Friday, 25 March 2011

A Little Revolutionary Inspiration from the Cinema

The last several days have left the revolutionary cause battered, to say the least, so I thought I'd share two favorite 'revolutionary' film clips to give solace.  [Please note that these both contain spoilers, so if you haven't seen the films already... Well, you've been warned.]

Al-Ard (dir. Youssef Chahine)

Al-Bab al-Maftuh (dir. Henri Barakat)

Google Preview of My New Book

Not exactly a 'thawra thought,' but the Google preview of my new book for those who are interested...

Wednesday, 23 March 2011

The Worst Day Since the Revolution

Today was a catastrophic day for Egypt, for Egyptians, and for the Egyptian revolution.  I was against the slate of constitutional amendments recently approved by referendum, and so was disappointed with the result of Saturday's vote.  But at least there were reasonable arguments launched by partisans on both sides of the question.  Perhaps more importantly, one could revel in the sight of Egyptians taking part in a democratic exercise that was, in relative terms, superior to most comparable votes in modern Egyptian history.

Yet, as I monitored my news feeds from Egypt today, I saw blow after blow after blow landed on the already battered body of the Egyptian revolution, to such an extent that I could scarcely believe my eyes.  First, there was the decision on the part of the Egyptian cabinet to render illegal all demonstrations that have an adverse impact on the Egyptian economy.  Second, there was the amendment to Law 40 of 1977, regulating the establishment of political parties, which would prohibit the establishment of parties on the basis of faith.  Third, there was the warning, issued by Mohamed el-Beltagi of the Muslim Brotherhood, that Egypt may be headed to a repeat of Algeria 1991 if the Ikhwan is not permitted to participate in a meaningful way in the political sphere.  By Algeria 1991, he refers to the decision on the part of the Algerian authorities to refuse to accept electoral victories of the Islamic Salvation Front, a decision that led to a catastrophically bloody civil war in that country.

All of these events illustrate a dramatic and disturbing contraction of space for political discourse in revolutionary Egypt, none more so than the first, which effectively forbids the open participation in politics of one of the most important, if not the most important constituency in the revolution, Egypt's workers.  To think that this decision came from a cabinet whose membership was decided through great struggle and was once endorsed by Egypt's revolutionaries, boggles the mind still further.

Among the most impressive sights that I witnessed during my recent visit to Egypt were not the planned protests in Tahrir Square, but the 'impromptu' protests that would appear to emerge in the streets at a moment's notice.  It was deeply gratifying to observe these protests, as they served as profound testament to the lowering of that much-vaunted 'barrier of fear' discussed throughout the press as critical to making the revolution possible.

What purpose could the above measures serve but to restore that fear?  The purported imperative of 'stability' that is now so often emphasized in Egyptian political discourse should not, indeed must not, be used to revive the fear that characterized the dictatorship.  If there was one accomplishment the revolution achieved in which all Egyptians could take an enormous measure of pride, it was the capacity to demonstrate, to protest, to gather together to make their voices heard.  And now, with these measures, that accomplishment is threatened as never before.

If I were in Egypt now, I would take to the streets again.  For it is not only the spirit of the revolution that is threatened.  It is the very essence of the revolution.

Tuesday, 15 March 2011

Egyptian Nationalism in a Post-Revolution Age

At those moments when great ideas were being embodied in crowds, when crowds were inventing their own organizations, when the burning urgency of social action became emotionally and almost tangibly perceptible, the people — for suddenly it was no longer merely the crowd, but a people, bearing its own message — evinced implacable soundness of judgment.  It was no longer to be put off with excuses.  Only yesterday it could have been terrorized, bribed or swindled, but now it was displaying an astonishing clearsightedness; or rather, facts and signs, history and day-to-day existence had at last coincided and were interacting on each other.

   Jacques Berque, Egypt: Imperialism and Revolution, on the 1919 Revolution

Now I realize that I spent my life striving for the absolute and that the absolute is the spouse of death.  I realize that there is no permanency and no stability in a life the nature of which is perpetual change.  Now I realize that for me love meant losing oneself in the other.  I realize that my crime was unpardonable because it was I who committed it, because there is no crime more serious than burying the self alive.  My hands are stained with my own blood.

