Tuesday, 22 March 2011

Mona Abaza on Egypt, Public Space and Media


Photo by Mona Abaza
 In the fourth of our responses to events across North Africa and the Middle East, Mona Abaza comments on the uprising in Egypt. After describing her own personal experience in Cairo, she reflects on the significance of the use of public space, the multilingual soundbites used as slogans amongst the protesters, the importance of al-Jazeera and new media, and the hypocrisy of the West’s views on global democracy.





“Today four Egyptians burnt themselves out of humiliation, hunger and poverty..” ….   “Tomorrow is the beginning of the end”, “We are going to defend each other”
Asma Mahfouz, Activist Blogger who posted a YouTube video 18th of January, and who was one of the main figures that triggered the revolution

irhall, irhall, irhall.. (leave, leave, leave..)
Slogan chanted in Tahrir Square




A Personal Glimpse On The Revolution

I just happened to be in Cairo when the first sparks of demonstrations occurred. It is two years since I left Cairo having accepted a position as a visiting scholar in Sweden. That said, I did continuously return back to Cairo for personal and for work reasons. My daughter who has spent most of her life in Germany had just finished her Abitur and moved in September to Cairo to learn Arabic.

The events of the Tunisian revolution sparked by a young man who burnt himself alive in protest against the harsh dictatorial conditions of the Bin Ali regime were vehemently commented on everywhere in the city. The Tunisians quickly gained the admiration of the Egyptians for their victory and heroism. News and information via internet, YouTube, satellite channels like France 24, al-Jazeera, Arabic BBC and Facebook, the torrent of emails, articles, comments, cartoons and jokes, clearly abounded. Friends exchanged the “operating instruction” on how to react and what to take when demonstrations turned violent. Such information was much diffused amongst my daughter’s friends. The news about the first 25th of January demonstration was quickly spreading all over the city. And the contagious moving act of burning alive as a public political act caught the Egyptians, so that instead of one, four victims burnt themselves in January, leaving one dead. The entire nation was to be declared insane by the regime. This bitter joke was circulated against the regime’s deafness regarding the flagrant poverty and destitution of the majority. One thing was clear: the Egyptians were quickly borrowing ideas and practical advice from the Tunisians.

I did not participate in the first demonstrations. It has been many years that I am no longer politically active. Perhaps too, because my generation has witnessed so many disappointments and repressions, that we ended becoming cynical commentators. I have to confess that the violence and brutality, witnessed in the numerous previous demonstrations, were certainly one main reason that kept me away from the street.

Perhaps too, I felt quite pessimistic about any possible change in the near future. 2010 was marked by extremely depressing confessional events epitomizing in the bombing of a church in Alexandria in Christmas that killed more than 20 Copts, and which turned to be the doing of the internal security to fuel sedition between Copts and Muslims. Corruption had reached unimaginable levels and economic hardship was getting unbearable for the majority. A minority of cronies who enjoyed unlimited wealth were ruling the country with thugs and terror. The feeling that the entire country was decomposing is the least that could be said. There was in the air a collective feeling that an explosion was for sure immanent, but no one could really imagine how it would come. This feeling became even stronger, in particular after the blatant treachery of the last November elections, which exposed the institutionalization of thuggery by the ruling party.

Several of my friends and relatives had left the country after having immigrated to Canada. The main concern of the many was how to manage and obtain any other passport that would guarantee an immunity and simply be able to leave the country. It was becoming risky to rely on only the Egyptian nationality in Mubarak´s times. After all, he had reached the worst records of violation of human rights in comparison with the two previous presidents. It was known that in case of serious accidents only foreigners would be rescued, while the Egyptians would be simply left to die. Being an Egyptian and an Arab became increasingly associated with a feeling of humiliation that was magnified after 9/11.

Nevertheless, no one could anticipate the scale of such a revolution launched by the younger generation of the blogosphere and Facebook public. It is true that the 6th of April movement had been highly present in the demonstrations of 2008. They had launched the “Stay home” campaign, which had attracted my attention for its innovative advocacy of passive resistance. However, they were then criticized by some established opposition parties for urging people to stay home as a form of protest, while thousands of textile workers were demonstrating in the city of Mahala al-Kubra, demanding an increase in their salaries. The 6th of April movement was already known for having organized various previous demonstrations. The icons, posters and pictures which they posted on Facebook three years ago resembled the 1968 European movement in the way they transpired an alternative protesting culture. [1]

Until last January, Egyptians were made to believe that they were left with two alternatives. Either Gamal, the son, would inherit his father’s throne, with the question mark being over whether the army would have been willing to share power with the son and his cronies; or the Muslim Brothers movement, the largest and only significant opposition, would take power as the only serious alternative in undermining the regime – yet they were as authoritarian and intolerant as their opponents. Both scenarios looked depressing to me.

