An Egyptian Spring and a Wisconsin Winter

This essay appears originally in We Are Wisconsin, a collected volume of writings about the Wisconsin protests in Winter 2011, edited by Erica Sangras.

The Cairo evening seeped with optimism and joy, with dancing punctuated by shouts of Egyptian pride, and people waving the red, white, and black flag with the eagle emblazoned in the center. I was nearly breathless when I reached the Qasr al-Nil bridge that led to Tahrir Square after running from my hotel wearing oversized khakis and uncomfortable shoes with no socks, equipped with only my two cell phones (American and Egyptian), which I had assembled hastily minutes after Egypt’s vice president had announced that President Hosni Mubarak had stepped down and subsequently bolted out the door.
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CTUWS: The Official Federation ETUF To Be Dissolved

The CTUWS puts out a statement on the dissolution of the ETUF. This is an incredible win for Egyptian workers. The ETUF is a yellow union with Mubarak’s NDP cronies at all levels of leadership. This drives one more nail in the coffin of the structures of the Mubarak regime that impeded the progress of Egyptian labor.

The Official Federation ETUF To Be Dissolved

Egypt, CTUWS, 4 August 2011: In a step that is considered as a great triumph to Egypt’s Revolution, the Cabinet approved the dissolving of the Egyptian Trade Union Federation, ETUF. The decision has been taken after the document, the Manpower Minister has represented, which is concerning the rulings of the invalidity of the trade union elections for the term of 2006 – 2011. These rulings were unimplemented in the time of the former regime.

The Cabinet asked the Manpower Minister to implement these rulings, and to follow the consequences of dissolving ETUF’s board, and to form a temporary committee for managing the federation till elections to be held under judicial supervision.

Fridays in Tahrir Square

Originally published in The News International, August 3, 2011: http://www.thenews.com.pk/TodaysPrintDetail.aspx?ID=60850&Cat=9

Since the beginning of the Egyptian Revolution, Fridays in Cairo’s Tahrir Square have gone by a number of names, some short and to the point, like the infamous “Friday of Rage”, but many overwrought and the result of endless political wrangling.

The Friday of “popular will and a united front” was redolent of the latter. The convoluted name of the march was the product of a hastily-brokered deal between Islamists and liberals, after plans for a mass Islamist day of action emerged, organised by Islamist political groups – most notably, the Muslim Brotherhood. The agreed-upon demands were of the least-common-denominator ilk, including faster retribution for the families of the revolution’s martyrs, trials for police officers accused of committing those murders, and no military trials for civilians.

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CTUWS Calls for Independent Unions and Dissolution of ETUF

Just got this message in my email from the Center for Trade Unions and Workers Services (CTUWS) in Egypt. They are calling for the Cabinet to disband the ETUF, the government-run trade union federation under Mubarak and call for the recognition of independent unions, which have been growing stronger since the revolution.

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Atlantic’s Misleading Stats on Muslim Brotherhood support

An article posted in the Atlantic today reported that the Muslim Brotherhood had only 17% support, data derived from the latest Newsweek poll.

Here’s the article: http://www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2011/07/chart-of-the-day-muslim-brotherhood-is-deeply-unpopular-in-egypt/242539/

The first study is from the Washington Institute of Near East Policy (http://www.washingtoninstitute.org/html/pdf/pollock-Egyptpoll.pdf).  A few things I noticed right off the bat on this survey.

Small sample size: the sample is of 343 phone interviews with residents in Cairo and Alexandria.  Greater Cairo is a city of 20 million people, Alexandria is about 4 million. Although I know there are strategies at getting representative samples, this seems to me a somewhat limited one. In addition, it excludes getting a representative sample of the majority of the Egyptian population, especially those who live in more rural governates.  If we are look at the results of the constitutional referendum, nearly all of the other governates voted yes, which would have meant that elections would come first, giving more salient parties an advantage.  It’s not a neat proxy for judging sentiment and attitudes towards existing parties like the MB, but a truly representative sample would have aimed at sampling from all governates.  Second, the phone interviews took place from Feb 5 to 8, 2011, still in the midst of the revolution. I’m not sure how this would bias the data, but it’s a concern.

