Egyptians are angry because they could no longer dream!

A friend of mine has just written to me asking what is happening in the "city of fatigue.” He thinks I was the one who suggested this name for Cairo.  Regardless of how the name came about, it was relevant before the 25th of January. That day Phoenix happened to be Egyptian too! Why not? Isn't Cairo um el-dunia (the mother of this world)?

I am thrilled by what is happening despite all the signs that suggest I should feel differently. It is such a glorious moment for which I, as a believer in freedom as an original/essential human right, have been eagerly waiting since I became aware of this world. The moment I mean is that one to which the Tunisian poet al-Shaabbi alluded many decades ago; "it is when people WANT that even divine fate accepts their will!"

In real political terms however, even though it is a necessary condition, that "want" remains insufficient; it still requires a whole host of conditions and circumstances. First, let me narrate what has happened so far. Cairo and the Cairenes have lately looked extremely tired of the existing regime. It is no accident that the biggest movement opposing the country's corrupt system has been called “Kifaaya”, or enough, which is a term that Egyptians particularly use in daily life when they become fed up! Those who hear this term often stop their irritating and hurtful acts. Those acts consisted of the policies of successive governments that made it impossible for even the employed to live with a minimum sense of feeling human; many of my friends and acquaintances have been working at least 16 to 18 hours a day just to make ends meet. Statistics say there are many millions who live under similar conditions. Such conditions caused ordinary Egyptians to feel they are not respected even inside their own country. Many of them migrate abroad in search for better jobs. Nevertheless, even abroad many felt humiliated when the image of Egypt and the Egyptian deteriorated because of policies that explicitly and implicitly went against the principles upon which the very identity of their own Arab and Muslim country has rested for centuries.

I was very aware of these issues when I lived in Cairo during my graduate studies in the years between 1995 and 1998. Since then, I have been thrilled by the various political movements that emerged to amend the damage caused by the regime. They tirelessly engaged the system and sought any form of dialogue with the various governments. However, it has always been frustrating to witness the regime's continued ability to buy its opponents off or set different parties at each other’s throats. Throughout it was assisted by its long-standing good allies; the US, Israel and Saudi Arabia. The latter supported the regime and, of course, asked for something in return; Egypt’s assistance in protecting and maintaining the Israeli and American dominance over the whole region of the Middle East. Such an exchange has been glaringly obvious even to those who know very little about politics in the Middle East.

Although said out loud by hundreds of thousands if not millions, the word Kifaaya did not cause the regime to change its destructive policies. Lately it has even looked totally indifferent to what people may think of or feel about it; to add insult to injury and long after the rise of Kifaaya, the regime dared to fake the parliamentary elections, to raise prices and to arrest thousands of political activists representing millions of those who have been fatigued by the country's unbearable conditions. The MPs who represent the pro-regime party (called, probably mockingly, the National Democratic Party) are the majority. The greatest majority of those, however, are accused of winning their seats through rigged elections. The Egyptian ability to “engineer” elections is one of the most advanced in the region; many candidates from the opposition cannot run for election because of false legal suits. Others are deported, exiled or imprisoned. Those prevented from partaking in politics represent the majority of the Egyptians living under the exhausting conditions mentioned above. Those who are allowed to seize or even monopolize politics are those who support the regime’s policies and the conditions they created.

Some dimension should be added to the conditions under which Egyptians live however. Sociologically speaking, what appear to be unbearable conditions currently in Egypt have arisen when the country experienced the best economic growth in its recent history. It is true that that growth has not been associated with an even distribution of income. It is true, too, that it was associated with high rates of corruption. Nevertheless, it is also true that it led to the creation of a "new middle class," so to speak. I say new because it is different from the old state-connected middle class that developed under Nasser and Sadat who ruled from 1952 to 1981, when Mubarak came to power. The new class has been nourished by and flourished on the opportunities made available through the neo-liberal economic policies followed by the late Sadat and strengthened by Mubarak. These policies further opened up the country to the outside world, provided new means of communication including, most significantly, the by-now affordable Internet. As the general conditions of the country have improved, the needs and the aspirations of all the population have developed. They also started to compete much more fiercely. One example may make things clearer. Taxi drivers in Cairo today drive cars that are much better than those they drove back in the eighties and nineties. The cars now are brand new flashy machines purchased through bank loans. They come with many means of comfort including AC, automated gears, windows, etc. Although living under enormous pressure drivers are now able to compare and aspire to cars similar to those owned by individuals enjoying higher incomes. In my conversations with many drivers I would ask, “Well why do you have to buy this car with a loan and then you have to work extra hours that you think may even kill you to make the repayments?” All the men with few exceptions said it was the pressures of life that pushed them to buy the car. When asked to list those pressures they mentioned needs that I know have not previously been normal parts of life for these drivers or their groups now aspiring to private schooling for their kids, owning an apartment or having a cell phone, etc.

