Guy Talk in Tahrir Square

So three Egyptian guys walked into a coffee shop in Cairo… and this is what we talked about. (1) The culture of fear in a “securitized state.” (2) The burden of spying, torture, cynicism, suspicion, anti-solidarity in Egypt under the late Mubarak dictatorship and (3) the despair that transformed itself finally — maybe miraculously — into a revolutionary force. (4) The ‘heavenly gift’ of Tahrir Square and (5) the dread that it may be running out.

Thinkers and activists, from left, Fouad Halbouni, Ali Al Raggal and Amr Abdel Rahman at Groppi's in Downtown Cairo.  Mark Rendeiro Photo

Thinkers and activists Fouad Halbouni, Ali Al Raggal and Amr Abdel Rahman at Groppi’s in Downtown Cairo. Mark Rendeiro Photo

We are in Groppi’s, a faded old Swiss tea-room in Downtown Cairo — in the bustling “lost European dream of Cairo,” as my friend the anthropologist Fouad Halbouni puts it. The talkers here are three educated activists: social-science-minded graduate students. I am asking about shifts in the emotional ground that may run deeper than politics, transformations that come out as personal.

What broke the culture of fear in Tahrir Square was … a miracle in some sense. All of a sudden there was that glimpse from the future, that a new collectivity is possible. It’s as if you have seen a future that you can identify with, a model you can show to the people saying that: here in Tahrir Square there’s a vision from a country where we can all win, if you come to Tahrir Square… Suddenly, there’s a place in the city where something different is unfolding, and it’s worth fighting for. Definitely the change has been very little since the 25th of January [2011]. Very very limited, and confined to certain areas. But there’s something for sure that we can tell people, that we have Tahrir Square behind us. That moment is in the back of everybody’s mind — and nobody could exclude it from the public memory. It is our “Yes We Can,” if we can put it this way. It exactly is. Now the new system is again manipulating that same old cynicism, the fear. But now we can confidently say: we’re fine. Guys, we did it before. It is possible.

Amr Abdel Rahman, “another miserable graduate student” in politics.

If anything would last out of that revolutionary spark in Tahrir, it would be a different relationship between the people and the state. The security apparatus has taken a strong blow. The Muslim Brotherhood has been in many ways trying to resurrect it — what we call “the dignity of the state,” the thinking that the rule of law always has to take a certain brutal force or blindness. This has been broken with the people, to the point where the state can appear very weak. Such as: they would use that discourse of might, and “state dignity,” about the graffiti. A month ago you had the state wanting to erase the graffiti in Mohamed Mahmoud Street, for instance. They wanted to put trucks to guard, after they’d repainted the wall, that no one would draw again. What kind of state would have all those trucks feeding this question about the graffiti painters? Actually the graffiti artists went back while the trucks were there, and they repainted the wall. This could be a small gesture, but it shows something monumental coming between the state and the people. We have begun a new chapter.

Fouad Halbouni, Ph.D. candidate in anthropology at Johns Hopkins University.

The conversation is moving, but it’s in a bit of stagnation. There is an insistent question on us: how are we going to march forward on this path of emancipation? What’s needed more than this? Now there is a clear problem within the society itself. It’s how we convince other sectors to push forward. It’s a difficult question now, because a lot of people are emphasizing stability again — too much — and we’re seeing the same old tactics and methodologies.

Ali Al Raggal, political sociologist, focused on conflict and security

Actually the revolution is continuing in some form, and that’s what gives me hope. But things are not clear. This is what makes me more hopeful. We’ll see.

Fouad Halbouni.

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  • Robert Zucchi

    This is no ordinary café gabfest (trust C. L. for that), but an intelligent, calmly reasoned, and mostly positive assessment of the state of postrevolutionary Egypt. Youthful vitality enlivens the conversation, which seems preferentially disposed toward solutions that are integrative and inclusive for Egyptian

    “All of a sudden there was that glimpse from the future [in Tahrir Square]” … Little has changed from a year ago, but “we have [the events of] Tahrir Square behind us…and nobody could exclude it from the public memory…We’re fine. Guys, we did it before. It is possible.” (Mr. Rahman)

    There’s a conversation underway among the Egyptian people, “but it’s in a bit of stagnation” (Mr. Al Raggal).

    In the U.S., there has been a very damaging political stalemate for years, arising from a bitter clash between a resurgent sectionalist, ultraconservative subculture and an oppositional, largely urban subculture that believes the changes wrought in society during the last century have mostly benefitted democracy. What is sadly absent from our debate is however a prominent feature of this roundtable: a kind of elation at the opportunities that the very bitterness of the battles has opened up.

    “…things are not clear. This is what makes me more hopeful. We’ll see” (Mr. Halbouni).

    What an extraordinary statement, one that heartens me. Things are in flux, therefore I have hope. What these gentlemen and many Americans have in common is that we all want to live in a civilized, 21st century nation … one that respects the past but isn’t shackled to it.

  • Potter

    This reminds me of a scene in Les Miserables too much. So I looked it up. It’s Part Three Book 4 ( what a tome!) The ABC society (the “abaisse” in French- the underdogs, the people, the downtrodden) This group meet in such a cafe ( or two) to talk about revolution. My marks are at places worth copying:

    Nothing excels dogma as a begetter of dreams: and nothing excels dreaming as a begetter of the future. Today’s Utopia is the flesh and blood of tomorrow

    and this about Enjolras and Combeferre’s “raps”:

    The difference between logic and philosophy is that the one can decide upon war, whereas the other can only be fulfilled by peace

    Not a perfect fit to Tahrir but so close. The barricades they too made, but alos and now are in hearts and minds. Though the physical ones can then be torn down by the security state, once the spell of fear is broken, once awareness takes hold, there is no going back.. It is also about a coming together which gives strength along with consciousness raising ( or vice versa), not unlike the late 60’s here in the USA.

    Then, as was said, people want peace and stability. A rest.

    For me this talk sums up so much. It represents the bottom line of your digging away at what this is all about, in effect.

    A related thought: about the new powers-that-be going after wall grafitti, painting it over, guarding, etc. ( and as was said, showing weakness thereby).This art is not under the radar after all; it’s a threat. (Have they invaded the galleries as well?) Once Mark and others take photos and put it on the web, it lives on.

  • First, please credit the music that bookends this podcast, I’d love to patron those artists you give us this appetising tasting of.

    Second, it seems they are, in a way, approve the role of the US as this global Alpha, replacing the Russians and before that the European monarchies. In this sense, the seemingly wanton militaristic foreign policy of the US *is* serving to spread “liberty”, by showing these countries that not only can a democracy be strong, or be a superpower, but it can also be the strongest nation in the world.

    It remains to be seen whether they also learn the right lessons from the US, that is separation of Church and State, a separation of authorities and the importance of socialist democracy, to not become what they don’t like in the US.

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