The next study is from Gallup: (http://www.abudhabigallupcenter.com/147902/BRIEF-BILINGUAL-Egypt-Tahrir-Transition.aspx).  This is perhaps one of the better designed surveys, given that it was taken after the revolution and has a sample of 1000 participants.

The last study is from Newsweek (http://www.newsweek.com/2011/07/24/egypt-s-angry-electorate/the-muslim-brotherhood.html), which doesn’t note its survey methodology anywhere, but says that the Freedom and Justice party has a “plurality of support” at 17%.  The Atlantic frames this more pessimistically, saying that this is an abysmal showing, worse than Nixon before he was shamed out of office.  What they do not say is that 27% of their respondents say that MB majority would be a good thing.  The disparity between support for an MB party and support for an MB majority is confusing. It’s possible that this discrepancy was a result of the instrument — MB has name recognition, while “Freedom and Justice” may not.

This is not to be an alarmist about the “Scary Impending MB Takeover” predicted by Fox News et al.  But the presentation of the data was just too disingenuous for me to leave it uncommented.

Wisconsin and Egypt: A tale of two uprisings

Originally published in The Isthmus, July 18, 2011: http://www.thedailypage.com/daily/article.php?article=34131

 

The scene in Cairo on Saturday, February 12, the day after Mubarak stepped down, and two days before the first large protests started in Madison.
The sun rises against a smoggy Cairo sky as I write this on Friday, the day of rest and prayer in the capital of Egypt. It also marks the first full week back in historic Tahrir Square for Egyptian protesters. They’ve gotten better at their craft of occupying the space, setting up fans, air conditioners, and lighting in personal tents.

The comparison between Cairo and Madison has been made on more than one occasion, by high-profile figures from state Senator Lena Taylor (D-Milwaukee) to Code Pink activist Medea Benjamin. It’s overwrought and problematic on many levels, but what we can compare between the two is what has happened since each uprising, and what it says about our own political imagination.

In Egypt, protesters are demanding largely the same things that they were in January and February: an end to corruption in government, a total overhaul of the notorious police force, a restructuring of the judiciary, no military trials for civilians, a rewrite of the constitution, and an increase in social spending and the minimum wage. Simply put, they want a free, democratic and socially responsible country.

The central demand from earlier in the year, the overthrow of Mubarak, is no longer relevant, but most activists believe that Mubarak’s regime is more than just Mubarak. The Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) has been more than willing to continue the tradition of authoritarianism practiced by Mubarak and his predecessors. I’ve spoken with several activists, and they see the revolution as far from complete, some saying they wished they had never left Tahrir after February 11.

But a wall has been broken, meaning freedom from fear and the willingness to engage in political experimentation. For example, blogger and activist Alaa Abd El-Fattah created what is called the #TweetNadwa, nadwa being the Arabic word for “seminar” or “study group.” The forum takes a certain political topic and throws it open for discussion, to both a set of panelists and the audience.

Each audience speaker is only allowed 140 seconds to comment, a nod to Twitter’s 140-character limit. Topics can be as broad as social justice or as specific as how to reform the police and the judiciary. These were the subjects of the last two #TweetNadwas, held in a grassy area of Tahrir Square and open to all the protesters there.

This is only one expression of the continuing political work of Egyptian activists. There is the much harder work of party-building and organizing citizens in preparation for the upcoming parliamentary and eventually presidential elections. The space is also opening up for the development of independent trade unions, freed from the shackles of the yellow union, which workers are forced to join by the state.

Back in Madison, the focus has been on the recall elections. As we’re all well aware, If the Democrats can hold onto their three seats and flip three more, the Senate will revert to Democratic control. Gov. Scott Walker’s hands would then be tied in pushing through more of the poisonous legislation we’ve seen over the past six months.

Wisconsin is, of course, not Egypt. We have legal redress, and we have a recall procedure. And while it’s been a monumental recall effort, there is statute that governs it.

The only thing the SCAF can hear, however, is thousands of people calling for its replacement with a transitional government. It seems to be working, with Prime Minister Essam Sharaf firing nearly 700 members of the security apparatus in connection with the murder of the nearly 1,000 martyrs of the January 25 revolution. Human rights groups and protesters are saying that this isn’t enough and will continue to press until police have gone to trial and are convicted.

