Click to listen to Chris’ conversation with Barbara Massaad (32 min, 15 meg) Revolutions are not born of chance but of necessity. A revolution is a return from the fictitious to the real. It happens ...
Revolutions are not born of chance but of necessity. A revolution is a return from the fictitious to the real. It happens because it had to happen…
Victor Hugo, in the thick of the people’s revolt in Paris in 1832, in Les Miserables, the prized Norman Denny translation, Penguin edition, p. 720.
Mark Fonseca Rendeiro and I are comparing impressions here of our “conversational immersion” in Cairo toward the end of last year. At the two-year mark, the Egyptian “revolution” is still young by the measure of the 18th Century models in France and America. To have felt the paroxysm of people power in Tahrir Square again last month is to know that nothing about the upheaval in Egypt is “over.” Charles Dickens prepared us, of course, to see flashes of paradox in these “best of times” and “worst of times” when history comes unhinged. We saw chapters of a very dark story, the evidence of horrific injuries and cruel losses of life, and revelations of deep old distortions in Egyptian society, also in American policy. We also got close to a lot of thrilling stories of the shit people won’t take; of blind courage and human intuition of the moment to act, to put their dignity and their lives on the line.
The rockets of big news as soon as we got to Cairo were astonishing: the mighty renewal of mass protest in Tahrir Square; the Israeli descent, guns blazing, on defenseless Gaza; the gruesome, preventable train-bus collision that dragged 51 Egyptian children to excruciating death; President Mohamed Morsi’s reach for dictatorial power; then the popular ratification of a pot-luck constitution… We’d come looking for reflections and connections and found them, too. Mark puts it forcefully here. American-born, with lively roots in today’s Portugal, he’s an esteemed solo practitioner of digital journalism, based in Amsterdam. In Egypt he came to realize “I was amongst family and people I could relate to — and a struggle that doesn’t seem so alien to me.”
Here’s the kernel of it for me. I went looking for artists to reflect on events in Egypt. I came back thinking of the ongoing mass revolt in Tahrir Square as, in itself, more like a work of art than anything else. It marks a moment of desperate insight into “the real” (in Victor Hugo’s sense above) and contagious courage in facing it. I was making a connection (before Greg Buchakjian mentioned it) with Picasso’s Guernica. It’s not a peaceful picture. It is a sustained cry from a tortured imagination of blind fury, doubt, agony and decision. It represents an inspired stab in the dark — not by Picasso in the case of Tahrir Square but by a million or more people scared reckless. It was something more than a political event: more like a communal birth, or death, an organic explosion. It seemed to speak for the whole species, a resolution “to act,” in Tony Judt‘s phrase, “upon our intuitions of impending catastrophe.” I kept thinking: what if a million goats had shown up in Tahrir Square? Or a million earthworms? Or a million Glossy Ibises? We would still be looking up in wonder. We’d know: they’re saying something! They’re on to something we haven’t seen clearly and they don’t spell all the way out. But in truth, as Mark says, the brave mobs in Tahrir Square are our close cousins, voicing pain and fear that billions of people know — under tyranny, in extreme poverty, under a mortal threat to their habitat and ours, to our common future as human beings. We will not forget that uncanny resonance of Tahrir Square — the aura of a collective work of art.
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, ...
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 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 . 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.
Khaled Abol Naga — movie star and now film producer, too — found his political voice in what was supposed to be a documentary film. “Microphone” (trailers: here and below) was a critical hit about ...
Khaled Abol Naga — movie star and now film producer, too — found his political voice in what was supposed to be a documentary film. “Microphone” (trailers: here and below) was a critical hit about the underground musicians in his hometown Alexandria who couldn’t get heard except on the street. The movie appeared in theaters at the moment two years ago when Tahrir Square began to fill up with brave, angry masses demanding the end of dictatorship. Today in Egypt’s ongoing turmoil Abol Naga is cast in much the same role he played in the movie. He’s the Hollywood-handsome ex-athlete who’s been to Europe and America and could obviously thrive anywhere; but he’s come home to ask insistently: “why not here?” He’s been in the thick of the Tahrir crowds at the end of 2012, all the while he’s been shooting a new movie, a comedy, about a dead military tyrant who comes alive to listen in on a new scene. Abol Naga is appalled by the Muslim Brotherhood in power, and dismissive of American politics and government: “A joke… always an obstacle to peace,” he’s saying. What lights our conversation just off the movie set is his conviction that the lifting of Egyptian spirits is irreversible, even if the politics of the post-Tahrir revolution has lurched astray. “We’re not there yet,” Abol Naga says of Egypt two years after Tahrir. “Nothing has changed but the people.”
Where are we going? We’re definitely going in the right direction. Maybe slower now, but even with the Muslim Brotherhood in power, which everybody thinks is a crisis, I think that it’s the best thing that ever happened: now they cannot claim they didn’t have a full chance to be in power. Can they veil women and close bars? No! People won’t take it. Even veiled women how will not take it that they can be dictated to wear the veil. The big change was not getting rid of Mubarak, or of Ben Ali in Tunisia. The big change was that people can’t be manipulated any more by fear. Not in Etypt or Tunis; actually even in the States. I don’t think in the States you could have another Bush. No more will leaders, politicians come and manipulate people and greenlight wars and invade countries, as happened before.
I believe this is not about revolution in Egypt. This is a time that will change the world… I don’t think that anybody in power will be strong enough — even now, the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt — to dictate what people will do or wear. They can’t anymore. And these are the signs of a new age we’re all witnessing. It looked big in the Middle East because it was the most repressed. But I think it will happen all over the world. I feel it in the States, even from conservatives… That’s why this is important, and why we have to support the revolution in Egypt as a symbol, because it did represent what the new age will be like.
Khaled Abol Naga in conversation with Chris Lydon in Cairo.