bolekaja

Working, thinking, fighting, bleeding Tahrir Square

In Moments of Grace, Revolt, The Politics of Politics on February 11, 2011 at 7:00 am

by Nigel Gibson

What makes the lid blow off? Fanon asks in The Wretched of the Earth reflecting on the revolution against French colonialism in Algeria fifty years ago as he thought about the future “African revolution.” In Egypt, a country where 50% of the population is under 30 and has
known no other regime than Mubarak’s state of emergency, with its
torture and surveillance, it was the reaction to the murder of Khaled
Said, a young blogger beaten to death by the police, that was a
turning point. It began with a protest of 1000 people in Alexandria
during Said’s funeral and then went “underground” onto the internet.
Pictures of his crushed face are still on his facebook page. The next
spark in the North African revolution was in Sidi Bouzid Tunisia,
ignited by the self immolation of the Mohamed Bouazazi, a vegetable
peddler whose cart and produce was confiscated by the police. Over the
next month despite increased repression protests grew across Tunisia
and on January 14th President Ben Ali was pushed out of the country.

The Egyptian revolt can be dated to January 25th, the first day of the
revolution, a revolution against the odds, despite repression and
torture and violence,  despite the closing down of the internet which
seemed so important, international media pundits’ exhaustion and the
unsurprising desire for order (essentially the status quo of
repression and torture) by the world powers, has grown in size,
developed in sophistication and in articulation—expressed so
brilliantly in the endless debates and platforms and self-organization
(the provision of security, food, blankets and so on is a story to be
told) around and in Tahrir square, where a once cowed and silenced
people of one of the world’s great cities can now speak and debate in
endless and open sessions. It is a people’s revolution. There have
been discussions of the revolution’s similarity with the velvet
revolutions of 1989, Tiananmen Square in 1989, people power against
Marcos in the Philippines and Duvalier in Haiti in 1986. It is akin to
Paris 1968 and its decentralized working and bottom up democracy
reflects the new beginning which began with the Hungarian revolution
of 1956. The Egyptian revolution is like a Rorschach, everyone can see
something in it; and while these insights are all true, it is also a
revolution of the 21st century, not simply because of the technology
and its advertisers and corporations (twitter and facebook and google
and Aljeezera). In this age of gated cities, of ordered cities,
surveilled and policed—what have been called “global cities”—the
Egyptian people have opened up political space, as an ongoing public
debate in the squares, outside the parliament, in the streets. It has
become a global space. They have shown the world how social media
relates to social transformation and the taking back of public space.

They have implicitly brought into focus the idea of the right to the
city as a project of social transformation. They have not been stopped
by fears for the economy, or tourism, or by the police and the state’s
paid murderers by threats of by threats of a coup. They have organized
a continuous occupation of a city’s centre by tens and hundreds of
thousands of people; defending it, feeding it, nurturing it,
articulating it, developing it as its daily work. Cairo was the
center, but from the beginning, in other towns, like Alexandria,
smaller groups—perhaps under the threat of more violence—have
continually gathered. The hegemony of the state seems to be cracking.
Certainly its ability to unleash violence still exists—and many have
been killed and are continually imprisoned—but its iron fist hold over
the media seems to be slipping and more people, including public
figures are joining in as the revolution has spread and continues to
spread across the country. The port towns where Suez workers are on
strike, workers across many industries are joining protest and
beginning to give a class character that the political elites thought
earlier could be bought off. There is also news of revolts in smaller
town in rural areas under where people have been suffering for
generations and are now making themselves heard. It is only a small
beginning. Will it be allowed to develop? At the moment the workers’
demands are around wages and conditions. But as these strikes develop
the important question is whether the self-organization learnt from
Tahrir square will also take on a class character.

For Fanon, the timing of the revolution is a moment when the militants
make contact with the poor from the rural areas and realize that they
have always thought in terms of a revolutionary transformation. In
Egypt this is only beginning to happen but it is absolutely crucial.

Before the January 28th demonstration, according to the New York Times
(Feb 10, 2010) a group of organizers “conducted … a ‘field test’”
walking along the narrow alleys of a working class neighborhood to
measure the level of participation: “when we finished up the people
refused to leave. They were 7000 and they burned two police cars.”
Clearly things had changed from just a few days before. The speed of
change, of development, of solidarity and fearless—of a new  humanity
experiencing freedom—is truly inspiring. Steve Biko, the South Africa
Black Consciousness leader argued that the most potent weapon in the
oppressor’s arsenal was the mind of the oppressed. Once that mind has
experienced freedom—not as an abstraction but in and through the
actions of the people it becomes a force of revolution. The liberation
of the mind that Biko and Fanon spoke about is wonderfully expressed
in a quote from Ahmad Mahmoud, reported in The Guardian (and quoted at
the end of Peter Hallward’s article):

“People have changed. They were scared. They are no longer scared …
When we stopped being afraid we knew we would win. We will not again
allow ourselves to be scared of a government. This is the revolution
in our country, the revolution in our minds. Mubarak can stay for days
or weeks but he cannot change that.”

And while there are calls to the Egyptian army to support the
revolution, and there is applause toward those military officers who
appear to support the revolution, the people are not naïve. They
understand that the tanks are also a threat to them. They sleep in the
tank’s tracks not only to stop them from moving but to make they know
if they move; they march around the tanks by candlelight at night to
keep them in their place; and they continue to embrace the soldiers as
their “brothers”. But it is the revolution happening in the minds of
the people that is really significant. It is ongoing. Nasser
understood its importance, calling his book on the liberation of
Egypt, a “philosophy of revolution”.  Today that philosophy lives in
movement at Tahrir square. I want to conclude with Sinan Antoon, the
Iraqi born poet, novelist and film maker who marvelously explicated my
earlier “Cairo Commune” post to this listserve on the website libcom:

‘What distinguishes this revolution is the wonderful and sublime
example it sets in terms of solidarity among protesters and citizens
at large. The spontaneity and cooperation in managing their daily
affairs without a hierarchy is what the state didn’t expect as it
deprived the people of basic services and tried to spread fear and
chaos to terrorize the citizenry.

The sight of barricades around al-Tahrir and the moving stories about
steadfastness and solidarity among those who volunteered, guarded,
protected, fed, detained the thugs, and tended to the wounds of
comrades defending al-Tahrir reminded me of the Paris Commune (1871).
I know the historical context and the dynamics are quite different
(but I have poetic license). The Paris Commune lasted for 71 days and
didn’t end in victory, but it became a potent symbol and produced a
new political form. Al-Tahrir, too, was “working, thinking, fighting,
bleeding — almost forgetful, in its incubation of a new society, of
the cannibals at its gates — radiant in the enthusiasm of its
historical initiative.” Those heroes in Cairo “were ready to storm the
heavens.”’

The demand that Mubarak goes is only a beginning; can only be a
beginning. And this is really what is disturbing to the elites. One
can point to the external but also potential internal threats to the
revolution but is the power of the idea of freedom that has grabbed
the imagination. As an old friend wrote me yesterday, “it is an idea
that would turn the world upside down so no wonder it has enemies.”
I finished this before getting up to date with today’s news. The
question now, of course, as it looks like Mubarak is going is what
happens after? One important contradiction is between the military
(however) popular vying to put a cap on the protests and develop a
“new normality” of order and the popular movement which is the new
normality of self-organization.
Feb 10, 2011 2:06 p.m.
Boston

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