Just as Egyptian activists wish they had never left Tahrir, maybe we shouldn’t have given up the Capitol so easily. As Jack “The Sconz” Craver has opined, campaigning on collective bargaining rights isn’t that sexy anymore. And perhaps it’s been a failure of our own political imagination.

We’ve been so engrossed in the recalls that the question of “how to keep the momentum going” has gotten looped into the means-to-an-end that are the recalls. We should think about what got us into this situation to begin with.

In our own way, we have to retake Tahrir. What about looking into our own organizations — our schools, universities and workplaces — and trying to build power within them? How about reforming our unions in such a way that they are oriented toward a culture of organizing and of collective power? The power of the union doesn’t lie in the law. Although labor law is often the consequence of union actions, union power comes from workers acting collectively and in solidarity with one another.

So while political imagination is blooming in Cairo, it is somewhat disappointing in Wisconsin. And it’s not for lack of a history of innovators. We are the state of Fighting Bob La Follette, of the Wisconsin Idea, and of the first public sector collective bargaining rights in the nation. Let’s find our #TweetNadwa. More concretely, let’s renew our parties, our institutions and our unions.

Gracious, Tahrir

Originally published in Newsweek Pakistan, April 4, 2011: http://newsweekpakistan.com/the-take/279

Mohammed Abed / AFP

Early morning, Feb. 4, I watched with weary eyes as the Day of Departure in Cairo’s Tahrir Square unfolded on my TV screen in sleepy Wisconsin. Hundreds of thousands of demonstrators prayed in unison, with one loud, booming voice. They were demanding the overthrow of President Hosni Mubarak and his regime.

