“I am a revolutionary”

Jan 28, 2011: A protester beckoning us onto the battle for Kasr El Nile Bridge.

I am not a revolutionary. While I advocate revolution, I have not truly engaged in the ongoing/somewhat failing one since the 18 days of the initial uprising. Nor am I something that is “radically new or different” – as in “a revolutionary method for reducing carbon emissions” – as the second and more common use of the word suggests.

If I were a revolutionary though, I would hate to be labeled as one, and certainly would never want to describe myself as such. I’ve heard a couple of people describe themselves to me outright and with a straight face, saying, “I am a revolutionary.” While I smiled and nodded slowly, I couldn’t help think in the back of my mind: “You’re a conceited, self-congratulatory little prick, aren’t you?” And that’s not to mention the countless bloggers and Twitter folk who have basically taken “revolutionary” as their middle name now.

Whatever happened to the (slightly) more humble “activist”?

It seems to me that describing yourself as a revolutionary sounds a little too much like calling yourself a maverick or, to elaborate, “A fucking awesome, wild, cool dude.” There is something that is very unmaverick-like about that. It’s more than a little pathetic, if we’re honest.

Worse, the use of this term has only added yet another overly simplistic and easy to abuse division to an already tedious list of political factions: The Islamists, the feloul, the silent majority/Couch Party – and, of course, those adrenaline rush-seeking, Molotov-throwing, and generally quite unkempt revolutionaries: “the great enemies of the beloved wheel of production,” as we are continually told by the media.

Add onto that the number of bitchy cat fights that have repeatedly sprang up online and in the streets about who is a  “real revolutionary” and who isn’t, and you start to see the depth of silliness now associated with this word.

To be fair, that term has been imposed on protesters by the media just as readily as some protesters have gladly taken up the title. It’s a word that I think is now loathed by the majority of “non-revolutionaries” (i.e. pretty much everyone) and I don’t believe it’s just because the media has largely succeed in portraying them as fire-starting drug-addicts. It’s also because there is something about the haughty complacency that comes with the word “revolutionary” that touches a nerve – it rubs the so-called silent majority in the wrong way, I believe.

The sniffiness of the word is  even more evident in Egyptian Arabic. Sawragy: it’s all too easy to get fed up with its “I’m an unshaven hippie” connotations, unintended as they might be. The Spaniards did a much better job with their use of the term Indignado – because who isn’t indignant these days? Perhaps a similar word in Arabic is needed.

Either way, and for the sake of humility at least, please don’t use “revolutionary” to describe yourselves. And if you must, you can do it in front of the mirror, behind closed doors.

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4 theories on Egypt’s behind the scenes

Since Mubarak buzzed off, conspiracy theories have been as abundant as billboards of him once were. Almost everyone has their own little “sophisticated insight” about just what’s going on behind the scenes, who’s really controlling the situation, and what dodgy alliances are being forged and broken.

While the myriad nuances of these theories vary from one “theorist” to the next, they can all be generally sieved down to four lines of thought. Here they are:

Foreign pressure is running the show

Specifically the US. Backers of this theory will point to the $1.3 billion pumped into the military by the US and the close ties between top generals in the Supreme Council of Armed Forces and US officials. Some will argue that the referendum on constitutional amendments was a US-imposed test, the aim being so that the US can make a risk-free assessment of who exactly has the biggest voice in a free election in Egypt – i.e. how big the Muslim Brotherhood really is and how much weight people like ElBaradei and Amr Mousa really have.

Proponents of this view may point to incidents like the release of Mohamed Al-Zawahiri (the brother of Al-Qaeda’s number 2 man) from prison followed by his seemingly random re-arrest shortly after. Surely this was due to a phone call from the US, they argue.

"Yeaah, you're gonna have to go ahead and put Al-Zawahiri back in the box," ...?

This view is often expanded further to include pressure from Gulf states. A Kuwaiti newspaper (Al-Dar) recently reported that authorities in Egypt are under immense pressure from the Gulf (and especially Saudi) not to put Mubarak on trial, with threats of cutting financial assistance and possibly relations.

