Guest Author: Samuli Schielke
Today is the last day of the Coptic month of Amshir, a month that is known for stormy and unpredictable weather, bringing cold weather in one day and heat in another, rain in the morning and sun in the afternoon. (For practical purposes, the Coptic solar calendar has since long been replaced by the Gregorian calendar in Egypt, but agricultural calendar and common wisdom about weather changes stick to the Coptic months.) If we want to use a seasonal metaphor for Egypt after the January 25 Revolution, Amshir is certainly more appropriate than the awful “Arab spring” that was invented by western media and has also been appropriated in Arabic usage.
I returned to Egypt in mid-February, or early Amshir, entering a season of unpredictable and bad weather, as well as bad nerves and general worry, and most importantly a sense of disorientation. People far from political activism have lost much of their early enthusiasm and express fear of crime and insecurity – not without a reason, for violent crime has sensibly increased in the past months. Revolutionaries sense that the revolution has been stolen or lost. Protesters shortly filled the squares in great numbers in a new show of strength on 25 January 2012, but soon thereafter the massacre at the football stadium in Port Said and an ongoing campaign against NGOs and anti-military public media figures has shown that the situation has become rather worse than better. The two Islamist parties that gained an overwhelming majority of the parliament have quickly began to lose their aura of piety in the ordinary business of politics. The military council continues to rule the country with much brutality, and yet it has lost most of the credibility and authority it once had also in the eyes of those who do not support the revolutionary movement.
There is a shakiness of everything, a nervous disorientation and expectation of things to come, with shifting moods between hope and a sense of impending doom – underlined by the rapid changes of weather, days of beautiful sunshine and others of pouring rain and cold wind that compel people to stay home and wrap themselves with blankets for the lack of heating.
The inhabitants of Alexandria say that they love the rain and storms of the city. Rainy weather clears the air and gives it a fresh, pleasant taste. Empty lots of land otherwise bare are covered by a thick growth of weeds and flowers. Wet streets glimmer, and there is a sort of magic in the air. But when one tries to meet somebody in Alexandria on a rainy day, people cancel their appointments and tell that they are not going out as long as it rains.
Looking back at things I have written on this blog since the beginning of the revolution, I notice that over and again I have stated that things are contradictory, that some things are getting better and others worse, and many things are getting better and worse at once. Success and failure go hand in hand, as do frustration and action. This shifting, contradictory nature of things and emotions is indeed a characteristic feature of the entire revolutionary period that began in January 2011, a season of emotional, political, and societal Amshir. And just like the ways in which the Alexandrine deal with stormy weather are contradictory, so are the ways in which Egyptians relate to their revolutionary experience.
The sense of freedom that overwhelmed the country since January 2011, the now proverbial “breaking the knot of fear”, has in practice meant an emboldenment that has made life both better and worse. It has opened paths for open expression of political discontent, for a flourishing cultural life, for the rise of Islamist movements to political power, for rapid construction of houses on the scarce agricultural land, for a crime wave, and for good business opportunities for those who have the nerves and wits to seize the day.
F., a man around thirty from a provincial town in the Nile Delta, returned from Sharm el-Sheikh some months ago where he worked as a sales representative for safaris. The Bedouins, the original inhabitants of the Sinai who have profited very little from tourism, have made themselves increasingly independent first from the state, and eventually even from their own tribal leaders. There have been shootouts and kidnappings that have seriously affected tourism. F. had never considered tourism a job with a future, and with a friend he invested his savings to open the first up-market coffee shop in his home town, in style similar to those where the affluent of Cairo and Alexandria gather – only with much cheaper prices. F. doesn’t hold much of the revolution. He says: “People want to have everything at once, as if it that was possible. They don’t realise that things change step by step, and one has to work for it. The customers in the coffeeshop hang around there telling: ‘Down with military rule!’ until early morning but do nothing. They don’t search for work or try to build a future.” F. holds the military council for responsible for all the disasters and massacres that Egypt has gone through in the past months but sees little point in open resistance against them. He argues that the military leadership is corrupt and rich and determined to fight with all brutality to hold it, but picking a fight with them will make it only worse. But while critical of the revolutionaries, he is very well aware that the revolution is a golden chance to make a lucky break. Many people don’t want to invest at the moment, and prefer to wait and see. But F. argues that in a revolutionary time, those who can seize the moment win, and those who wait lose. And business is in fact going very well. While everybody talks these days about the difficult economical situation, F. says that people are actually very happy to consume, and his coffee shop is full every night. While F. is critical of the revolution, and suspicious of Egyptians being capable of democracy and freedom, he seems to be one of the winners, one of those who knew to seize the day.
One of truly tangible successes of the revolution has been a tremendous wave of cultural and artistic activity. Theatres, lectures, concerts, and exhibitions are crowded, and the past year and so has brought new styles of music and art into wider circulation. Y, listening to a new political song on his mobile phone, commented to me in this regard: “The two, and only two accomplishments of the revolution are in music, and in arts. There is so much music, good music, different music these days. And there is all the art in the streets.” There is the art of the revolutionary graffiti, most prominently produced by people from the artist scene on the walls of Tahrir Square and Muhammad Mahmoud Street in Cairo, but much more widely produced by football ultras around the country. There are the many singers and bands like Rami Essam, Cairokee, Iskenderella and many others who have connected revolutionary attitude with the sound of the guitar, with rap, or with a revival of the 1970’s style of protest songs in a way that has significantly expanded the musical taste of many people in Egypt. At the same time, however, this explosive flourishing of arts and music has become a distinctive marker of a revolutionary attitude, and as such also a problem.
