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The Road to Tahrir

What appears to be a sudden upsurge of popular protests in Egypt has a history of gradually building political unity among all those opposed to Hosni Mubarak's authoritarian rule. It started a decade back with the coming together of political activists from the opposed streams of Islamic and secular political activism and has been nurtured through a vibrant and creative political practice which has relied heavily on the tools of new communication technologies and social media. This has not only helped create a new political public in Egypt, it has helped moderate the radical extremes which kept Mubarak's opposition divided.

EGYPT: UNDERSTANDING THE UPRISING

The Road to Tahrir

Charles Hirschkind

between secular leftist organisations and a ssociations, and Islamist ones (particularly the Muslim Brotherhood) – a phenomenon almost completely absent in the prior decades. Towards the end of the dec-

What appears to be a sudden upsurge of popular protests in Egypt has a history of gradually building political unity among all those opposed to Hosni Mubarak’s authoritarian rule. It started a decade back with the coming together of political activists from the opposed streams of Islamic and secular political activism and has been nurtured through a vibrant and creative political practice which has relied heavily on the tools of new communication technologies and social media. This has not only helped create a new political public in Egypt, it has helped moderate the radical extremes which kept Mubarak’s opposition divided.

This article is based on research conducted in 2008 with a group of activist bloggers in Egypt.

Charles Hirschkind (chirsch@berkeley.edu) teaches anthropology at the University of California, Berkeley, US.

Economic & Political Weekly

EPW
february 12, 2011

W
hile the uprising in Egypt caught most observers of the north Africa and west Asia off guard, it did not come out of the blue. The seeds of this spectacular mobilisation had been sown as far back as the early 2000s and had been carefully cultivated by activists from across the political spectrum, many of them working online via Facebook, Twitter, and within the Egyptian blogosphere. Working within these media, activists began to forge a new political language, one that cut across the institutional barriers that had until then polarised Egypt’s political terrain, between more Islamic-oriented currents (most prominent among them, the Muslim Brotherhood) and secular-liberal ones.

Since the rise of the Islamist revival in the 1970s, Egypt’s political opposition had remained sharply divided around contrasting visions of the proper place of religious authority within the country’s social and political future, with one side viewing secularisation as the eminent danger, and the other emphasising the threat of politicised religion to personal freedoms and democratic rights. This polarity tended to result in a defensive political rhetoric and a corresponding amplification of political antagonisms, a dynamic the Mubarak r egime has repeatedly encouraged and e xploited over the last 30 years in order to ensure a weak opposition. What was striking about the Egyptian blogosphere as it developed in the last seven or so years was the extent to which it engendered a political language free from the p roblematic of secularisation versus fundamentalism that had governed so much of political discourse in the region and elsewhere.

Virtual Public Sphere

The blogosphere that burst into existence in Egypt around 2004 and 2005 in many ways provided a new context for a process that had begun somewhat earlier, in the late 1990s: namely, the development of practices of coordination and support

vol xlvi no 7

ade of the 1990s, Islamist and leftist lawyers began to agree to work together on cases regarding state torture, whereas in previous years, lawyers of one affiliation would almost never publicly defend plaintiffs from the other.

The most successful experiment at reaching across Egypt’s political spectrum came in 2004 with the emergence of what is called the Kefaya movement, a political formation that brought together Islamists, Muslim Brothers, communists, liberals, and secular-leftists, joined on the basis of a common demand for an end to the M ubarak regime and a rejection of Gamal Mubarak’s succession of his father as president. Kefaya was instrumental in organising a series of demonstrations between 2004 and 2007 that, for the first time, explicitly called for the president of Egypt to step down. This was an unheard of d emand prior to that moment insomuch as any direct criticism of the president or his family had until then always been taboo, and met by harsh reprisals from the state.

Kefaya not only succeeded in bringing large numbers of people of different political persuasions onto the street to protest government policies and actions, it was also the first political movement in Egypt to exploit the organising potential of the internet, founding a number of blog sites from which to coordinate and mobilise demonstrations and strikes. When Kefaya held its first demonstrations, at the end of 2004, a handful of bloggers both participated and wrote about the events on their blogs. Within a year the number of blogs had jumped to the hundreds. Today there are thousands of blogs, many tied to activism, street politics, solidarity campaigns, and grass-roots o rganising. Many of the bloggers who helped p romote the Kefaya movement have played key roles in the events since 25 January.