The more cynical takers of this theory will say this all comes down to Israel: Zionism cannot afford to have a democratic Egypt that’s independent of US aid and free to lift the Gaza siege and face Israel head on. Hence Israel is pushing its US lobby to force the Obama administration into supporting some kind of counter-revolution here.

The long-winded counter-revolution

This theory holds that the Muslim brotherhood, military and NDP have come together in a bizarre and once believed impossible alliance. The aim of this alliance (which ultimately only really includes the NDP and military) is to prop up the Muslim Brotherhood, give it a voice, and let it win large portions of the parliament. At this point, once the MB starts dictating a new and presumably medieval constitution after having scared off most foreign investments and tourists, there will be sufficient popular outrage for the military to step in and basically restore the old system back into place (with a good excuse this time).

The three stooges

This variant of the above theory holds that the as yet untouched axis of evil from the old NDP – i.e. Safwat El-Sherif, Zakaria Azmi, and Fathy Sorour – are still running the show, possibility even at the behest of the Sharm El Sheikh-bound Mubarak. They too are running a long-winded counter-revolution, and its core mission is to create a sustained sense of chaos and fear.

It remains a mystery why these three are still untouched by investigations

It’s unclear what the personal objectives of these three are at this point, seeing as their political lives are undoubtedly over, but some will say their motive is plain old revenge: A “we’ll show the bastards what life’s like without us” kind of thing. And this was indeed what was attempted in the 10 days prior to Mubarak’s departure.

To do this, so the theory goes, these three are exploiting two prime tools: the media and thugs. The former – whose heads are still very much in place despite being Mubarak ass kissers – are happy to oblige, flaring up and seemingly encouraging the “Islamist whirlwind” of the past three weeks in order to whip up nostalgia for the old days when Islamists were kept quiet, while continuing their war against true threats to despotism like ElBaradei.

The latter (that is, thugs, which may also include disgruntled State Security scumbags) continue to be a menace to normal life and are presumably to blame for the recent attacks on Christians. Backers of this theory will also point to the still less than normal levels of police presence, noting that too many officers remain loyal to the old guard, which is embodied at this point by these three douches.

The incompetent army

This is not a conspiracy theory at all as it basically holds that all the madness and bedlam of the past weeks are due to little more than how rubbish the military is at making good decisions – i.e. there is no dirty, ulterior motive, just a deep lack of competence.

The army isn’t making it difficult to disagree with this opinion: from slow decision-making, to confusion about the consequences of the referendum, to random military trails and pardons, to zero transparency, and most crucially, some seriously bad PR skills.

More likely, however …

Is that an amalgam of these forces is at play: serious foreign pressures, attempts to reinstate a fallen system, Islamist opportunists, old farts trying to impose their dying legacy, and, of course, a group of old fossils dressed in military clothes that doesn’t know which of these pressures it should yield to, if any.

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The issue of illiterate democracy

In my last post I argued for the possibility of a kind of “super democracy” unfolding in Egypt, but right now there’s the problem of the partially “illiterate democracy” we’re currently exercising.

There are a lot of figures for literacy rates in Egypt, but most settle somewhere just above 70% (with the average for women being closer to 60%). Today, I was emailed an interesting table detailing the percentages of votes in each governorate, as well as illiteracy levels in those governorates. I cannot vouch for the accuracy of the illiteracy stats, but if they are remotely accurate then what they reflect may be crucial.

I won’t argue that those who voted “Yes” are morons (I like to hope only 30% of us are morons, not 77%), but at least from the people I’ve spoken to and heard on TV, one thing is clear: the more educated and politically aware you are, the more likely you were to have voted “No” (I say that realizing there are plenty of exceptions on both sides of the equation. I am just noting a general trend).

This observation seems to be supported by the table below: the governorates with the highest rates of illiteracy are the ones that were overwhelming supportive of the amendments (which, alas, many couldn’t even read).

