Sunday, February 20, 2011

Feb 20: A day in the early life of revolutionary Egypt – worker demonstrations, petition drives, volunteer cleaning crews

After weeks now of military efforts to enforce ‘normalcy’, life in Cairo is anything but. Leading up to the first day of the work week (today, Sunday), the military’s Supreme Council issued a statement threatening worker activism with a “no tolerance” edict. Were workers intimidated? Maybe some, but not all.

What would have been a ‘normal’ hop on the metro (underground transport) to Cairo University and then to the Main Post Office, to take care of errands today, turned out to be quite different…

The metro stopped, passengers got off and waited. The Sayeda Zeinab platform filled with hundreds and with no metro in sight, hundreds left the station, streaming out of the metro, from Sayeda Zeinab to Saad Zaghloul. In my two and a half years in Cairo, at times relying heavily on the metro, never before has the metro stopped for thirty plus minutes.

At Saad Zaghloul there was a large gathering in front and along the street of the Ministry of Housing. It was a well organized petition drive, attracting hundreds. I didn’t quite understand what the petition concerned (and maybe it could not even be called a ‘petition’?), but I understood that their efforts concerned apartments. This would not be surprising considering that buying and renting apartments is out of reach for many.

And then I caught a cab to Cairo University, picking up a famous TV personality on the way. (We didn’t know from which channel, but the driver assured me she was ‘known’.) Back to zahma, zahma, zahma (crowds, traffic) – Qasr el-Aini, Tahrir, Dokki were full of cars, for the first time since the uprising perhaps.

Then at Cairo University I try to go to the student bookstore to pick up textbooks and am told that the workers are demonstrating. It is closed today!

Trying my luck at the metro again, I head by foot to a metro station and find a crew of uniformed volunteer youth cleaners painting the street curb black and white, painting over faded colors. The metro is working and I then head to the Ramsis (main) post office. Knowing that they close at 2, I arrive a little after 1 and find a group of workers demonstrating with signs, shouting slogans, in front of one of the main entrances. And the office is not ‘open’. The employee informs me that they close at 1 – definitely a new ‘policy’ as I have been there before at closing time, at 2. Sounds like it could be new, shorter working hours, self-determined perhaps.

I take the metro back to Maadi, to take care of a couple of more errands, planning to mail a letter via the post office there. I get to the post office after 3, but as far as I know it is usually open until 5. Today, though, it is closed.

The military, in its statement that it will confront workers who are striking or demonstrating, declared that those participating in labor activism are damaging the economy. Yeah, well, the economy does depend on worker exploitation to thrive. The army high command has said it itself.

And today workers are saying – and have been saying since 1996 in Egypt – that the economy is damaging them. This international order that has reduced public employees to the working poor in Egypt over the last twenty years is harshly exploiting them. The only gains that they have won have been through strikes, sit-ins, demonstrations.

‘Normalcy’ means convenience for some and drudgery for many more.

Monday, February 14, 2011

The unreality of reality: emotion as performer and experience in the Egyptian revolution

Un-du-lating, penetr-at-ing, re-leas-ing. How does one go about writing of emotions? It doesn’t seem suitable to write about emotions in a matter-of-fact, logical way. They are not logical. They do not follow a known path, except to arise and fall yet again.

How we experience them though shapes our reality and how they come to us is shaped by images of reality, perceptions of reality, expectations.

How may we describe emotions at an intense moment like a revolution? Palpable, earth shaking, surfacing at the finger tips, culminating, shared.

On Friday the 11th, after Vice President announced Mubarak’s resignation joy, elation, intense pride are felt at the sites of protest – in Tahrir, in Alexandria, in Suez, in Port Said. In neighborhoods in Cairo cheer rings out, honking cars, drummers in the street, flags waving from the windows of passing cars. Tears stream, collective tears of elation, of relief. Tears that keep coming, shedding hurt and pain.

The next morning the door is still locked. The door that used to be left unlocked at all times and that the doormen locked after curfew is kept locked during the day. Mixed faces of consternation, fatigue, disbelief, pride. Giddiness, groups gathering and chatting. Groups meeting to go downtown.

More celebrations on the streets of downtown. Joy, contentment, recollecting how it came to be. Um Kaltoum’s nationalist tunes ring out. Mounir’s “song of the revolution” playing over and over, people singing as loudly as they can. A march here, a march there. “We are cleaning up Egypt!,” as a march of ‘cleaners’ with brooms held high circles Tahrir. Mourners gather with long faces, tears. People ‘at work’, painting the wall to sketch on “Revolution Jan 25”. People are cleaning the streets with signs “Don’t mind the inconvenience. We build Egypt.”