   Latifa Zayyat, The Search

I have never seen so great a concentration of Egyptian flags in one place at one time as I saw in Cairo during my short visit – flags large and small, waved by young and old, painted on the walls of building and the cheeks of children.  Save one place, that is – at a football match.  Without doubt, in overthrowing the dictator Hosni Mubarak, Egypt has won a great victory that is worthy of such celebrations – much as Egyptians would celebrate a great victory on the football pitch.

To liken the revolution to a football victory may seem inappropriate, perhaps a touch heretical – but the parallel is a deliberate one.  For there remains a vital question with which Egyptians must reckon, if we are to make the revolution last longer than the warm but fleeting glow of a football victory.  We need to decide why we are waving that flag, what that flag means, who and what that flag represents.

Indeed, perhaps the greatest theme that I took away from my recent visit to Egypt was the struggle to redefine Egyptian nationalism.  This is a struggle waged in the streets through protests, both planned and impromptu, several of which I witnessed.  There were the Copts in front of the imposing Radio and Television Building, demanding an end to discrimination in employment and the construction of houses of worship, as well as recognition of their culture and way of life.  There were the workers in front of the People’s Assembly, demanding higher wages, an end to corruption, and a voice in the socio-economic reform of their country.  And there were the youth at Tahrir Square, demanding justice for their peers brutalized by the police and State Security.

All of these sectors of the population are seeking to redefine the Egyptian nation in different, important ways – but what they hold in common, I would argue, is the desire to extricate the power to define the nation from the Egyptian state.  For their part, the Copts were defying a Church structure which has long collaborated with the state in exchange for a degree of autonomy in communal affairs.  The workers were defying a structure of unions and syndicates which has long remained co-opted by the state, a means by which to distribute favors to regime loyalists.  And the youth were defying the Ministry of the Interior whose monitoring and violence had sought to instill a systematic fear within the population which served to defuse threats to the regime.

The victories these constituencies have won are important ones.  Habib el Adly, the former Minister of the Interior, will face trial for his abuse of power, and gradually, the crimes committed by his agents in the Ministry are coming to light.  Persistent worker sit-ins have prompted resignations of corrupt managers, and Egypt is now witnessing the rise of independent trade unions.  The military has agreed to rebuild the church near Helwan recently burned in a sectarian attack.

But the challenge of redefining Egyptian nationalism for the post-revolution age remains.  This is why, to my mind, the current debates about amendments to the constitution, the sequencing of elections, and presidential personalities seem rather beside the point.  What was so thrilling about the revolution was how Egyptians seized control of their own affairs – how we took responsibility for such matters as protecting our neighborhoods and cleaning our streets into our own hands.  A state which had consciously abdicated its responsibilities in countless areas was shown, at the end of the day, to be little match for the initiative of Egyptians ourselves.

Now is surely not the time to take a step back and reinvest the state with powers and responsibilities it has abused time and time again in the past.  What I am proposing here is a radical refashioning of the relationship between Egyptians and the state, as part of which the latter will at last become the servant of the former and not vice versa.  If Egyptians are to trust the state again to administer our affairs, the state can no longer remain an arena for barter of loyalties, favors, and resources among power-brokers.  The state must become both more and less than this – more, in the sense of an impartial arbiter for the distribution of resources and the administration of justice, and less, in the sense of a ‘mere’ representative of the popular will.

How to get there from here?  Not, I would suggest, by simply casting aside one set of personnel for a different, ‘technocratic’ set.  The impetus for this new state and, by extension, for a new Egyptian nationalism, must come from the people.  We must continue to set an example for the state, as we did during the revolution.  It is only with the continuing, integral involvement of the Egyptian people in establishing new precedents for administration and welfare that a fundamentally different governing entity will arise – one that is worthy of the revolution.

All of this requires a different nationalism – a nationalism that encourages participation and involvement, a nationalism that embraces diversity and pluralism.  The legacy of post-colonial Egyptian nationalism under Nasser and his successors was one of mobilization but exclusion as well – exclusion of women, exclusion of Jews, exclusion of Islamists.  Is it possible to conceive an Egyptian nationalism that mobilizes without excluding?  I saw glimmers of this nationalism in the revolution, when Islamists rushed to the side of secularists to rescue them from the violence of the ‘thugs’ or baltagiyya.  My hope is that this palpable sense of common cause, this pluralistic Egyptian nationalism, will not be lost in the midst of all the current flag waving.  Because there is a country’s future to be decided, not the result of a football match.