I had traveled to the village of my origin, in the Mansura province a few days earlier before the 25th of January because I had to undertake some fieldwork there. My daughter stayed in Cairo. She on the other hand, went with her friends to the 25th of January demonstrations. They started to move in two large groups from the quarter of Dokki, until they reached the Galaa bridge to head towards the Tahrir Square


. One group chose side streets to avoid the police forces, while a second group opted to demonstrate in the main street. My daughter and her friends took the main street. Once they reached the bridge, they were violently attacked by the police forces. Her group was dispersed and she returned home with her friends. One hour later more protesters reunited. They increased in number because larger groups joined them from Mohandessin and other quarters. They managed then to cross the bridge by courageously pushing the soldiers back.

On that day three people were reported dead besides a considerable amount of wounded.[2] From the first day, the police were ruthless with the demonstrators. Friends who were active in demonstrations from day one will not forget the violence. Rubber bullets, spraying water and teargas were thrown on the protesters. The city was burning. The offensive effect of miasma of teargas was to be felt for several days in the city.

Not to speak of the thugs of the regime who came from nowhere and attacked suspected demonstrators from the sides. One could see these thugs in the residential island of Zamalek. Those especially in Zamalek drove expensive cars and wore cool and expensive clothes so that the population in the island would not notice them. They waited for the demonstrations to arrive from Dokki to attack them form the side. However, as events unfolded more and more thugs from poor quarters flooded into the town. Later, snipers stood on the bridges at night, to target the returning protesters to their homes.  At various times snipers were reported to have been shooting from various buildings around Tahrir Square


, from the top of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs when it was attacked and from the building of the American University in Cairo when the AUC Press was ransacked.

Mubarak had paralyzed the trains nationwide. This unintelligent controlling move did not hinder the angry masses from pouring into the city. The public visibility of the masses grew daily in the streets since the 25th of January. The demonstrations persistently continued. Day after day, people increasingly occupied all the streets of Cairo. They were heading towards the Square. The city was collapsing with attacks on police stations. Thugs were all over and looting was going on in various quarters. The more the police forces became violent, the more determined protesters multiplied.  The cities of Alexandria, Suez, Port Said, Mansura, Mahalla al Kubra were all experiencing the same impressive human mass of angry protesters.

Back to Cairo, demonstrations departed from Shubra, from Mattariya, Bulaq, Dokki, Mohandessin Nasr City and Heliopolis and on the main bridges of the Six of October and Kasr al-Nil bridge. Then it looked like everywhere there were demonstrations. Brutal confrontations were recorded. Hundreds of YouTube documentations testify that the entire city was in protest. Anger against the brutality of the regime was mounting. This time things will be different, it was said. Protesters lost their fear, they resisted through barricading themselves, through praying communally while confronting the rows of black-clothed police, and by throwing stones when they were attacked. They did not fear the green police vans that ran into them. They were equipped to resist teargas, wrapped in shawls imbibed with Coca Cola, but they had no weapons. Then police forces started to retreat out of fear, they could not deal with the growing fearless moving compact masses. They ran away from the powerful pacifist masses. Suddenly all policemen disappeared. Cairenes woke up one morning and found the entire city without one single policeman. The army then entered the city with their tanks.

The younger generation of the 6th of April and the Facebook movement were willing to die for the cause of Mubarak stepping down and the marching towards Tahrir Square


. “Mish hanimshi” Huwa ymshi “ (“We will not leave, he will leave“), “al-Shaab yuriid isquaat al nithaam”, (“the people want to bring down the regime”), became the legendary slogans of the growing courageous occupiers of the square.

Many like me, who were not political activists but who were afraid of the violence perpetrated in crushing the protesters, and who were really sick of the thirty years dictatorship, decided to finally march to the square. Yes “life is certainly more beautiful without Mubarak”.[3] Middle class mothers gathered their courage and descended to the streets. My friends’ sons and daughters experienced a metamorphosis in their lives. These youngsters who led their parents to the street by protesting since day one, found their new selves in the life of the Square. Some of those young women and men had a job. They went in the morning to their offices and left immediately after work to be in the afternoon in the square.  Others camped in the square forever.  Several youngsters I talked to were so euphoric through discovering their skills in street fighting.  Others wandered around with sardonic anti-Mubarak placards. Everybody was proud to display their remarks and be photographed.  The square became the forum for the most inventive and artistic slogans and poetry. The humor and wit was beyond anything I have seen in my entire life.  Whole families were seen in the morning carrying boxes full of plastic mineral water bottles, food and blankets to the square, not caring about the attacks of the thugs of the regime who were hiding behind the checkpoints of the army tanks leading to the square. 

