Revolutionizing Egypt by the Day: An Eyewitness Report

By Bob Wing and Hany Khalil

Veteran analyst Bob Wing and Egyptian-American activist Hany Khalil recently met with a dozen key revolutionaries and spoke with numerous people on Cairo’s streets, in the cafes and taxis, and in their homes.

Jan. 25: Cairo &#151 The political situation in Egypt is volatile, as all Egyptians and their organizations scramble to find their bearings following the unexpected but historic ousting of former dictator Hosni Mubarak.

Excitement and trepidation abound and colorful revolutionary graffiti fills the public space. New parties, alliances and campaigns are announced one day, only to disband the next. Strenuous debate about the order, rules and content of elections and a new constitution is at the forefront.

Suddenly everyone is a revolutionary and a democrat. But the “leaderless revolution” is still leaderless and thinly organized while the military, the temporary government and the Muslim Brotherhood retain great strength.

The Tunisian Revolution has the workers’ movement as a backbone; the Egyptian Revolution is still searching for an anchor.

18 Days That Shook the World

In the last few years, protests were growing in frequency, especially strikes. But the January 25 actions were called by new, loosely organized youth groups. The actions were unexpectedly transformed into a revolutionary movement by a spontaneous and massive rebellion of an aggrieved population.

The turning point came on Jan. 28 when “millions of demonstrators overwhelmed the stunned internal police security forces throughout the country and, shockingly, this long feared and well armed apparatus literally vanished overnight,” reports journalist and activist Ahmad Shokr.

The Muslim Brotherhood took up the call of the revolutionary youth, adding organized strength to the street actions, followed later by some unions and key professional groups. When the U.S. called for Mubarak to step down and the Egyptian military opted not to attack the demonstrators, the regime collapsed.

In eighteen days Egyptians dispatched from the stage of history one of the most longstanding regimes in the world, one backed to the hilt by the U.S. until its death throes. Unbeknownst to itself or anyone else, the Mubarak government had rotted to its core. One brief but powerful people’s hurricane blew it away.



ABOVE: from an entire wall of revolutionary art in the Tahrir Square subway station

Revolutionary Street Power

There was astonishingly little organization or political definition to the revolution other than calling for the ouster of Mubarak and his closest cronies. Slogans such as “Freedom, Justice, Dignity” ruled the day, but social and economic demands were very low profile. Ruefully we are told, “Everyone now claims to have been in Tahrir Square.”

At first it is baffling to hear many of the revolutionaries describe themselves as liberals. But we soon learned that liberal democracy is a revolutionary demand in a country that has been ruled by foreigners for two millennia and by military regimes for decades.

Still, a mad scramble to organize and develop further political coherence is now afoot. The Egyptian revolutionaries are struggling to retain their unity and expand amidst emerging new divisions over the future of the revolution.

“The strength of the revolution is its massive street presence: its political definition and organization lag far behind. However, no one knows how long the population will remain mobilized, so this is a very fragile situation,” says Sherif Alaa of the newly formed Free Egypt Party.

Youth as Vanguard

The key street mobilizers still appear to be the middle class youth groups, especially the April 6 Movement, We are All Khaled Said and the Revolutionary Youth Coalition.

The most recent huge action was held on May 27 in protest of continued political repression by the military and the temporary government. Half a million or more Egyptians thronged Tahrir Square despite the expressed opposition of the Muslim Brotherhood and the military.

The youth groups, like everyone else, are in a state of change and flux. Although they are the vanguard of revolutionary action, they are not necessarily radical in their socio-economic vision and have scant organized base.

Mohammed Adel of the April 6 Movement claims his group has an organized and active national membership of 7,000. It has launched a nationwide survey to clarify the people’s opinion about what should be in the new Constitution. April 6 is also trying to unite all the parties and groups behind the presumed presidential candidacy of Mohammed El-Baradei.

Adel believes “the key is to defeat the remnants of the old regime and to establish a transparent liberal political system.” April 6 and others project the remnants of the old regime, including the military, will tacitly back the expected presidential candidacy of Amr Moussa, the longtime foreign minister and Arab League president under Mubarak.

Importantly, some prominent intellectuals and activists, including We Are All Khaled Said just recently launched a “Poor First” campaign, marking the first major entry of class issues into the public debate. In a powerful post entitled “The Poor First, You Bastards,” Mohammed Abul Gheit argues that “the Egyptian revolution cannot be complete without social justice.”

