Sunday, 29 January 2012

One year on: My mother as a protester and a few other dilemmas

At the risk of stating the obvious, think of revolution not as a single event but as a period of waves. After an initial disturbance, a swell gathers momentum, forms into a crest, breaks just before it hits the shore, creates a splash, dissipates and then starts to move in the opposite direction, breaks on another shore, retreats and then builds up again, and so on and so forth until the revolutionary energy is consumed and a new equilibrium is reached. In the Iranian Revolution, this process lasted for a short while before the revolutionary energy got diverted to the confrontation with the US during the hostage crisis and then the long senseless war with Iraq. This gave the new rulers time and space to fully capture the state and establish their authority. In the American and French Revolutions, the waves kept recurring for decades.

In Egypt, the revolutionary wave completed its first cycle in almost exactly one year, from the initial gathering in Tahrir in the afternoon of 25 January, 2011 until its dissipation with the first session of the new parliament on 23 and 24 January, 2012. The splash on the shore took place in November and December, when at least 84 Egyptians were killed and thousands wounded in the most violent clashes since the ousting of Mubarak last February.

Then Egypt became relatively quiet all of a sudden. The elections brought the vast silent majority, not to Tahrir but to the ballot box. Record turnout represented a vote for stability and a desire by ordinary Egyptians to resume their normal routines. The decline of the unifying revolutionary energy, and the replacement of the legitimacy of the square by the legitimacy of the popular vote, created a space in the streets for all sorts of dispersed grievances to come to the foreground. Therefore, the few last weeks prior to the first anniversary of the revolution have seen a sharp rise in so-called sectoral protests. From Sinai in the east to Matrouh in the west, from Alexandria to Aswan, in Cairo and all major cities, crowds gathered making all sorts of demands. In Alexandria, government-employed pharmacists protested against newly imposed caps on their bonuses. In Daba’a, on Egypt’s northwestern Mediterranean coast, an angry mob demolished buildings of a proposed nuclear plant erected on land confiscated from its owners more than thirty years ago. In Sohag, Asyut and Aswan in the south, railway tracks were sabotaged in protest over shortages of cooking fuel and petrol. Train services came to a total halt, isolating Upper Egypt from the rest of the country.

In Cairo, my mother took her walking aid and limbed her way to one of the squares of the city’s centre to join other pensioners who were demanding a 30% increase in their pensions. She worked for the government for almost 35 years and upon her retirement started to receive 1000 Egyptian pounds per month, which is around 125 Euros. She has other sources of income. Others are not so lucky. The pensioners were particularly incensed when they learned that former governments had squandered more than 430 billion Egyptian pounds from governmental pension funds by simply adding them to the general budget of the country to improve its overall balance.

These sectoral protests have created a dilemma for the revolutionaries who wish to continue with the revolution until the whole regime is dismantled, with army and all, and a new proud Egyptian is born, one who is not cowered at the sight of a police officer in uniform and is immune against subservience to any corrupt authority. The revolutionaries were elated at the sight of all sorts of Egyptians flocking to the streets demanding their rights. However, these demands could not be channelled into a single revolutionary momentum against the authoritarian state but were, in fact, fragmenting the revolutionary movement into small, controllable chunks. What’s more disturbing, from a revolutionary perspective, was that these demands were made to SCAF and the government. In other words, they were made to the last remaining strongholds of exactly the same state that the revolutionaries wish to dismantle and fundamentally transform.

The state bent backwards to meet the multitude of demands. A few days after my mother went out demonstrating with her fellow pensioners, the government announced that it would increase pensions for former government employees by 30% (once the initial anger was absorbed, this was later reduced to only 10%). Schemes for employing youth have been unveiled, and around half a million temporary workers were given permanent contracts. The state simply had no choice but to scramble for means to appease the population, in order to undermine any further swell of revolutionary momentum. But in doing so, it is only postponing the next implosion. With decreased production and little material support from abroad, a fiscal crisis is inevitable, some say by the middle of the year. The middle class revolution that has just concluded its first round may be then completely taken over in subsequent rounds by the hungry and disenfranchised. For some, this could have disastrous consequences. For others, it would be a welcome continuation and expansion of revolutionary momentum.

