Sixty-two hours in Cairo – The Feminist Wire

Sixty-two hours in Cairo

By Adam John Waterman

For Beth Cleary and Peter Rachleff

The history of civilization which began in Egypt was not so much a matter of dynasties and dates. It was an attempt to solve certain problems of living together—of government, defense, religion, family, property, science, and art. What we must remember is that in these seven lines of human endeavor, it was African Egypt that made the beginning and set the pace. —W.E.B. DuBois, The World and Africa

It is more pleasant and useful to go through the “experience of revolution” than to write about it.  —Lenin, 30 November 1917

Everyone wants to talk about the camels. “Can you believe they brought camels to Tahrir?” I’ve been in Cairo less than two hours and I’ve already heard at least three stories about the day, February 2, when pro-Mubarak supporters swept through Tahrir Square, attacking demonstrators with makeshift clubs, astride camels and horses. Three days before, on January 30, Mubarak had ordered the Egyptian air force to fly its American-manufactured F-16s low over central Cairo, an obvious attempt at staunching the demonstrations through threat of military engagement.  As we talk through the events of that first week, however, this is not what anyone wants to discuss. “The camels came from Giza,” one person volunteers, “because the revolution scared away all the tourists.” Another friend tells a slightly different tale. “Egyptian state TV was reporting that Tahrir was occupied by Afghan guerillas and that they were handing out Kalashnikovs. My brother rushed there to fight the Afghans because he’s a patriotic Egyptian. He didn’t know what was really happening until later. Then he joined the resistance.” Several people I speak with conflate the events of this day, February 2, with those of January 28, the “Friday for Martyrs and Political Prisoners.” January 28 began with the nation-wide Internet crackdown, saw police attacks on demonstrators following the Friday prayer, and ended with Mubarak’s National Democratic Party headquarters in flames. The camels didn’t show up for nearly a week. Nonetheless, at least one person recalled them making their first appearance on January 28, and—in his memory—it was decisive. “It was after they came with the camels that we attacked the police. It was after the camels that we knew that we were going to win.”

Memorial to the martyrs of January 25 (Tahrir Square, morning, 25 February 2011)

Borges got it wrong, as did Gibbon. “Will they not then consider the camels, how they are created? And the sky and how it is raised? And the mountains and how they are constructed? And the earth and how it is built?” The Quran poses these questions, in Surah 88, as part of a meditation on the perfection of the creation and its mystery, a plea for reason, and for humility. We can contemplate the creation, it tells us, we can consider its symmetries, but we cannot unlock its secrets. This, however, is the challenge the Egyptian people now face. Of course, it is not the mysteries of the universe that they seek to unravel, but the workings of the world that, for thirty years, was built around them. In the tales people told of those first 18 days, they tried to make sense of just what had occurred, what it might tell them about the old regime, and what it suggests about the new world now being made—negotiated, contested and imagined—from Tahrir. In those stories, the camels often appeared as a leitmotif, an ironic counterpoint to the underlying drama of the unfolding struggle. In the Quran, the camel is a miracle, a creature so perfectly adapted to its conditions as to suggest God’s boundless love for his people. In Cairo, at present, the camel is light comedy, a Chaplin-esque satire on the pretentions of power.

When the camels appeared in Tahrir Square, for many, they signaled not just the impotence of the Mubarak regime as it squared off with the demonstrators, but the utter implausibility of his reign. With a dedicated apparatchik and a handful of police, for thirty years, Mubarak ruled Egypt like a schoolyard bully, fending off challengers through threat and intimidation, living in fear of direct confrontation. As Egyptians told me about that first week, from January 25 to February 2, I came to realize that, for many, the appearance of the camels marked the moment that Mubarak was exposed, the true aspect of his power revealed. When the camels swept through Tahrir on February 2, everyone saw the emperor, and they saw he was naked.

