For the eighteen days that tens of thousands of Egyptians were rallying to push strongman Hosni Mubarak ever closer to abdication, time itself seemed to pass differently than usual. Something has been happening, though nobody knows exactly where it will go. I think I finally get what Hegel meant when he said that he saw the world-spirit of history on Napoleon’s horse. (I hadn’t read Hegel yet in 2001.)
Each morning, I was waking up to do the early shift of covering these events for the blog Waging Nonviolence. This meant getting immediately sucked up into a swirling digital newsroom. I cranked up Twitter, keeping browser tabs open with hashtags like #jan25, #egypt, and #mubarak. Updates appeared every second, in several languages, nearly all with a sense of awe and pride and sharing in a global community. Thanks to an inspired decision by the people who made my Roku box, I could switch my TV to Al Jazeera, which had unquestionably the best English-language coverage. With all this coming in, I couldn’t write fast enough. And all along I keep wishing for the time to read and reread Yasmine Rashidi’s extraordinary dispatches from Cairo in the The New York Review of Books.
When the protesters’ victory finally came, Stathis Gourgouris spoke for many, writing here at The Immanent Frame, in invoking the “sublime.” Something new has happened, he wrote, something simple and beautiful: “the people’s removal of their consent to power.” The dictator’s power eroded, as if by a sudden and spontaneous decree of the governed, fueled by online social networks. Yet, reported The New York Times, the uprising depended on the work of “a pan-Arab youth movement dedicated to spreading democracy in a region without it.” They’re tech-savvy, but these activists also studied with the Serbian resistance movement Otpor! and its computer-illiterate guru, the American political theorist Gene Sharp. When Mubarak’s government shut down the Internet, the revolution continued.
“The Egyptian revolution was not a flash mob, and would not have been successful without this broad albeit unevenly distributed coalition of interests, who had studied and planned,” says Jack DuVall, president of the Sharp-inspired International Center on Nonviolent Conflict, which has been training Egyptian dissidents.
Publics and citizens
In a dispatch from Cairo on February 2, Anthony Shadid suggested that the protesters had “reimagined the very notion of citizenship.” “‘Dignity’ was a word used often,” he added; “its emphasis underlined the breadth of a movement that is, so far, leaderless.” People rallied more than anything around the poetry of slogans, Elliott Colla explains. Even such prospective messiahs as Nobel laureate Mohamed ElBaradei, Google marketing executive Wael Ghonim, and the Muslim Brotherhood hardly seem poised for a Khomenei-type takeover. Leaderlessness also allows for the kind of second-person exultation that was heard on the streets of Cairo just after Mubarak’s downfall: “We did it, and we did it peacefully! We don’t need the rest of the world!”
The kind of citizenship emerging in the revolution has been one that crosses some of the barriers that divide Egypt’s barrier-ridden society. A gripping Wall Street Journal account of how the initial January 25th protest came to be emphasizes how the elite, Internet-savvy organizers worked with people in the poor neighborhood of Bulaq al-Dakrour: “The plotters say they knew that the demonstrations’ success would depend on the participation of ordinary Egyptians in working-class districts like this one, where the Internet and Facebook aren’t as widely used.” While the growing divide between rich and poor in Egypt is part of what motivated the uprising, the uprising itself began to transcend it.
New coalitions have been forming in Egyptian society, through new non-governmental organizations and the blogosphere. “Activist blogs provided a rare space where a new ethics of political engagement could be forged,” writes Saba Mahmood in The Nation. They also made it possible to share documentation of the regime’s atrocities. Charles Hirschkind, here at The Immanent Frame, describes the emergence of the Kifaya movement in the past decade: “a political formation that brought together Islamists, Muslim Brothers, communists, liberals, and secular-leftists” united in opposition to Mubarak.
Is religion relevant?
Tensions between Egyptian Muslims and the Coptic Christian minority have been rising in recent years, sometimes erupting into violence. At Killing the Buddha, Ashley Makar describes the ambivalence that her Coptic relatives in Egypt felt toward the uprising happening around them. The Copts’ position is precarious, and Mubarak at least maintained a semblance of order. Coptic Pope Shenouda III continued supporting Mubarak well into the protests, and he instructed Copts to stay off the streets; many young Copts, as if claiming an identity more Egyptian than Coptic, joined the protests anyway. Makar is reluctant to share the elation of her American friends, but she was heartened by reports of Christians guarding Muslims praying in Tahrir Square, and Muslims guarding Coptic churches from attack.
I had these reports in mind when I asked Gene Sharp whether he thought religion was a significant factor in the revolution. “Not from anything that I have found so far,” he said. Stephen Prothero is one of many who have noted that it has seemed remarkably secular, especially for a region normally represented in Western headlines by more theocratic voices. Protesters kneeling in prayer was a common image coming from Cairo, yet their actual demands had more to do with political freedoms and economic policy than religion. Elizabeth Shakman Hurd warns against leaning too hard on the secular/religious distinction when it comes to Egypt. For a long time, the West has been quick to think of secular leaders like Mubarak as competent and reliable, while writing off reform-minded Islamists like the Muslim Brotherhood as undesirable elements.
In the United States, as well as in Israel, fears of an Islamist takeover in Egypt have been common. Sarah Posner notes at Religion Dispatches that some, like conservative commentator Frank Gaffney, have alleged that there are dots to connect between the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and certain suspect American Muslim organizations—including those behind the Park51 project in Lower Manhattan. They worry that, in Egypt as well as at home, dangerous Islamists might be waiting in the wings.
But Slavoj Žižek wants to take the this-worldliness of the protesters’ demands at face value. He recalls the long tradition of leftist politics in Egypt, as well as the West’s policy of using Muslim extremists—either by funding them or demonizing them—as a means for preventing economic reform. “Radical Islamism,” he says, “was always the other side of the disappearance of the secular left in Muslim countries.” Time to let it return, thinks Žižek, organically and democratically.
What’s to come
The celebrations in Cairo immediately after Mubarak’s departure were jubilant, but also cautious. “As the new future begins to come into view,” reported Yasmine Rashidi, “everyone realizes there is a lot of work to do—and also that it’s not quite over.” The military has taken control in Egypt and, although it is among the most trusted institutions in the country, it is mired in the habits of torture and dependence on US money.
Meanwhile, post-revolutionary Tunisia limps by with an interim government. Parallel uprisings in countries like Libya, Yemen, Iran, and Bahrain have met with violent suppression, with the support of the Saudi royalty. But the phenomenon continues to spread. Even protesters in the Wisconsin state capitol are invoking the spirit of Cairo. Reza Aslan warns, defiantly: “Watch out Qadafi, Asad, Abdullah. We are coming for you.”