Paradoxically, these needs and aspirations have been on the rise along with the conditions that made their attainment less and less possible. The uneven development of income along with the kinds of corruption that have long existed in Egypt made it very clear to all in Cairo that the distance separating the high and low income groups can only increase and thus further reduce the chances for the present and following generations to enjoy the perceived huge wealth of their own country. This idea gave birth to a grim image of the future; if the present conditions continue to exist life for the majority of the Egyptians can only get worse. Many said that it made them literally lose their ability to dream. It is no accident that these words are said by people who work for too many hours, which means that they don't get enough sleep and thus literally cannot dream!

How on earth could they dream after the means that assisted them to become what they are have been sold to privately owned firms owned only partly by Egyptians? And what kind of Egyptians? They are the ones who monopolised most governmental posts and became shareholders in the companies they themselves had established. In a sense, they somehow sold the public sector to themselves. The commodity sold though represented something very dear to Egyptians. The public sector in Egypt is a complex socio-political space that helped Egyptians make sense of the modern world they had to live in. Most significantly, it provided them with their basic needs such as food, education and the health care services that enabled them to dream of a better future. Now there is no public sector. What is available instead is a competitive market requiring high standards of education and social skills that can be purchased for money. But where to get the money from? The answer under the present conditions is from nowhere. The vast majority of the country’s wealth has been appropriated through legal and illegal deals by a small oligarchy headed by Mubarak. That fact has been lately pushed under the nose of Egyptians and made them wake up. In no way can dreams make things better.

The present revolt therefore reveals a sober will for better living conditions and from a holistic point of view. Its proceedings make clear the kind of manoeuvres and tricks that have been practiced on the Egyptians at least for the last three decades. First, it caused the regime to panic and thus exposed the tricks it has used as never before. The government in Egypt has ruled people through their stomachs as it were; it always made them afraid they would lose subsidies for basic foods, thus become hungry and probably die! Next, it always made people feel they were a burden on the government which always had to go for loans in order to cover the expenses of "feeding them", as Mubarak himself once told the parliament in a speech broadcast live on TV. These two threats were used at the beginning of the revolt. Banks were closed, a curfew was announced and people were unable to bring their own groceries. After a short time, however, the Egyptian people managed to get things done in their own inimitable creative ways. Then the government tried the security issue. The police were withdrawn from the streets. That was to tell people “You see, if you get the food you won't be able to eat it in peace … you may even get killed because there are many poor people living in slum areas who would attack you like locusts”. A friend of mine who belongs to the middle class literally used this image shortly after the police disappeared. He tried to encourage me to hide in my house and take all precautions possible to protect my family. But I walked freely in the streets and soon noticed that many men like my friend were patrolling the neighbourhood while carrying sticks, baseball bats and chains in their hands and knives under their belts. They were afraid of men from the slum areas around our neighbourhood infiltrating our streets in order to loot. It was like a nightmare when I started to believe that lie. So I walked around to get rid of that image. However, I was blocked by other men who looked like my middle-class friend although much younger. They asked to see my ID and then forced me to return to my house. The image they drew was so intriguing; they said “the mob must be approaching now, you should be careful, go bring any kind of stick with which you can defend yourself”. One my colleagues dared to go around on her bike next morning. There was no trace of mobs of any kind, let alone looting or theft. It seemed like a good, normal, safe Cairene morning.

A few blocks away the government played another trick. A tank stationed a few blocks from my house fired a few shots every other hour or so. The news spread that the shots were to deter prisoners from running away. Other people said prisoners did get out. The fear intensified. On TV some prisoners were shown with some bank notes and herbs that looked liked hashish in front of them. The news said they were among the many prisoners caught. The whole idea was “you see, we are the secret of your own safety”. In the same vein are all the other tricks that aimed at demonising the demonstrators and the entire revolt; bombing the gas line to Israel, murdering some foreigner in al-Tahrir Square, etc.

When the regime despaired, they resorted to the use of sheer force and terror. They mobilised their own police to demonstrate undercover as people who support Mubarak. However, that did not work either; soon the mercenaries became tired and even scared of the millions who woke up to look for their dream under the beautiful sun of their beloved land.

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Comment by Keith Hart on March 9, 2011 at 5:28pm
Take a moment to see this short speech on Al Jazeera TV's role in the Arab spring. Note that pride in land, culture and history is linked to opening up to the world and to universal values such as freedom and tolerance.
Comment by John Schaefer on February 27, 2011 at 5:37pm

I agree that Egyptians and other Arabs and Africans have been exposed to particularly brutal forms of oppression. At the same time, I appreciate this writer's search for consistency across the neoliberalizing world. He is anonymous, unfortunately, but his analysis is dead on. In fact, he argues, the corruption in Egypt was not exceptional, some sort of robbing the state coffers (as appears to be the case for Tunisia and Libya). Instead, political leadership in Egypt was intertwined within business leadership, and knowledge translated into money, in much the same, for example, that

 

"Bush era cabinet members Donald Rumsfeld and Dick Cheney, through their involvement with companies like Halliburton and Gilead Sciences, are the product of a political system that allows them — more or less legally — to have one foot planted in "business" and another in "government" to the point that the distinction between them becomes blurred."

