Egypt's Hobbesian moment

Thomas Hobbes. From Shutterstock.

Noted Egyptian rights activist Karim Ennarah, writing on Facebook:

January 25th might be defeated, but January 28th--I mean that Hobbesian moment that characterises everything in Egypt today--is not, and I doubt that anyone could put an end to this Hobbesian moment and turn this into a governable country. This revolution has changed things fundamentally, in a way that is irreversible (and I don't necessarily mean positively nor am I talking about democracy or rule of law) and the social crisis that remains of it is bigger than anything or anyone, despite those who think it's intellectually fashionable to use the term "uprising" instead of revolution in their headlines. As for us, those who are defeated, bruised and humiliated (for the time being, at least); I don't have the faintest hint of regret. If this nation does not progress in the future--if that social process cannot be geared towards a better life, then at least I, almost every one in this country, has changed forever. I used to have one existential crisis, no I have multiple, now this society is questioning everything--things we used to take for granted like democracy, rule of law, legitimacy, "the people", religion, and the concept of progress itself. Something's going to give, and at the very least, I know that my generation that is defined by this revolution will prevail some day, even if it takes twenty years..

The question now is, what will be the cost of all this?

There are multiple ways to use the phrase "Hobbesian moment" – one in terms of the use of brutal politics, in the usual sense of "Hobbesian" as that borrowed from Leviathan and meaning the absolute power of the sovereign, and its ruthless use, to subdue selfish or unruly citizens. It can apply to state repression or even revolutionary terror. Another, though, comes Hobbes' Elements of Law. It is about a fight to define, or frame, the future:

No man can have in his mind a conception of the future, for the future is not yet. But of our conceptions of the past, we make a future; or rather, call past, future relatively. Thus after a man hath been accustomed to see like antecedents followed by like consequents, whensoever he seeth the like come to pass to any thing he hath seen before, he looks there should follow it the same that followed then. As for example: because a man hath often seen offenses followed by punishment, when he seeth an offense in present, he thinketh a punishment to be consequent thereto. But consequent unto that which is present, men call future. And thus we make remembrance to be prevision, or conjecture of things to come, or expectation or presumption of the future.

For the last three years, the future of Egypt has looked hopeful at times and bleak at others (and of course looked different to different people). But it has always looked very uncertain, and that has not changed. This fight to define the future is likely to be long and bloody.

✚ Brute force: Inside the Central Security Forces

Brute force: Inside the Central Security Forces | Egypt Independent

Good piece by Mohamed Adam and Sarah Carr for Egypt Independent:

On the eve of 28 January 2011, the most deadly day of the 18-day uprising, a Central Security Forces (CSF) conscript, who asks to be referred to as Hossam to protect his identity, was nonchalant.

“My friends and I went out together in the lorry and we were laughing and joking. We thought it would just be a normal protest,” says the thin 22-year-old conscript, whose fingernails are chewed down to the quick.

By that evening Hossam was running for his life — in his underwear. Abandoned by their commanding officers and surrounded by hoards of angry protesters, Hossam and other recruits tore off their uniforms in an attempt to escape identification.

“My commanders, who always said to me, ‘Be a man, be a man’ ran away and left us,” Hossam said.

He eventually made his way home — before taking to the streets with his friends and joining protesters.

The mass protests of 2011 were the CSF’s first real test, and it failed abysmally.

Happy anniversary, Egypt

So, it's already been a year since the Egyptian uprising began, and the crowds and marching in towards Tahrir in numbers that might surpass in the 18 days. Mabrouk, ya Masr!

The original January 25 Police Day protests were meant to be about Khaled Said, police brutality, and general fed-up-ness with the regime. The Tunisian revolution turned them into the largest protest in Egypt in decades, with the same slogan that all Arab uprisings would eventually adopt: the people want the fall of the regime. The turnout surprised the organizers, and when they came back a few days later on January 28, hundreds of thousands of Egyptian crippled the police state, burning down dozens of police stations, forcing the regime to send in the army. But the army, although it was sent in to end the protests, made the calculation that it could not do so. The sclerotic Egyptian regime made a first attempt at maintaining itself through Omar Suleiman, but the protestors forced the military to reconsider that scenario, and it forced the departure of Suleiman along with Mubarak. We still know too little about how that decision was made, and I think it's fair to say that there was a military coup against Mubarak. But, since then, there's also been a real, ongoing, revolution.

Much ink will be spilled on this day. My own take is here, referring to this video – I'm optimistic.

The best op-ed I've read so far, parly because it is written by a man I consider to be the most powerful Egyptian on earth, Mohammed El-Erian, the CEO of the mega investment fund PIMCO whose interviews can make or break markets, is this one. (Egypt would be lucky if El-Erian should one day decide to play a role in his native country's politics.) El-Erian writes, echoing my own thoughts:

What Egyptians are experiencing today is not new; it is familiar to many countries that have gone through a fundamental systemic change. After all, revolutions go far beyond popular uprisings and the overthrow of old regimes. They are dynamic processes that must navigate a number of critical pivot points, including, most importantly, the move from dismantling the past to establishing the basis for a better future.