The next day, the first day of the work week, the state attempts to create an aura of normalcy, the military makes way for traffic through Tahrir Square, the curfew continues but at reduced hours (12-6). But it doesn’t feel ‘normal’. The door is still locked. The usual streets of the busy workdays are relatively empty. So quiet.

Not at work, not shopping, not yet at school. Many stay home, drenched in feelings of uneasiness about the future. Thirty years of what appeared to be the ‘same’ system, masked by the face of Mubarak, aging but still Mubarak, ended. That face is gone, fear re-surfaces or circulates or dips.

On the day of the street wars, January 28th, the “Day of Anger,” some who joined the struggle prepared for war. The rush, adrenaline, and more adrenaline, facing police with guns and tear gas. Taking their sticks and glass and rocks. Hiding in back alleys and making Molotov cocktails. Positioning, coordinating, attacking, retreating.

From that day onward many others in Cairo and in cities throughout Egypt were in their homes, in front of the tube. Starting with no internet, then no cell phones. But satellite television remained. When the military took over the streets and instituted a curfew, television and state radio were the only sources of news media.

And just in time: The police were removed from the streets, prisoners were released, gangs looting and vandalizing were unleashed. In front of the tube, flashing all day, images via video footage and the imagination of ragged prisoners, looted store fronts and government buildings, the vandalized Egyptian Museum and its ‘national treasures’, food ‘shortages’ as people rushed to the bread oven and supermarket in fear of the worst.

Chaos! The state and international media report chaos in Egypt, a standstill. And people, Egyptian and foreign, believe it – after all, the state protects us from ourselves. There is no safety without the police! There are prisoners roaming free and heading toward Cairo! There are desperate people who want to take advantage of this lawless situation!

Many swallowed the state-fed idea of lawlessness, a situation that was actually “chaos” for the regime. The ground shook beneath the feet of ‘the people’ but fell for the regime. As Žižek analogizes, it is like in Ben and Jerry cartoons when the cat is running off a precipice, and he keeps running as he doesn’t realize that there is no ground to stand on. But once he looks down and sees there is nothing beneath him, he falls. And so with the regime.

And (again) just in time, Mubarak surfaces. He addresses the nation as his people, his children, and announces that he has come to save them from the tyranny of chaos…? He is the one who provides safety and security in these lawless times. He is the general who kept Egypt out of wars, he is the one who has the military behind him and rejects the police who are reviled by the people.

Sounds good. And it did for many. That was until the next day when thugs were unleashed onto Tahrir Square, terrorizing, injuring and killing demonstrators. And that may still have sounded like a decent plan until Wael Ghonim, a lead online protest organizer, was released from jail and gave a passionate defense of the demonstrators.

On state television and radio, all day, day after day, intense demonization of the protestors: Foreigners who want to destabilize Egypt have infiltrated the opposition. They are damaging our economy. They are scaring away the tourists and the investors. They, the foreign, the, the…

Lies, betrayal. Gasp. More tears, tears of sadness and anguish. Dignity lost and now the struggle for many to restore it.

All day, day after day, in international media – Tahrir, Tahrir, Tahrir. And stories of foreigners being attacked. Another gasp. And the banks not yet opened – will there be a run on the banks? Breath stops. Reports of journalists and demonstrators and human rights workers being detained by the military. Tahrir, Tahrir, Tahrir.

Then we step out, feeling the unusually clean air, hearing the silence, walking the same streets and shopping at the same stores. This is not Tahrir. This is my neighborhood. There have been no reports of looters and vandals here ever, or at least not after the first two days that thugs were unleashed, causing neighborhood vigilance, uneasiness, tremor throughout Cairo.

The continuing unknown. The replay of worse-case scenarios. Not as scenario but as expectation, as the future. The ground continues to shake. And the regime is not quite at the precipice, let alone falsely perceiving itself to walk on air.

One lesson from the Revolution: Recognizing fear as fear! The main struggle of the revolution: The struggle against fear. A main source of inspiration: Confronting the layer upon layer of fear within us and enveloping – and now unraveling within – our societies.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

3rd Week begins – and the movement grows

Days 14, 15 and 16 (February 7, 8 and 9) of the Egyptian uprising experienced some significant ‘turns’, in an ever developing context, that will likely have long lasting implications.

