From Egypt: The class impasse

So this is what violence in Cairo is like now: the city has grown inured to it. You can stroll down a sidewalk in perfect serenity, and ignore the fact that a few blocks away lies what the foreign journalists call a “war zone.”  Tuesday night — the end of the first round of the parliamentary elections — I was wandering Mahmoud Bassiouny Street downtown. I reached street’s end and a tangle of highways by the Egyptian Museum, and suddenly there were people rushing across the pavement and screaming, and bright crashing flashes that I recognized as Molotov cocktails. Behind me, abruptly, aggressive young guys in leather jackets had built a makeshift barricade across the street and were diverting traffic, and waving large knives. Among their shouts, I could distinguish “Eid wahda” — “One hand.”  A few shopkeepers motioned me to get the hell away. For months crowds have targeted foreigners amid gathering xenophobia, reviling them as spies. There was, however, no obvious place to run. I walked as calmly as I could back past the barricade and the multiplying mob, and it was only at Talaat Harb Street, as the usual bustle of the city settled in, that I checked Twitter and called my friends and realized I’d been in the middle of the latest installment of the Battle of Tahrir. By night’s end, around sixty people, democratic protestors attacked by their opponents, were in the hospital. At midnight, I watched demonstrators carrying their comrades, swathed in bandages, across the square.

I’ll say more later about exactly what was going on.  First, though, the elections.

The returns have been dribbling in for two days. This was the first round of three: a third of Egypt’s governorates, including Cairo and Alexandria, cast ballots. The sweep of the Islamic parties’ victory surprised everyone, including some wings of the Islamists themselves.

Salafist campaign workers in Cairo's Shobra district: from @mmbilal on Twitter

Freedom and Justice (FJP), dominated by the Muslim Brotherhood, carried about 40% of the vote. More shockingly, el-Nour, the main Salafist party — representing literal, puritan, right-wing Islamists — won about a quarter of the ballots to come in second overall. The Egyptian Bloc, a coalition of liberal and largely secular parties, placed third, slightly behind it.  The next election rounds will largely be held in more conservative parts of the country. Unless the Coptic vote in Upper Egypt shows unexpected strength, Freedom and Justice will hold close to a majority of seats; with el-Nour, they could control the new parliament completely.

Most people expected the Brotherhood to win, though by a lesser margin. At a polling place downtown I visited on Monday, Freedom and Justice organizers swarmed everywhere, flush with leaflets and paraphernalia, while the other parties were pretty much invisible. Several observers heard the same comment over and over from FJP activists: “We’re confident because we’ve been organizing for this moment for 80 years.”  Certainly, for at least two decades the Brotherhood have been the only opposition force with a real grassroots presence. This time, they had the chance to try it out in a fair election. On the other hand, the Salafists’ success seems to have shocked even the Freedom and Justice Party. Mubarak jailed and tortured the ultraconservative Islamists with still more fervor than he devoted to repressing the Brotherhood; driven underground, they had few of the Brothers’ opportunities to organize in cities or villages. Their ability to pull millions of votes out of a hat this time shocked many across Egypt.

In the US, naturally, neoconservatives bray that Egypt is the new Iran, making up in population for what it lacks in plutonium: “Egypt’s turn toward Islamic revolution would be catastrophic. As the largest country in the Arab world, it has influence that Iran could never hope to achieve.”

I spent most of the last week talking to “liberals” in Egypt — a catch-all term defined quite differently than in the West. It includes Communists of various sorts, socialists, social democrats, anarchists, and free-market liberals, most but not all secular, united by a commitment to democracy, divided by disparate beliefs in what it means — some wedded to the parliamentary process, some dreaming of direct self-governance. Few, though, had an apocalyptic sense about the Islamists’ victory. They talk about three key things. First, as democrats they can’t reject out of hand the outcome of a democratic election. Second, the parliament will have little power in a government still run by a military junta. And third, the junta remains the real enemy.