Thirteen days after Hosni Mubarak was chased from office, the people I met were still coming to terms with this fact. For many, it seemed difficult to accept that Mubarak’s power was largely totemic. The median age of the population in Egypt is twenty-four—some estimates suggest that nearly seventy-five percent of Egyptians are under the age of thirty—which means that the vast majority cannot remember an Egypt before Mubarak. As much as they wanted to be rid of the man, for many of the people I spoke with, even after the fact, the idea of an Egypt without Mubarak seemed almost implausible. Like many an impotent potentate, Mubarak had long claimed to be the embodiment of the nation, itself.

What would happen to the country when he was no longer in power? Over the last eighteen days of his rule, Mubarak and his functionaries offered different answers to this question, at one point suggesting that, without his leadership, Egypt would descend into chaos. “Mubarak told us that the Americans would have to intervene,” I hear from one source. “If he left, he said there would be fighting, and the U.S. would come in.” When I first encountered this line, on Al Jazeera around February 3, I assumed that Mubarak was triangulating, shoring up support among some imagined base by playing to reasonable fears of American invasion, while cornering Washington on the question of aid. In Cairo, however, the Egyptians I spoke with heard a different message: Without me, you are nothing. Without me, you will cease to exist.

For many Egyptians, even those in the resistance, Mubarak’s rhetoric played upon a genuine fear. Yet, for all Mubarak’s paternalistic bluster, after his fall Egypt remained. In Cairo, many people seemed genuinely surprised that it had, and they treated it as something of a paradox. Everything had changed, but just what had changed?

When I arrived in Cairo, the people I spoke with were trying to take the measure of what had occurred, to articulate the distance they had traveled in little less than a month. “Nothing much has happened since you were last here,” one person told me. “We got rid of the president.” This was meant as a joke, but it was also an apt description of what it felt like to be on the ground, even among the celebrations marking the one-month anniversary of the revolution. Leaving Tahrir on the night of February 25, I was approached by a man who explained to me that everyone was excited because they had finally rid themselves of their president, as if it were possible to have missed this development. “How do you think Egypt has changed?” someone asked, later, over beers at Café Stella. My tentative answer was that everyone seemed less depressed, that people seemed genuinely excited, their joy infectious. This seemed a wholly inadequate description of the situation, but it was one with which most everyone agreed. “A year ago, everyone was angry. No one knew what to do. You couldn’t say anything for fear of the secret police. People would disappear, and there was nothing anyone could do about it.” Now we talk openly and loudly about the Egypt that might yet be. “We will fight for everyone to have part of the whole. We believe in meritocracy, but everyone deserves security and comfort.”

At least part of the difficulty in evaluating what has happened in Egypt might be chalked up to the peculiar dynamics of the Egyptian uncanny. Egypt is both “Egypt,” an elaborate commercial spectacle acted out for largely Western consumers, and Misr, a living society that composes the most populous and perhaps most important Arabic-speaking nation on earth. In Cairo, under Mubarak, this doubling was itself reflected in the social life of the city. Cairo’s public culture has always been remarkably vibrant, with people crowding the streets at all hours of the day and night, crammed into teashops, interacting with each other in an almost baffling array of different languages. At least part of Mubarak’s power rested upon his ability, through the erratic application of police surveillance, to prevent this culture from realizing its potential as a political force. Perhaps the most immediate effect of the revolution has been to take off the brakes, to allow Cairo’s public spaces to become more fully realized sites of civic exchange. The conversations are as animated as ever, yet the subject matter has become weightier, if more varied.

One night, our debates focused upon events in Saudi Arabia, Yemen, and Libya, while veering between discussions concerning the misappropriation of oil revenues in North Africa, and the question of U.S. foreign policy in Palestine. At some point, along the way, we touched on the labor protests in Madison, Wisconsin. Near the end of the evening, someone moved into a disquisition on the importance of hashish to Egyptian culture, and the impact of its suppression under Mubarak. Aside from me, everyone at the table had a story about getting hauled into Egyptian police custody for some minor drug infraction. As people told their stories, sitting around a table at an outdoor café, at some point, someone lit a joint.