Since the beginning of the uprising, on the 25th of January, a friend and I have been wondering, waiting, to know when and if the strikes would start. I tried numerous times to reach colleagues who were likely pushing for labor participation, but to no avail. And I waited. When the general strike that was called for the second week didn’t happen and the state instated a ‘back to normalcy’ façade this week, I knew that if the strikes were to be on, this would be the time. And it certainly is!

On Tuesday the 8th the Suez Canal Company workers went on strike in several cities – Suez, Ismailia, Port Said. After 24 hours they were still striking. The next day thousands of factory workers go on strike – in Mahalla, Suez, Helwan. Egypt’s three independent unions organized a demonstration in front of the state-backed General Federation of State Unions. Also, court workers called strikes and sit-ins throughout Cairo.

Later on in the day the strikes appeared to have grown, with at least 6,000 in Cairo alone, including 3,000 national railways (ENR) employees, according to Al Jazeera English. More strikes are planned for today, including bus drivers. Labor now appears to be on board, and this will bring significant momentum to the opposition movement.

Also, significantly, Tuesday the 8th, the 2nd week anniversary of the uprising, witnessed was one of – if not the – largest showings in Tahrir. More than a million showed up. Demonstrators streamed in and out of the Square, all the way past the Qasr al-Aini bridge, past the Opera. Streams and streams of demonstrators, going to and from the Square. Standing in the street I felt such joy, with thousands of young people and families holding Egyptian flags and chanting and chatting. There was a festive atmosphere, with cars lining up on the Zamalek side of the Nile and horse carriages taking people for carriage rides.

News reports were that many people participated for the first time – especially in the spotlight, civil society workers including university professors.

One of the chief online protest organizers of the 25th of January demonstrations, Wael Ghonim, who had disappeared during the first week of the uprising, was released from police custody the day before. In an interview on one of Egypt’s most popular television shows, Ghonim gives a sincere and passionate defense of the movement. Many are attributing his release and appearance to the huge turnout on Tuesday and widening support for the opposition.

His defense put a badly needed human face to the movement that has been systematically slandered by the state media and state officials. In the interview Ghonim repeated with such emotion that he and the others involved in the demonstrations are not traitors. Throughout his police detention the officers claimed that he was being influenced by outside forces, that someone was using him and others to infiltrate the Egyptian political scene and create instability. He repeated that they are not foreign spies, that they are doing this for Egypt, out of their love for Egypt.

It became so clear how damning the state propaganda has been in branding the opposition as traitors, as foreign spies, as selfish youngsters. The state media campaign has systematically tried to take away the dignity and respect of those involved. By the 2nd week it became clear how much the state was resorting to these ‘othering’ tactics, as person after person and report after report claimed that the demonstrations were infiltrated by foreigners and that the demonstrators were destroying the economy. Even Vice President Suleiman publicly accused a combination of Hamas, Iran, Israel and the US for destabilizing Egypt. Western commentators seem to think that in this speech Suleiman was nonsensical, but in Egypt such conspiracy theories are rather believable.

Then, Suleiman made another statement condemning the demonstrators, stating that they were putting the country at risk of a “coup.” According to the Guardian, a large group of (unspecified) human rights organizations yesterday accused the Minister of Information, Anas al-Fiqqi, of being responsible for the death of protestors for accusing them of treason.

Before showing the audience pictures of demonstrators who have been killed, the TV interviewer with Ghonim stated to the audience that these pictures illustrate that those involved in the demonstrations are not looking to gain personally, reiterating Ghonim’s defense. When pictures of what they are calling ‘martyrs’ were shown, Ghonim completely broke down, as I did and I am sure many others. His last plea: It is not our fault that these young people have died, it is the fault of those who will not give up their power.

Ghonim is now considered by at least some to be the spokesperson for the demonstrators, and whether or not he will be, it is clear that his testimony has been crucial in breaking the ferocious state media campaign demonizing the opposition.

And the movement spreads. In Cairo demonstrators are now stationed not just in Tahrir Square but in front of the Parliament. New towns are being enveloped – Wadi Al-Jadid, in the southwest of the country.

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Western Hypocrisy? The West and the Undemocratic

Let’s briefly recap on the US government’s response to the revolution in Egypt:

In the afternoon on the first day of the uprising, Tuesday the 25th of January, the US Secretary of State confirms her faith in the stability of the Mubarak regime. Like most European government spokespeople, Hilary Clinton urges ‘restraint on both sides’.