Hours later, I was on a bus to Chicago to pick up a visa at the Egyptian consulate. In contrast to Tahrir, nothing seemed amiss there. A timid male receptionist with a trimmed mustache supervised a square desk with nothing on it but a stack of old visa forms, a phone, and the Quran. Hieroglyphics hung from walls, next to the obligatory picture of Mubarak.
I landed in Cairo two days later. The streets were empty because of an Army-imposed curfew. This blankness was in stark contrast to the bustling Cairene streets I remembered from my last trip in 2008. Tanks doubled as roadblocks every half mile or so.
The taxi driver and his “supervisor” told me how tourism was taking a hit, how Army-controlled gas stations were only open for a short time during the day, and even then the price of gas had gone up dramatically. They just wanted the country to return to normal, and Mubarak stood for normalcy. This was a common complaint from those who didn’t protest— like my cousin in Alexandria who was worried about the Muslim Brotherhood usurping the uprising—and from bloggers who had been to more rural areas. Not surprisingly, this was also the narrative on state-controlled TV. Accordingly, the driver, while sympathetic to change, thought Al Jazeera wasn’t telling the whole story.
The next morning, I made my way down to Tahrir Square with Cyril Almeida, the Pakistani journalist with whom I was staying. The taxi took us to the edge of the Qasr al-Nil bridge, from which we had to walk. People had queued to get into the square, some of them carrying bags full of food for the protesters. Everything about the line seemed political: young men yelled “Honor Egypt!” with arms full of flags for sale. They talked about what post-Mubarak Egypt would look like, expressing disbelief at reports on how much money the regime had allegedly embezzled. Even the line seemed political—people I spoke with later expressed wonder that Egyptian people could actually form queues. I spoke with a few boys behind us. One remarked that something like Mubarak can never happen again, that the next president should know exactly when to enter office and when to leave. Another said that while families had been coming to Tahrir, it wasn’t going to be all fun and games: the goal was still to overthrow the regime.
The Qasr al-Nil entrance was flanked by a fence on one side, a tank on the other, behind which stood a mess of makeshift barricades and barbed wire. The military décor seemed merely symbolic. Citizens were the ones playing security by checking IDs and giving pat-downs at the entrance. Inside, the mood was carnivalesque. Drummers and singers chanted revolutionary slogans and sang nationalist songs. Banners flew in English and Arabic, both proclaiming those now legendary words: “The people demand removal of the regime.” I met a blogger friend, whom I had previously only known online, on the sidewalk which separated two sides of the square. On one side, a group of women dressed vividly in a rainbow array of hijabs chanted and marched. On the other, a swarm of children did the same.
Nadia, my blogger friend, became my guide and led me through the different parts of the square. We ventured to the middle, once a grass-covered traffic circle and now a tent city. I use the word “tent” loosely, since shelters were constructed from poles, stakes, rope, and whatever could be draped over them. We ducked through the narrow makeshift alleyways and thoroughfares, saw women, men, and children of all backgrounds making food, sleeping, living in these highly unusual circumstances. I puzzled the most at the sleeping, since Tahrir held an excited revolutionary buzz, with people talking and chanting, and loudspeakers blaring speeches and music. I came to understand later that as long as the buzz is constant, one can ignore it.
We found one of the first tents established in the square, the so-called “Freedom Motel” started by blogger Tarek Shalaby. It had become a meeting spot for bloggers and net-savvy youth, most of them fluent in English. Tarek described some of the impromptu systems that had developed in the square, like the station for charging cell phones. One would have to leave an ID with the cell phone and take a checkout number in return. Another man said he had left his job in the U.S. to be with his family and friends during the revolution.
We then made our way to another entrance. Men stood on a burnt out police truck that had been turned onto its side. Those entering the square were greeted with songs and the waving of Egyptian flags. Nadia pointed to the top of the residential building from where Mubarak’s supporters had been throwing Molotov cocktails and rocks at their opponents below. I’d seen the same building on Al Jazeera some days earlier. Behind the truck, someone had taken stones thrown by Mubarak supporters and spelled out irhal (“leave”) on the street. Nearby, men camped next to tanks still manned by the Army to ensure these didn’t move on Tahrir’s residents.
Around 4 p.m., the square began to fill up. Families came together, along with students and businessmen. Nadia hadn’t seen crowds of this size since the protests began. There was a marked difference in the environment and mood between Tahrir and the rest of Cairo. A blogger, Mona Seif, had tweeted right after pro-Mubarak thugs attacked the square that Tahrir was the safest place in the city.
She was right. I felt no aggression toward me, no fear. When I spoke to people outside of Tahrir who opposed or were skeptical of the protests, they would speak with a shadow of contempt if not outright hostility.
Evening fell on the square with pockets of men gathering to pray. Others formed a wall around them for protection. On our way out, we saw a bride and groom, married in Tahrir that day. Here was the union of the private and the public, the sacred and the mundane.
Exiting the square, we walked toward the state TV building, now a fortress with no less than 40 tanks surrounding it and soldiers stationed behind mounted guns on the second story. The streets outside brought me back to the reality of Cairo. The sidewalks and streets were thick with garbage, traffic was backed up and barely moving, honking continued unabated. The fallout from the clashes was visible. The Army guarded the Ramses Hilton, whose sign had been defaced with anti-Mubarak slogans. A wall read “Mubarak=sadness.” Nadia and I parted ways as I returned to the hotel after my first full day in revolutionary Cairo.
Three days later, Mubarak stepped down.

Broken Façade of Fear

Originally published in Dawn, February 3, 2011: http://www.dawn.com/2011/02/03/broken-facade-of-fear.html

MORE than a week after it began, the Egyptian uprising isn’t showing any signs of abating. Members of the Central Security Forces were disarmed when attempting to engage demonstrators and replaced by committees of citizens directing traffic and safeguarding neighbourhoods.

The headquarters of Hosni Mubarak’s National Democratic Party (NDP) have gone up in flames in most major cities, left to burn by the people and a seemingly sympathetic army. Egyptians have set up semi-permanent camps in the aptly named Tahrir (Liberation) Square and become its guardians — even its cleaners, brooms in hand.

They now wait for their single demand to be met: that Mubarak and his cronies pack their bags and join the deposed dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, the former president of Tunisia, in Jeddah.

To casual observers of Egypt, this seemed to come out of nowhere. Three months ago parliamentary elections were held in which the NDP won over 93 per cent of the vote. Of course the elections were rigged, but complacency followed. There was no outcry, no mass protest, no call to expel Mubarak or stage a repeat of Iran’s 2009 Green Movement. Pyramids were still visited, Europeans still vacationed in Sharm El Sheikh.