Over the last three years more than 1.5 million workers have struck their employers. Perhaps they, along with the peasants and urban poor, may rise to the fore in the coming period.

Ferment in the Brotherhood

Meanwhile there is frenetic activity to form new political parties that can contest elections. According to veteran leftist and famed journalist Amina Shafik, “Mubarak successfully coopted, tamed or repressed all organized opposition during his reign. Parties that existed prior to the revolution were compromised to the point of now having no future, with the exception of the Muslim Brotherhood.”



ABOVE: Legendary journalist and activist, Amina Shafik

The Brotherhood is the only party that has wide name recognition let alone organization or mass support. It is a complex and diverse political coalition founded in 1928. Our interviewees estimate that if elections were held today, the Brotherhood would carry between 20 and 30 percent of the electorate.

However, the program and unity of the Brotherhood are increasingly strained by the new forces and ideas unleashed by the revolution. To address the new situation, the Brotherhood has set up the supposedly ecumenical Justice and Freedom Party with a Christian as Vice President.

Still, one of the Brotherhood’s well known leaders, Abdel-Moneim Abul Fotouh, and a significant section of its youth members have split off to form a more liberal, civic-based movement called the Egyptian Current.

Fotouh plans a presidential run while the Brotherhood has promised only to run parliamentary candidates.

The Brotherhood also lost credibility when it refused to back the massive May 27 demonstration. Since then it has been feverishly maneuvering to find its bearings and preserve its unity in the fast changing environment.

Two, Three, Many Parties

Mozn Hassan of Nazra for Feminist Studies told us, “The strongest new political trend appears to be the formation of liberal parties”&#151parties whose central demand is a transparent, liberal democratic political system but who do not advocate major social or economic change. She describes them as being in “fragile, incipient stages of development,” often largely confined to middle class intellectuals in Cairo.

Our interviewees estimate that the current combined electoral strength of all the parties to the left of the Brotherhood is considerably less than ten percent. Their most ardent partisans hope to gain one-third of the new parliament so that they could block any two-thirds votes by more conservative forces.

Perhaps the party with the most potential strength is the Free Egyptians Party. It was founded by Naguib Sawiris, a Coptic Christian who is one of the wealthiest people in Egypt. His vast empire includes a major newspaper and a leading television station. Sawiris reportedly has no presidential aspirations of his own, but he is rumored to have committed $10 million to build the new party.



ABOVE: Sign for unity of Muslims and Coptic Christians

Free Egyptians is noteworthy for its strong secularist position, which has won it the ire of the Brotherhood and especially the Salafists, the most radical Islamists. So far it has not advocated for any significant economic or social changes, other than ridding the current system of cronyism and corruption.

The Justice Party is another liberal party backed by some big businessmen. It also eschews major economic change and is considered conciliatory towards the Muslim Brotherhood.

The third main party is the Egyptian Social Democratic Party. It is trying to forge a center-left alternative that is similar to the European socialist parties but is apparently struggling to get off the ground.

In response to what some view as organizational weakness and a lack of internal democracy, a split recently occurred in the Social Democratic Party leading to attempts to build the Free Egypt Party led by Amr Hamzawi, a well known public intellectual.

There are two overtly left parties in formation, but both are considered much weaker than the center-left Social Democratic Party: the Laborer’s Party which is based in a few independent trade unions and has a significant Trotskyist component and the Popular Alliance Party, a new left unity electoral and organizing effort.

Constitution First?

Perhaps the biggest issue currently being debated is the order and relationship of drafting a new Constitution, electing a new Parliament and voting for a new President.

The Brotherhood and, tacitly, the military and temporary government backed a March 19 referendum calling for the parliament to be elected in September, for the parliament to then choose a constitutional drafting committee for popular approval, to be followed by a presidential election.

Despite virtually universal opposition from the principal secular revolutionary organizations and the Coptic Christian community (which constitutes about ten percent of the population), the apparently fair and free referendum carried more than sixty percent of the electorate. Some interpreted this as a vote for restabilization.

Undeterred, revolutionary coalitions have launched a petition campaign, a survey and a mass education campaign in favor of drafting the constitution ahead of elections. Apparently they fear that the Brotherhood and remnants of the old regime are much better organized and could capitalize on early elections.