Citizen Journalists/Activists

One event highlighted the political potential of blogging in Egypt and helped secure the practice’s new and expanding role within Egyptian political life. It had

EGYPT: UNDERSTANDING THE UPRISING

long been known that the Egyptian state routinely abused and tortured prisoners or detainees (hence the United States’ choice of Egypt for the so-called rendition cases). For its part, the State has always denied that abuse took place, and lacking the sort of evidence needed to prosecute a legal case, human rights lawyers and the opposition press had never been able to effectively challenge the state’s official position. This changed when a blogger named Wael Abbas, whose blog is titled alwa’i al-masri (“Egyptian Awareness”), placed on his blog a cell phone-recorded video he had been sent by another blogger that showed a man being physically and s exually abused by police officers at a police station in Cairo. (Apparently, the clip had been filmed by officers with the i ntention of intimidating the detainee’s fellow workers.)

YouTube Clip

Once this video clip was placed on YouTube and spread around the Egyptian blogosphere, opposition newspapers took up the story, citing the blogs as their source. When the victim was identified and encouraged to come forth, a human rights agency raised a case on his behalf against the officers involved, that eventually resulted in their conviction. This was an unprecedented event in Egypt’s modern history. Throughout the entire year that the case was being prosecuted, bloggers tracked every detail of the police and judiciary’s handling of the case, their relentless scrutiny of state actions frequently finding its way into the opposition newspapers. Satellite TV talk shows followed suit, inviting bloggers on screen to debate state officials concerned with the case. Moreover, within a month of posting the torture videos on his website, Abbas and other bloggers started receiving scores of similar cell phone films of state violence and abuse taken in police stations or d uring demonstrations.

This new relation between bloggers and other media forms has now become standard: not only do many of the opposition newspapers rely on bloggers for their stories, news stories that journalists cannot print themselves without facing state p ersecution – for example, on issues relating to the question of Mubarak’s successor

– are first fed to bloggers by investigative reporters. Once they are reported online, journalists then proceed to publish these stories in newsprint, citing the blogs as their source, avoiding accusations that they themselves unearthed the story. More over, many young people have taken up the practice of using cell phone c ameras in the street, and bloggers are constantly receiving phone film-footage from anonymous sources that they then put on their blogs.

This event played a key role in shaping the place that the blogosphere would come to occupy within Egypt’s media sphere. Bloggers understand their role as that of providing a direct link to what they call “the street,” conceived primarily as a space of state repression and political violence, but also as one of political action and popular resistance. They render visible and publicly speakable a political practice

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february 12, 2011 vol xlvi no 7

EPW
Economic Political Weekly

EGYPT: UNDERSTANDING THE UPRISING

– the violent subjugation of the Egyptian people by its authoritarian regime – that other media outlets cannot easily disclose, due to censorship, harassment and arrest. Harassment includes not only acts of p olice brutality and torture, but also the more mundane and routine forms of v iolence that shape the texture of everyday life. For example, blogs frequently r eport routine injustices experienced in public transportation, the cruel indifference of corrupt state bureaucrats, sexual harassment encountered in the streets, as well as the many faces of pain produced by conditions of intense poverty, environmental toxicity, infrastructural neglect, and so on.

Facebook General Strike

The blogosphere was joined by another powerful media instrument in 2008. On 6 April of that year a general strike took place in Egypt, an event which saw vast numbers of workers and students stay home from their sites of work and school. The strike, the largest anti-government mobilisation to occur in Egypt in many years, had been initiated by labour activists in support of striking workers at the Mahalla textile factory who had been holding out for months for better salaries and improved work conditions. In the month leading up to the strike, however, the aim of the action enlarged beyond the scope of the specific concerns of the factory workers. Propelled by the efforts of a group of activists on Facebook, the strike shifted to become a national day of protest against the corruption of the Mubarak r egime, and particularly against the regime’s complete inaction in the face of steadily declining wages and rising prices.