Then the spectacular first one million demonstration, a historic moment that mesmerized the Egyptians themselves. It was mesmerizing through its scale. It was the euphoria of the newly discovered freedom and a collective longing for dignity. No one could believe that such a compact mass would break the circle of fear to come out finally. Words fail to describe how more than some 2 million people marched peacefully in an orderly manner towards one main space; the Tahrir Squaremiraculous sight for the thousands of coming pedestrians and flag carriers. A clear sense of order while penetrating and in moving through the square being created by the young protesters was observed. The masses were amazingly caring for each other so that nothing would go wrong. The square was encircled by army tanks and soldiers, who checked the IDs to make sure that no thugs of the regime, or weapons could be used inside the square. At checkpoints, men and women were segregated to be controlled by ‘popular committees’ consisting of highly disciplined anti-Mubarak groups of young men and women. Bags and wallets were checked. Knives, scissors and potentially dangerous tools were confiscated. Control checkpoints multiplied since the thugs of the regime were a constant threat. Then the careful way people moved in the square deserved attention. The centre of the square entailed multiple conglomerations of groups of people, judges, artists, groups of singers, medical doctors, Sheikhs and priests, members of the Wafd party, and what not. There was a sense of order in the way people moved around the Square. The Omar Makram mosque was another important point of rallying and conglomeration.  People prayed communally, while others sat near them joking, eating or sleeping on the grass. Each party, each individual, respected the actions of others without comment. There were again volunteers to organise the traffic for those entering and the ones who left out the square. The Million March day and the days that followed witnessed a constant flow of people coming in and out of the Square.  In the afternoon, the masses that came in walking from the quarter of Dokki via the way of the Opera house was spectacular.


. The organization was spectacular.  The Kasr al-Nil bridge, leading to



, became a

The Square was then becoming a fascinating remade space for the determined campers, for all citizens who have had enough with the cruelty of the regime, for foreign journalists, for photographers, for street children, for artists, performers and musicians, for housewives and mothers and for all those who for the first time in their lives were delighted to shout their mind. It was a cross-class event, veiled faced women, fashionable women in headscarves and unveiled fashionable upper class women, foreigners, popular women, men and women sleeping on the grass while completely exhausted, all were there. Food was often distributed. To the disappointment of Western observers, the Muslim Brothers were there too, but they melted in the sea of masses as an unfelt minority. It was obviously the younger generation of Facebook and the 6th of April movement that succeeded in having the real control of the street.

Photo by Mona Abaza
Chaos / order/ peaceful resistance/brutality

Time and again, the regime was evidently responsible for the major chaos the nation underwent during the first two weeks of the revolution. The plan was to paralyze the city through closing down the internet, the mobile phones, the banks and stock exchange and through flying jetfighters over Tahrir Square


to terrorise the protesters. So what´s next?  Bombing Tahrir? Mubarak is obviously a lunatic, screamed the protesters. It was a thought that crossed everyone’s minds. In addition, the Minister of the Interior, Habib al-Adly, had released thousands of prisoners. He also seemed to have given a carte blanche to the regime´s thugs to damage anything they would encounter on their way. Mubarak´s paternalistic and nasty message was clear; he wanted to punish the entire nation for insurrection. The government then spread rumours that if demonstrations would continue famine and thieves would rule. Chaos and violence were inevitable.  This turned into a blessing in disguise for the protesters who moved to create an alternative, counter “order”. They were prompt in rescuing the Museum of antiquities from being burnt and from looting (evidently an act perpetrated by the regime time and again).  By protecting the Museum, the protesters earned an unprecedented popularity. The message was clear, the protesters and the people will do away with Mubarak´s dictatorial order symbolised in the horrid secret police force and its brutality.  The protesters moved to clean the streets too. They cared for collecting regularly the garbage in the square, and organised the traffic. Volunteer doctors were helping the wounded. They created a mini-independent, a rather efficient counter-state in the Square.




Tahrir Squarehas set a new paradigm on reinventing space in the way the masses gracefully moved and protected themselves in a pacifist manner. The masses reinvented an alternative order to counteract the rule of terror, which the regime had imposed. Time and again, hundreds commentated on how this historic moment was all about dignity and the longing for justice. But it will be also remembered for one major point: solidarity amongst the masses. Solidarity in protecting each other, in caring for the other. Solidarity in communicating, solidarity in helping the wounded, in sharing jokes, in chanting and exchanging an optimistic spirit that change is possible. How often have commentators commented on the complete absence of “sexual harassment” after such a long and shameful record during the past years noted in Cairene streets.

Cairenes have witnessed the night of terror when the government let the prisoners and the regime’s thugs out. Cairo then witnessed the most moving moments of neighbourhood solidarity. For the first time, I exchanged my mobile number with the landowners of my building and we paid visits to each other. They encouraged me to phone them any time I suspected danger. Solidarity resulted in us going together to demonstrations. My neighbour, a well to do housewife who was so eager to exchange with me her political views, was finally convinced by me that there is no point in just demonstrating in the island Zamalek. After so much hesitation, she finally crossed the Kasr Al Nil bridge and was so delighted to have experienced the power of Tahrir with several of our friends.