The following day, after mass arrests and killings on the part of the police, US officials continue to maintain that Mubarak remains a close ally in the region. Later the same say, on Wednesday the 26th, the Obama administration does an ‘about face’ and calls for quick reforms as the opposition in Egypt continues to grow and shows resolve.

Demonstrations continue throughout the country through the week, and on Sunday the 30th the US acknowledges the need for a new government, and defends the US government’s record as a human rights defender and promoter of civil society in Egypt.

On Tuesday, February 1st, the day of the “Million Man March” US diplomats meet with El Baradei, an opposition spokesperson. That day US President Obama urges Mubarak not to seek re-election in the presidential elections in September – a statement soon proceeded by an announcement from the Egyptian government that Mubarak’s second public statement will be televised later that night. In that statement Mubarak does none other than state clearly that he will not run, and was not planning to run, for re-election.

On the 2nd of February, the day after what turned out to be a “march” of millions throughout the country, White House spokesperson Gibbs says that the administration was expecting the ‘transition’ in Egypt to happen yesterday (meaning the day of the Million Man March), not in September.

On Thursday, following twenty-four hours of clashes in Tahrir Square in downtown Cairo that left at least 7 dead and hundreds wounded, the US announces that it is preparing a proposal for Mubarak to step down.

On Saturday and Sunday, the 5th and 6th of February, the US fumbles. White House officials throw their support behind Vice President Suleiman, and then distance themselves from the remarks of US envoy to Egypt, Frank Wisner, who stated support for Mubarak’s “continued leadership.”

These last thirteen days in Egypt perhaps reveal for some the hypocrisy of the US (and the Western world generally) as the image of the US as a defender and promoter of democracy and development shatters before a fumbling, reticent reaction to a mass democratic movement confronting an authoritarian Mubarak regime. Such hypocrisy on the part of the West has not only just become apparent of course, even in the West. And in the Majority World Western hypocrisy is known and has been known, although I must admit that I cease to be surprised by how many people I have met here and elsewhere in the Majority World/Global South who are blinded by the Western-sponsored human rights/civil society industry. If the hypocrisy is acknowledged, though, it is easily defended: For the sake of stability, security, peace.

The Mubarak regime held (as of a couple of days ago) the dubious position as a great Western ally in the region, ostensibly for keeping the peace with Israel. Israel came out publicly with its known worries that a change in the Egyptian government would lead to a government less ‘friendly’ to Israel, thereby seriously threatening Israel’s safety in the region. More than this, the US’s position is defended inside and outside of the pro-Israel US political arena on the grounds that the Mubarak regime, like the Ben Ali regime in Tunisia, is secular and protects the large Christian minority in Egypt as well as the US and other Western countries against extremist Jihadists and their ‘reign of terror’.

The idea that authoritarianism promotes stability and security finds itself deeply embedded in the Arab world, a pervasive discourse promulgated by Arab states and internalized by populations – AND seriously challenged now as the Tunisian revolution has heralded a paradigm shift in ‘what is possible’ in the region. Not only Tunisia and Egypt, but as I write Jordan, Yemen and Algeria are experiencing major protest activity as populations en masse shed this disbelief and distrust in ‘others as themselves’. As Noam Chomsky has been arguing for years, this “disdain for the population” is a guiding principle of the US, domestically and internationally, and is glaringly reflected in the US and European Union’s publicly-declared narrow vision of ‘the desired’ in Egypt – free and fair elections. As members of the opposition in Egypt responded, their movement is much bigger than a desire for free and fair elections. This movement has much bigger dreams – and do we in the West? Have we not swallowed this false hallowed vision of democracy?

The revolution in Egypt not only plainly illustrates Western hypocrisy, but provides a valuable opportunity to understand the West’s role in building, promoting and maintaining undemocratic political orders throughout the world. Riding on the fear-provoking ideology (of instability and terror in the absence of a coercive authority) is the West’s underlying reason for supporting authoritarian and dictatorial regimes throughout the world: the perpetuation of an undemocratic socio-economic order premised on the West’s control over key resources (material, intellectual, genetic, strategic).

Central to this socio-economic order are the gamut of liberalization and privatization policies undemocratically pursued in countries like Egypt and part and parcel of the growth and spread of a vast military-industrial complex, which now can hardly be called “American.” As is documented and widely cited, the US has given billions in aid to Egypt in the last decades, mostly funneled to the military. But this “aid” has been in the form of loans that have added drastically to Egypt’s debt and benefited private US military contractors with a large, steady and dependent ‘market’. Since the dawn of the neoliberal era, in the mid-1970s, under Sadat’s “open door” policy American aid has led to the mushrooming of the Egyptian military, consolidating the military’s position as a prominent actor in all major sectors of the economy[1]. This has had the effect of creating a professional officer class, which has a strong presence in the ranks of the middle and upper-middle classes.