AA., one of the young leftist revolutionaries from the village in the Nile Delta who organised a cleanup campaign and a meeting with the village mayor in February and March last year, confronted me yesterday with a self-critique of the revolutionaries’s isolation and inability to reach out to the wider majority of people. “We are so good at arguing, and understand the situation and can analyse it well, but why are we not able to convince ordinary people although they otherwise seem so easily influenced?” The campaign in the village eventually failed, he says, because the activists were not able to gain a popular base that would extend beyond a group of mostly young men, most of them with higher education and living most of the year outside the village. AA., too, lives in Alexandria and only comes to the village on weekends. Relating to the downtown cultural scene of Alexandria which we both frequent, he wonders why it is that a leftist political attitude so often also comes along with a style: guys with beard and long hair, girls smoking imported rolling tobacco, and people wearing Palestinian kufiyas when going to a demonstration. “What do long hair, rolling tobacco, and kufiyas have to do with being revolutionary? And yet I, too, put on a kufiya when I go to a demonstration.” AA. thinks that the development of a revolutionary attitude hand in hand with a revolutionary style and jargon has the detrimental effect of making it in fact more difficult for the left wing revolutionaries to reach out to the people. The spread of a revolutionary habitus in the shape of music, kufiyas, etc. certainly has reached people across class and educational backgrounds, creating a space for creative expressions of a politically and socially critical attitude. But at the same time it has become a distinctive marker of that attitude (very much in the sense of Bourdieu’s theory of habitus, taste, and distinction), and as such it is by nature exclusive. The pop rock of Cairokee has become the sound of a revolutionary attitude among many who did not have a liking for such sound (or such attitude) before, but it is not the music that one would ever hear in a minibus, in a toktok, or in a popular wedding.
[Edit 10 March: An important correction regarding this point: Jakob Lindfors just wrote to me and says that most of the music I mention in this note is very commercial and close to establishment, and that I have completely ignored the politically uncontrollable and quite anti-system wave of popular music called Mahragan which is not played on the tv channels or included in the official soundscape of the revolution. Songs about Port Said, about burning police stations on 28 Feb. etc. It is the sound of the popular youth, the music one does hear in a toktok or in a popular wedding. So I think I was wrong about this. There is no lack of serious revolutionary music on the street level, but there is a lack of awareness and appreciation of it even in many of the revolutionary cicrles. Great music, too, btw./Edit)
The biggest contradictions and uncertainties concern the very issue of revolution itself. Was it a good or bad thing? Was it successful or did it fail? Was it really a revolution? Yesterday evening, some of the village revolutionaries gathered again in S’s guest room in his home in the village. In this circle, much as in circles of leftist and liberal revolutionaries in Alexandria, there was a sense of failure, even impending doom. There is good reason for that sense. A number of public media figures are facing charges for incitements against the state and the military at a military court. Egyptian employees of NGO’s are still facing charges in court after foreign citizens accused in the case were allowed to leave the country following a diplomatic deal that has become a major justice scandal in Egypt. Revolutionaries are facing insults and accusations of being foreign agents, traitors, and infidels. H. is one of the handful of village revolutionaries who lives full-time in the village, working for very little pay in a call shop. His key revolutionary experience was his participation in the street battles of Muhammad Mahmoud Street in November. Frustrated about how little the village revolutionaries were capable of accomplishing, he wonders: “Was the revolution successful, or did it fail? The problem is that it was neither successful nor did it fail. Was there a revolution in the first place? If there was one, it was stolen.” He is contradicted by M.A., an older Marxist teacher, who argues: “Revolutions are not to be measured by their success and failure, because a revolution is an explosive event, and as such fundamentally unpredictable. The very fact that we are sitting here and talking about revolution is proof that there was one. And the attacks that we face are also sign of our success. There can be no revolution without enmity and struggle.” The others in the circle are not so keen to share M.A.’s positive assessment of the situation; they have expected more tangible successes.
Both have a valid point. On short term, the revolution has brought a very brutal and incompetent military government into power, and on middle term, it is bringing the much more competent but fundamentally authoritarian Muslim Brotherhood into power. At the same time, the revolutionary movement has most likely successfully prevented the consolidation of military rule, which seemed quite keen on taking a more permanent hold of power by last summer, but has become dramatically discredited since then. The military rule over Egypt that began in 1952 is causing terrible havoc on its final metres, but it is effectively coming to an end (although that end is likely to take several years to complete). What comes after the stormy changes of revolutionary and counter-revolutionary turns during a year and half of emotional Amshir, is a different question. It may or may not be better. The revolutionary faction will not rule the country for the next few years the come, and it probably never will, except at the cost of selling out its own principles. However, if they are able to even partly overcome their social limitations, and if they are able to defend themselves against violent suppression, they will be a crucial oppositional and critical power that will rule indirectly by compelling those in power to reckon with them.
E., a cultural activist from Alexandria’s leftist intellectual scene, says that this has in fact already taken effect. “The people in Egypt now curse the revolutionaries and the revolution, because Egyptians always curse those in power. By cursing the revolution, they recognise it as in fact being in charge.”
Samuli Schielke is a research fellow at Zentrum Moderner Orient (ZMO), Berlin. His research focusses on everyday religiosity and morality, aspiration and frustration in contemporary Egypt. In 2006 he defended his PhD Snacks and Saints: Mawlid Festivals and the Politics of Festivity, Piety and Modernity in Contemporary Egypt at the University of Amsterdam, Faculty of Social and Behavioural Sciences. During his stay in Cairo at the time of the protests at Tahrir Square he maintained a diary. This article was also published on his blog.
Samuli Schielke wrote earlier: