“This wasn’t a Facebook revolution. People did hard work on the ground. The Internet was a just a tool that facilitated and accelerated the process. We have to remember that 850 people died. Not just Facebook profiles but flesh and blood people.” – Nadine Wahab, co-administrator, ‘We are all Khaled Said’ Facebook campaign
Riots are organic. To be caught up or part of one is to give up control as it snakes its way between barricades and alleys. It is a swell of sweat, shouting, smoke, seething. Under Tahrir Square, in a maze of pedestrian subways, I found myself, through sheer coincidence, caught up in a violence that was both frightening and foreboding. Young men, with scarce a hint of facial hair, shouting slogans we couldn’t understand, were in competition with their echoes to chant their anger. They rushed around us, using the underground paths to avoid the wanton shooting (we learnt later that evening) by the Army occurring above ground against the protesters. Other Egyptians looked as worried as we were, not knowing which exit to take. We were jostled from one passage to another, our group led by a one-time Ambassador to Sri Lanka, until we finally emerged, near the Semeramis, with Tahrir’s loud chants behind us, and gunfire farther away. It was my third time in this city, and the most memorable, but not just because of this riot.
Every time I have entered Egypt, immigration takes aside my passport for a ‘security check’ – a long process I can never quite fathom, for it invariably involves mercurial questions from a stentorian official and when you least expect it, a sudden, smiling welcome. Cairo is consummate chaos. It’s traffic, people and organic flow of pedestrians across busy roads is not unlike Dhaka or Delhi. Buildings with beautiful, European styled facades decay, while unlovely condominiums along the Nile are being built apace. Smog from the city’s roads is insufferable and mixed with the fine desert dust, a nightmare for the asthmatic. Yet, I love it. Cairo’s many markets are incredible mazes, where one goes more to get lost and see than to buy. A faluka on the Nile in the evening is a surreal experience, when magically, the madness of the city on the banks gives way to cool zephyr and the gentle lap of waves. Dodging offers of antiquity for a steal, you can repose undisturbed with a hookah for hours, watching the traffic ensnarl and unfurl, while pedestrians merge and meander. For a Sri Lankan then, this is familiar sight, sound and pace of life. What was clearly different this time around, my first visit post-Mubarak, was not so much the city’s terrain, but the invisible yet palpable anxiety amongst its people. I expected to be caught in the post-revolutionary spirit of a young democracy. I was very wrong.
These weren’t the first riots involving Coptic Christians, but it was the bloodiest after the revolution. One Coptic, a leading light of the revolution that overthrew Mubarak, said the morning after the riots that the death toll was significantly higher than what was reported by government media. Later during my visit, I spoke with Mona Shahin, the manager of the compelling ‘Tahrir Lounge’ project about the fear, frustration and anxiety that, speaking with those around from taxi drivers to civil servants, was very clear and worse, growing. Mona, herself with the revolution, is now interested in broader social and political discussions on Egypt’s future and civic education. What she said echoed so many others I spoke with. The promise of change, of real democracy, remains very elusive. Mubarak is gone, but the Army is in control. And that control is all encompassing. You see it on the TV. You see it and you feel it on the streets. They are in front of Maspero, the Egyptian State television. They are at the airport. Egypt remains a country governed by a vast security apparatus that is far from weak, or disassembled after Mubarak’s departure. Though the violent response to the Coptic demonstrations showed a face of it that many feared would eventually emerge, the Army continues to command broad respect in Egypt. As recently as January, rioters cheered, and occasionally hitched rides on Army tanks as they rolled in front of government buildings, when it was clear that Mubarak’s star was fast fading. It is the Police and other goons of the Interior Ministry who are broadly reviled, and the most brutal. They continue to lurk, and observe.
Egypt’s post-Mubarak future is unclear. The very next day after the riots, in one of the largest markets in Cairo that had seen its share of suicide bombs, I spoke to traders who were more worried about the drop in tourism than the religious tension. Narratives sadly familiar to many Sri Lankans were recounted – of violence attributed to the parochialism of those in power, the assurance that amongst Egypt’s people, there were really no fault-lines and that everyone was happy at the departure of Mubarak. Yet this country has not known a ruler outside of the military since 1952. Ironically, it was Mubarak who kept the Army in check during his authoritarian rule. Without him, the country’s future is tied to what it deems fit.
There are interesting parallels to Sri Lanka’s tryst with its own victorious Army. As is the case here, joining the Egyptian Army is more than patriotic duty a means of economic empowerment for many. It’s a pensionable job, a rare commodity. At last count, there were around half a million soldiers in Egypt. Simple math puts numbers associated with and supported by the military alone in the millions. This is not a segment of the population who can and will be swayed easily by revolutionary fervour. The jury’s out on how uprisings against democracy delayed or undelivered will go. Some say the Army’s lost out on its moral standing already. Others are more optimistic, saying that mass killings and torture, especially after the revolution’s incredibly powerful and pervasive non-violent nature, are untenable as a means to contain and control, and will only result in more uprisings. One of my conversations was with an official from the Ministry of Interior, an institution still very feared and not unlike the infamous Fourth Floor of the CID. He was extremely affable, with an air of nonchalance one suspected that came from a power to dismiss and erase at will. What he said was revealing. During the revolution, he was entrusted with monitoring the information exchanged by rioters in online fora, including for example Twitter and Facebook. He said that while his official duties commanded allegiance to one authority, his heart was with the people he was monitoring. I don’t know why he told me this. As an outsider, perhaps because I posed no risk and passed no judgement. I was, however, deeply interested to learn from him and others how the social movements were planned over the years, how they organically grew, the role of violence, the optics of dissent, what lessons there were for other countries, how technology was used, how those on the margins, perceived to be powerless and voiceless, risked torture and indeed died to ultimately generate a moral force stronger than an authoritarian ruler.
In all my conversations with those who were part of the street struggles – from the rock-hurling, bandana donning youth to the citizen journalists who documented the struggle – there is great fatigue, but an indomitable optimism. Even if the future is murky, what is indelibly clear is that the revolution’s changed how people power is constructed and perceived in this country. Arms and ammunition cannot control this groundswell of hope for a systemic change, for dignity, for social advancement without selling out to a corrupt, nepotistic system. The old guard is there, and it will not go without a fight. New social, political and cultural fractures are emerging, yet there are new forces that are transformative. Mona Shahin’s inspirational work across political and religious divides is one example, a stone’s throw away from the iconic square where more than a million congregated a few months ago.
Will Egypt’s democratic projects succeed? I really hope so. A second act is always difficult when the first has such a dramatic, telegenic ending. The revolution is tired. The greatest mistake the current rulers can make is to assume that it is dead.
Published in The Nation on 6 November 2011.