The last thirty years of neoliberalism have mushroomed the upper-middle class in Egypt, made up not only of military officers but of a politically powerful business class (often the two intersecting, as officers have used their patronage networks to consolidate business holdings). Liberalization and privatization policies have created monopolies and an extremely wealthy business elite that has propped up and enriched the Mubarak regime – as well as large profits for American and European businesses, particularly since the dawn of trade agreements and public-private partnerships. By as early as the 1980s, the US became the largest importer of goods into Egypt, and despite a jump in exports during the last five years, Egypt’s trade deficit has grown.

One clear marker of neoliberalism, the ‘revolving door’ between government and business, is alive and well in Egypt: For example, in 2004, under the Nazif administration, the head of Unilever Mashreq (a Middle East Foods and HPC (Home and Personal Care) Division of the Unilever Group International) became the Minister of Trade and Industry, Rachid M. Rachid. The Rachid family is one of the wealthiest and politically influential families in Egypt. Another well-known example is Ahmed Ezz, a steel monopoly tycoon, parliamentary member and former (as of last week) leading member of the ruling National Democratic Party.

The Mubarak regime’s peace alliance with Israel quickly reveals itself as a convenient business alliance. Of foreign agribusinesses operating in Egypt Israeli companies rank fourth in their country presence (of all countries with foreign agribusinesses operating), with ninety-eight companies as of May 2010[2]. And as was spotlighted on February 5 with the coordinated attack on the natural gas pipeline in the Sinai, supplying Israel and Jordan with gas, Egypt is a main supplier of natural gas to Israel.

The revolution in Egypt may be understood as the culmination of deepening discontent with a police state that has become the 1990s IMF “poster child,” following years of regular protests and sit-ins by Egyptian workers reduced to the working poor and the steady emergence of political reform movements (such as Kefaya and the National Coalition for Change). Deep anger and frustration have shown their faces clearly not just in Cairo and Alexandria, but in places like Suez, where vast profits generated from the Suez canal have not translated into local development, and Al-Arish in the North Sinai, where residents are not benefiting from large gas and tourism revenues generated locally.

One of the reported slogans of the demonstrations has been Bread! Freedom! Justice! Despite the media’s narrow focus on the Mubarak regime’s human rights violations, the political and civil reasons for the uprising cannot be separated from the social and economic. However, revealing is that one of the first responses to the uprising on the part of the regime was a quick shift from the business elite to the military elite at the top decision making posts in government. Mubarak brought in two military men to fill the post of Vice President and Prime Minister. And after sacking his Cabinet, the first declared measures of the new Cabinet were decidedly interventionist – an economic assistance package for the poor, price controls, continued subsidies.

Also, revealing is that Ahmed Ezz, who immediately left the NDP during the first days of the uprising and whose office was completely ransacked, was not allowed to flee the country. Reports also surfaced that the former Minister of Trade and Industry Rachid is not allowed to leave the country. And there has been lots of talk about Gamal Mubarak. He disappeared and then ‘reappeared’ this week only to resign from the NDP. Now the focus is on the timely release by the Guardian of the Mubarak family fortune, estimated to be as much as USD 70 billion[3]. The family used their position within the military and then later in political office to accumulate wealth, often in deals with western companies.

As long as the financial system is running and Western corporations are profiting and Western ‘expertise’ is respected and sought after, in order to maintain its control over markets, the West will continue and change their support for foreign governments. At a time of uprising, though, it is not clear in which direction “security” will be maintained – “security” meaning the maintenance of the Western-sponsored socio-economic order that privileges large businesses and a global consumer class, and spawns widespread state repression and corruption. Hence, the US government vacillates and contradicts. Rather than being merely hypocritical, its role as the maintainer of an unjust, hierarchical and deeply undemocratic global order becomes known.

[1] Mitchell, T. 2002. Rule of Experts: Egypt, Techno-Politics, Modernity. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.

[2] GAFI (General Authority for Foreign Investment) internally-circulated document

[3] Inman, P. 2011. Mubarak family fortune could reach $70bn, say experts. Guardian, 4 February. Available from: [Accessed on 6 February 2011].