From 9/11 to the Arab Revolutions

    An Act of Collective Heroism – The Revolution in Egypt

    The Egyptians surprised not only their government but also themselves when, in just eighteen days, they succeeded in overthrowing a corrupt and brutal regime that had gone unchallenged for thirty years.

    Was the Egyptian revolution born of virtuality? The first spark may have emanated from the virtual world, of which the protestors made good use, but the power of the media also contributed to the reformation of societies, enabling them to overcome the identities imposed upon them by the despotic power. Even during the days of the revolution itself the multitude of revolutionaries knew that they were not alone, because virtual reality protected them from the despotism of a power that was striving to falsify the deeds of the revolutionaries, or at least to make them appear insignificant.
    While the Egyptian media were pointing a camera at the 6th October Bridge, entirely devoid of pedestrians – a scene on the banks of the Nile, intended to delude to the world into believing that the situation was calm – other satellite broadcasters were reporting on the bloody war between demonstrators and security forces that was taking place in Tahrir Square, just a few metres from the supposedly peaceful bridge.
    The success of the revolution cannot, however, eradicate the history of subjugation, oppression, and the breakdown of the traditional understanding of the state – a history of despotism and subjugation, after Egypt had transformed itself from a body politic into a tribal system. It was ruled by a group of clans under whom the idea of the state withered away, society disintegrated, and new Mamelukes appeared in modern dress.

    The stupidity of the regime

    Eighteen days, against thirty years of subjugation, oppression and corruption. It was a deafening explosion, an unprecedented revolution that leaves all the great revolutions of history behind. Never before have millions taken to the streets to topple a regime that had been strangulating them for thirty years; they took to the streets, and their voice was their only weapon. But the corrupt regime responded to the voice of the silent with live ammunition, with tear gas bombs and with every method of brutality imaginable, methods that were the mainstay of the bygone regime. It is no exaggeration to say that the stupidity of the regime contributed to the success of the revolution for which the Egyptians had waited for so long; a regime that had always treated the people with condescension.
    And why would it not have done so? After all, the regime had oppressed the people for decades and there had never been any protests. The regime had thought that this protest was just a passing one that would be crushed by the corrupt police force. By the police force that had become the true ruler of the Egyptian people.
    On the morning of Tuesday 25th January the demonstrators took to the streets to call for freedom, social justice and the dismissal of the Minister of the Interior. Soon afterwards, however, the arrogance of the regime resulted in the revolutionaries demanding the fall of the regime itself – peaceful revolutionaries, unarmed youths, on whom the police started to fire with live ammunition. It was an arrogance that in the language of drama would be called ‘the hero’s tragic flaw’: the ‘hero’ (the regime) is wilfully, obstinately determined to cling on to his transgression. The regime refused to back down, in spite of the warnings manifested in the steadfastness of the revolutionaries, and in the end it was this arrogance that, unfailingly, swept away the hero (the despotic regime).
    If we look at the situation prior to January 25th, we will find that the Egyptians had forgotten that they were Egyptians. In the first days of the revolution it almost seemed as if they had suddenly awoken from a deep sleep in order to win back their Egyptian identity – indeed, their very humanity. It was as if this people was being recreated, after everyone, including the leaders of the regime, had believed the people had lost their hopes and their ability to dream; that Egyptians had transformed themselves into an entity that merely ingested food, breathed with difficulty, and relieved itself.
    I am convinced that, in the first days of the revolution, this impression lulled the governing regime into a sense of security. It continued to maintain its arrogant attitude, while committing its tragic transgressions against this people. For years the regime had regarded the people as non-existent, an accessory, a decoration, something to be dealt with at its own discretion. The complete forgery that was the last parliamentary election was no more nor less than an expression of the utter contempt in which the regime held the people. Not to mention the fact that the opposition forces had been completely annihilated. The seat of power was now occupied by a group – or rather, a gang – for whom it was unimaginable that any life could blossom on this soulless stage set, or that Egypt itself would become a public stage, one on which the extras would rebel against that despotic power, would cast it from the stage and out of history.

