Some Early Thoughts on Egypts Recent Uprising

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So I flew out of Egypt early on the morning of July 2nd after having spent the previous two  days walking around with the protesters in Heliopolis and Tahrir Square.

The first thing I would like to note is the radical amount of uncertainty that exists within Egyptian politics and that has existed since Hosni Mubarak stepped down in February of 2011. When I went to Egypt in the summer of 2012 I bought a Time Magazine at the airport entitled –  The Revolution That Wasn’t: Why Egypt’s Generals Remain Egypt’s Real Rulers. The article went on to describe the power that remained in the hands of the military and argued that General Tantawi, the head of the SCAF, was the true power in Egypt. The day before I left Egypt followed Morsi’s firing of Tantawi and seemed to disrupt all expectations of how politics was unfolding there.

While a year later we could attempt to reinterpret Time Magazine’s story as having been looking at long-term trends, despite seeming mistaken in the short term; but I would caution against following any self-assured account of the direction the Egyptian politics will take. The idea that the Tamarod (Rebel) movement was simply a coordinated effort by former Mubarak loyalists, the military, and the media to oust President Morsi is dangerously reductive. This is the image that Morsi tried to cultivate right up until the protests took place, that the protesters represented the only the small portion of the population the benefited from the Mubarak regime and a nameless conspiracy on behalf of the “enemies of Egypt” (complete with rhetoric of the dangers of talking to foreign spies). It was largely the unwillingness on behalf of the Muslim Brotherhood that led to the perception that they were disconnected from the dissatisfaction that their year in power had brought that led to the sheer size and scale of the protests.

If this “return to power of Mubarak supporters” narrative were correct, the protests on the 30th would have been much smaller. I was nervous about attending them, especially as the previous day an American English teacher (who could have been any one of the ex-pats I knew, myself included, in Egypt) was killed the previous day while taking photos of clashes between the Muslim Brotherhood and members of Tamarod. I was warned to keep a low profile and be ready to run by the two Egyptian women who went to Heliopolis with me and others. Once the march got underway, however, I was shocked by the sheer number of people that had turned out. The march to Heliopolis took on far more of the characteristics of a giant, citywide street party than the angry demonstration that had the potential for violence that I had been warned about.

Families were everywhere and Egyptians displayed far more jubilation than anything else. I think that the lack of violence on the 30th (considering the number of people demonstrating) cannot be attributed to anything other than the sheer amount of support that the anti-Morsi campaign had generated. From the conversations I had with people, my impression is that this support came broadly from four places. A desire to keep direct action as part of the political process, legitimate grievances, grievances that people lay at Morsi’s feet that are not really his fault, and finally – the mobilization of the former security forces that the western media has seized upon (correctly but perhaps in a way that under-emphasizes the three previous factors).

The desire to keep direct action as part of the political process is one of the most facinating turns of events in what led to the protests being so successful. Many people felt that the promises of the revolution hadn’t been made good on and wanted to go back to the moment just after Mubarak stepped down and remind the current government that people were still paying attention and that the fact that they won elections meant little to the people in the streets if the promises that were made prior to and after elections were not made good on. I think this aspect is the one that most made the Western press feel uncomfortable, because we believe that democracy is the institutions that represent the people, not the people themselves. It’s important to remember that democracy is the rule of the people by the people and, while institutions are indispensable when carrying this out, the institutions are meant to allow democracy, not replace it.

The two things people were legitimately angry about were the way that security and the economy have been handled since Morsi took power. Every woman I spoke to in Egypt told me that Egypt is not a safe place anymore and that this is the case since the revolution. Many say that Mubarak is to blame, but are upset that Morsi has done nothing to fix the situation since taking power. The police were largely dissolved when Mubarak stepped down, as they were part of the oppressive security apparatus that brutalized the Muslim Brotherhood and were generally perceived as corrupt thugs, however, they also maintained a certain amount of security the loss of which has been felt most acutely by women in the middle and upper class. Furthermore, the (correct, but overblown) perception that Egypt lacks security since the revolution has hurt the incredibly important tourism industry. On top of that, Morsi has continued to enact the same sorts of neo-liberal economic policies that caused people to be angry at Mubarak. There is a widespread belief that the Muslim Brotherhood took their election victory as carte-blanche to start running the same sort of government as Mubarak did, under their leadership instead. While the Muslim Brotherhood’s peaceful and democratic methods continue to be praiseworthy, they seem to have mistakenly believed that this put them in charge of an increasingly fragmented and complex society that needed more dialogue and reconciliation than leadership.

Many people seemed to blame Morsi overmuch for the state of the economy. Egypt is under immense economic pressure at the moment and Morsi has been forced to negotiate with the IMF for loans to keep the economy afloat, which have come with (surprise, surprise) many strings attached that mean increased liberalization of an economy in which people rely on fuel and bread subsidies. It is hard to blame Morsi for either the decline in tourism (some of which has decreased simply because the name of the party in power is the ‘Muslim Brotherhood) or for giving into the same international pressure that governments around the world are caving to. Again, the narrative that Western media outlets have adopted that this is bad for ‘stability’ and that the ‘institutions’ of democracy have been dealt a blow seem to want to completely ignore the extent to which our own governments have seen demonstrators arrested en-mass (G20 in Toronto and OWS as well as Greece all come to mind) and treated in a less than ‘liberal’ fashion because people there accept the harsh terms dictated to social programs by neo-liberalism so much more readily than people in Egypt do. To a certain extent, these protests are the result of such policies as much as anger at the policies that Morsi did have control over.

