Golia: Making resistance work

Maria Golia, author of Cairo: City of Sand, wonders in this latest dispatch why two years of street protests have achieved so little and rallied so few -- a question on many of our minds.

Egyptians surely rank amongst the most patient and non-confrontational of peoples. But every now and then they get fed up and explode. It happened in 1952 as a result of colonial tensions coupled with the inaction of an opulent monarchy. While King Farouk feted his son’s birthday, enraged mobs stormed the streets of downtown Cairo, laying them to waste. It happened again in 1977, when Sadat raised the price of bread, misjudging his grip on a disillusioned populace, triggering nationwide riots that forced him to back down. When will it happen again?


The list of grievances plaguing average Egyptians is long, but let’s run through it once more, literally for the hell of it: a cynical regime; ostentatious upper-class; malignant unemployment; derisively underpaid workers denied the right to strike; price hikes that make a further mockery of the pittance they earn; widespread overcrowding in under-serviced homes; religious and state restrictions that squelch all manner of self-expression; poor primary education and health care; off-the-scale pollution and environmental devastation. Add anger and humiliation as an impotent world stands by and watches the destruction of Lebanon, alongside that of Palestine and Iraq.

No point asking, ‘where are the Arabs?’ meaning Arab leaders. Everyone knows they’re in their palaces hedging their bets. Although the oil card they collectively hold - if wisely played - virtually trumps all others, and could conceivably provoke a bloodless revolution that would redress a global power imbalance and place the world, in the eleventh hour of its need, on a healing track towards alternative energy – they squabble and dither. Their attention is instead directed towards stifling every trace of dissent issuing from justifiably outraged citizens.

It is truly soul-curdling to watch riot and plainclothes police line up to discipline other Egyptians for sympathizing with fellow Arabs and condemning, as all people of conscience must, Israel’s deplorable use of force and America’s sickening support of it. Time after time, a few hundred brave souls assemble, only to be bullied by a few thousand police.

A more useful question at this juncture is where are the Egyptians, 70 million of them? Why, under the weight of such misery, has a resistance failed to coalesce? Why do demonstrations remain pitifully small? Why aren’t people thronging the squares? God knows, they agree that what they are seeing, indeed living, is terribly wrong. Why aren’t they striking en masse, bringing the country’s meager enterprise to its knees, not to beg for war but to demand - once and for all – better lives, justice and peace?

The likeliest reasons are fear and fatigue. No one wants to get their head bashed in, especially on a hot day, an empty stomach and in-between shifts of demeaning jobs. More importantly, the Egyptians’ time-honored weapons are wit and fortitude. Sadly, the latter is no longer enough, and the former is presently lacking.

Egypt’s opposition movements need to find new formulas for peaceful dissent that outmaneuver state security. Small demonstrations, plus a large police presence, equals photos of police brutality, something we’ve seen enough before. Such images do not advance the opposition, they simply frighten people away. The point of protests is to build solidarity; the trick is to offer ways for people to publicly express opinions and find not only safety, but strength, in numbers. To do this, however, organizers have to start thinking outside the blockade.

Aside from re-assessing the location and conduct of demonstrations, given the constraints of martial law, more subversive tactics are required. The annals of resistance offer varied suggestions but on a basic level, a color linked with the movement that everyone wears, could serve as an identifying mark, a statement of intent. Only when people are able to partake in group action, and see signs that their daring is shared (not to mention feel good about themselves for speaking up) will they gain confidence and therefore power as their numbers grow.

Large-scale peaceful protest works. Granted, Egypt has no Gandhi, no Martin Luther King, or at least such individuals have yet to come forth. But people have plenty of big, common problems. It is precisely for this reason the country is so assiduously policed.
The state cannot openly admit that by forbidding political participation, legal strikes and protests, it has created the conditions for a potentially explosive mob. But the overwhelming police presence and brutal handling of demonstrations inadvertently admits just that; things could indeed get out of hand.

By deploying thousands of cops to curb a handful of citizens, the state is not showcasing its strength but betraying its fears and its weakness. Violence and violent repression –state sponsored or otherwise - is always a sign of weakness, a failure of intelligence, imagination, compassion and restraint, qualities that should distinguish us from animals but seldom do.

Today’s opposition may be in its early stages, compared to those that ousted the British and the French. But now as then, Egypt has the makings of a formidable resistance – as the country’s inertia proves. From Egypt’s leaden bureaucracy, to its low-grade economic growth, to the derelict condition of cities, towns and countryside, people perform halfheartedly because so little of their effort accrues them any good. Sooner or later this great and thwarted energy will have to be directed - not towards mayhem or Qur’an waving - but a concerted, popular movement that can restore people’s dignity by providing them a platform from which to demand and win their rights.
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Issandr El Amrani

Issandr El Amrani is a Cairo-based writer and consultant. His reporting and commentary on the Middle East and North Africa has appeared in The Economist, London Review of Books, Financial Times, The National, The Guardian, Time and other publications. He also publishes one of the longest-running blog in the region, www.arabist.net.