Suddenly also the men of my quarter in the island of Zamalek came out with sticks, knives and weapons to protect us. My street was barricaded so that no one could enter it without being checked.  I was shocked that several of my neighbours carried guns. Several men made it a point to escort me in my street. They walked with me during curfew hours in the night, when I wanted in the late night to visit my neighbour, who lived a few blocks away. Some carried heavy sticks and went up and down the street. Every man in the street seemed to be well informed of my whereabouts and who of my friends and colleagues was visiting me. We were visible in the quarter; we went and returned back from Tahrir Square


in groups. By the end of the second week, the terror was dissipating and one could notice after the curfew that the street was full of men who were having a good time in socializing. They were chatting, constantly talking about politics, joking and simulating martial games.

The January Revolution led by the younger generation of internet users of the blogosphere brought about the best in Egyptians much like it publicly exposed the dirt of the regime’s thugs, their Bedouin mentality and violent mercenary murderous acts.  Molotov cocktails, knives, nailed sticks, teargas bombs, rubber bullets and gun fire, snipers shooting from roofs, wild hounds, the “battle of the camel”[4] and horse riders attacking the squares, cars running through people and killing them, were all employed. Brutality produced the unintended consequence, more people joined the movement and the Tahrir Square


witnessed more than ever a flocking sea of masses.

It is difficult to describe what it means to feel that the entire country has been transformed into a huge prison by shutting down the internet system, then mobile phones and SMS messages were shut down too. Yet this increased the anger and the determination to continue the struggle.



Surrealism and Carnage: The 2nd of February

The 2nd of February will remain an unforgettable date for both my daughter and me. The night before, Mubarak had made his second speech on television in an obvious evil and threatening tone. He persisted in that he will not give up his throne. It looked like wrath would soon descend on the entire disobedient nation. On the second of February, we went to the Tahrir Square


with two of my friends (Samia and Kamal) and my daughter in the afternoon with the intention to meet other friends and stay there for a while. By coincidence, none of our friends we were supposed to meet were there because they had left earlier. The square had noticeably much less protesters than the one million day march.  My friend Samia proposed that we pay a visit to our common friend Pierre who owns two magnificent large flats on the 9th and 10th floors over-looking the square and the angles of Talaat Harb and Bab al-Luq street. From the 9th floor we could enjoy the panorama of the entire square. By 4PM, the attacks by the armed thugs of the regime coming from the direction of the Egyptian Museum started. We saw many severely wounded men carried by groups of men leaving the square from the check points that were guarded by the demonstrators and the army tanks. Many were shot in their heads and the eyes. “The battle of the camel” had already started, but luckily the protesters managed to arrest the thugs who entered the Square with camels and horses. It was pathetic and yet comical how the regime had lost completely its sense of reality by sending what looked like antiquated thugs as a remake of a bad Hollywood kitsch scenery. My two friends by then had opted to return back to the island of Zamalek where we are all staying. I remained with my daughter, thinking that it was too risky to walk back with her. I have to confess that I was already panicking after having seen so many wounded people.

Around 5:30PM a large crowd of the thugs of the regime came from Tahrir Square

Talaat Harb Streetheading towards the square. They threw Molotov cocktail bombs. They were shooting live fire towards the protesters and they were burning anything that was in their way, in particular cars, which they would then turn upside down. One could clearly see that the army tanks did nothing to stop the burnt cars or fight back the thugs. The anti-Mubarak protestors could only defend themselves by barricading the checkpoints with some metal shields that were collected from the construction field of the former Hilton hotel, which is being renovated. Their only weapon was to collect stones and throw them. The streets were in real chaos and many were wounded. That night, it was reported that four were killed and hundreds wounded. From what we saw, it was clear that the death toll must have been much higher than it was reported.[5] Luckily, the thugs were pushed back and they failed to enter the square.

When skirmishes got even more violent, a huge placard from Pierre’s balcony with a slogan “al-shaab yuriid isqaat al-nitham” (“the people want to bring down the regime”) was displayed. All those who were in the flat joined the mounting voices of the square to chant the slogans while the thugs were attacking the square. It was an extremely moving moment when the some 50 people who were in the flat were all united in screaming in solidarity with the protesters.

We spent the night in Pierre’s flat. Pierre was busy putting the hundreds of photos that were taken from his balcony on all possible Facebook accounts available.[6] Precisely because it was the first day the internet had been restored after some five days of silencing the users. Pierre’s charmingly decadent, belle époque flat with the most beautiful paintings of his grandfather and sophisticated furniture was turned into a large shelter. Several beds and blankets were on the floor. There were plenty of sofas and chairs for those who wanted to take a rest from the square.