    The forgery of consciousness

    For many years the governing regime – which now is no more – worked painstakingly to falsify the consciousness of this people, by propagating a phony piety and disfiguring Egyptian identity. When the generation of revolutionaries took to the streets, they encountered nothing but ignorance and occultism. It took to the streets only to discover that the civic state and the Nahda, the so-called renaissance of the 1920s, were no more. Even the slogans of the July revolution of the so-called Free Officers around Gamal Abdel Nasser in 1952, which had steered Egyptian society into this emptiness, were no more. The national dream and pride in identity, still fresh in the first half of the twentieth century, had come to nothing.
    The generation born in the Sixties, Seventies and Eighties took to the streets and was forced to realise that the great and ancient civilisation of the Pharaohs had become a symbol of impiety, above all because of the wide dissemination of Salafist (fundamentalist) ideology in Egyptian society.
    The Nahda project had been stamped out by fundamentalist thought, by a lack of awareness, by the loss of identity and by the rising star of the police state. Religious concepts invaded the language of everyday life and determined every action in society. Under the patronage of this falsified religion, and under the eyes and ears of the state, they determined details of eating, drinking, manner of dress! Furthermore, occult thinking was a strong presence in society. A group of ignorant people, who infected the minds of ordinary people with their ignorance, had taken to the podiums so that the consciousness of an entire generation would be shaped by an Egyptian society completely in thrall to Salafist thinking and fear of the police state.
    Art was declared an unbelief for which one must repent; creativity became a sin, and intellectuals and secularists were seen as degenerate groups that had to be got rid of. Not to mention the terrorising of society through the murder of symbolic intellectual figures and the like. Thus, for example, an ignorant extremist who had never read a single line of Naguib Mahfouz saw in him only an infidel deserving of death, and stabbed the writer with a knife – also under the auspices of the regime.

    Enough was enough

    An alarming chaos had spread throughout society, affecting every domain, beginning with corruption in the field of architecture, the collapse of theatre and cinema, the decline of the role of culture, right down to the decadence of people’s clothing which demonstrated all too clearly the loss of Egyptian identity. Looking around you on the street, you might be forgiven for thinking you were at a costume ball at which Ottoman, Afghan and Persian clothing rubbed shoulders with American and European styles. This manner of dress, borrowed by Egyptians from the West or from the Arabian peninsula, is a reflection of the thoughts, convictions and false identities of Egyptian society. So what is left to them? The collapse of the education system in schools and universities allied with a deficient artistic sensibility resulted in a degree of chaos seldom seen even under such a regime. The tragic climax, however, was the suspected involvement of the Egyptian police in the bombing of the Al-Qidiseen Church in Alexandria, shortly after New Year 2011. The regime consciously ran the risk of the whole country going up in flames as a result of this sordid act. The only thing that mattered to it was to distract the people, and to be able to continue to devote itself to corruption and the project of Mubarak’s hereditary successor.

    The uprising begins

    And yet: everything before the 25th January bore witness to the revolution. The Egyptian people had suffered for long enough. Inspired by the Tunisian Mohamed Bouazizi, throughout January numerous people attempted suicide in Egypt, too, in protest against the prevailing conditions there – this in spite of previous assurances by astonished experts that suicide was alien to the Egyptian character. The corrupt and despotic regime had believed it had successfully eliminated the ancient Egyptian, pharaonic part of the Egyptians’ identity. But the people proved them wrong. Innumerable Egyptians occupied the squares in Cairo, Alexandria, and in some of the provinces. The groups that had called for demonstrations to mark a ‘Day of Rage’ on the official ‘National Police Day’ had announced the names of squares in Cairo where demonstrations should be held. In addition, there were activities in the provincial regions and spontaneous demonstrations, through which the other political forces also participated in the events of that day, not only in Cairo but in Alexandria, Ismailia, Suez and al-Mahalla al-Kubra. The April 6th Youth Movement had stipulated the places and meeting points for the start of the demonstrations. A declaration by this movement on Sunday (23rd January) stipulated that the demonstrations in Cairo and in the provinces should begin at 2pm and end at 5pm in front of the Interior Ministry.
    The demands and slogans that would be addressed at the rallies were also set out in the statement: a minimum wage of 1,200 Egyptian pounds, the coupling of wages and prices, the lifting of the state of emergency, and the prosecution of officers who have committed crimes against the Egyptian people. The call was taken up by a number of groups, including one that called itself the ‘25th January Movement’ which called on all Egyptians, regardless of their affiliations, to take to the streets to revolt against the regime. Against the instruction of their religious leaders, a vast number of Copts also announced that they would be taking part in the demonstration on January 25th.
    For its part, the governing party mobilised its henchmen in a campaign to support the president: youths from various districts who demonstrated in favour of the regime and were supposed to combat the protesting masses. Some young musicians also recorded hymns of praise for the president, which were played over loudspeakers during the supporters’ demonstration.