Which leaves those standing half-way between the state and the revolutionaries facing the most intractable dilemma. These are the middle class politicians, whether Islamists, liberals, socialists, token nationalists or opportunists who come in all shapes, sizes and colours. They are the ones who jumped on the shoulders of the revolutionaries in order to inherit the state from the previous regime. The Islamists, as the clear winners in the elections and the ones expected to deliver the goods by a distinctively impatient nation, are in the most awkward position. On the one hand, they must penetrate a mammoth state, grease the wheels of production, combat corruption, and keep the peace abroad while at the same time re-establish law and order and distribute justice and wealth more equitably. They are simply faced with and must solve the age-old contradiction between efficiency and equity under less than optimal conditions.

Over the long run, this is not at all impossible in a country relatively well endowed such as Egypt. But as the famous economist once said, in the long run, we are all dead. It is all about the short term now, at least until the revolutionary energy consumes itself completely. No one knows when this will be: it could be one year from now. Some of the Islamist politicians I meet here say 3-4 years. Others, mainly the revolutionaries, believe (or rather wish) it will be at least a generation before a new equilibrium is reached. 

As experience from elsewhere shows, success in solving the contradiction would be generously rewarded by voters, and the Islamists may end up as a result staying in power for a very long time to come. Failure, in case the alliance between the Islamists and the army holds, might lead to a slide back into authoritarianism. If the alliance does not hold, chaos might be the order of the day.    

* Published in Transcend Media Service (TMS), 06-12 February, 2012

Recommended reading (1)

This is a link to an article from the Nation.

When you finish reading it, please scroll down and see the comment I posted there and other comments. They should explain why I think that this is a good example of the kind of shallow and sensational analysis that hides more than what it reveals about what is happening in Egypt nowadays.

And this link is to an excellent piece on why Egypt cannot replicate the Turkish model.

I do not necessarily agree with the argument, and there are a couple of questionable empirical claims. But, on the whole, I think it is succinct, sophisticated and thoughtful.

The dark side of revolution: Thugs on demand and the poorest of the poor

There are about one million children living in the streets of Egypt. They are among the poorest of the poor in the country. Some of them are orphans with no relatives willing to take them in; others are born in sin and then thrown into garbage pins. Most have escaped from broken homes and cruel parents or elder siblings. They survive on garbage and compete with stray cats and dogs for food and shelter. The girls grow up to be prostitutes selling their bodies for a loaf of bread and the boys become petty criminals and, if they are lucky, hired thugs.

When the revolution broke out one year ago, those street children flocked to Tahrir and other major squares in Egypt and threw their lot with the revolutionaries. They felt the common bonds of humanity, probably for the first time in their lives, and developed a sense of comradeship with those more affluent youth who lived rough with them for 18 days, until Mubarak stepped down. Since then, there were sustained sit-ins in Tahrir and elsewhere, and the street children continued to mingle with the revolutionaries, who treated them kindly and made them part of the common cause uniting all Egyptians. On their part, the children finally found vehicles to vent their anger at a society that had routinely ignored them and, particularly, a police force that had abused them and treated them as animals and criminals.

In November and December, street children were at the forefront of the crowds clashing with the police and the army, and many of them were among the dead and the wounded. But then the revolutionary tide ebbed. In Tahrir, the sit-in by the last remaining revolutionaries ended soon after the start of the elections. The only ones left behind, feeling betrayed, were the street children, who simply had nowhere else to go but back to the streets of the city. Some of them chose to remain in makeshift tents in Tahrir. They served everybody’s purpose. The state could point to them and say, look, here are the revolutionaries: soot-covered bastards, petty criminals and the lowest of the low. Two close friends of mine, with very little interest in politics, happened to pass through Tahrir square the other day, and they said as much. On the other hand, the revolutionaries could point to them and say, look, the people are still in the square until the objectives of the revolution are met. The few tents of the street children provided good photo opportunities for revolutionary tourists, and it kept the embers of revolution somewhat alive, attracting a few passers by who would form small circles of debate in the middle of the square.

Then the first anniversary of the revolution was approaching, and the square had to look pretty and neat for petty middle class celebrations. So, a few days before the 25th, newspapers reported in their inside pages that “thugs” attacked the last remaining tents in Tahrir with knives and sticks, burned down the tents and cleared the square from “the criminal elements” who had been occupying it. No one bothered. The middle class had their revolution and were now busy quarrelling over the spoils, not in the streets but in the cosier parliament building.

Now, the thugs. In a sense, they could also be considered among the poorest of the poor, morally speaking: I could never understand why the term poverty should be used exclusively in mainstream development circles to refer to the lack of material wealth only.