Some contend that Egypt will not be able to undertake this shift. But, while I acknowledge their arguments, I think that they misunderstand what is fundamentally at play in the country today.

Doubters note that what remains of Egypt’s internal and external institutional anchors serve to retard the revolutionary process rather than to refine and accelerate it. They believe that the country’s growing economic malaise will strengthen the argument for sticking with what Egyptians know, rather than opting for a more uncertain future. Finally, they point to the wait-and-see attitude of Egypt’s friends and allies.

These are all valid and important considerations, but they are not overwhelming. Rather, they are headwinds that can and will be overcome, for they fail to capture a reality that is evident from the sentiments of a broad cross-section of society. Egyptians will not settle for an incomplete revolution – not now, and especially not after all of the sacrifices that have been made.

I think another nice op-ed, critical of both Egyptian government society, is this one on Mikael Nabil by my friend Michael Wahid Hanna, that looks at the mixed feelings towards the Nabil case because of his views on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. I had touched upon that in this post. The more important part of what's happened in Egypt is a moral revolution, but it remains hampered by many national myths that will have to be re-examined over the next few years. 

Today what's important is the big picture, not the next few months of political games and negotiations between parliament, activists and SCAF. This revolution was partly about Egyptian society reaching a tipping point, with enough people (partly because of the youth bulge, but not only) beginning to see the world around them in a radically different way then the country's rulers. This is a fundamental point that is more important that Islamists vs secularists or army vs. civilians. 

An Egyptian revolutionary "J'accuse"

I can hardly think of a more effective way to convey Egyptian revolutionaries' feeling towards political parties, the military and the whole idea that they were robbed of a revolution than the above video.

The split that has developed between those who espouse this worldview and the rest of the country is a little worrying, because it can turn into a lasting bitterness and misanthropy. What is needed down is to turn this frustration into effective new ways of organizing, lobbying, and campaigning.

And if that video depressed you, cheer up and watch this one:

In Translation: Samer Soliman on revolution and reform

For the last few weeks, a favorite topic of conversation around many Cairene tables - particularly those of activists and the politically involved - is how to commemorate the upcoming anniversary of the 25 January uprising. For some, it should be a celebration of the overthrow of Hosni Mubarak. At the other end of the spectrum, more radical activists are calling for a "second revolution" and a repeat of the events of late January 2011, when, in the revolutionary narrative, "the people defeated the police state." The emerging dominant political players in Egypt - most notably the Muslim Brotherhood - have approached this issue carefully. They do not want another wave of protests only two days after the parliament that they control opens. They want to give some space to lingering grievances, but also control the situation in case radicals push for things to go another way.

I picked the following article because it reminded me of a conversation I recently had (at an excellent Iranian table - thanks P.) with two leading Egyptian human rights workers who worried that many of their friends had taken up revolutionary theory, were tempted by using violence against the state, and unwilling to see that they were a minority. In the article below, Samer Soliman, who teaches at AUC and is a well-known liberal writer, takes those types of revolutionaries to task.

As always, translation is provided by the awesome Industry Arabic, purveyors of fine translation services and more. 

 

A critical stance in support of my colleagues in the Revolution

By Samer Soliman, al-Shurouk, 9 January 2012

The revolution’s one-year anniversary represents a chance for reassessment and self-criticism by all those who participated in it. From this standpoint, the criticism that I direct at the positions and ideas of some of my revolutionary colleagues is the criticism of a comrade and has no trace of superiority. Its aim is to improve the performance of reform and revolutionary currents and get past unnecessary divisions in order to achieve our shared goal: establishing a state based on freedom, social justice and human dignity. I have four criticisms for some of my colleagues.

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The history of Egypt's revolution

Jack Shenker has a fine piece in the Guardian on The struggle to document Egypt's revolution:

On any given evening Cairo's Tahrir Square creaks under the weight of its own recent history: trinket-sellers flog martyrs' pendants, veterans of the uprising hold up spent police bullets recovered from the ground, and an ad hoc street cinema screens YouTube compilations of demonstrators and security forces clashing under clouds of teargas. This is collective memory by the people, for the people – with no state functionaries around to curate what is remembered or forgotten.

"Egyptians are highly sensitive about official attempts to write history and create state-sponsored narratives about historical events," says Khaled Fahmy, one of the country's leading historians. "When Hosni Mubarak was vice-president in the 1970s he was himself on a government committee tasked with writing – or rather rewriting – the history of the 1952 revolution to suit the political purposes of the elite at that time. That's exactly the kind of thing we want to avoid."

