I attended my third “April 6” last Tuesday, and have been pondering why the police went ballistic ever since.
If you follow events in Egypt you’ll know what happened. If you don’t, this video sums it up.
Jack Shenker, the Guardian’s fantastic writer and raconteur extraordinaire presents his analysis of events here. I agree with his view that protest in Egypt is cyclical, and is often galvanised by events/opportunities not necessarily linked to the grievance to which the protest give voice.
Shenker says however in his last paragraph:
Oppressive autocracies the world over have a dizzying array of tactics in their arsenal to cling on to power – from media manipulation to strategic support from superpowers – and it is only when they are feeling at their most vulnerable that the basest of these tactics, naked violence, is resorted to. Tuesday's clashes indicate that in Egypt those vulnerabilities are bubbling to the surface; both ElBaradei and the grassroots campaigners below him are in a position to take advantage.
It’s this - the idea that Tuesday’s violence was the product of vulnerability - which I take issue with, and by Jove I’m going to tell you why now.
Tonight (and every night) the streets are ours
Prompted by Tuesday’s events I picked up “Life as Politics: How ordinary people change the Middle East” by Asef Bayat, which I have been meaning to read ever since I bought it. It’s a really interesting read. Bayat’s thesis is that, unable under repressive regimes to resort to traditional channels of dissent, ordinary people challenge authority and carve out a space for themselves (intentionally or otherwise) in their every day lives in seemingly mundane ways. Bayat gives the example of people who illegally build informal housing that the government is then forced to recognise by installing water and electricity etc. Bayat calls it “creating realities on the ground”.
Bayat talks about the significance of public streets in the relationship between a repressive government and the people it denies a voice:
Here, conflict [between the public and state officials] originates from the active use of public space by subjects who, in the modern states are allowed to use it only passively – through walking, driving, watching – or in other ways that the state dictates. Any active or participative use infuriates officials, who see themselves as the sole authority to establish and control public order.
Anyone who reads this blog regularly who have an idea that I spend my life covering protests in Cairo that take place almost exclusively in these places:
1. On the steps of the Journalists’ Syndicate
2. Outside the public prosecutor’s office
3. On the steps of the Doctors’ and Lawyers’ Syndicates
And more recently:
4. Outside the People’s Assembly
5. Outside the Cabinet Office
The agreement between state security and protestors is this: You can say what the bloody hell you please. You can even turn your protests into sit-ins. You can be in the thousands. But only if you’re in one of the five places listed above.
(I’m excluding here workers’ on-site protests because – as significant as they are – I don’t think factorys and company premises count as public space, in most cases).
As Bayat says, there is no such thing as public space - with the meaning of space belonging to the public, with all that that implies - in Egypt. This has implications for any kind of potentially collective behaviour, even the most mundane, such as when Shady Ahmed played guitar in Zamalek and was surrounded by confused police officers within minutes.
The last time I witnessed violence like Tuesday’s was during the protests against the Israeli invasion of Gaza, when men coming out of Friday prayers erupted into ‘spontaneous’ chanting.
However, the last time I saw a mass demo was also during the Israeli invasion of Gaza, when hundreds of mostly Muslim Brotherhood protestors demonstrated outside parliament and then marched to the Doctors’ Syndicate where they protested some more, unmolested by the police.
I’m not claiming that I’m making an earth-shattering point here, but the key here is consent: my yard, my rules.
Which brings me onto the next issue, the fact that the April 6 Movement informed the Interior Ministry that they would be protesting in advance.
Tommy, you gonna let him get away with that? You gonna let this fucking punk get away with that? What's the matter? What's the world coming to?
I’ve never heard about a group notifying the Interior Ministry in advance that they’re protesting. It’s unnecessary mostly because 1. The Interior Ministry always knows everything in advance and 2. Protests are almost always held at one of the five places listed above.
Unsurprisingly, the Interior Ministry informed the April 6 Youth Movement that it had banned the march, a day or two before it went ahead. Seventy or so brave young people were able to briefly congregate outside the Shoura Council despite the efforts of state security officers.
Have you ever watched Goodfellas? Remember when they do the huge airport heist and Robert De Niro warns gang members not to buy anything flashy afterwards for fear of attracting the cops’ attention, and one of the members and his wife come into a bar in new fur coats and they end up hung up in the meat freezer?
State security had a similar reaction, because the tiny protest was essentially a big, “up yours, I don’t care what you say, this is my street too”.
No kids, it aint.
Hit first, ask questions later
The Interior Ministry is like an easily provoked, irascible man in a pub. Generally always spoiling for a fight, seeing insults where there are none. Ask the Nadeem Centre about that. Aside from the many accounts of torture and abuse in police stations documented by NGOs, the kind of “naked violence” which Shenker describes took place (in addition to the Israeli attack on Gaza protests) in December 2009 during the Gaza Freedom March, when peaceful protestors decided to obstruct traffic in Tahrir Square and were immediately pounced on my the police.
Again the common factors in all these protests are:
1. Protests taking place in an area other than the five fucking places I spend my life in, and
2. An absence of prior consent, and
3. A complete disregard for the inevitable international condemnation of the violence
My point is this: the regime (and specifically the Interior Ministry) did not feel vulnerable on Tuesday, it felt insulted. The violence was punitive, not defensive. It was about reminding the April 6 Youth Movement (and Egyptians in general) about who they daddy is.
Having said all that, I lift my cap to protestors for the challenge. Fuck this regime, keep pushing.
The ElBaradei factor
If I’ve explained my reasoning sufficiently clearly you’ll see that I think ElBaradei has nothing to do with these events. The same would have happened if the protest had gone ahead and ElBaradei and his many spectacles had decided to retire in 2011, instead of 2010.
A far more interesting question is why ElBaradei’s visit to Mansoura was allowed to go ahead so freely. I heard a rumour that ElBaradei was initially scheduled to pray at a far larger mosque in Mansoura accommodating thousands of men, but that he was asked to change this to a far smaller mosque. I’d be interested to know if this is true. Was some kind of agreement reached?
As I suggested in my last post, the regime’s absence from Mansoura is worrying. I wonder if their silence is because they’re waiting for his National Coalition for Change to implode from within. I wonder if they have other plans. I wonder what their reaction would be if ElBaradei decided to have a Friday post-devotional stroll in downtown Cairo in the coming weeks. I wonder if the arrests of Egyptian National Coalition organisers in Kuwait is a message that, ElBaradei being untouchable at the moment, they’re starting at the very edge of his bubble and working their way inwards.