    The government’s tactics

    Using security forces vehicles, armoured vehicles and fire engines, the police barricaded the streets leading to the Interior Ministry, and the metro stations in downtown Cairo were closed. The security forces dispersed more than one thousand demonstrators on Ramses Street and arrested some of them. For the first three days they used every form of repression; but they soon ran out of options in the face of the tenacity of the revolutionaries. Then came the Friday, 28th January, that represents a caesura in the life of the Egyptian people. After the regime had used every barbaric method imaginable against the demonstrators – they were fired at with live rounds and with tear gas; the security forces even tried to crush them beneath the wheels of cars; worse, they did not even shrink from throwing people off bridges – the spell broke, and rebounded on the regime. The strength of the men of the security apparatus began to wane and they were forced to retreat, an unprecedented event and the first of its kind in history. The regime had wanted to present the Egyptian people with an alternative: either be beaten with big sticks, or accept a security vacuum. So the dictators thought; but the Egyptian people were greater than the ignorance of the government, which used methods from previous centuries to confront the technological revolution. Before attacking the demonstrators with camels and mules it cut off their lines of communication, the mobile phone networks and the internet. However, this was not so much an obstacle as an incitement for the masses to stream out onto the streets and into the squares. The old regime pulled out all the usual thuggish stops to suppress the people and dissuade them from their demands. But in the end it capitulated. All its attempts to terrorise the people and stop them taking to the streets had failed. The government broadcaster had started to spread terror via the news media, and to issue warnings to the revolutionaries: the family of anyone who opposed the government would be killed. Then there were the official reports that 17,000 prisoners had escaped after armed men flung open the gates of the prisons; they were said to be carrying weapons and to be prepared to stop at nothing. But all these attempts failed; millions of people streamed onto Tahrir Square and all the other squares and streets in every province as the demands grew ever bolder, going as far as calling for the entire regime to abdicate.

    Opposition without ideology

    When I went to Tahrir Square and lost myself in the throng I learned to love Egypt again, long after I had lost all hope in her. I loved this people, whose true nature became apparent in those moments. What was the revolution doing to the people? This was the question I asked myself as I beheld before me a great people, a people more beautiful than all the songs and poems that had been written for it. Before January 25th I had loved the patriotic songs more than the reality. After January 25th the opposite was true. Every stratum of Egyptian society had gathered there in Tahrir Square: intellectuals and labourers, rich and poor, Muslims and Christians. The slogans became reality – no – reality transcended them. The Egyptians had taken to the streets after shaking off every obsolete ideology. A people had taken to the streets after it came to find the present unbearable and began to fear the future. It had started living in the prison of the past. A people had taken to the streets after leaving behind it all the dead ideas, of which there remains not the slightest trace: neither the outdated Marxist ideology nor the sterile religious instructions, no empty words or long-dead political parties. The Egyptians took to the streets and realised that there was no sectarian conflict, as for decades the regime had tried to make them believe. They took to the streets to put an end to the thirty-year tragedy, after toppling this tragedy’s only hero. And with him fell the whole corrupt group that had committed every sort of crime imaginable in the name of democracy, after the security apparatus and methods of torture were made national law and constitution. The regime had believed that it could rule undisturbed if it weakened the opposition and left nothing but a façade. Yet suddenly the regime realised that the entire population had become one enormous opposition party. When the Egyptian people took to the streets to avenge itself, in eighteen days, for the previous thirty years, something happened that was beyond all logical expectation.