Fahmy knows only too well about the inherent tension between acts of mass popular participation and official attempts to catalogue and record them. Less than a week after the fall of Mubarak, the professor received a phone call from the head of Egypt's national archives asking him to oversee a unique new project that would document the country's dramatic political and social upheaval this year and make it available for generations of Egyptians to come.

"I was initially very reluctant," says Fahmy. "I didn't want people to think we were producing one definitive narrative of the revolution. But then I started thinking about the possibilities, and suddenly I got excited."

Khaled Fahmy, who is quoted above, is a noted historian of Ottoman Egypt (at AUC, formerly at NYU) and I've had the occasion to talk to him about the project. In a few months we intend to interview him about it, perhaps for the podcast.

Importantly the story includes links to websites documenting the revolution, which are reproduced after the jump.  

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Facebook's role in Egypt's #jan25 uprising

Facebook was more involved in ensuring protection for the Facebook groups organizing the January 25 and subsequent protests than is known, NewsBeast says:

Email records obtained by Newsweek, conversations with NGO executives who work with Facebook to protect activist pages, and interviews with administrators of the We Are All Khaled Said page reveal the social media juggernaut’s awkward balancing act. They show a company struggling to address the revolutionary responsibilities thrust upon it—and playing a more involved role than it might like to admit.

On the night of January 25, Richard Allan, Facebook’s director of policy for Europe, responded to the worried administrator. “We have put all the key pages into special protection,” he wrote in an email. A team, he said, “is monitoring activity from Egypt now on a 24/7 basis.”

It's an interesting story involving coordination by Facebook executives, Egyptian activists, and Washington-based democracy advocates who push pressing issues onto the executives.

Haenni and Tammam on #jan25 and religion

Two of my favorite commentators on religion and religious movement, Patrick Haenni and Hossam Tammam, collaborate on an excellent summary of various religious movements and institutions desultory participation in the Egyptian protest movement:

The Salafist movement condemned the protests; the Muslim Brothers first retreated, then got sucked in by the dynamism of the dispute, then tried to open up a negotiation process which the demonstrators, bolder in their demands, didn't want. Though that was not necessarily the position of all Egyptians, many of whom would have settled for a compromise, with Mubarak running the transition and the demand for democracy postponed until the next elections: the voice of the street isn't necessarily the will of the people. The Islamist groups were without doubt the most detached. Among these, various parts of the Salafist movement condemned the demonstrators very clearly from the time of the first appeals.

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Crisis Group: Egypt Victorious?

The first Crisis Group report on Egypt's revolution is out. An excerpt from the executive summary:

This was a popular revolt. But its denouement was a military coup, and the duality that marked Hosni Mubarak’s undoing persists to this day. The tug of war between a hierarchical, stability-obsessed institution keen to protect its interests and the spontaneous and largely unorganised popular movement will play out on a number of fronts – among them: who will govern during the interim period and with what competencies; who controls the constitution-writing exercise and how comprehensive will it be; who decides on the rules for the next elections and when they will be held; and how much will the political environment change and open up before then?

Shukri: Mazel Tov, Egypt!

Israelis, you need to read this: your government has done you one more disservice with its pro-Mubarak position during Egypt's crisis. Ezzedine Shukri, who knows your country well, highlights its mistakes

First, Egypt's revolution has been about Egyptian affairs only, with almost no reference to foreign policy. No one was chanting death to the US or to Israel. The dominant themes were related to freedom, social justice and dignity. Egyptians who took to the streets in millions were expressing their rejection of an ossified regime which ignored their concerns for decades. It is somehow miraculous that no one tried to capitalize on the ‘Palestinian cause' or ‘anti-American' sentiments. People ignored these issues; why Israeli leaders injected themselves into the story and brought undue attention upon themselves is a mystery to me.

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The US, Egypt, Israel and the revolution(s)

One of the big media memes of the toppling of Hosni Mubarak is what it means for Israel and US policy in the region (which for the last 20 years has largely been about Israel). Some see a huge change coming, with the idea being that the poor, vulnerable Jewish state will once again be at the mercy of bloodthirsty Arabs who, deprived of tough leadership, will revert to their irrational hatred of all things Semitic. 

Well, hold on to your horses. First of all, a lot of this meme is based on the idea that Israel is weak and helpless, which might justify insane amounts of money spent on it by US taxpayers but simply isn't true. Israel has probably one of the top five armies in the world, is perfectly capable to defend itself in the unlikely event of an Egyptian attack (because that worked out so well for the Egyptians before) and, rather scarily, has both a massive nuclear arsenal and a gnawing inferiority complex fed by guilt at having rather nasty policies towards its non-Jewish neighbors. Secondly, Egyptians have have other problems right now.