One bloody hand: Junta head Tantawi

The generals are killing people. I spoke last night to two gay friends who have been committed revolutionaries since January. Both were in Midan Tahrir the week of November 20, and their rage against SCAF (the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces) was palpable. That week, the junta reacted to a renewed sit-in in the square with brute force. They sent Central Security police down Mohamed Mahmoud Street, leading from the Ministry of the Interior, to beat and abuse protesters. The protesters fought back, blocking the street and throwing stones at the police. The police in turn soaked the street in tear gas, till mushroom clouds of it loomed above the city; they fired at the demonstrators with rubber bullets and birdshots — aiming, it’s clear, at the eyes to blind them. The square these days is full of people with bandaged sockets, bandaged faces; friends of my friends lost their eyes. One police marksman, Sobhi Mahmoud Shenawy, became known as “the eye sniper.” Forty-three dissidents died. “This was a deeply personal fight,” Ahmad told me. “You could see they would kill you in a minute.”  And Khaled added, “You felt that such people, who would fire to blind you, didn’t deserve to rule a city block, much less a country.”

Wounded protesters, Nov. 20: from @NadimX on Twitter

As gay men, my friends don’t much fear the Brotherhood or the Salafis. They remember that the worst persecution of gays in Egypt’s history, probably the worst anywhere in the Arab or Muslim world, happened under the secular Mubarak regime, from 2001-2004.  The FJP could hardly augur anything worse.

To be sure, the Brotherhood, always opportunists, sold out in the last weeks, giving their support to SCAF.   But the new Prime Minister whom SCAF plans to puppeteer, Kamal el-Ganzouri, is a Mubarak veteran who presided over mass torture of Islamists during his last term as premier in the 1990s. The Islamists have long memories; they will not forgive him. Already, the FJP has announced it expects a government responsible to the parliament. SCAF quickly warned them the new cabinet will answer to the generals alone. “The Brotherhood can mobilize a million people in the street if they want,” my friends told me. “If it comes to a face-off with SCAF, they’re almost the only political force with a chance to win.”

Still, liberals — and feminists, and gays, and Egypt’s large Coptic minority, and many others — hardly trust the Brotherhood. And the Islamists’ triumph raises serious questions about where the revolution is going.

Back to last Tuesday night’s violence — because it illuminates those questions. How did the fighting start? On Tuesday morning, the revolutionaries in Tahrir decided to expel some of the vendors who populated the place. The square has become a market; in addition to tea, juice, food, and fruit, hawkers pitch T-shirts, flags, and souvenirs. The vendors have a bad reputation; they’ve been accused of peddling drugs; the dissidents thought they might besmirch the image of the revolution. Out with them!

This has happened before, once over the summer; back then the vendors got violent, and they did this time as well. In the evening, they counterattacked, assaulting the square with stones and Molotov cocktails. Or somebody counterattacked. The men I saw blocking traffic didn’t look like vendors; it’s possible SCAF took advantage of the situation to send in its own provocateurs. (Their battle cry, “One hand,” was SCAF’s own slogan: “The army and the people are one hand.”) What matters, though, is that the revolutionaries decided to turn on Egyptians who were using the revolution to scrape by. A protester I met in Tahrir two nights ago said plaintively: “We fought the revolution for the poor. And why should we throw them out of here so shamelessly? Just so we would look more clean?”

Khaled, one of my gay friends, last night told me, “On the front lines at Mohamed Mahmoud, it was mostly poor people. They were fighting bare-handed, bare-chested; they couldn’t even afford gas masks on their faces.” And Ahmad added,

“They’re the ones exposed to daily insults from police officers more than anybody else. And I don’t think they take values as relative, they way we usually do as part of the middle class. Sacrificing your life — we calculate about it: is this the time, today? Maybe this battle isn’t worth a life. But they have more absolute values of sacrifice and courage. For them, being on the front lines was a matter of human dignity.”

But the revolution has failed to do full justice to their dignity. The poor may be at the forefront of the battles, but the revolution’s leaders are overwhelmingly middle-class. The front lines of democracy and the front lines of class are not the same. And the bourgeois leaders have failed to reach across Egypt’s yawning class divide.