Simply defined, thugs are violent criminals and they do all sorts of things that criminals do: theft, murder, extortion, etc. There are, however, two key differences between them and normal criminals. First, they use violence as a first choice, unlike other criminals who resort to violence only as a last option, if they use it at all. For example, a normal criminal would steal a car late at night, in stealth, when no one is looking. And if about to be caught, he would instinctively run away. For a thug, this is dishonourable behaviour. If a thug, or rather a group of thugs, wish to steal a car, they would probably do so in broad day light, beat up the driver or even kill him or her and simply drive away with the stolen vehicle. In a recent incident not far from where my mother lives, they drove away with two babies in the back seat who were later found thrown at the side of the road, luckily still alive.

I am told that the Egyptian Arabic word for thug, baltagy, comes from Turkish and it means someone wielding an axe, or a balta. Thugs these days do not use axes that much. Their weapons of choice are knives, swords, clubs, a few carry pistols and some, especially in the countryside, machine guns.

The second key difference is that, unlike normal criminals, thugs perform political functions. Some thugs have been bred by the former regime and kept on a tight leash. They used to be let loose on the regime’s opponents, beating them up, destroying their vehicles, burning their homes, etc. During elections, they would be sent to terrorise voters for opposition candidates. In exchange, the security services would turn a blind eye on their crimes against the people, normally the poor. If they break certain red lines, for example turning against their masters or other well-connected persons, committing brutal murders or generally creating a bad smell around themselves, the government would mercilessly crack down on them, put them on trial in civilian courts and send them behind bars.

Thuggery has dramatically increased with the start of the revolution. A few days ago Tantawi lifted the state of emergency, imposed more than 30 years ago following the assassination of Sadat, except in the case of thuggery. Some criticised this as a dangerous loophole. But almost everyone I spoke with enthusiastically approved of this, which goes to show how serious this problem has become, and how insecure Egyptians feel due to the collapse of the state’s capacity for maintaining law and order. While the demonstrators were still demanding the fall of the regime, in early February 2011, the gates of some prisons were thrown wide open, many believe intentionally by the retreating police as an act of revenge on the society that dared to revolt against them and to undermine the revolution from within. Thugs and other dangerous criminals poured into the streets and until today the police, which is slowly regrouping, are finding it so hard to deal with them.

The market for thugs bloomed and I am told that prices have gone down, due no doubt to the explosion in supply and the lifting of the near monopoly exercised on many of the thugs by the former security apparatus. An unarmed thug, usually a young boy, most probably a former street child, costs only 200 Egyptian pounds (around 26 Euros). A thug armed with a knife or a sword costs up to 500 pounds and one armed with a machine gun costs 2500 pounds. I could hire a thug to commit a murder for 8000 pounds, to kidnap a child, 3000, and to cause a visible injury, 2500. Many thugs are their own bosses, mainly stealing cars that eventually end up in Gaza through the tunnels, as some claim.

Politically, thugs have managed to create an irreparable damage to the relationship between revolutionaries and army. Some of the youth of the revolution swore to me that they saw with their own eyes thugs shooting at the army from among the demonstrators during the sectarian clashes in Maspero last October. When the army shoots back, it hits demonstrators, and all hell breaks loose. No one knows exactly who is now hiring these thugs to perform such dirty political work. The major suspects are remnants of the old regime. Other suspects include foreign intelligence agencies and, more ominously, different organs of the state. A member of one of the revolutionary youth coalitions believes that different branches of the military are playing a dangerous game, competing for controlling domestic security with other agencies, which explains why the SCAF, as a whole, has so far been unable to control this phenomenon. No one knows the truth. The fact remains, thugs are on the loose and are a major source of headache for rich, poor and middle class alike.

Tahrir and other squares in Egypt started to fill up again as the anniversary of the revolution drew nearer. On the big day itself, the square was once more packed with hundreds of thousands of Egyptians from all imaginable backgrounds: rich, poor, young, old, Muslims, Islamists, Christians, kids in western style baseball hats and ponytails and men in traditional galabiyas. The street children returned, and the thugs were nowhere to be seen. The revolutionaries were carrying mock coffins in remembrance of the “martyrs” of the revolution and shouting: down, down with military rule. The Muslim Brotherhood, on the other hand, built a stage and its leaders made self-congratulatory speeches celebrating the revolution.