The two large flats on top of the square were transformed into hosting lots of comers and goers. There were several French, Italian, American and Egyptian reporters, also photographers; several mothers whose sons and daughters were in the square and the many young and old demonstrators who took refuge when things became nasty downstairs. Several of them were friends I knew. There were painters, film directors, actresses, human right activists, publishers, architects and AUC students and many young men and women. Some of the protesters I met happened to be my former students at the American university. I was delighted and yet truly frightened for them in the way they turned into determined fighters. One of my best female former students had been camping in the square for four days and looked completely exhausted and sleepy.  As she came from downstairs she told me that her only dream was to just have a shower. Other protesters turned out to be the sons and daughters of my friends. There were also friends of the demonstrators who did not know anyone in the flat but were still welcomed. As violence escalated during the night, the number of visitors increased, in particular the young female protesters who kept on coming up to find refuge.  A few protesters were wounded in their faces, hands and legs. Because Pierre suspected a potential attack from the secret police, only friends and the friends’ acquaintances were allowed to come in.

The mother of the martyr Khaled Said, the young man who was tortured to death in a police station in Alexandria the year before, was present. She sat for long hours on the balcony observing the square in the cold night, while she eventually tried to sleep for a few hours in one of the rooms. Obviously, she camped at Pierre’s. A remarkably young demonstrator was caught in panic. He sat in a corner reading the Koran, while many young and attractive women were constantly going downstairs to help the severely wounded and bring water. Cotton was badly needed, but there was not enough. Another former acquaintance cooked a huge saucepan of soup for the wounded protesters downstairs. I also recall that two ambulance cars managed finally to penetrate the square very late at night as the number of wounded kept rising and fires were set by Mubarak´s thugs.

Television was turned on uninterruptedly in a separate room. We all kept on going and coming through this room. Some were lying asleep in front of the TV, while being utterly exhausted. All of us were trying to frantically and interchangeably do two main things: to move around the three large balconies and follow what was going on the Tahrir Square and the two side streets of Talaat Harb and Bab al-Louq, then run back inside to follow the news on TV, in order to find out the direction of the next attack of the thugs. Al-Jazeera channel was the reference point to locate what was really going on beyond the square. We could not see the attacks coming from the Museum of antiquities neither could we see the thugs who were attacking the protesters from the Six of October bridge through throwing petrol bombs to the Square, but we saw them instead on T.V.  We also saw on TV how the thugs set fire to the trees of the Square, which made us all panic to the thought of a possible bigger fire that might catch the surrounding buildings. The T.V. screen was our only guide in detecting from where the next attack would arrive.  There was a common feeling amongst all of us in the flat. Our hatred against Mubarak had no limit. All of us exchanged the same idea:  tonight’s carnage was exactly one day after Mubarak´s refusal to step down. If he remained one more week, the damage would be beyond imagination. His egomaniac madness had no limits.

Most, if not all of us, had our mobiles on (the curfew, or black out on the mobile phones was lifted). The mothers were calling sons and daughters in the Square. They were describing the images on TV to their beloved.  Some mothers were begging those down to go up. The reporters were phoning the stranded colleagues, or those possibly lost in the skirmishes on the other side of the Square. I was phoning my friend Hanan (in Mohandessin quarter) who informed me about the departure of a large anti-Mubarak demonstration from the Mohandessin quarter. She told me that they were on their way to the Square to attack the thugs from the opposite direction.  To calm me down and to show solidarity Hanan, my friend, charged my mobile phone with a 100 Egyptian pounds. Another woman received photos through her mobile phone as a proof that a large crowd of anti-Mubarak protesters was marching from the Shubra quarter to give a hand to those in the Square. The tension was rising. I then phoned my friend Malak, who went to all demonstrations since the 25th. She told me that another friend (N) managed to convince two young army officers to side with the protesters. They were on their way with two large army vans heading towards the Square. She was in such a high spirit. To give me courage, she joked; “this is like the French Commune, Egyptian style”. However, I doubted if what she told me was true. Kamal phoned me several times to know how we were managing our angst. Solidarity and a binding feeling with all these friends was so crucial.

A group of five people tried to leave in the late night heading towards Zamalek. But after that they crossed the square, they were told that there were thugs waiting for those leaving the square. Since the streets were empty through the curfew and the army was present, anyone who walked at night was evidently returning from the Square. They returned back to Pierre’s flat, obviously disappointed.

Later, my daughter told me that she dreaded watching television because it gave her the shivers. I recall that she kept on telling me that she wanted to be downstairs in the square and I systematically refused.  Later she told me that she thought that those in the Square were perhaps more serene than “We” who were locked upstairs and getting completely nervous by al-Jazeera violent pictures.