But then Tunisia happened. The now well-worn narrative of frustrated college graduate Mohammed Bouazizi, the 26-year-old who set himself on fire to protest his inability to make a living, set his hometown of Sidi Bouzid alight and with it the rest of the country.

In light of Tunisia’s revolution, the question floating through the Egyptian mind became, ‘If in Tunisia, why not here?’

And why not, when Egypt shared so much of the same tinder, waiting for the spark, that pre-revolution Tunisia had? Both countries enjoy a glut of unemployed or underemployed youth, rising inflation, and strong restrictions on the freedoms of press and assembly. Mubarak plays the political strongman akin to Ben Ali, with their NDP and the Constitutional Democratic Rally, respectively, quashing dissent. Save for the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, even the organised political opposition looks similarly weak.

But grievances do not make a revolution. Nor, as many rightly point out, is Egypt the same country as Tunisia. It is the most populous nation in the Arab world and holds a central place in the power configuration between the US and Israel, receiving a nontrivial amount of military aid from the former.

It has put that aid money to use arming its state security forces to the teeth. And, to steal a comparison from The Arabist’s Issandr el-Amrani, Mubarak has the hard-headedness of a gamoosa (water buffalo) as compared to Ben Ali’s vacillations between the carrot and the stick prior to his ouster.

With regard to the political opposition, trade unions found a strong leadership position in the street protests of Tunisia while the official (essentially government-controlled) Egyptian Trade Union Federation called for member syndicates to actively dissuade its members from protesting.

But perhaps this conversation is moot. In some ways, Egypt didn’t need the flames of Tunisia to light the kindling. It had its own Mohammed Bouazizi in Khaled Said, a 28-year-old beaten to death by state security in a cyber cafe in June 2010. Pictures of his mutilated face were posted widely on blogs and other social media, fuelling the rising outrage against police brutality.

Said became an icon of the Jan 25 demonstrations, with a series of popular cartoons depicting his ubiquitous visage, the Jan25 Twitter hashtag imprinted on his shirt. In one cartoon he’s picking up a malcontent Mubarak by the scruff of his suit jacket; in another, he is yelling “Wake up Egypt!” to a distraught Interior Minister Habib el-Adly, who is kneeling and covering his ears.

But Tunisia was needed, dearly needed. Tunisia was the first to throw off the shackles of fear, to pierce the facade of reprisal in the face of dissent. Tunisia was the necessary leap of faith that a popular uprising could remove decades of oppression.

And almost overnight, the Egyptian veil of fear has been lifted. Activists against police brutality gathering under the name of Said and members of the April 6 Youth Movement called for a ‘Day of Anger’ on Jan 25 — a date usually celebrated to commemorate a 1952 British attack on a police station that helped precipitate Nasser’s revolution — to protest police brutality, corruption, poverty and unemployment. Since then, protests in the capital, which in the past only gathered hundreds of the same activists, have brought out in droves thousands who would otherwise not have come out.

On the night of the 25th demonstrators occupied Tahrir Square, establishing a carnival atmosphere in which they planned to camp, chanting “we want the regime out” and drafting a loose consensus statement before state security dispersed them with tear gas in the early morning hours.

Over the past several days, Egyptians have demonstrated in the face of police crackdowns, plain-clothes police acting as agent provocateurs and military shows of intimidation and the outright gunning down of unarmed civilians. The demonstrations have only escalated, resulting in a (largely ignored) military-enforced curfew and a near-complete shutdown of the Internet and SMS and mobile-phone services.

Despite the lack of order, uncertainty, restrictions on communication, violence and destruction, Egyptians are reporting that they are finally feeling free. It has now become a waiting match between the people and the aging Mubarak, who almost seems completely oblivious to their demands.

The ‘concession’ of appointing spy chief Omar Suleiman as vice president and Minister of Aviation Ahmed Shafik as prime minister hasn’t appeased anyone but American cable news outlets obsessed with the idiosyncrasies of personality. But this is all shuffling deck chairs on the Titanic.

Tunisia has been a source of awe and inspiration, and a fair warning to regimes that believe they can continue their programmes of intimidation and repression. Already similar days of anger have been planned for Sudan, Yemen, Algeria, Syria and Bahrain. Let’s hope the Saudis have enough room to accommodate several more dictators.

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