This is a small yet telling indication of what the revolution has meant at the level of everyday life. The revolution not only exposed Mubarak, it usurped the performative dimension of his political power, restoring it to the people from whom it was taken. As Kenyan author and playwright Ngugi wa’Thiongo has argued, much of the power of an autocratic state rests upon its theatricality, such that arts and culture become significant sites of contestation over the future of social and political life.  Much of what happened during the first week of the revolution might be understood in these terms, with the regime struggling to maintain the illusion of its coherence and indomitability through various performances of power, and the crowds in Tahrir, and elsewhere around Egypt, projecting their power through various modes of performative address. Some of these performances have been very obvious. Since the beginning of the revolution, people have made ever more creative use out of the symbols of national identity, with the popular reconfiguration of the flag being perhaps the most obvious example. Women and girls now don red, white and black spangled hijabs; boys wear red, white and black football wigs in various styles; street merchants sell homemade flags, stitched from cheap nylon; enterprising young artists roam the streets with small pots of red, white and black tempera, painting faces in a wide array of increasingly intricate patterns. Through such gestures, individuals have sought to occupy the largely notional constructs, the legal fictions, of the people and the nation—both of which were crucial to the rhetorical strategies of the Mubarak regime—claiming them as their own.

Burt-out NDP headquarters, center; unfinished Ritz-Carlton, right (Qasr al-Nil Bridge, afternoon, 25 February 2011)

Perhaps less obvious, however, have been the assertions of such theatricality in small, everyday acts that now punctuate daily life. Walking across the Qasr al-Nil Bridge, on February 25, I was confronted by a young man, railing at me—in English and Arabic—about my complicity with the enemies of the revolution. By the time he was within striking distance, however, the diatribe had become a sales pitch, as he tried to sell me a t-shirt proclaiming the glory of January 25. This scenario repeated itself several times. Although these encounters were inevitably more playful than threatening, they were noteworthy, if only because they seemed so out of character in the typically genial space of central Cairo. Throughout Egypt, there is a vast informal economy that thrives on positive relations with tourists, which means that Egyptians are, as a general rule, enormously warm and welcoming, if only for reasons of economic expediency. (This description does Egyptian hospitality a disservice, yet it helps to account for its boundlessness, even in the face of personal anger or resentment.) For a foreigner to be treated with derision—of even the most mild, inconsequential sort—is extraordinarily rare. Given the events of the last month, it was tempting to read these exchanges as indexing an anti-American edge to the revolutionary movement, yet their comic undercurrents suggested something far less banal. These were young people who had just discovered their voice, and they were testing its power, trying to find the limits of its capacities. Together, they had made Hosni Mubarak leave. Now they wanted to figure out what else they could do.

Egyptian Museum, afternoon, 26 February 2011

They are still hard at work. About ten days ago, Egyptian media announced a tremendous victory for the revolution:  the dissolution of Amn Dawla, the hated State Security Investigations Service. Less than two weeks before, protesters stormed a State Security building in Nasr City to prevent police forces from destroying documents pertaining to the role of the organization in the crimes of the Mubarak regime. Since then, a group calling itself Amn Dawla Leaks has been circulating these documents online, in Arabic and English translation, via Twitter and Facebook. The revelations have been damning, but not altogether surprising.

One of the most significant “leaks” has concerned the role of Hosni Mubarak’s son, Gamal, in the 2005 Sharm el-Sheikh bombings, a series of suicide attacks that left some forty-five people dead. The documents show that these attacks were planned to damage or destroy property owned by Hussein Salem, a partner in the East Mediterranean Gas Company, because Gamal believed Salem responsible for a five percent reduction in his commission on recent Egypt-Israeli oil deals. While perpetrated by agents of the Egyptian security services, the attacks in Sharm el-Sheikh were later used as the pretense for increased surveillance and outright repression of Islamist organizations and Sinai Bedouin communities. Egyptians have long suspected that Mubarak’s government was behind many of the terror attacks by which it justified its special emergency powers. Now the proof is beginning to come to light.

