Jeffrey Alexander Blog from Cairo, Egypt

Egypt Trip Update

I am back from Egypt and am in the process of compiling the data I collected. I will prepare a journal article in the coming months based on the 20-plus interviews I made during my four days in Cairo, which adds up to about 30 hours of tape. I’ve also used the blogs and some other, more recent material to develop a more condensed overview of my sense of what’s going on in Egypt right now, and to make a recommendation of how the U.S. should help this process along. I attach that brief piece here.

Jeffrey Alexander, Egypt Op Ed Piece

Cairo Journal Day 1

Western media accounts of post-revolutionary Egypt are dominated by old and tired pre-revolutionary stereotypes, clichés about the seemingly inevitable renewal of oriental despotism and fundamentally irrational, power-hungry Islam. Media attention has largely shifted to the new battle fronts and victories of the Arab Spring. In the little news about Egypt that does surface, one encounters a static picture of the military government as an immovable, frightening force crushing a desperate, disparate, rapidly disappearing straggle of activists, with the scheming Muslim Brotherhood waiting quietly in the wings, ready to seize power through the shams of elections.

When I came to Cairo and spoke with the diverse groups of people engaged in the struggle to bring democracy to Egypt, it quickly became evident that these images are indeed misleading stereotypes. They scarcely do justice to the fragile, combustible, but immensely exciting and still very hopeful situation that is revolutionary Egypt today.

I have deliberately described present-day Egypt as revolutionary rather than post-revolutionary. While the eighteen day uprising ended on February 11th, the revolution actually has continued in the seven months since, creating upheavals that ripple powerfully through every corner of this all-important Middle Eastern society.

What activists have learned, in fact, is that the Revolution will have to be made twice. The first revolution was in Tahrir Square; the second is happening now, in the cultural and institutional life of the wider society. The first revolution cut off the head of the Leviathan state, but the body of the Leviathan, in the shape of the Supreme Military Council, remains. The authoritarian state may be headless, but it has shape and material force. Compared with Mubarak’s persistent but increasingly hapless efforts to gain public legitimacy, the military state has a little public presence; it is silent rather than discursive, seemingly unconcerned with performative presence or cultural power. It keeps its machinery behind the scenes, but its actions are public and its power is dangerous. The first revolution chopped the head off the Egypt’s dictatorship. The second revolution has learned that to kill the dictatorship more is needed. It must drive a stake through the headless Leviathan’s vicious heart. Or, at the very least, cage the beast and force the Army to return to its cave.

The second revolution pits the democrats’ cultural and communicative skill against the military state’s silent deployment of material power. Shifts in language are one sign the second revolution is succeeding. The term “civil society” is omnipresent, the biggest and most popular term in Egypt today. The revolutionary youth are determined to spread it to the working classes, religious minorities, and peasants. The Muslim Brotherhood promises to become part of the big tent of an Egyptian civil society in its own religious way. Even the military argues it is protecting civil society by repressing it.

The greatest energy source of this great civil revival remains the carrier group of courageous, mostly elite who formed the core of the first revolution’s eighteen days. Most of the leading activists have stayed the course. Their lives transformed by the winter upheaval, they left comfortable jobs and dramatically shifted plans and careers. Before 25 January, the only female Presidential candidate told me, Egyptians felt like one another’s enemies. Egypt was filled with hostility and aggression, from the streets to the media and culture. “Tahrir” changed that, creating a new stream of “fellow feeling,” an expansive solidarity whose hopes and dreams extend to all ranks of the society. Among these core activists, numbering not more than two hundred mostly young men and women, there is still a sense of unleashed utopia, a feeling of immense possibility.

The challenge that these activists face is how to institutionalize these newly fervent ideals. It is much more difficult than the effervescence and relief of the February 11th victory suggested. In those early days, most Egyptians hailed the Army as a revolutionary partner, for it had sheathed its blade, refused to do Mubarak’s bidding, and allowed the revolution to happen.

What gradually became apparent in the seven months since is that the Supreme Military Council that silently rules Egypt is anything but “democracy in transition.” Yes, it is organizing parliamentary elections for November, but, meanwhile, it engages in reflexive, seemingly habitual autocratic actions. Claiming to cleanse Egypt of disorder, to keep a lid on dangerously centrifugal forces, its motives are secret, its deliberations opaque, its relations with the diverse groupings that compose Egyptian society carried out in a heedlessly anti-civil way. There are no military press conferences, no explanations for its actions, none of the semblance of democratic justification that preoccupied the Mubarak regime.

The most alarming manifestation of the military’s unsheathed sword is the Military Tribunals. Demonstrations of utterly arbitrary repression, they have also become the decisive lesson in why the revolution must be made twice. Beginning during January 28th and escalating in the months since, the military has arrested thousands of activists, from journalists reporting on demonstrations to the lawyers trying to defend them. The victims of this arbitrary detention are said to number as many as 12,000. They have been secreted away by the military, kept out of the public eye, separated from family and legal representation, subjected to short trials and sentenced to weeks, months, and sometimes years of imprisonment.