Some of the failure has been programmatic. Over the summer, as revolutionary groups struggled to agree on a list of demands, they found consensus on democracy and civil liberties easy — but their concession to addressing economic issues dwindled to an anodyne promise to raise the minimum wage. Strikers from factories to public services who had put their bodies and jobs on the line for Mubarak’s overthrow felt ignored.

But some of the failure was more physical. The revolutionaries failed to leave Tahrir, failed to go into the neighborhoods and towns and villages, to talk to workers and peasants, to organize. The Salafists, despite years underground, didn’t make that mistake. They spent the summer recruiting a third of a million active members for el-Nour. The revolutionaries waited for the masses to come to them. The result is written in the election returns. Even Zamalek, the liberal island of the haute-bourgeoisie in mid-Nile, went for the Brotherhood. The doormen and maids and porters who slave for the wealthy live in Zamalek too,  shunted to cellars and rooftop shacks — but they emerged, and they voted for the FJP.

The encampment in Tahrir is an ideal and almost a fetish for many leftist Egyptians. You can see why if you’ve been there: it’s an Arab Woodstock and Brook Farm, an alternative space to a corrupt society and state, a place where diverse identities can meet and share, where unities grow out of differences and one can imagine a new way of life, a new world. It’s beautiful. But too much time, many feel, was wasted this summer and fall defending Tahrir against the military, and too little speaking to the rest of society. An alternative community may represent the dream of comprehensive change, but does little to realize it. The hard work of talking across class boundaries and building solidarities to encompass the rest of Egypt fell by the wayside.

There’s still time to recuperate the revolution. But it will take time and sweat. It will take dialogue. It will take renewed respect for the multiple meanings of dignity.

Over the summer, revolutionaries tried to stage a march on the Ministry of Defense in Cairo’s Abbasiyya district. Together with an Egyptian friend, I got there late; the marchers had been stopped several blocks short of the ministry, surrounded on three sides by massed troops and tanks. We tried to go through the surrounding neighborhood, and get into the demonstration from the fourth side. The rundown, impoverished streets teemed with tense, angry citizens — enraged at the marchers, whom they regarded as invaders. And at one point we found ourselves suddenly in the midst of a river of running people, men and women pouring out of buildings, armed with big knives that glinted in the light of Ramadan lanterns strung above. They were shouting: “They’re attacking us!  Strike back! Defend yourselves!”  They could easily have turned on us, but somehow they raced past us unseeing. They engulfed the protest, and beat and brutalized many demonstrators. We couldn’t break through to join our friends; shaken, we limped home.

It was a fine example of false consciousness, you could say: the poor enlisted to defend an arrogant and indifferent regime. But the protesters too had their arrogance. When they first met the residents of the neighborhood, who blocked the way and demanded why these outsiders were marching through, some called back, “It’s a public street! We have the right to pass here.” That claim of possession is not what you say to Cairo’s poor, whose back streets and close communities are all they have. The revolutionaries are learning about dignity the hard way.

Shock troops of the counter-revolution

“Revolutions revolutionize counter-revolutions,” Régis Debray wrote. We’re seeing this, surely, in the weird and desperate maneuvers that Egypt’s Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF, which sounds remarkably like a fungal disease) is making to sustain its bloody, counter-revolutionary  power.

Hosni Mubarak, back in his day, never actually used the militant political Islamists much. He would toss them the occasional concessions when troubled by other opposition (most notably, letting the Muslim Brotherhood contest and, where they contested, win the 2005 parliamentary elections).  But at no point did he call on their manpower, allow them to become a public prop for the regime, or use them as shock troops against opponents. This diffidence persisted even though the Brotherhood — of course, the most moderate of the lot, and famous for its opportunism,  as if the malleable Mitt Romney had turned in his Mormon underwear for a galabeya — regularly offered itself up for sale in the most shameless way, showing a well-turned thigh to the government’s cruising eye with the urgency of a starving streetwalker on a freezing night.  They wanted to be exploited. But no. The Mubarakites understandably could not relinquish the bad example of Sadat, who tried to win over the burgeoning Islamist groups by massive pandering in the mid-Seventies. Uncooperative and unco-optable, they killed him for his pains.