    Egypt belongs to the Egyptians once more

    The military had not fired a single bullet, and the revolutionaries had used no force. The regime, however, used every illegal method to crown its era of corruption with all manner of despotism. The official guardians of corruption set fire to their offices themselves, so as to leave no trace of their crimes. They did not know that their crimes need no documentation, no papers, for they are embedded in the memory of the Egyptian people.

    For a long time Egyptians felt that Egypt was no longer their country. Until Friday evening, 11th February. Until then it was not their country; it was the country of the middlemen and agents of the autocratic National Democratic Party. When at last the people sensed that Egypt was indeed their country, it was an extraordinary feeling. The young people went out to clean the streets and squares, not just Tahrir Square in the centre of town but in many other districts of Cairo as well. These were the same young people that the regime had reviled as foreign agents when the revolution began.

    The state was a gigantic slum

    For thirty years they plundered not just Egypt’s economic riches, but everything. When I read about the billions they made off with I can’t believe we still have anything to eat and drink. Thirty years of artistic decadence in every field: no theatre, no cinema, not to mention the soulless pop songs, an art suited to this regime, a bastardised art. Add to this the corruption in the fields of education and public health. Nothing has been left untouched. They turned the state into a gigantic slum while they themselves lived in their splendid palaces. And they looked out of the windows of their palaces and made bets on when the people would tire and the gangs of thugs in the pay of the regime would be victorious. These were bets they were destined to lose. The Egyptians displayed a political and social solidarity that, coming from this great people, should have surprised no one. It was wonderful to see shopkeepers and simple restaurant owners offering food to the demonstrators in Tahrir Square for free. Families, too, brought baskets of simple food to the square, and celebrated with their children the freedom they had lost so long ago. Not to mention this strange and astonishing proximity of different strata of society in Tahrir Square, and on other demonstrations in every region of the country. The rich called for democracy and the poor demanded bread; the secularists dreamed of a civilian government and the pious hoped for a religious state. For some who would otherwise have slept in the open air, Tahrir Square even offered shelter. But they all wanted the regime to fall. All these different segments of the population had come together on Tahrir Square and were demonstrating in a rare moment of national unity, which manifested itself in the Egyptian people regaining their soul.

    From virtual to living reality

    I am writing these lines after watching the final scenes of the revolution on Friday 4th March, which has been declared the Friday of Victory. It was a fantastic sight, one that embodied the Athenian democracy in Greece before the birth of Christ and the victory of the power of a people that chooses its own ruler. The Prime Minister chosen by the people came to Tahrir Square and explained that his legitimation had been given to him by the Revolution, and that he was ready to return to the Square if the demonstrators’ demands were not met. This, for the Egyptians, was like a dream that had truly become reality. If the first spark was ignited in virtual reality – on Facebook – then this virtual reality has now become a living one.

    The greatest challenge now is the building of a modern state, a civil state instead of the slum erected by the agents of the former ruling National Democratic Party. The Revolution must be protected from the remnants of the former state, which are still working with all their might to claw their way back onto the political stage. Before Mubarak resigned, it was clear who the enemy was. Now he wears many different masks. Sometime in the near future the Egyptian people will have to pay a high price, beyond that of the blood of the martyrs. We face a confrontation with chaos in the form of the remnants of the former regime, which has already started the counter-revolution.
    Girgis Shukri
    is one of a group of prominent exponents of modern Egyptian lyric poetry who have turned their backs on the ideological and dramatic style in favour of a new direction.

    Translated by Charlotte Collins
    Copyright: Goethe-Institut e. V., Fikrun wa Fann
    June 2011

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