In March, when activists began to confront the shocking return to political repression, the bloom was still on the military rose, and few among the broader Egyptian public were willing to listen. This gradually changed. People came to realize that if this blatantly anti-civil exercise in political repression were allowed to unfold unimpeded, it would become impossible to exercise democracy, no matter what formal elections decided.  Demands for the rule of law, for a free and independent judiciary that would resist state authority became central to the second revolution. “Against Military Tribunals” has become the most conspicuous, most widely supported theme and demand of the democracy campaign. Last week, 10,000 persons demonstrated outside the Supreme Court building, as justices pondered new administrative procedures and legal organization. This week, in a highly unusual public event, seven leading presidential candidates issued a joint statement demanding the withdrawal of the Military Council from state power no later than February of next year. The powerful symbolic gesture was organized behind the stage by Wael Ghonim, the young former Google executive who played a leading role in the first revolution and, since then, has largely refrained from entering the public scene.

The second revolution in Egypt has also ignited new formers of class struggle, with strikes emerging in every occupational struggle. These confrontations are economic effects of the political revolution, presenting long overdue accounts that will come due if, and when, a newly responsive democratic state is brought into existence. For now, however, the second revolution is, above all, a struggle for legality, transparency, and fairness. It highlights the fact that civil society needs more than noble sentiments and solidary feeling. It must also create powerful regulative institutions, legal rules that can control power and independent courts and responsible police officials to back them up.

That such a struggle for regulatory power can take place at all demonstrates that the other, more cultural part of the civil sphere, the institutions concerned with communication,  are in certain critical respects already in place. There is now a vast and intricate network of public communication, more than a dozen new cable television stations, satellite channels, hundreds of blogs, and continuous, widely accessible and influential face-book communication. There is also extraordinarily energetic civil association, sit-ins in Tahrir Square, in schools and universities, confrontations in factories, and the creation of political parties. A new democratic consciousness is abroad in the land, and it is spreading like wildfire.

Against all this, the Military Council is training its fire extinguisher. Despite its material power, however, it seems doubtful that the military can put the fire out.

Cairo Journal Day 2

How does public opinion work in dictatorship that isn’t able to dictate? When democratic opinion is thriving and robust but when the democratic institutions don’t exist? When civil society is filled with intensive communication, but there is no way for the civil sphere, filled to brimming with idealistic demands for justice, to regulate the state, when the public can’t elect new representatives or threaten power holders with humiliation, threats backed up by the rule of law?

This is the situation of Egypt today. Since the defeat of ancient Pharonic Egypt by Assyrians, Persians, and Greeks, Egypt had been ruled by foreigners. In 1952, in the Colonels’ Coup, Abdel Nassar seized control from the British. He brought self-rule back to Egypt, aggressively nationalizing everything in sight. But for the next six decades, self-rule meant being governed by former soldiers whose command of the army guaranteed their dictatorial control of the state.

It is easy to understand why, throughout most of this time, the Egyptian public was passive, abject before the power of its own state. The public finally founds its voice during the winter revolution earlier this year. When that uprising ended, on February 11, the dictator was gone, but the soldiers and army remained, minus a new head of state.

The Egyptian public has become ever more impatient and demanding. It laid low a dictator and his political regime, and disrupted the geography of social time. But its demands have not yet been met. By stepping back and not responding to Mubarak’s demands for repression, the army allowed the revolutionary performance to unfold. After the revolutionaries’ hard-earned success, the soldiers stepped in to “hold the fort,” promising to act only as a transitional government, to organize the first free elections and then allow the brick-by-brick building of democratic institutions to proceed. Most of the revolutionaries accepted this promise in good faith. Now they feel betrayed. Some have come to believe that leaving Tahrir Square on February 11th was a mistake. They should have stayed until not only Mubarak but the military itself was forced to step down, with real representatives of the insurgent civil sphere put into place.

So there has been the need for a second revolution. The movement now continues as a cultural revolution, a pulsating, expanding democratic consciousness that is demanding the creation of new institutions.

How does public opinion speak without the franchise? It speaks as a “movement” that crystallizes civil sentiments. The core of this Egyptian movement is a few hundred activists from “The Eighteen Days.” They have become even more realistic since February 11th, more aware of the hostile military as an anti-democratic enemy and of the institution building upon which democracy depends.

The activists are leaders but they are also conduits for a public rapidly undergoing crystallization. There are now some 90 professional syndicates — unions of doctors, lawyers, judges, teachers, and dozens of all sorts of professional group. Independent unions of factory workers are emerging alongside the government controlled organizations of the old regime. Neighborhood committees first organized to protect urban areas when Mubarak withdrew his police forces now march through the streets to remind unelected city councils of the concern of real people. There are dozens of new parties and a whole raft of newly independent newspapers and television stations.