The bones Mubarak threw to the Islamists were cast over electrified barbed wire. He arrested them by the tens of thousands, tortured them, buried them in concentration camps for years. The brutality was appalling. It endeared him to the United States, but from a religious radical’s perspective, it rather stymied any prospects for a rapprochement.

Ahmed Seif el-IslamSCAF, in a far less secure position, has tried to play a double game—badly. There’s a widespread suspicion in Egypt that SCAF has tried to sell Western governments on extended army rule, and repression, as the last bulwark keeping the state secular, and the Islamists out of power. Ahmed Seif el-Islam, one of the great heroes of Egypt’s human rights movement, thundered at a meeting I attended in June: “The military want to present themselves as the guardians of security, saving us again from the Salafists, so that they can hold onto power. Such security has nothing to do with democracy.”

At the same time, for internal consumption, SCAF has struck an unmistakeable if informal alliance with the Brotherhood, which makes occasional gestures of demurral but generally is extraordinarily obedient to the military line.  This makes a certain sense: as an institution the military is enormously rich, but it has no political constituency except itself.  If a potential friendship is up for sale, why not buy? But it sits uneasily with what the army is telling the United States.

Last night’s massacre in Cairo was an act of exceptional brutality–against Copts, who have been increasingly unequivocal in voicing dissatisfaction, but by extension and example against dissent in general. The NY Times reported today:

Witnesses, victims and doctors said Monday that demonstrators were killed when military-led security forces drove armored vehicles over as many as six people and fired live ammunition into the crowds. Doctors at a Coptic hospital showed journalists 17 bodies, including one with a crushed skull and others with mangled limbs.

“Cairo yesterday was a part of Syria,” said Shady el-Ghazaly Harb, a liberal activist who helped set off the revolution, invoking the violent crackdown against that country’s uprising. “This is a threat not just to the Copts, but to all of the people. We saw what would happen if we rose up against the army.”

But one of the most ominous aspects was how the army apparently used and incited crowds of Islamists, to provoke anger and set off violence and and attack the demonstrators.   Has the army enlisted Salafists as counter-revolutionary shock troops?  An unknown number –hardly all — of political prisoners jailed under Mubarak have been released: mostly political Islamists, because those were the ones Mubarak most abused.  Freed into a confusing and unfamiliar world, traumatized by torture, given no assistance to salve re-entry, are they now easy prey for a regime that can exploit them when it needs a little frisson of violence?  Plenty of Western commentators (including a significant number of gay activists) have bought into the notion that post-revolutionary Egypt is newly prone to “extremism,” and that a strong hand is needed to keep undesireable elements suppressed. But the hand is evidently using the “extremists” to slap down others. So much for secularism; so much for the bulwark.

Attacking Copts is both monstrous and stupid on the army’s part. An influential body of US opinion, including evangelical Christians, will be outraged. Already, Nick Kristof has tweeted that the US should pull its massive military aid to Egypt.

Since the US’s energies in Egypt for the last forty years were all turned to shoring up the repression, I’ve been very reluctant to suppose it should claim a sudden progressive role for itself now.   Even Obama’s final turn against the dictator in February — which democrats in the region derided as too little, too late — struck me as too much, from another perspective.  Let the revolutionaries finish the revolution themselves; they were doing fine without him. After four decades of torture, the US was in no position to claim last-minute street cred for freedom.

But there’s that military aid — $2 billion is the usual estimate, but it’s funnelled through so many channels nobody knows.  With the military now in charge of murdering Egyptians, the aid looks increasingly obnoxious.

This is, as the Times says in Timespeak, “a turning point for the Revolution”: only no one knows where it will turn.  Right now, in the next days and weeks, the US needs to push the generals hard. Not to get them to stop siding with the Salafists and the Brotherhood — that’s not the issue. The US must insist that they hold fair elections speedily for parliament and civilian President, surrender power, step aside: so that the question of who they side with ceases to matter at all.