“We prefer to emblazon the revolution in a new constitution before elections,” says Ahmed Fawzy of the Social Democratic Party. This might also allow the new parties to get organized.

However, cracks in this alliance are now appearing, as some are concerned that conservatives could also dominate a constitution which would be much harder to change than a president or a parliament.

Still others feel that the debate over the order of these processes is overshadowing discussion of the direction and content of the revolution.

In this respect, the Poor First and similar campaigns may be a salutary development both to add substance to the public debate and to rally the popular sectors.



ABOVE: Area dedicated to martyrs of the Revolution in Alexandria, Egypt

Breaking from the Script

In Sports & Political Fetish I discussed how when an urge is taboo, it may attach itself to something else. []

I talked about sports as an obvious example.

But what about less obvious examples? A highly counter-intuitive place to look for political fetish objects would be in the overt political sphere itself, but I believe it would be a mistake to not look there. Might we be so conflict-averse/conflict-suppressive that even within the context of overt political struggle, we send out signals that we do not intend to actually pose a threat or cause alarm to the established order? As a person who has thrown myself into the center of political struggles for the past 17 years, I believe that the answer is unequivocally yes. To fully break with the script between established power relationships, I believe, strikes terror in most people’s hearts. It is such a dangerous and unpredictable venture, that most people avoid it at all costs &#151 even most people who are involved in overt political struggle, most of the time. Instead we engage in a dance of mutual accommodation with the powers that be. We may even go so far as to engage in arrestable acts of civil disobedience&#151we may even go to jail and to court&#151but there is often even a script for that now.

Breaking from the script

In my years of activism and organizing, the moments I remember most vividly are those rare moments where we actually broke from the script. One clear collective moment was the shutdown of the World Trade Organization’s ministerial meetings on November 30, 1999. There on the streets of Seattle, thousands of people used tactics that had often seemed symbolic&#151we all knew “the drill” (we lock ourselves to something; cops and firefighters come and cut us out; we go to jail; we get out and pay a fine; repeat process)&#151and succeeded in actually preventing the meetings from starting. This tactical success, combined with activists’ remarkable success in popularly framing the issues, posed an actual problem&#151more than a minor inconvenience&#151for the powers-that-be. Things got real fast.

The possibility of that kind of dramatic break comes along rarely. But there are constantly opportunities in our daily lives for real political interventions. We tend to let them pass. That’s understandable, and probably even advisable most of the time. Actually challenging power and privilege is a dangerous ordeal. It makes a load of sense to be highly selective about how and when one does so. But it also makes sense to be clear about when one is actually doing so, and when one is accommodating the expectations of the powerful; when one is following the dominant script.

That script has grown to complex proportions, to the point that it can even include a visible part for an ineffectual activist character:

[Activist enters stage left, waves sign, makes noise, decries injustice. No one joins activist. Activist leaves stage left, wondering when audience will wake up.]

We need to recognize that there is indeed a part written for us, where we can express our identity as conscientious social justice-loving people&#151we are even free to “speak truth to power”&#151so long as we “stay in character”; so long as we play a part in the script that the broader audience is effectively inoculated against.

I want to make three points about this “script”:

  1. There is indeed a sort of “script.” That doesn’t mean there’s some grand conspiracy to write the script. In fact, the script varies with particular company and situations. The script is about accommodating expectations and yielding to existing power relations. It’s about fitting into people’s understandings of the world, including fitting into their labels, categories, and stereotypes.
  2. Our tendency is to stick to the script. Breaking the script is dangerous and exhausting. Even if we are a radical in a group of conservatives&#151or a radical group in a conservative culture&#151we will tend to establish expectations around that radical identity. We tend to accommodate others’ expectations of us, even of our opponents. Again, to do otherwise is dangerous and exhausting.
  3. We need to look for moments when effective intervention (i.e. breaking from the script) is possible. I’m not advocating that folks go around defying everyone’s expectations all the time. That would probably drive most people to madness, and it wouldn’t even work; by messing with expectations all the time, you’d be pegged as the person who does just that. However, almost all successful political struggle, I believe, involves some form of “breaking from the script” &#151 i.e. intervening in ways that defy expectations, cause cognitive dissonance, “get people talking” (because something real is actually happening), shake assumptions, and throw opponents off balance. To hit those openings for intervention well, we need to orient ourselves to look for them, and for how to create them.