From this cauldron “National Demands” emerge and circulate on a regular weekly basis. They are agreed upon by face-to-face and cyber-meetings among leaders of major constituencies, circulated by the increasingly professional and closely watched new media of communication, and thrown down as a gauntlet every Friday by mass demonstrations in Tahrir Square.

What is nailed to the door by Egypt’s new “protestants” reflects the hard-won common denominator among the specific demands of particular groups. There will be no “national” demands for Sharia law, for socialism, for a living wage, for the abolition of the treaty with Israel. About such issues there are deep disagreements. What all parties can agree on is the need to create the basic structures of the civil sphere that can create a more democratic state.

The form in which the National Demands is revealing. They are presented as demands for “purification.” These are the chants that ring out every Friday in Tahrir Square:

  • “The People demand the purification of the Interior” – the independence of the police.
  • “The People demand the purification of the judiciary” – the independence of the courts.
  • “The People demand the purification of the media” – the independence of the national TV.

The winter revolution made civil ideals sacred and polluted Mubarak as dirty and profane. The Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) that succeeded him now occupies the same polluted place. SCAF sustains the old and corrupted institutions of the repressive state. It is the purification of these institutions that the people demand. Egypt’s regulatory institutions must be shifted from the repressive to the liberated side, reconstructed from bottom up in a democratic way.

There are other National Demands that focus on particular laws, ministries, officials, and events.

  • “The People demand the end of the emergency laws” – laws abrogating democratic rights on the books since Nassar instituted them in 1952.
  • “The People demand the Cabinet resign” – the ministers Mubarak appointed during the midst of the winter crisis had remained in place.
  • “The People demand that officials from the old regime be tried” – that Mubarak, his trusted staff, and people who ordered deadly violence in the Battle of the Camel (January 28) be brought to justice in a public way.

Every Friday, a holy day and a holiday in this largely Muslim country, the public is transformed from a symbolic subject in democratic discourse into something physical and concrete. “The People” become tens of thousands of living and breathing persons assembled at a particular time in a particular space. Tahrir Square was made into the symbolic center of the democratic revolution during The Eighteen Days. It remains the public forum, the polis of the Egyptian Revolution. The civic ritual unfolds here every Friday. In this performance of democracy, newly empower citizens throw down the gauntlet of National Demands at the feet of the SCAF state.

SCAF responds, reluctantly, partially, minimally, seeming to listen, as if it really were a beacon of civil responsibility. Sometimes it makes small concessions on Wednesday or even Thursday, to take some of the steam out of the Friday ritual manifestation. In reality, however, the concessions must be forced. It is a matter of the people’s symbolic power, of how they can wage intensive performative struggles that often take on a violently physical form.

SCAF sends police into the Friday crowds with gas and sticks and bullets, sometimes rubber, sometimes probably not. The people respond not just by repeating their verbal demands but by literally fighting back. “We gave them a good beating,” a 28-year old revolutionary woman proudly boasts to me about the response at one of the most significant Friday confrontations, and she adds, “we made videos of their brutality.” The video recordings circulate in lightning speed among the new media of communication. SCAF blithely denies such evidence of anti-civil rule by calling the policemen rogues, disclaiming responsibility for police action.

This gerrymandered process of democratic “communication and control” is imperfect to say the least! Still, it has rung some significant victories from the SCAF state. The old cabinet was forced to resign. Those who ordered violent repression during the Battle of the Camel — ten high government officials and ten more from Mubarak’s then reigning New Democratic Party – were arrested and put on trial. And, most tellingly and symbolically, a degradation ceremony has finally been visited on the former dictator himself and his once all-powerful son. They were arrested, brought back to Cairo, and are now on trial.

These successes have given the Egyptian public a sense of the regulative power that citizens can wield against the state in a democratic regime. But the principal “purifications” that must be made to bring that civil power into being have not yet been made. Neither the police, the courts, nor the national television have been allowed to become independent. Nor have the Emergency Laws been rescinded.

The National Demand that is now the dominant campaign of the second Egyptian revolution sums this paradoxical and deeply dangerous situation up: “No to the Military Tribunals.” SCAF not only retains the power in principle to do as it wishes, a power inevitable in such a transitional period, but it has continually brought this power to bear in repressive and anti-democratic ways. Some 12,000 democratic activists have been arrested, many during the weekly civil rituals. Some are tortured and let go, others remain in prison. Journalists are routinely brought into police quarters, intimidated, and their operations threatened with being shut down.

