‘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.

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.

Interview with Dr Michael C Hudson at Al Jazeera Forum

This year’s annual Al Jazeera Forum, entitled “The Arab world in transition: Has the future arrived?” took place from 12-14 March 2011. Coming at a momentous time for both Al Jazeera and the Arab world, the forum brought together activists, analysts, journalists, and academics, to address the implications of recent and developing events. Al Jazeera’s Asad Hashim interviewed MEI Director Michael C Hudson for his views: watch here.