I know that Syrians and Arabs are not politically apathetic. That knowledge can come from spending just one hour in the living room of an Arab home. In a kitchen, no dish goes unappreciated by those who know that politics itself has the power to put food on the table. For anyone who may have still thought so, the Arab awakening has dissipated notions of apathy and ambivalence in the Middle East We should celebrate this new era, and most of all the crumbling of the psychological wall of fear that my generation has exhibited. We should also analyze it and consider the consequences.

The most prominent scholars of Syria are telling us that Syria’s is a complex social fabric. Bassam Haddad describes the heterogeneity of Syrian society in its religious, ethnic, socio-economic, and ideological groups. Joshua Landis warns that the Alawite minority, an offshoot of Shi’a Islam which has ruled majority-Sunni Syria for decades, presents a precarious situation that can easily become a violent one. Least is the geographic dissonance. As’ad AbuKhalil, recalls an exchange he had with the late academic Hanna Batatu: “I was once making a presentation about my paper on the Syrian opposition under Hafidh Al-Asad taught by the great, Hanna Batatu. After I finished Batatu looked at me and said, ‘when in the contemporary politics of Syria did Aleppo, Hama, Hums, and Damascus move together?’ I did not have an intelligent answer, I remember.”

I would dovetail AbuKhalil’s point with something I do remember. Syrian cities do not move together, nor do they resemble each other. When I lived in Syria after college I visited thirteen of the country’s fourteen provinces. In the eastern city of Deir az-Zor, up the Euphrates River from Iraq, the contrast with the coastal cities was stark. Residents spoke in an accent unfamiliar to me, services were seriously limited, and I struggled to find other women on the streets. The local men drove in this latter point with their quizzical stares; in one instance a group of them were chattering in my direction when one stated, “she’s from Damascus,” and the rest exuded a collective “aah” of understanding.

Yet I did not need to venture across the desert to know of the cleavages. My own story embodies to some extent three significant paradigms in Syrian society – supporters of the status quo, the Islamist center, and the Palestinian question.

For one, my family is of Christian heritage and generally exemplifies the protected minority that prefers a strong-handed but secular ruler to the frightful alternative of extremist Islam. Most of them are liberal-minded people who understand the flaws of the system and desire more. But after so many years of uncertainty in an unstable region, most of them opt for the devil they know. Yesterday a cousin forwarded me a question on Facebook asking in Arabic if I prefer aman or hurriya, security or freedom. Syrian minorities, however, are not alone in supporting the regime. As counterrevolutionary demonstrations have exhibited, many middle class Sunnis believe in the current system. This sector is probably economically comfortable, and, more often, supports Bashar al-Assad’s shepherding of a pro-Arab and anti-imperialist foreign policy.

Meanwhile, my mother’s family is from Hama, a city known for the brutal crackdown it suffered at the hands of the current president’s father, Hafez al-Assad, in 1982. Under the pretences of preventing an Islamist uprising, Assad decimated the city. Estimates of the killed hover around twenty thousand. Like all others in the city, my family lived under lockdown for weeks, their houses were looted, they were beaten by government soldiers, and they buried loved ones. And like all their neighbors, they will never forget. Even if they wanted to do so, the bullet holes in old houses and the bombed-out buildings would not let them. The sad irony today is that Hama is as conservative and marginalized as ever.

The atmosphere in Hama is a world away from the bustling alleyways of Old Damascus, the sophisticated air of Aleppo, the laid-back atmosphere of Tartous, and the spiritual ambiance in the towns of Sayd Nayya and Ma’ara, where some inhabitants still speak Aramaic.  And all of this is different yet from the Palestinian refugee camp where I taught English to primary students at an UNRWA school (United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Near East Refugees). A few weeks ago I was taken back to Husseinieh in a YouTube video on the Facebook page of the Syrian Revolution. It exposed the decrepit conditions of this neighborhood primarily inhabited by Palestinian refugees.

When I initially began working there, I made the following observations in my personal blog: The bus I was instructed to take uses an illegal route, adding a guilty sense of complicity to my relative-induced trepidation… I sit in a bus full of men scantily concealing their curiosity at the sight of me… I wonder if they can sense my nerves. Thirty minutes later, we pull into the Husseinieh refugee camp, the entrance of which doubles as the community garbage dump. I absorb the sights as inconspicuously as possible, trying to appear natural as I walk up the unpaved roads towards the school.

I soon developed a close attachment to my students and the harshness of the poverty surrounding us softened. But I also became acutely aware of the complexity of their relationship to the state they live in – Syria – and the nation they are a part of – Palestine. It is this precariousness of diasporic existence that the regime is utilizing to blame foreign elements for the unrest. This is not new in Syria; the former president led brutal campaigns against Palestinians in Lebanon during that country’s civil war. But it is as shameful as ever when Arabs around the region are demanding to be treated with dignity, something the Palestinians have not enjoyed for far too long.