For a day, the spirit was good, and Egypt looked like a harmonious, civilised place once again. But one could feel the tension and divisions beneath the surface. Next day there were some minor scuffles between the revolutionaries and some supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood, accused of “stealing the revolution”, and some thugs harassed a foreign female tourist. But the anniversary on the whole came and went more or less peacefully. Some called it a celebration. Others called it the start of the second revolution. People are wary and confused, and none of the major social forces seem to know exactly where to go from here. The next period will see the potential for either further division or conciliation over explosive issues such as the drafting of the constitution, the choice of a new president and the transfer of authority to civilian rule. The revolution continues, and the people will at one point chose between the legitimacy the parliament, the legitimacy of the square or decide to ignore both and go out and create a new legitimacy of their own, anarchy.    

Sunday, 1 January 2012

No mood for compromise

Rami Bathish asked: “Do you get the impression that a pluralistic society will stand a chance in the new Egypt? Mine is not a rhetorical question, I am actually wondering if this will happen or not, and I am not concerned with Copts and Muslims. I mean: do you think that there will be a pluralistic political structure, or will it be dominated by one party/ideology (as the old regime managed to sustain)?”

I do not have yet an answer to this question. But here are some observations, from the last two days only, that might give a clue.

- The liberals are sour as a result of the overwhelming success of Islamists in the first two phases of the elections. Some have accused the majority of Egyptians of being backward and ignorant for giving their votes to the Islamists. A few have suggested that Egypt is not yet ready for democracy, and that some of the population should not be allowed to vote.

- This Friday, an obscure coalition called for a demonstration in Tahrir square to signal the end of hostility between the revolutionaries, who have been demonstrating in Tahrir against the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF), and those who have been demonstrating recently in another part of town, Abbasiya square, in support of SCAF. Only a handful of people showed up, much to the embarrassment of those who issued the call. Major revolutionary groups, such as the 6th of April movement and the Union of Revolutionary Youth, boycotted the demonstration, announcing that there could be no compromise with the counter-revolution, and that those who issued the call represent no one but themselves.

- Pope Shenouda III, Patriarch of the Coptic Orthodox Church, invited representatives of all political forces to attend the Church’s Christmas celebration next week. A significant number of his followers objected and announced that they will perform a sit-in at the Coptic Cathedral in Cairo to prevent Salafis and representatives of the army from attending, by force if necessary. They argue that those responsible for burning churches (a reference to Salafis) and those who killed Coptic demonstraters in Cairo a few months ago (SCAF) are not welcome in the church. There has been a growing and, some say, irreparable schism inside the Church between an active young revolutionary generation and the older leadership. Of all major social forces in Egypt, the Coptic Orthodox Church remained loyal to Mubarak until the end, and it instructed its members not to participate in the January-February 2011 demonstrations. The Salafis, on their part, declined the invitation, saying they could not participate in such a non-Islamic celebration.

- A breakaway Salafi group announced the formation of a committee for the prevention of vice and promotion of virtue, a kind of an informal religious police modeled on a similar group active in Saudi Arabia since the 1940s The committee, made up of young volunteers who would go around asking people to observe the Islamic code in the street: women should be veiled, alcohol should not be sold and a strict separation of men and women in public should be strictly enforced, etc. They claimed they were part of the Salafi Nour party, which collected the second largest number of votes in the first two phases of the elections. The party, together with the Muslim Brothers and al-Azhar, denounced the group. Its Facebook page was hacked by other Islamists, and there was a general outcry in society. The founders of the group took to the offensive, allegedly resigning from the Nour party and accusing its official spokesperson of being an agent for the state security service.

There are many other examples. Conflict, and not mere competition, is in the air: between Islamists and liberals, Muslims and Copts, among Copts, among Islamists, between generations, men and women, old regime and revolutionaries, army and people, even inside the army: I was told by a retired army officer that the top brass of the army are so keen to hand over power mainly because of their fear that the officers and the rank and file would violently turn against them if they don’t. Egyptians are angry and are in no mood for compromise. There is a failure of communication everywhere and the values of tolerance and peaceful, rational dialogue, essential in any pluralist system, are buried deep beneath long years of authoritarianism and misrule. However, one should not jump to the conclusion that pluralism does or does not have a chance to flourish in Egypt. This is a more complex story, one to which I wish to return in a future postcard.

In the meantime, please keep your questions coming.