This is particularly evident in Fayoum, which has one of the highest levels of illiteracy as well as “yeses” (37.5% illiterate and 90% in favour). Same for Beni Suef: 40.6% illiterate and 87% in support of the amendments. On the other hand, Cairo and Alexandria, with the lowest levels of illiteracy, had the highest percentages of “Nos”.

Having said that, not all the stats overwhelmingly support this hypothesis. But they raise an important question: How can you really vote on the wording of a document (i.e. the constitution) when you cannot read to begin with? Unfortunately, you end up doing what your local sheikh tells you to, or your local asshole (and they often overlap, sadly).

This is not an argument for why democracy and illiteracy are incompatible. Most Western countries started on some path to democracy with poor levels of literacy – during the French revolution literacy was only at 40% (or so Google tells me). Moreover, there are plenty of illiterate people with seriously sharp minds and plenty of well-read people with the seeming intelligence of senile shrimp.

The point is, this is something future potential politicians like ElBaradei need to constantly keep in mind: playing the cool and collected intellectual card can only get you so far in this context.

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Egyptians’ lack of “personal space” = super democracy?

Despite the less than ideal voter turnout, Egypt’s first free referendum has delivered the final blow to the unfounded (and frankly racist) notion that “Egyptians aren’t ready for democracy.”

Me and my "minority" friends all voted "No"

Of course, having the capacity to freely vote is by no means the sole indicator of true democracy. But what Egypt witnessed in the three or four days leading up to the referendum revealed something key: for those who planned to vote, they could speak of little else other than the referendum, its implications, and the politics behind it.

But I don’t think this degree of discussion and debate took place only because of the novelty of the voting experience for us as a people. There is a cultural factor at play here, one that does not really exist in typically western democracies:

We Egyptians talk to strangers.

Whether standing in line or sitting in a microbus, Egyptians talk to each other. More crucially, asking strangers personal questions (something I tend find quite annoying) is by no means frowned upon here – unlike, say, in Europe. Moreover, the idea that your political stances are something personal to begin with, is even less so recognized.

That’s to say, the notion of “personal space” goes largely unregistered for most Egyptians.

The upshot of this is that if politics is in the air, strangers talk to each other about it: from those who cross paths at the urinals to those waiting for the bus, spontaneous political debate is not uncommon for Egyptians, especially these days.

Not to sound too prejudicial, but I don’t think this social force (and by force I mean the random conversations/debates that result from our general lack of concern for the notion of “personal space”) exists in typical Western democracies. Yet the wealth of discussions this force generates may be revolutionary in itself: in times of politics, it will press all strangers alike to become more aware of their stances and more able to justify their own opinions – surely a foundation for a deep and meaningful democracy.

If this is true, could this social factor mean that this aspect of our culture makes it particularly fertile for a kind of “super democracy” of truly engaged citizens?

I don’t know, but I do know there is an interesting counter-argument to all this, and it comes in the form of this question: Why are the world’s technically best democracies (specifically Scandinavia, Switzerland, among others) also stereotypically the ones with societies most concerned/obsessive with “personal space” and the right to “individuality”?

That is, why might it be frowned upon to start chatting politics with a stranger in Zurich?

I think this may all come down to a point about human nature: it might just be that we humans simply lack the ability to truly tolerate people with different opinions than our own while simultaneously being all warm and open towards them.

If this is generally true, we are met with two options: we either destroy the people who have different opinions than our own (along with any hope of democracy), or we try to accept our differences by emphasizing the idea of individuality and the right to a “personal space” and privacy generally.

This may be true to the extent that it seems countries where privacy and individuality are not encouraged (where large families live together/acceptable life style choices are limited) don’t tend to be democratic. On the other hand, countries that celebrate individuality and appear a little cold with their consecrated personal spaces seem to have established some kind of  a democratic process.

I am not advocating either, but it seems to be an interesting observation. At the least, it would be very odd (and arguably sad) if it turned out that in order for Egypt to become truly democratic, we would find that we have to give up our inquisitive and often nosy approach to others in the streets, queues and buses.

It might just turn out to be that being all open and easygoing with strangers is simply, and quite bizarrely, undemocratic.

Posted in Politics, Post-revolution talk | 4 Comments