The consequence of this complex social fabric is not apathy but division. It is inspiring to see Syrians rising up against a brutally suppressive security state. But the chance the revolutionaries have of overcoming their divisions and forming a united critical mass remains limited. Bashar al-Assad is poised to retain the minimal threshold of legitimacy that keeps him in power unless he dissipates it with more killings of civilians. And should he manage that, I cannot help but fear the consequences for those who tried to stand up for what is rightfully theirs.

Ms Rana B Khoury is the head of publications at the Middle East Institute and a Masters student at the Center for Contemporary Arab Studies at Georgetown University. She can be reached at rbkhoury@gmail.com. The views expressed herein are her own.


Insight 19 Khoury

Street, Stage, Shrine & Square: Protest Sites as Contested Terrain

Insight 18 Rosario

By Terisita Cruz-del Rosario

February 1986 at EDSA: the Epifanio de los Santos Avenue — an urban highway of six lanes worming its way through six municipalities of Metro Manila, unconvincingly organises the flow of traffic in both directions. A most curious venue to stage an uprising. Yet, twenty five years ago, EDSA set the stage for a people power uprising that toppled the two-decade Marcos dictatorship. No longer neutral, empty territory, EDSA became a charged space, what William Sewell terms “a matrix of power.”

In Argentina, the 70s and 80s was a period of ‘murderous dictatorship’ of the military regime. Public spaces were invisible, the citizenry cowed into privacy and silence. Until fourteen mothers donned white scarves and invaded the Plaza de Mayo with their demands to know about the disappearances (desparecidos) of their loved ones. Soon thereafter, the square resurrected as Las Madres de la Plaza de Mayo, reconfigured as a protest space, openly demonstrating against a repressive regime.

More recently, in the center of Cairo stands Tahrir Square, a rotunda that witnessed the gathering of Egypt’s disaffected.  Wired youths brandished cell-phones in one hand and stones in the other and they spoke to the teeth of power using Facebook. Eighteen days later, curtains came down on Mubarak’s regime.

Protesters world over, wherever they may be found, transform physical spaces and convert them into a kind of political pilgrimage site. There, they undertake a quest for personal and social redemption to find their courage and recover their lives from the grip of fear and prolonged repression.

They trek in large numbers to protect one another, to share a moment when new social meanings are being fashioned out of collective action. They convert these spaces into repositories of collective sentiments, drawing on one other to weave a grand narrative of history-making and nation-building.  They are, of a sudden, human agents of history and society.

Public spaces provide opportunities for re-fashioning what political scientist Dag Angkar terms as ‘political architecture.’ Rather than inherently constraining, these places present a crucial resource to apply spatial agency.  In these sequestered sites, physical and metaphorical notions of space coalesce, so that what was once a mix of street, floor, and cemented highway meld into symbol, sentiment, and statement. Here is where the silence is broken.

However,  protest space is also highly contested terrain. They are sites of social conflict and clashes over symbolic codes. They represent competing claims to legitimacy and control over power, battles over alternative visions of the future, struggles to redraw the boundaries of community and society. Blood spills, taints the pavements and carries the dead.

Remember Bangkok a year ago? In its fashionable Rajdamri district, where street vendors intersect with smart shoppers, the Red Shirts camped out as an affront to the urbanised enclaves of the upper- and middle-class Yellow Shirts. Right there, Major General Khattiya who went rogue for the Red Shirts was shot in the head while speaking to several journalists.

Watch Libya unravel. Benghazi as contested territory has emerged not only as the most visible arena of Libyan resistance, but also as the most potent symbol of the irreversible course of change in Middle East politics. Watch Bahrain, Yemen, and Syria too.

Parallelisms among all these countries are inevitable. Street action among everyday people interacts with formal institutions — the courts, the political parties, the media, the military, the Mosque, the Church.  Where formal and informal processes intersect, political dynamics change. Within days, political careers will ebb and wane, new ones will be forged, and the world will yet again bear witness to another upheaval in human experience.

Above all, what these geographies of struggle provide is the very best application of human agency, of fearless improvisation and a resurgence of creativity, often times without structure and direction, somewhat like collective street-jazz.  Yet hope abides in this massive energy that refuses to be silenced.  An illiud tempus according to theatrical critic David Cole, a time to re-imagine an alternative universe of relationships and thus a place where there is no thought of surrender or defeat.

Teresita Cruz-del Rosario is Visiting Associate Professor at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy. Her recently published book Scripted Clashes: A Dramaturgical Approach to Philippine Uprisings provides an explanatory framework for people power events in the Philippines over two decades. She can be contacted at tdelrosario@nus.edu.sg. The views expressed herein are her own.