Al-sha’b yurid isquat al-nizam

“The people demand the fall of the regime.”  Yesterday was the first anniversary of the Egyptian Revolution’s beginning. Mass protests, meant not only to commemorate but to voice anger at the continuing rule of the generals, happened across the country. Here is a shot of Tahrir square, yesterday at about 4 PM:

And here, just in case anybody thinks you need asphalt and Stalinist architecture to create a revolutionary mood, is the corniche in Alexandria:

Everyone, the army included, knows the revolution is unfinished.  For all that remains to be accomplished, though, it is still the most important blow struck for human freedom in this century so far. That’s not to slight the struggles and sacrifices of the Burmese, the Nepalis, the Syrians, and many more: it’s just that everyone’s battle needs an example, and the Egyptian, in these years, remains the biggest one around.

At the same time, these images of undifferentiated masses also suggest to me some of the revolution’s own problems. Everyone who was there and to whom I’ve talked has described the intoxicating exhilaration of unity, of differences dissolved as groups and interests melted together, of the weight of numbers producing the single will voiced in the famous slogan — the ecstasy of the volonté générale.  Yet this has made it harder to negotiate between, or even recognize, diverse interests including class and gender as they assert themselves in the politics of the post-revolution society.   The nostalgic fetish for unity makes it easier for the military to divide and conquer. The volonté générale may mark the inception of real politics, but held on to for too long, it asphyxiates it.

In that light, I remember the news I got on the second day of the Revolution: while scanning the web frantically for newer news from Egypt, I got an email from a friend telling me of the murder of David Kato. The Ugandan gay activist was bludgeoned to death in his Kampala home on January 26. Uganda’s government, which had presided over the politically manipulated circus of homophobia that led to his killing, continued to vilify him in death.

I’m not going to recapitulate the many memorials to David that you can read around the web today; enough has been said, and eloquently, by others. My own memories of him are of a slight figure trembling, visibly, like a reed, with anger at the injustice he saw around him. His rage, though, didn’t keep him from copiously giving his time, his help, and even his home to people poorer than he was, or suffering worse from injustice than he. It was probably that generosity that got his killer through the door.

“The people” is an abstraction. It is made of up of countless individuals, their anger, their loving-kindness, their acts and their pain. Its will — that the regime should fall — is composed of a million separate wills, each with its own care, its own caution, its own indignation, its own compassion.

To forget the separateness, and the particular faces, is to mimic the regime’s strategy of forgetting. What drove David, in Uganda, was mirrored in some way by what propelled every demonstrator in Egypt to Tahrir or to their local streets. At the same time, they were all different in some way, and their difference was also a particle of their power.  Remembering David, like remembering the martyrs from Cairo to Aswan, is to remember the concrete and sensuous possibility that revolution will continue, till all the regimes in their high places fall.

Egyptians raise an obelisk with the names of revolutionary martyrs, January 25, 2012

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