Finally, I don’t want to completely dismiss the worries that Western media outlets have portrayed. Whenever a military takes power over a democratically elected government, people ought to be hugely critical and pressure that state to return to democratic governance as soon as possible. While I was generally against Morsi’s policies, I don’t think it is helpful for him to be arrested, the media outlets controlled by the Muslim Brotherhood to be shut down, or even for Morsi to be forcibly removed from power. It would have been nice for Morsi to voluntarily call for early elections and a neutral, third party to govern the country in the interim and oversee them.

When I see people wondering ‘Is Egypt ready for Democracy?’ I can’t help but feel annoyed at the continued Orientalist framework that underpins this question. The most positive aspect of recent events is that whoever gets into power in the future will have to confront a highly politicized country that is ready to take direct action if they feel excluded from the political process. In short: “This is what democracy looks like.”

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In and around Tahrir Square

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Egypt’s Revolution (Take Two)

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Mount Sinai

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New York and the Beach of Dahab

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The Surveillance Society

I guess even if the courts don’t work it’s alright as long as everyone is always filming everyone else.

– Marge Simpson

A friend and I were having a discussion recently about how neither of us have Facebook and he joked that one of the reasons for avoiding getting it was that when Skynet[i] takes over, Facebook is going to be what it uses to track everyone down. People without Facebook will be effectively invisible while the rest of humanity is being rounded up into camps by our new robot overlords.

Skynet, interestingly enough, is also the name of the British satellite communication system that the UK’s Ministry of Defense have been using since the 1970’s and it is the government’s use of technology to spy on people that most of us immediately think of when we think of the rise of the surveillance society. Many were troubled when the hacking group Anonymous released the data of over a million people that they claim to have retrieved off of a single FBI laptop. Indeed, the Big Brotheresque image portrayed here in the most recent edition of Rap News is a cause for legitimate concern; however, this feature should be seen as emblematic of the surveillance state, rather than surveillance society. While much of the technology that has given rise to the surveillance society was originally produced under military contract, the ability to control that technology in a consumer driven world has rapidly crumbled in recent years. For these reasons, as David Lyon notes, the surveillance society is notably different from the surveillance state that Orwell depicts.

The proliferation of cell-phone cameras also means that people are able to constantly watch the government. The Sage-Francis video featured here describes how we might use the same proliferation of surveillance technology to distribute information about abuses of power to better keep our governments in check. Filming the police is an extremely effective way of keeping their power in check. Furthermore, the recent release of a $50,000 a plate fundraiser by Mitt Romney, talking about the poor in a much more honest (and embarrassing) manner than usual has had significant political blowback. So while the surveillance society means that our ‘evil government’ can watch us more effectively, it also means that we can watch our government more effectively. This is not always a progressive development. Videos of Barack Obama’s former pastor, Reverend Wright, were the subject of intense media scrutiny because of the black nationalist sentiment expressed in some of his sermons. While the government can be better criticized for their reactionary policies, they can also be embarrassed by some of their more progressive messages.

Our obsession with surveillance doesn’t end with the powers that be, however. It also encompasses our interactions with one another. When Michael Richards and Mel Gibson had their racism caught on camera it had a major social impact. Society has a powerful new tool of social control in the form of pocket cameras and access to the internet, capable of censuring those who behave in a manner that, while not illegal, society deems to be unacceptable. The ability to film one another committing various indiscretions seems to have become liberal society’s response to the charge that because it has ceased to instantiate all of its moral views in the form of laws, that it gives a pass to a lot of behavior that is morally injurious. The sex scandals of a number of political figures are a perfect example of this phenomenon (the naked photos of Prince Harry in Las Vegas, for example). The case of Karen Klein (the New York bus monitor who was bullied to tears by children), who recently collected a $703,000 check after the video went viral and a Torontonian who saw the video started an online fundraising campaign to lend her their support, is an example of how even morally praiseworthy acts can garner important attention in a surveillance society; while the recent topless photos of Kate Middleton have again raised questions about limits that should be placed on our access to images. Compare the reaction to the photos of Kate to those of Prince Harry only a few weeks ago. The scandal over the release of the latter was greater because of the negative view that society took of the Prince Harry incident relative to Kate Middleton, who was merely sunbathing at a private residence.

Perhaps the most interesting aspect of the surveillance society, however, is our growing obsession with ourselves. The profiles we create of ourselves have more salience than our actual lives. The social control that is exercised under the surveillance society is increasingly self-imposed. Not in the ways listed above, where most of the examples listed censure ‘bad behavior’. We construct our identities primarily through social networking sites. People are complex and irrational beings, but online profiles have a certain rationalized teleology to them. We construct an image of ourselves that we would like to present to the world and then we begin to structure our lives to adhere to this image. We also discipline ourselves by living our lives according to social networking principles. I’m constantly surprised that when I meet people, nearly the first thing they say to me about any future plans for our getting together is: “What’s your Facebook name?”, and then when I tell them I don’t have it they immediately say: “ya, Facebook is horrible. Good for you for avoiding it.” I’ve had this exact conversation such an incredible number of times that I start to wonder why people continue to live so much of their lives on Facebook. The most recent time I had this conversation, I retold my friend’s Skynet joke to a friend I hadn’t seen in awhile. “Skynet’s already here man, don’t let it get you too,” he replied in a similarly joking way. Sometimes the best jokes are the ones that make you feel a little scared and sad after telling them.

[i] The AI program that takes over the planet in The Terminator franchise.

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Last days in Egypt

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