Sports Riots & Political Fetish

How can we make sense of crazy sports riots like the ones that went down last week in Vancouver? How can people get so “up in arms” over a game, while being so resigned about things that really matter?

What is fetish?

I had always thought of a fetish as, more or less, something that someone is peculiarly “into”. A person with a foot fetish is someone who is “into” feet &#151 probably with sexual overtones. Reading Stewart Hall recently, I was introduced to a more complex definition. The basic idea is that a fetish object is something a person fixates on in place of something forbidden. For example, when sexual organs are covered, hidden, and not talked about&#151and perhaps associated with concepts like sin&#151this amounts to something of a suppression of sexuality. Within a culture that practices this suppression, it becomes taboo to fixate upon sexual organs. However, sexuality cannot ever be fully suppressed. The mind may latch onto another object to stand in for what is taboo. This is the fetish object. (This process typically happens subconsciously.)

The brain’s system of cognitive associations helps to facilitate this possibility. The sexual fetish object becomes neurologically connected to sexual feelings; these feelings trigger thoughts of the object, and thoughts of the object trigger sexual feelings. (Neuroscientist Vilayanur S. Ramachandran even suggests that foot fetishes may be particularly common because the region of the brain that processes sexual sensation is right next to the region that processes feeling in the feet.)

Related to the fetish object is the idea of the transitional object. The idea is that small children cling to transitional objects (aka comfort objects) such as blankets, stuffed animals, or pacifiers as a substitute for the mother-child bond. This happens in a stage when the baby is learning boundaries between self and everything else. During this stage, separation from mother can feel upsetting. The transitional object helps the child gain some sense of security and control in her absence.

Political suppression

What does this have to do with politics? Well, if politics is taboo&#151as the cliché claims&#151might it share with sexual taboos this pattern in which suppressed urges latch onto less taboo, more socially sanctioned objects? (It’s important to note that neither sex nor politics is universally taboo across cultures.)

For this to be so, politics would have to be something more than an elective activity. Politics would have to be something of a primal instinct; something of a hardwired instinctual desire that could perhaps&#151like sex&#151be redirected and partially suppressed, but never fully extinguished. I suspect that politics is something like this. I suspect that the idea that politics could ever be only an elective activity for self-selecting participants is a somewhat peculiar product of our modern society; and that a primal political instinct permeates everything at a level comparable to sex-drive, and that it is suppressed in comparable ways too.

It becomes necessary now to briefly breakdown what I mean by politics. Politics has everything to do with power. Politics is the space and engagement between competing wills. A group may have an identity and goals that it maintains and achieves without any politics per se. These goals become political when they come into tension with the will of another group or power. (In my Populism & Hegemony series I have mostly addressed political struggle at the group level&#151among and between groups&#151but there certainly exists a level of interpersonal politics within groups as well; where individual wills come into conflict with each other over status or over particular disputes.)

When we define the political instinct as the basic will to power, then the claim that “a primal political instinct permeates everything at a level comparable to sex-drive” seems quite reasonable. Furthermore, an explanation starts to emerge for why politics can perhaps be just as taboo as sex.

Perhaps we suppress the reality of politics&#151of conflicting wills&#151for similar reasons that we suppress the reality of sex. Primal instincts are powerful, dangerous and unpredictable &#151 and sometimes uncontrollably mutinous against the rational manager/captain whom we strongly prefer to keep at the helm of the ship. Indeed, when a person expresses “too much” anger, he or she is said to “lose control.” And when a person is caught in unsanctioned sexual behavior, he or she may penitently describe the action as “a moment of weakness” &#151 inferring that some stronger, primal, untamed, animalistic desire temporarily seized the controls.

The central reason why political wills can be dangerous and unpredictable is because of the likely wrath and retribution of the powerful, which may be provoked if political wills are fully expressed instead of suppressed. Thus, self-suppression of one’s own political will is a survival strategy. Many exploited employees stay at the same shitty job for decades, many exploited women stay in bad relationships, many slaves stay obedient to masters, many citizens walk in step to the marching orders of authoritarian regimes, etc.