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On Lara Logan and Egypt

I wrote a piece for the Daily Beast yesterday trying to put the sad attack on CBS correspondent Lara Logan in context. (Logan was reportedly "beaten and sexually assaulted" by a crowd the night Egyptians were celebrating Mubarak's resignation). 

A lot of US coverage has been, as far as I can tell, insensitive, sensationalistic or ridiculous (or some combination thereof). I have read incredibly inhumane comments focused on Logan's good looks; her supposed naivete in going into the crowds (never mind that she was just doing her job); and the ways in which she will supposedly milk this for her career (yeah, I wish it had happened to me, what a great way to advance). 

Then there are those who have taken this incident as an excuse to trot out their (non-existent) knowledge of the status of women in Islamic countries. Ironically, even as some right-wing commentators say Logan should have expected this in a country full of Muslim "savages," they reveal the misogyny of American culture by looking for ways to blame the victim of a sexual attack. 

Anyway, what happened to Logan is terrible--and it highlights the problem of sexual harassment in Egypt, which Egyptian women have been fighting for some time now. They may make more progress now that so many of them participated so fully in, and felt so empowered by, their country's revolution.

Revolution and Counter-revolution in the Media

I have an article in MERIP looking at the communication networks and strategies that the protesters and the government in Egypt each used during their standoff. Here's a bit from the intro:

In the tense and unpredictable days between January 28 and February 11, when Mubarak stepped down, the mood of the TV-watching Egyptian public veered from support of the protesters’ demands to a desire to return to normalcy to sympathy with the beleaguered president and back again. To a large extent, the contest of wills between a spontaneous, grassroots movement and an entrenched authoritarian regime became a battle of words and images, in which issues of national authenticity were paramount and modes of communication vital. Who could legitimately claim to speak for Egypt? Who could not? The protesters and the government debated these questions through very different means -- the former using free-wheeling, peer-to-peer, mostly digital networks, the latter with top-down announcements through channels over which they retain exclusive control.

(On a side note: I hold a deep and personal grudge against some of the state TV announcers who with their incitement put protesters and foreign journalists like myself in serious physical danger. They're all still there, even as state channels have completely jumped on the "youth revolution" bandwagon, and all the footage they wouldn't show during the protests is suddenly being used to make patriotic montages. They should be fired.)

A transition plan

The big question on everyone's mind in Egypt is, what next? The army, with its cryptic SMS messages and series of communiqués, is not exactly great at communicating. Although it pledges a return to civilian government, some changes in the current caretaker cabinet, constitutional reform and elections in about six months, there are a lot of unanswered details.

This is why there are so many proposals for what to do next floating around, something the military will need to closely listen to. Here's one from a coalition of human rights groups that's an excellent start (and in fact some steps, such as the dissolution of parliament, have already taken place.)

Long live the Egyptian popular revolution

The dictator has fallen; now it’s time to bring down the police state

Roadmap for a nation of rights and the rule of law

Statement by the Forum of Independent Human Rights Organizations

12 February 2011

  • Civilian body to oversee the country’s affairs for a one-year transitional period, in conjunction with the armed forces, and the postponement of presidential elections.
  • Dissolution of the People’s Assembly, Shura Council, and local councils.
  • Civilian figure to oversee the Interior Ministry and the dissolution of State Security Investigations, a crucial pillar of the police state.
  • The provision of public liberties, particularly the freedom to establish political parties, professional and trade unions, and civic organizations; and the dissolution of the Egyptian Trade Union Federation and the General Federation of Civic Associations.
  • A new constitution for a civil, democratic state that respects human rights and grants all citizens equal status regardless of religion, belief, or race.
  • No provision of legal immunity for the former president.  
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Postcard from Herzliya

Matt Duss writes in the Nation about the annual regional security conference in Herzliya, outside Tel Aviv, where the Israel national security establishment and American neo-conservatives talk shop. This year, Egypt was a big topic:

As a result of the revolution in Egypt, a key theme that emerged at the conference was hostility to Arab democracy and the assumption that it would bring only chaos and danger for Israel—a mantra that also exposed a division between Israeli neoconservatives and some of their American comrades. “In the Arab world, there is no room for democracy,” Israeli Major General Amos Gilead told a nodding audience. “This is the truth. We prefer stability.” Former Israeli Ambassador to the US Zalman Shoval scoffed that George W. Bush’s freedom agenda’s “principle accomplishment seems to be the victory of Hamas in Gaza.” Boaz Ganor, the executive director of the IDC’s International Institute for Counter-Terrorism, warned, “When these people [Arabs] vote, they are voting for what Coca-Cola calls the real thing and that is fundamentalism.” Shmuel Bar, Director of Studies at the IDC’s Institute of Policy and Strategy, declared that the US had “become an agent of revolutionary change in the Middle East, at the expense of stability.”

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