Comment by Keith Hart on February 27, 2011 at 5:07pm

Thank you very much for this article, Marie. It reminds me that when Alain Badiou and I were young, western youth took to the streets shouting the names of the leaders of the anti-colonial revolution: Mao Tse Tung, Ho Chi Minh, Fidel Castro, Che Guevara. It seemed to us then that Asians, Africans and Latin Americans could give us political lessons in how to make the world less corrupt. I went to West Africa as a graduate student sincerely believing that Kwame Nkrumah's panafricanism had a lot to teach us all. A decade later all this seemed to be a pipedream.

I have been trying to write about revolution to come in Africa for several years now and the events in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya have transformed my sense of that potential. I agree that they show up the West's pretension of global leadership for the sham that it is.

But we must not forget how far the people of North Africa were pushed before they revolted, the humiliation that led Sidi Bouzid to torch himself. I am reminded of Rousseau's words in his second discourse (on inequality):

"The establishment of law and the right of property was the first stage; the institution of magistrates the second and the transformation of legitimate into arbitrary power the third and last stage. Thus the status of rich and poor was authorised by the first epoch, that of strong and weak by the second and the third that of master and slave, which is the last degree of inequality and the stage to which all the others finally lead, until new revolutions dissolve the government altogether and bring it back to legitimacy."

One-man-rule closes the circle in that all individuals become equal again because they are now subjects with no law but the will of the master. We should think about that before invoking a communist uprising in Paris on the back of the North African revolutions.

Comment by Marie Aupourrain on February 27, 2011 at 4:37pm

I found the translation of a french article by Alain Badiou on this subject, perhaps you will like it.

 

Comment by Keith Hart on February 27, 2011 at 12:49am

 This clip was made early on, before Mubarak fell. I used to take a critical, and typically Marxian position on rights - but check out the guy in the middle of this: 


"We’ll not be silenced. Whether you are Christian, whether you are Muslim, whether you are an atheist, you will demand your goddamned rights. And we will have our rights, one way or the other. We will never be silenced.”

          -- Eliza Darling
Comment by John Schaefer on February 26, 2011 at 5:04pm

Thank you Keith. FM radio seems so simple, but it's been absolutely necessary in Ghana, due to the digital divide and widespread illiteracy. There needs to be a way to communicate with ordinary people, for untrained reporters to be able to get on the air and call out the current leaders when they chop money or abuse power. This should be the case in Arab countries too--a place to bring evidence of palaces built, bribes taken, or bloggers arrested, a place that is accessible to anyone, not just literate people or those with Internet knowledge and access, and a place that is commercially viable and relatively cheap.

Comment by Keith Hart on February 26, 2011 at 3:43pm

Nice comment, John. Points taken. I start from the view that it does no harm for some academic anthropologists to be concerned with mobilisation as well as adopting their normal stance. What interests me is that, when confronted with an engaged take on current events, most of them treat it as a choice between one thing or the other before retreating into a position of safety.

Hardt and Negri have an interesting analysis of the North African uprsiings based on their multitudes idea.
Comment by John Schaefer on February 21, 2011 at 10:43pm

Regarding the Internet's role in social activism, I wrote about this as well in 2006 when I argued that for Ghana, the use of the Internet by Ghanaians abroad, coupled with liberalized media laws including FM radio, made the success of the 2000 election, which marked one of the first peaceful handovers of power from ruling party to opposition in Africa, I believe (the same happened in 2008 as well). Neither the Internet alone, nor FM radio alone, would have had such an impact.

 

But regarding Zizek's statements about context and commitment, perhaps we need to look more closely at his purpose: "to identify with it, to recognize what it was about." Zizek is not seeking to understand the uprising, analyze it, or explain it. His primary purpose seems to be mobilization, and he does not need to know much about the context or history to immediately identify with the people and join with them in solidarity. However, anthropologists have different tasks too, in addition to mobilization. Sometimes we also want to understand, learn, explain, and these demand something more. Even describing involves much more knowledge. This is the parallax view of Kojin Karatani--the idea that one's position influences one's perspective.

Comment by Keith Hart on February 20, 2011 at 12:53am

Tahrir Square comes to the USA already! Thanks to Dan Wang at nettime for this link with pics and video:

"Governor Scott Walker, a Tea Party-backed politician of huge ambition, has proposed a budget bill that strips public workers of their right to collectively bargain while doing very little to actually address the state budget deficit. Also in the bill are power grab provisions that have nothing to do with the budget whatsoever, that rewrite executive authority to alter regulatory guidelines, but that would expire in four years, disallowing the next governor to undo the wreckage. The resistance has grown every day, now the battle in the US is here, in Madison."

Comment by Huon Wardle on February 15, 2011 at 9:25pm
This is a very important intervention here.

I wonder, and this lack of expertise probably explains why most anthropologists don't feel in a position to comment, what the significance of Arabic is in the particular spread of ideas in Tunisia egypt and now Algeria (and Bahrain?)

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