The square on the other hand was packed with people who kept on turning all around the centre the whole night until dawn. Women and children were camping in the middle of the square. Some loud speakers, located near the Omar Makram mosque were shouting religious slogans, other loudspeakers were shouting the sixties patriotic songs. At a certain point, during the very late night, the protesters were drumming on their metal shields with differing rhythms. These differing sounds showed how well organized the protesters were. They were meant to keep them awake and warn them about the direction of the forthcoming danger. But in general, there was something apocalyptic about all this noise, if we add the constant hovering over of the helicopters. Then in the late night there arrived the big crowd of protesters (probably those from Shubra quarter). There were warmly greeted by the demonstrators. There was then a turmoil of movement in the Square and a feeling of victory.

When we heard the al-Jazeera´s commentator saying that the real victory would be if dawn would arrive without any further carnage, I felt that this was the most realistic description of the situation. We were all sitting and praying for the very first morning light to come.

Once the curfew was lifted, eight of us left for Zamalek around 8PM in the morning. We crossed the square in the direction of the Kasr al-Nil bridge.  It was so moving to see the wounded determined to stay in the square, not fearing death or the thugs. We saw several men arriving with plastic bags, carrying lots of bags with food for the protesters, on the way out of the strongly barricaded checkpoint when we were heading towards the direction of Kasr al-Nil bridge.

The press mentioned that hundreds of people were killed and thousands were wounded since the start of the revolution. Hundreds are still missing, or rather, sadly enough, they have not been identified in the morgue.  According to the recent list circulated by “the Front for the Defense of the Protesters of Egypt” until the 7th of March 2011, 685 persons have been reported killed.[7] The detailed list provided the names and the professions of the protesters killed. The majority were killed by bullets. Others were crushed by vans and cars, some died suffocated in police vans, by teargas, by being beaten up, by being thrown from police stations.  Protesters were killed in the following cities: Alexandria, Suez, Beni Suef, Ismailiyya, Dumyaat, Fayyoum, the New Valley, Beheira, Sharquia, Qualyyubiyya, Guizeh and Cairo. Furthermore, several reports and articles mentioned that there were ferocious snipers at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs when the protesters tried to attack the building. The pictures of the martyrs of the revolution that were later hanged in the Square reveal that most of the protesters were barely in their early twenties. A six year old child was killed too.

During the whole night at Pierre’s, I could not stop thinking about my daughter, even though we were both safe in the flat. We were lucky that we found shelter with Pierre who revealed a remarkable sense of patriotism and courage through opening his house for the reporters and the protesters. As we watched the news unfold in the late night, many of us were in tears. One mother was talking on her mobile phone begging her daughter to give up protesting and come home. I was certainly a coward in having forbidden my daughter to leave the flat or even go down to help the wounded. I was thinking about Khaled Said´s mother who was sitting in the next room. How terrible it must have felt to lose her young son. I glued myself to my daughter and thought that I wished that this night would be over.



Photo: Mona Abaza

Contagious Revolutions/al-Jazeera

In writing these reflections my daughter became my main guidance in remembering the succession of the events of the night of the 2nd of February. I integrated her narrative of the first day of the demonstrations. Both of us seemed to have experienced a similar problem. We both underwent some sort of amnesia.  It seems that we were rather affected by a kind of forgetfulness regarding the unfolding of events. We became both convinced that much of it had to do with the tension of the situation and the constant shifting between trying to observe the Square, which interfered in our consciousness with the continuous flow of TV images we were simultaneously following. Many of us were nailed to the TV. My daughter described it as a surrealist moment. I am not sure here if Jean Baudrillard’s notion of “simulation” would be the appropriate description for grasping such an experience. One thing was obvious; the pervasiveness of television images have colonized our memory, reifying consequently reality.

Had Adorno and Horkheimer witnessed the role of al Jazeera in the Egyptian revolution, they would certainly have given a second thought to their prophecy of the “culture industry” in the banalizing, “mass deception” effect of television. Evidently, the revolution would not have been as successful had there not been the satellite channels, which exposed the flagrant discrepancy and the ridiculous lies of the state television propaganda. Satellite channels gained even more significance when Facebook, mobile phones and the internet were shut down by the regime. Satellite channels became our means of survival against the iron wall on communications. It is possible to regard the younger generation of bloggers and Facebook users as the dissatisfied offspring of the new wave of mass and consumer culture in the Middle East. They have efficiently learned how to appropriate the technology and yet they had failed to harvest the full benefits of modernity. Just to be reminded; 40% of Egypt’s population are today living under the poverty line. Over 60% of Egypt’s population is under the age of 35. Some 8 million male and female Egyptians have reached the age of 35 without being able to get married. In a dominant culture that abhors pre-marital sex and virginity weighs high, life can be gloomy for youth. Not to speak of how difficult it is to forge a niche for the non-conformism in a society that faced a massive Islamicisation through decades of a pervasive propaganda state machinery, which then filtered through to the opposition.