Most stunning about the event, and most worrisome to the Egyptian state, was the way the idea of a general strike had been generated. Esra’ ‘Abd al-Fattah, a young woman with little experience as an activist who lived just outside of Cairo, had initiated a group on Facebook calling for a sympathy strike with the textile workers. Within two weeks, close to 70,000 Facebook members had signed on. Political bloggers also began to promote the strike, and by 1 April most of the

o pposition political parties had been brought on board and were vigorously

Economic Political Weekly

EPW
february 12, 2011

t rying to mobilise their constituencies. When 6 April arrived, Egypt witnessed its most dramatic political mobilisation in decades, an event that brought together people across the political spectrum, from Muslim Brotherhood members to R evolutionary Socialists.

Egyptian Facebook activists and bloggers took up and extended the political platform that the Kifaya movement had introduced into Egyptian political life, the same exact platform that has brought m illions of Egyptians into the street these days. Four issues have defined a common moral stance: (i) a forceful rejection of the Mubarak regime and a demand for its end;

(ii) a stand against tawrith, or “succession”, specifically Gamal Mubarak’s succession of his father as president of the country; (iii) a demand for the expansion of political freedoms and the creation of fair and democratic institutions; and (iv) a condemnation of routinised state violence.

Although those who forged this online common ground have done so through different institutional experiences, and have brought with them different conceptions of the place of religion within politics, they write and interact as participants in a shared project. While they recognise the difference between their political commitments and those of other online activists, they engage with an orientation towards creating conditions of political action and change, and therefore seek to develop arguments, styles of writing and self-presentation that can bridge these differences and hold the plurality together. As one secularist blogger put it in commenting on the protocols of online e ngagement: “The atheists rein in their contempt for religion, while the religious bloggers – who would not even accept the existence of non-believers in the first place

– can now see some shared values.”

Moderating the Radical

For Islamist activists and members of the Muslim Brotherhood, this agenda marks a radical shift. Until quite recently, Islamist political arguments have focused on the importance of adopting the sharia as a n ational legal framework, and on the need to counter the impact of western cultural forms and practices in order to preserve the values of an Islamic society. Granted,

vol xlvi no 7

an earlier generation of intellectuals linked to Islamic political parties had, since the mid-1980s, emphasised the necessity of democratic political reforms. Leading Islamist writers such as Fahmi Howeidi, ‘Abd al-Wahhab al-Messiri, and Tarek al-Bishri had attempted to build a movement that would bring about an end to the rampant corruption afflicting Egypt’s political institutions and establish a solid basis for representative governance, but their viewpoints generally r emained marginal within Islamist political currents, and the organisations they tried to establish were largely undermined by the state.

For many of those making up the new generation of Islamist activists, however, the goal of creating a flourishing Islamic society must start with the reform of Egypt’s stultified authoritarian system, and therefore, with the development of a political discourse capable of responding to the requirements of this task. This political reorientation can be seen in a statement made few years back by Ibrahim H odeibi, an important voice among the new generation of Brotherhood members, and a well-known blogger. Writing in the c ontext of a debate with fellow Brotherhood members about the future of the

o rganisation, Hodeibi suggested that the Brotherhood slogan, “Islam is the solution”, should be replaced by the religiouslyneutral “Egypt for all Egyptians”, This is indeed the call we hear today rising up above the streets of Egypt.

These online activists have played a key role in transforming the conditions of p olitical possibility in Egypt during the last decade, and of paving the way to Tahrir Square today. They have sought out and cultivated new forms of political agency in the face of the predations and repressive actions of the Egyptian state. They have pioneered forms of political critique and interaction that can mediate and encompass the heterogeneity of r eligious and s ocial commitments that constitute Egypt’s contemporary political terrain. From the latest news reports (1 February) it is clear that many of them are now being arrested and beaten for their efforts. The regime has again shown itself implacable in its disdain for the people of Egypt. The shout from the street is: “al-Shaab Yurid Isqat a l-Nizam!” “The people want the r egime to go!”

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