Self-suppression of political will is probably easier to pull off convincingly when it becomes second nature; when it is an unconscious process. A self-consciously disgruntled worker who has to constantly bite her tongue in the presence of her boss may be less likely to get a promotion than her coworker who self-consciously “believes” in the mission of the company. The desire to please and ingratiate oneself to one’s “superiors” is a valid individual survival strategy. And such an authority-pleasing disposition facilitates the internalization of dominant narratives (e.g. workers who rally behind laissez-faire capitalism).

Political fetish objects

When political will is suppressed&#151to the point where an individual is not even aware of having a political will&#151that does not mean it disappears. A frustrated will is likely to produce a frustrated person, who may grow angry and bitter without understanding the underlying reasons for these feelings. Such a person may find “objects” to attach these feelings to.

If suppressed sexual urges express themselves through foot fetishes, what are the expressions of the suppressed will to power? Like sexual fetish objects, political fetish objects are probably various and plentiful.

Competitive sports are an obvious place to start. Sports can be fun and good for your health, but perhaps they can also serve as political fetish objects. While overt expression of aggression is typically a faux pas, a competitive football game is typically seen as good fun. It seems likely&#151and certainly it has been argued before&#151that part of the appeal of competitive physical sports is in their ability to fulfill primal instincts and vent aggression. The competition between rival forces is consciously “only a game”, but it may be accomplishing other unconscious purposes. Could it be that when we play sports, we can become primed for the aggressive contestation of wills that we typically suppress?

Sports may serve as especially potent political fetish objects in their appeal to group-oriented instincts. We identify with the team we play with, or the team we’re rooting for. We project our identities and our group-oriented instincts onto the team. Add to this the invocation of national identities and regional identities that is typical of national sports, and you have a recipe for fanaticism. Indeed, the word fan is short for fanatic. Fanaticism is a phenomenon that happens within groups and group identities. We want to signal our belonging in the “group”. We do this in all sorts of ways every day in all the various groups we identify with. Fanaticism assumes comic proportions in sports; loyal fans enter a kind of within-group competition to outdo each other’s team spirit (body paint, anyone?). Fans will tend to act more and more extreme in signaling loyalty to the group identity.

Add to this the hype that goes with a BIG game&#151and add a little alcohol, of course&#151and is it really so hard to see how a “sports riot” might happen?

Let’s review the ingredients:

  • The suppression of political will
  • Enter sports as political fetish object on which to focus would-be political energy.
  • Sports invoke group identities (e.g. regional, national), triggering powerful group-oriented instincts.
  • Fans are egged on to outdo each other’s extremities, to signal belonging in the group identity.
  • People are wasted.

This is certainly not to justify such mindlessly destructive behavior as we saw last week in Vancouver &#151 but rather to try to understand it. More thoughts from me later this week on other possible kinds of political fetish objects, and on how grassroots change agents might engage with this pattern that I’m clumsily attempting to name here. (Would love thoughts and suggestions for further reading in the comments section below.)

Our work with the Bradley Manning Support Network



ABOVE: David House addresses reporters yesterday after appearing before WikiLeaks grand jury in Alexandria, VA.

If you follow Beyond the Choir on Twitter, you may have noticed that we’ve been tweeting photos from actions in support of PFC Bradley Manning, the Army intelligence analyst who has been confined for the past year &#151 accused of being a source of information to WikiLeaks.

We feel strongly about PFC Bradley Manning’s situation, and we’ve been at the actions we’re tweeting about. Last month Beyond the Choir LLC began a partnership with the Bradley Manning Support Network. We’re lending a hand with outreach to the news media and with public narrative strategy.

Zack Pesavento joined our team at the beginning of this month to work with me on this effort. He’s done some great media-related work in the past with the AFL-CIO and the Human Rights Campaign and volunteer work with several other organizations, including Civilian-Soldier Alliance (a favorite collaborator of ours).

Yesterday Zack and I were in Alexandria with David House, who appeared before the federal grand jury that is investigating WikiLeaks. (Read the AP article here, AFP article here, and FDL’s coverage here.)

You’re likely to see some updates about Bradley Manning and the campaign to support him here at BeyondtheChoir.org. And of course we’re continuing to build the site up as a forum for grassroots strategy, nuts-and-bolts social change tools, and deeper theory-made-practical &#151 around many different issues. As always, we invite you to post your tools and reflections about grassroots organizing, campaigning, and social change struggles.