I am sure that academic research agendas will for the next few years be kept busy through researching the unprecedented role of al-Jazeera in the making of Arab revolutions. The revolution´s great victory was al-Jazeera´s too. The journalists far from disguised their subjectivity and support to the street. Their habile movement and clever anticipation of the regime’s ransack of their office and the escalating witch-hunting they underwent, enhanced their heroic image.  From the very start the regime’s xenophobic propaganda was to tax the revolutionaries together with al-Jazeera for being at best “foreign agents”, at worst, Israeli, Iranian, the Hizbullah spies and what not. This went hand in hand with kidnapping and harassing and violently attacking foreign journalists as well as foreign residents. I am afraid that the “foreign agents” excuse will continue for a while with the unclear role of the army as an undecided force vis-a-vis the revolution. The ambiguous role of the army seems to become even more accentuated. For example, the army has arrested and tortured some of the protesters even after Mubarak´s fall and they are currently resorting to violence to dissipate the protests witnessed in March. They have sentenced to five years in jail a peaceful protester after having kidnapped him. Emergency law still prevails and there is evidence that the army has been torturing the protesters of Tahrir in the headquarters of the Museum. The army has furthermore been involved in opening fire on civilian Copts in the quarter of Manshiat Nasser. Evidently the counter-revolutionaries have an interest in spoiling the revolution’s demands by escalating the confessional sedition.

The contagious rebellious spirit that ran through Tunisia, Algeria, Egypt, Yemen, Bahrain, Libya and Oman mesmerized the world. It simply exposed the power of the velocity of image transmission through the medium of the television. There was clearly a common denominator in the protesting slogans and the demands that spread like fire in the Arab world.  Also the evident absence of the role of political parties and ideological advocacies were two other commonalities that ran across the revolts. Arab revolts evolved around the broad issue of dignity, recognition, injustice and blatant corruption. Simply said, it is a cry against the long decades of authoritarian rule that pushed the limits of an unbearable humiliation.

The difference between the media coverage in Egypt and Libya exposed conflicting emotional reactions in the West. It is a fact that the Egyptians are famed for their wit and their lightness of being, through which the revolution succeeded in seducing Western publics at large. For sure, it was a bloody revolution, but that was not it. Time and again, commentators did not cease to repeat that the Square reinvented itself as a magnet for the counterculture and popular artistic imagination, for wonderful ironic musicians and dancers, for clever street vendors who sold all possible revolutionary gadgets and popular “fast food” on the square, and for the witty popular life and culture. The famed Egyptian sardonic “nokta” (the joke, the anecdote) and the most amazing improvised public performances discovered their heyday in the square.

Even though Libya’s revolution has turned out to be far more violent than Egypt’s, unfortunately, the Libyans did not gain the same emotional support and worldwide admiration as the Egyptians. Although it is now confirmed that massacres have been perpetrated in Libya, media coverage in Europe during the first week focused mainly on how to protect European economic interests, mostly oil. The most dreaded obsessions of Europe seemed to be the possible exodus of Arab refugees. The thousands of boat-people landing daily on the shores of Lampedusa island, once again, fuelled racist sentiments vis-à-vis illegal migrants. At least, this was my impression at the beginning of the Libyan conflict. This attitude might have changed then when the foreign media was able to report from Libya.

It is not improbable to argue that the power of the images and the pervasiveness of al-Jazeera and satellite channels, did ultimately play a role in rescuing Egyptians from a greater potential massacre. For once globalization proved to have produced some positive travails. The West’s familiarity with Egypt as a haven for tourism and as an exporter of “exoticism” and an ancient civilization played for something. Even though the revolution’s powerful cry proved just that “we are finally exactly like you in the West, we will die for dignity and for overturning a despot”. Although not without paradoxes, Egypt has been definitively globalised via media coverage. The intense exposure for decades to Westernization and to mass culture seemed to have worked this time, in a positive way. On Tahrir Square


, there was a strong feeling that Egyptians were struggling to be global and be heard beyond their borders. One could see Indians moving around with pictures of Ghandi. There were slogans in French like “Mubarak dégage” and also slogans in Spanish, which means that there were certainly numerous curious foreigners, young and old, reporters and what not, who sympathized with the revolution. But there were also plenty of placards in English and Arabic, often in both languages written by Egyptians. The message was “we speak many languages”, but we understand only one language, the language of freedom and justice. That so many people moved around with placards, with flags, tags, badges, objects and through graffiti and writing was so revealing about the power of modern symbolic expression. On the other hand, while Cairo has remained an attractive megacity, it received an excellent media coverage, in comparison to other towns like Alexandria, Suez, or Mansura which underwent even more violent repression and were abounding with protesters.
After all, Egypt has been one of the most photographed countries since the invention of the medium.  It is not a coincidence that the revolution has been superbly covered through the most moving and impressive photos. It is also no coincidence that hundreds of photographers had to sneak into Tahrir Square


through hiding theirs cameras, after it was known that these were systematically smashed by the secret police. Not to forget about the several journalists who were seriously injured and harassed.

