Wednesday, February 09, 2011


At a an intersection near Tahrir square, a man selling Egyptian flags sang out “Shaga3 masr! Shaga3 masr!” (Support Egypt!) The cab driver I was with cracked a joke about whether we were going to a football stadium, and I started thinking about symbols.

In the weeks that have passed, the flag and the national anthem have been held up by both the agents of Mubarak's government, be they laughable state media channels or baltageyya, and the millions of people demanding change.

I have a problem with nationalism and its symbols. National identity, like religion, can be a force for cooperation and positivity; it can also be an easy justification for violence and intolerance and a tool for manipulating the masses for the benefit of the few.

Rarely have I felt as ashamed of people around me as when thousands of Egyptians obeyed orders or took money to attack peaceful protesters with fists, rocks, glass, and fire. Or when people started harassing and attacking foreigners and accusing them of being spies or agents, so easily abandoning human decency, and in some cases neighbourly ties, in favor of xenophobic state-sponsored lies. Or when people began questioning each others Egyptian-ness based on political views, accents, hairstyles, or clothing.

But rarely have humans moved and surprised me as much, nor have I seen such a condensed current of that unnamable, uplifting spark that has been one of the few sources of hope I've clung to while treading through Cairo for the last years. (Amnesiac does a great job of describing this.) When I saw thunderous waves of thousands of people descending upon Tahrir time and time again, after violence and lies and intimidation. When I stood on the corniche and watched, with my mouth literally agape, as protesters used sheer determination to push security forces back across Kasr el Nil Bridge on that Friday that everything changed, picking up tear gas canisters and throwing them into the Nile, leaving clouds of toxic smoke sitting on the water like it was unsure where to go. When I heard people had formed a human shield to protect the Egyptian Museum from looting. When I saw people protecting each other on the streets, sharing their homes and their food and their cars. When I heard hope and enthusiasm in the voices of relatives and friends, talking about Egypt with marvel.

And so it seems to me that is more than a fight over a throne or a parliament, a flag or a word. It's a fight over the spirit of a population which has always had the courage, wit and endurance so many foreign correspondents are commenting on as they walk around Tahrir these days. It's a fight to shake off a power structure which has done nothing but steal, suffocate and humiliate. It's a fight between the bad, and the potential and the hope for good.

As a dear relative said, “Whatever happens with politics, things will never go back to how they were. Finally there is hope, finally people know that there can be something different, that they have to demand it, never to let go of the truth that they deserve it.”

Sunday, February 06, 2011

Looking forward

The last 12 days have been incredible ones for Egypt. The massive, nationwide protests broke down people’s fear of the authorities and security forces in a country which has used intimidation and violence to silence its population for decades. The protests also invalidated international stereotypes and internalized inferiority complexes that Egyptians have about ourselves – that political apathy and cynicism are overwhelming, and the long-held conventional wisdom that Egyptians will not rise up except when food security is threatened, a la 1977.

The battle between the anti-government movement and the regime for public opinion, for the support of the majority of Egyptians who have not protested but have been holed up at home in front of the television for over a week, began the second the first “the people want to bring down the regime” was chanted. The president’s emotionally appealing first speech, the nationwide withdrawal of the police and security forces, the over-hyped news of looting, the interruption of normal life by an unnecessarily early military curfew (3 PM), the freezing of all banking transactions – these moves were all engineered to instill a deep craving for physical and financial security. The state media – where most Egyptians get their news – has gone a long way towards making the regime seem reasonable in its concessions, open to dialogue with opposition, and eager to resume normal operations for the country. The truth is that the regime has held the population hostage – cutting off cash, transportation, and communication – while making the population think it is the protesters who are kidnapping them.

The protesters’ strategy begins and ends with the act of protesting in itself. The overwhelming turnout of people in Cairo and other cities for demonstrations offered proof that the call had been heard, that people were ready to join in. News networks are reporting that last Friday’s protest in Cairo was the biggest yet. The movement has not wanted to politicize by promoting a particular opposition group or platform, opting instead to focus on one goal with a strong resonating power – that the regime step down. Most activists felt there was no need for a political plan, for an alternative to be offered when and if Mubarak steps aside. They were not aiming to put a certain person or party in power, simply to remove the current President.

This is no longer sufficient. As the population grows more tired of the hiatus to normal life and state media continues its barrage of lies and distortions, public opinion is clearly shifting away from the protesters. People feel that they have no plan and nothing to offer, while the government does. With the country’s army, bureaucracy, media, and financial institutions in its pockets, the regime itself – Mubarak or no Mubarak – appears to be going nowhere. Heads, including those of the much loathed Habib el Adli and the uber corrupt Ahmed Ezz – seem to be flying, but they are being replaced by nearby allies and confidants, stooges of the same system.

If Mubarak steps aside, it will be seen as the ultimate political concession on behalf of this regime and people will want to give the government time to implement the reforms it has promised. And we will have achieved little politically other than guaranteeing ourselves another septuagenarian, military leader – Omar Suleiman - and the continuation of the exact same power structures we have under Mubarak. If he does not step aside, we will have helped the government get one step closer to a succession plan which works in its favor, affording Suleiman eight months as Vice President and giving the US plenty of time to accept and see the advantages of the new reality before he is “elected” in September.

The protesters must come up with a political plan – something they can offer the people, a voice and a platform to represent them in the media. This is an enormous challenge for several reasons. First, it is always difficult to get people to agree on details once a movement has already started and grown – there are more diverging interests, less common ground; emotions are amplified and there is more at stake. Secondly, there is a significant amount of distrust within the core supporters and organizers of these protests towards opposition figures and politicians, most of whom did not lend their support to the demonstrations until after they surprised the world with their power. This eliminates the possibility of relying on already established organizational structures, weak as they may be; the movement will have to build something completely new.

Thirdly and, in my view, most importantly, the energy and the type of strategic thinking required to create a political plan runs almost directly opposite to the single-mindedness and incredible tenacity that protesters have had to adopt in order to continue the demonstrations, holding on to Tahrir square night after night, many of them fighting off the regime’s thugs at the front lines. People in the square are tired and they can only focus on one thing - the survival of the protests.
The protests’ focus narrowed onto the removal of Mubarak specifically after his first speech, in which he announced a new government would be formed. For over a week now, the banners, slogans, and chants of the protesters have targeted Mubarak personally.

I fear that, without a political alternative on the table and without public opinion on their side, protesters who will continue to demand the downfall of the regime after Mubarak (hypothetically) steps aside will be seen as unreasonable and selfishly disregarding the suffering of the majority; more than that, they may fail to bring out the numbers and support they need in order to continue.