Photos and video from David House events yesterday, on the flip.

http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/32545640

David House speaking on the Dylan Rattigan Show today &#151 excellent framing of the issues



ABOVE: Another view of David House with his lawyer Peter Krupp, addressing reporters.



ABOVE: The amazing “WikiLeaks Mobile Information Collection Unit” circled the courthouse all day long &#151
visible from inside the courtroom! (Follow @WikiLeaksTruck on Twitter)



ABOVE: Zack Pesavento (right) and me in our makeshift office outside of the Alexandria courthouse.



ABOVE: Interesting photo montage I found while searching for news coverage. (Click on image for larger version and source)

Lessons from Tea Party Tweets

What I learned from spending 5 minutes looking at a Tea Party twitter feed.

I've been thinking a lot lately about the activist filter bubble, the reverberating echo-chamber of insular social media and political networks that keeps progressives marginal and talking to ourselves. Recently, I've had several different Tea Party twitter accounts follow me (at least four this week alone) and began talking to friends about whether or not this means they are 1) building lists of progressive activists for potential future smear-campaigns; 2) following their opposition so they can Retweet things out of context to scare/outrage their base; or 3) genuinely interested in hearing perspectives outside their own echo-chamber. Whatever their purposes, it reminded me that we can learn a lot from the way our opposition presents itself through social media forums (of course there is a lot of deception and other missteps that we don't want to emulate, but there are some transferrable best practices mixed in too – here's some of both).

A few minutes ago I got an email notice that @TheTeaParty_net is following me.

1) Their twitter profile (which I see in the notification email) succinctly states the values they profess to hold: "Limited federal government • Individual freedoms • Personal responsibility • Free markets • Returning political power to the states and the people" I already know what they stand for and I haven't even looked at their twitter feed yet. In fact, their statement of values is likely the thing that will make me choose to look or not look.

And here's what I notice from literally 5 minutes of browsing their twitter feed:

2) Constant creation of an "us vs. them" narrative, inviting people to identify as part of their group ("us") and asking people to take a small action (retweeting) to signal their insiderness. A kinestetic action simple as pressing a button helps solidify the choice that was made by the tweeter. It asks them to take a stand, pick a side, and then reinforces that choice with a physical action that their peers can see. They ask their tweeps to do this on a regular basis.

3) Affirmations. Following their followers, retweeting their followers' invitations to pick a side, constantly reinforcing that they're on the same team.

4) Online to offline: responding to inquiries and connecting tweeps to on-the-ground groups. Even if these groups are astroturf or don't exist, it creates the appearance of a genuine social movement and reinforces Tea Party mythology about being "grassroots".

5) More on the appearance of grassroots decentralized organizing: there isn't a centralized Tea Party twitter account. There are hundreds of them, each with a few hundred to a few thousand followers. They are constantly retweeting each other and referencing one another. From a 20 second glance at their feed I find: @GreaterBostonTP, @anchTeaParty, @wacoteaparty, @teapartyprotest, @teapartypodcast, @TPPatriots (there are many many more).  

6) A right flank. Lots of posts attacking Republican politicians from the Right, pushing the "center" further and further to the right, forcing Republicans to take more and more extreme positions.

7) More inside/outside strategy. While pushing Republicans from the far-Right, they simultaneously identify their tweeps with the GOP, but as an insurgent force within the GOP. That means building voter allegiance to the party, but not allowing their politicians to compromise on their behalf.

8) Victim complex. Reinforcing the perception of being unfairly maligned to embolden their base to see themselves as activist agents-of-change instead of keepers of the status quo. The victim complex, like a cult, builds unity, cohesion, and side-steps critique.

…This post wasn't based on expansive research, or even a particularly deep or thoughtful analysis. It was based on a cursory look at one twitter feed – and that's the point. Within a quick glance, the Tea Party clearly communicates its values, articulates a worldview, asks people to pick sides, reinforces that decision, offers (at least the illusion of) real-life action opportunities, and offers a range of messages that reinforce those objectives. This is worth paying attention to and learning from. And not because the Tea Party are brilliant organizers or anything – most of their "movement" is smoke and mirrors reinforced by large media-megaphones, dominant narratives, and Fox News. But its clear that they know how to communicate an idea, and that's powerful.