The children of the revolution taught the West a lesson on the beloved notions of cosmopolitanism and democracy. The appropriation of these two ideals have been either denied to the global South for so long under the infantilizing excuse that it lacked maturity, or that these were anyway an import, only operable in the rational North. Finally, the belief in this exclusivity backfired. The neo-liberal agendas had succeeded in spreading the conviction that 1968 was no longer reproducible. At least not in the present times and not in the South. Nevertheless, when the Egyptian 68 movement went finally to the streets, it coincided with the overwhelming debate about the genetic degeneration of races and the (non) integration of Turks in Germany by a parochial Sarrazin.
Time and again, it is the southern periphery that witnessed a unique historic moment of change through passive resistance and the broad advocacies of recognition, dignity and justice. The revolution fostered the internationalist spirit through borrowing the techniques of resistance from various cultural traditions and in expressing material solidarity with the Libyan resistance. Public solidarity was what the peaceful compact masses succeeded in conveying to the world. The Egyptian cry for freedom coincided with Berlusconi’s sexual scandals and German Minister Zur Guttenberg’s scandal about a plagiarized PhD dissertation. It is high time for the West to come to terms with the elective affinity between the double morality of a Berlusconi and the obvious madness of a Gaddafi.

European governments considered the Arab wave for change as a threat to their vital strategic interest. Which naturally explains why at the beginning of the insurrection, Merkel sided with Mubarak who was only defendable because he guaranteed stability with Israel at the expense of being a dictator to his people. But the Europeans never really cared about dictators, or whether true democracy exists on the other side of their shore as long their interests are secure. This also explains why the Americans, confusingly, kept on issuing contradictory statements during the first week of the revolution. Until finally, Obama decided to suport the protesters, who proved to be no different from protesters on American campuses. It never became so obvious as in January 2011, that America’s imperial interests do not go well with Obama´s claims of universality of democracy and human rights.

It might be yet premature to compare the Egyptian revolution to the Russian or the Chinese revolutions. But the Egyptian specificity fascinated the world because the internet, Facebook, mobile phones, and twitter turned out to be vital in transmitting information in the quickest possible way.  It revealed how a controversial technology, like mobile phones, which have been often considered as negative gadgets of an affluent consumer culture and consumerist life-styles has been evidently used for the service of insurgence against the iron curtains of the Arab despots. But technology here was only a medium; it was certainly not the message. The medium was all about velocity and the message was genuinely the street. Manuel Castells was right in pointing to the role of cyberspace in creating new parameters of a network society. He speaks of a new informational language that produces novel codes in communication. Those who experienced the Square were mesmerized by the astuteness of the 6th of April movement’s young protesters who came out with the most effective and yet short and concise anti-Mubarak slogans. These concise slogans were the main means that rallied thousands if not millions of supporters. Some slogans consisted of one simple word like “irhal” (“leave”),  “baatel” (illegitimate), “huwa yimshi” (he has to leave), “mish ha nimshi”  (we are not leaving). The question I would like to raise here is this.  If this superb concision in slogans is owed to the transformed, codified and abbreviated language of the electronic communication of Facebook (which Castells reflected upon when he considered the forthcoming emerging social movements as alternative movements to the classical political parties in their advocacies and claims), is not this what the Egyptian story seems to be telling us?



Mona Abaza is a Professor of Sociology in the Department of Sociology, Anthropology, Psychology, and Egyptology at the American University in Cairo, and is currently a visiting Professor of Islamology in the Department of Theology at Lund University. Her research interests are in religious and cultural networks between the Middle East and Southeast Asia, the Hadhrami diaspora in Southeast Asia, and consumer culture and the art market in Egypt.






[1] See my article (in Arabic): “Protest Movements without Politics: A New Turn in The Public Culture in Egypt in: The State of Exception and Resistance in the Arab World. Volume Edited by Sari Hanafi, Marquaz Dirassat al-Wahda al-‘arabiyya, Beirut, April 2010.
[2] Evidently a much higher number had died from the first day since there are still hundreds of missing.
[3] “Life is more beautiful without Mubarak” is a slogan that circulated in the Tahrir Square


.
[4] “The battle of the Camel” was a famed historical battle that took place during the time of the Prophet Mohammed.  The appellation has been sardonically borrowed to describe the Kafkaesque attacks of camels and horse riders on the Tahrir Square


on the 2th of February by the thugs of the regime.
[5] Later the press stated that this number understated the real death toll. Many died in the hospitals and the government had issued an order not to deliver death certificates to disguise the high casualties.
[6] I saw later Pierre photos on my daughter’s Facebook account. They were fascinating in catching the geometrical confrontation between the protesters and the police.
[7] I received this report via Facebook on March 9th 2011.

TCS and B & S are published by SAGE.

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