The Egyptian people are making history, quite literally, and when it comes to the history of Egypt, this is no small undertaking. Projects like Amn Dawla Leaks are explicitly political, but they are also archival:  deliberate attempts at fashioning a new public narrative for the Egyptian people, while shaping future generations’ understandings of both the Mubarak regime and the present revolution. The revolution has now become the archive, just as Egyptian revolutionaries, through their actions, work to reconfigure the archive of the Egyptian state.

Gezira, Cairo, 25 February 2011

Every revolution is an act of world making, of course. In making a new world, however, every revolution is also an act of world ending, an eschatological force that puts the period to what has come before, while foreclosing the enormous improvisatory energies unleashed by its eventuality. The Egyptian revolution is far from over. Indeed, it has barely just begun. The revolution is imminent. It has suspended linear time. Egypt is now shot through with the possibilities of the here-and-now. Its potentialities have not yet resolved themselves into some concrete actuality. As such, in Egypt, the most mundane, everyday gestures are contributing to the emergence of new modes of sociality. This is the revolution at its most mundane and ineffable, the revolution at its most creative and most radical. This is the revolution that is, despite the pretenses of the transitional military council, now governing Egypt, the revolution that is identical with democracy itself.

It is worth lingering in this moment, registering its possibilities. As the political conversation in Egypt turns to the serious business of constitutional reform—and as the international community begins to involve itself, more immediately, in the events of the Arab Spring—it seems important to remember where we have been and where we might be going. Since the March 19 referendum in Egypt, and following fast upon western military intervention in Libya, many analysts have called upon the international community to take a more active role in Egyptian affairs, ostensibly to help facilitate the course of democratic reform. These self-anointed experts have cited concerns over the influence and intentions of the Muslim Brotherhood, yet the health of the Cairo-based Egyptian Exchange is no doubt equally compelling, particularly after the market saw a ten percent drop in its cumulative value only minutes after trading opened for the first time since January, on Wednesday, March 22. Prices fell, the BBC reports, because “investors are concerned by the damage to tourism and foreign investment caused by the political uncertainty and violence during the transition.” The irony, of course, is that the disorderliness of the revolution has never been much more than a Western fantasy, a charge by which it has attempted to intervene in events on the ground. The most overt acts of violence have been perpetrated by the defenders of the old regime, as well as those who seek to establish their authority over the revolutionary moment, to arrest its momentum and to establish “stability” by force of arms. When Western governments call for stability, it would seem to imply the negation of that mode of democracy already realized by the revolutionary movement, the negation of democracy as a way of life.

Egypt does not need stability of this sort. Indeed, the world can no longer afford stability of this sort. “Democracy is neither a form of government that enables oligarchies to rule in the name of the people, nor is it a form of society that governs the power of commodities,” Jacques Ranciere reminds us. It is, rather, “the action that constantly wrests the monopoly of public life from oligarchic governments, and the omnipotence over lives from the power of wealth.” Democracy, in other words, is not a name brand; it is a social force, one bent on the realization of justice. As western experts again convene to discuss the fate of the post-revolutionary Arab world, this is a lesson well worth remembering. When it comes to democracy, The West has very little to teach Egypt. Egypt, however, has much to teach The West.


Adam John Waterman is Fulbright Scholar-in-Residence at the Université d’Alger 2 in Algeria. He received his Ph.D. from New York University, where he was a MacCracken Fellow in the American Studies Program. His writing has appeared in Bidoun, Utne Reader, and make/shift, as well as numerous academic journals and anthologies. He can be reached at [email protected].