All of which has made it crystal clear that the arbitrary deployment of state power will not be stopped until the army steps aside. That’s why the three-day meeting of the seven Presidential candidates is so important. Under the prodding of the Wael Ghonim, they have come together to put aside their differences, and their future political struggles, to agree on one more National Demand. SCAF must disappear no later than February, 2012.

SCAF announced only recently that Parliamentary elections will take place at the end of November. From the MP’s elected, in some proportion that has not yet been decided, a hundred person constitution writing committee will be convened. After the new Constitution is written and approved, later in 2012, there will be Presidential elections. What the Egyptian public understands is that none of this will matter if the army remains in place, even as a shadow power behind the scenes.

  • The People demand that SCAF must go!

This is the final purification that must take place.

5 thoughts on “Jeffrey Alexander Blog from Cairo, Egypt

  1. I think two words ‘uncertainty’ and ‘unanticipated consequences’ are the best characteristics of the situation. For me, as s Russian born in the 20th century fear of revolution (I mean not velvet revolutions) is in my genetic code (forgive me this joke with biological determinism). In February 1917 (so called ‘bourgeois revolution’) there were so many high hopes and everybody drank toasts for freedom and democracy so it would be hard to imagine (maybe not so hard for some) that these hopes would be dashed in a matter of months (1917 October Bolshevik coup). What followed everybody knows. I think that the situation is so fragile and there are so many factors in Egyptian situation that I would not make any prognoses. The Egyptian military acts ugly, of course, but what would happen if mob full of hatred took power we don’t know.
    As to Jeff’s remark that anti-Israeli pogroms were organized by the military itself it is unverifiable as any conspiracy theory. But it’s not the point. As Jeff himself claims in his works successful performance must have resonance with popular feelings, and we know that performance was successful, so it does not matter much from this perspective, who actually started the pogroms. Anti-Israeli sentiments are widespread from top to bottom in Egypt, and even if the elites understand the armed confrontation with Israel is a disaster they may follow the people’s mood (even in full knowledge) and start at least some skirmishes. I don’t know what’s going to happen, the only thing that is clear for me that Israelis may fear any scenario.

  2. Your entries for day 1 & 2 of your Cairo Journal are fine pieces of academic writing and offer a very intriguing account of an unfolding ‘second revolution’ in Egypt, but the entries do not read as a journal at all! There is little sense of how what you see, hear and experience in the streets of Cairo actually informs your own thinking and reporting of the events. The voice we hear so far is that of the omniscient narrator – ‘one who can see things which individual characters cannot see and who is in all places at once’.

  3. Your response to the prior posting by Tom Crosbie raises the interesting question of the capacity of the leadership to exert pragmatic control over forces of populism. Reading your blog I get the sense of a culturally unstable revolution in which an educated, metropolitan elite have emotionally invested in the discourse of civil society and a romantic/democratic narrative – but many Egyptians haven’t. It’s like a top balancing on its point and only staying up as it is still madly spinning. There are other codes and narratives still in the field, some religious and others favoring themes like ‘stability’ or ‘national strength’ over ‘rights’ or ‘freedom’. These are problematic from the perspective of the activists. Is this an accurate picture?. If so this raises a bunch of questions. (1) To what extent can the ‘second revolution’ be driven by ideals rather than some sort of realpolitik compromise between these various visions of the nation, each with underlying code variation? This second path might work but it will also perhaps lead to disenchantment. (2) Nasser was able more or less unite the country and neutralize the Muslim Brotherhood due to his charisma and virtuoso performative capacities, taking bullets from the British, living in a modest bungalow and so forth. I’m wondering if a democratic grass roots movement will be disadvantaged in that there is a need to talk, to debate and to do all kinds of things so as to live up to its own codes. It is hard to make this stuff performatively compelling (eg. ‘tedious’ UN Climate Change conferences) unless it can be converted into a huge ritual moment (eg. the meeting of the Estate General in the French Revolution) rather than ‘politics as usual’.

  4. Not only do Egyptians share the widely-spread Middle Eastern Arab anger at “Zionism,” but they associate the cold peace between Israel and Egypt with Mubarak’s hated dicatorship. The paradoxical binary discourse of civil society, which excludes as it includes, makes it likely that a more democratic Egypt will, if only initially, be more anti-Israeli in its foreign policy, and its expressive passions, than was the anti-democratic one. Yet, the last thing the revolutionary democrats in Egypt want is to enter into a dangerous, possibly military confrontation with Israel; they are resentful of the military and its budget and want to turn the nation’s attention to civil issues of inclusion, equality, and expression. One indication of this: Most of the democratic activists believe that it was the military government itself that secretly triggered the embassy attack, which became a pretext for the Army to issue a whole series of new repressive measures.

  5. Out of curiosity, have your contacts had anything to say re. the Israeli embassy protest and anger at the Israel border skirmish (sept 13)? Does Israel (do we) have anything to fear from a successful second revolution– or only its failure? Enjoyed the post, keep them coming.

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