The Arabist

The Arabist

By Issandr El Amrani and friends.

Revolution and Despair

I have great respect for Asef Bayat's work and there are insights in this essay published on Mada Masr, but I find it hard reading on a day when people are being chased and killed in Cairo for celebrating the anniversary of the January 25 uprising:

Truth be told, there is a limit as to how much states, even authoritarian ones, can control societies without turning totalitarian, such as the likes of Communist East Germany where the secret police Stasi kept files on one third of the total population. There are ironically more favorable spaces to pursue this strategy, ["active citizenship"] in such settings as Egypt, than under the liberal democratic states like the US, where the apparatuses of surveillance, legal or technical, seem to be much more pervasive and detailed than our repressive but soft states. In our region, there remain vast informal sociascapes, the free zones within which alternative norms counter to state logic may be instituted. Eric Garner, the black American who was apprehended and choked to death by a police officer, was selling cigarettes illegally on the streets of New York City. Millions of Eric Garners work on the streets of Middle Eastern cities informally and illegally without states being able to do much about them.   
Informal life, the relations and institutions that lie at the margin of state control, make up a vast swath of social existence, where some of the most creative (as well as anti-social) endeavors take shape, as shown in the circles of family, kin members, friends, or among those who operate in the localities, communities, and informal worksites. Spaces from among the art world, intellectual circles, book publishing, cultural production, new social media, independent journalism, legal and architecture profession, or social work may produce alternative speech and unorthodox ways of being and doing things. Even the state-regulated institutions such as schools, colleges, municipalities, neighborhood associations, city councils, student clubs, workers’ unions, and professional syndicates often turn, by critical and creative users, into spaces where some of the core social and political values are contested.
Active citizenry of this sort, in the meantime, is bound to subvert the ability of the authoritarian state to govern, because the state usually rules not from above or outside the society, but from within, by weaving its logic — through norms, relations, and institutions — into the social fabric. Challenging those norms, relations, and institutions would by definition diminish the state’s legitimacy and impair its ability to govern. In fact, active citizenry could go even further to possibly impel and even acclimatize the state to behave in line with the values that subaltern citizens may cultivate in society. No wonder the prohibition law in the US looked absurd when by the early 1930s so many citizens were unlawfully consuming alcohol; the law had to change. The absurdity of preventing women from driving should be clear even to the Saudi rulers who cannot help  but see women as capable of doing more or less what men can. An authoritarian state cannot govern with peace and for long a democratic citizenry.

But who says the state has or will govern "with peace"? And disturbed as one may be by surveillance and policing in the United States, isn't it ridiculous to argue that there is more space to oppose and organize in Egypt?

I appreciate the desire to offer some encouragement to Egyptian citizens who supported January 25, and I agree that it is important to keep thinking of how to be active, even under these terrible circumstances (the site Mada Masr itself is a great example of this). I also agree that we are not just back to the old days -- there was a huge rupture, and even if the hopes it raised were defeated, the repressive techniques employed to achieve this (media propaganda; Saudi subsidies; massive repression; a shameful politicization of the judiciary) are destabilizing and seemingly untenable in the long-term. But I take a much darker view of the kind of days we're in. People used to say that the revolution had brought down the wall of fear and it could never be back up; I think the army and police have done a great reconstruction job. Virtually every institution in Egypt is worse off than it was four years ago; a big segment of society has been complicit -- out of fear, ignorance, self-interest -- with the falsification of its own history and with granting impunity for state injustice and violence. 

One also cannot assume -- as a certain school of academic writing does -- that every bit of economic informality is an act of political subversion or active citizenship. Is there any evidence that informal vendors in Cairo are challenging the norms of society (rather than replicating them by, say, harassing women and taking the state's side against protesters?). Let's not romanticize the margins and the people who live there. The fact that they are resourceful and determined to scrape together a living or navigate a corrupt, repressive state is not a victory -- it's normal human behavior, and it's a waste (think what they could accomplish if given better, fairer chances). Keeping big swaths of the population on the margins -- invisible and illegal -- is an effective strategy of social and political control. The avenues for active citizenship are violently barred. 

I was moved by this reflection by Yasmine El Rifae on memory and violence in Egypt these days:

The gunmen and their bosses have made it clear that unauthorized memory will not be tolerated. Neither will grief. Public language, thought, and opinion is either legal or illegal, patriotism or treason.
What we have been authorized to do is to spend a week mourning the death of Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah, whose Wahabi tradition teaches those in grief not to demonstrate it in public. Perhaps the regime would prefer this of us.
We have been authorized to mention the word “martyr” in the context of January 25 as long as we agree that what they died for is what lies in front of us. We can speak of Egypt’s youth in the context of political participation, meaning participation in parliamentary elections. We have not yet been authorized to speak about the dead of June 30 and its bloody summer in any tone other than gratitude.
Ursula Lindsey