Friday, November 18, 2011

The "I'm not alone"s of Egypt

One day, perhaps ten or twenty years from now, sociologists, psychologists and other experts will look at the amazing developments unleashed in the Egyptian society following the January 25, 2011 Revolution. I will attempt to address a couple of observations, one perhaps over discussed right now and another less so.

First, the revolt against authority across society, in the home, at schools and universities, in work places; from factories to ports to hospitals, to courts and within security establishment itself, even within established political movements and religious institutions. Egypt has seen doctors and judges strike, central security conscripts strike and the established Muslim Brotherhood has seen several of its youth split out into new parties more closely aligned with other revolutionary youth movements. Egyptian families have seen their sons and daughters defy them to camp out for days at Tharir Square protests. 

For decades, and perhaps for centuries, Egyptian society has been patriarchal and hierarchical. Under the series of military rulers since the overthrow of King Farouk in 1952 the added element of corruption grew reaching nauseating levels under Mubarak. The excesses of authoritarian behavior and corruption permeated every aspect of the society from former president Mubarak and his family down to the tiniest organizational unit, be it a small school, factory, or government clinic.

The success of the revolution in gathering the support of millions and eventually the overthrow of Mubarak has opened the lid on explosive levels of frustrations and sense of deep injustice against unreasonableness and authoritarianism everywhere. Egyptians have become hard to contain anywhere, there have been problems and protests against Saudi authorities and airlines dealing with Egyptian pilgrims; Egyptians no longer put up with much in their usual silence and patience.

Second and perhaps less noticed phenomena is what I call "I'm not alone" syndrome! Before January 25, 2011 a swath of Egyptian society felt isolated and angry, against the society at large, not just the regime itself. I recall the words of an explosive 2008 rap, railing against the Government, “ded el hekomah” or ”ضد الحكومه” where Ramy Donjewan cries out against the Government and those who accept to be insulted, those who accept their dignity be trampled upon. The sense of anger was so pervasive, that the amazing outpouring of happiness and pride, in my view, was not just from the success of overthrow of Mubarak, but also from seeing how many like minded people were out there.

Unlike the revolt against authority " I'm not alone" is far from universality within Egypt. Many are fully occupied with daily struggles of life, feeding a family, making ends meet and rarely have time, energy or inclination to pay attention to other issues and there are those who are focused achieving own personal goals or being entertained without much interest in societal or intellectual pursuits. A clear majority of Egyptians clearly belong to those two categories. The first category struggles for survival is clearly the poor, the later is often described nowadays in Egypt as the The Couch Party or Hezb El Kanabah حزب الكنبه those happily sitting on their sofas watching the events.

I will carve out a further category of Egyptians , those active supporters of religious movements or associations be them Muslim Brothers, Salafis or Copts. These groups already knew they were not alone, even before January 25, 2011. Generally their primary identifications are with their groups as “brothers” true Muslims or “Copts” and less so with the society or Egypt as a whole.

With the above exclusions, I have indeed reduced those I wish to label by "I'm not alone" to fewer than 10% of the population. So a few million Egyptians who thought they were alone, or almost alone, have discovered like-minded thousands within their immediate districts, millions across the country. It was amazing to see, in Tahrir Square, few months after the revolution, over fifty thousand people cheering Ramy Essam, yell out ( madanniya madanniya ) or civil civil calling out for a secular democratic state. Ramy Essam, the young man from Mansoura, brought his guitar as his weapon against the brutality of Mubarak police and thugs during the days of revolution last winter and became known as the Singer of the Revolution.

It is this group of leftists, liberals and unaffiliated who care, really care that found its voice and knew it was not alone after the revolution. Many are pious Muslim or Copts, few are atheist, some are very political and have been for years. The “I’m not alone”s are far from uniform combining people with very differing views and some would even find more in common with Islamists than with each other. The liberals within the group are often more perfectly aligned with Muslim Brotherhood on economic matters, whereas the Egyptian Left would make common cause with the Brotherhood on hatred for Israel.

Yet it is this group, the "I'm not alone"s that are now the most reluctant to give up the joy they found in the revolution and have become the biggest critics of the Egyptian Army Generals who control the country. And it is indeed this group that has been suffering the brunt of the excessive suppression at the hands of the army. Revolution Singer Ramy Essam was tortured at the hands of the army several months ago and despite of promises of investigation and justice this remains to happen.

As I write these words, a couple of prominent “I’m not alone”s come to mind. From the pro west liberal camp Maikel Nabil remains on hunger strike for staggering 85 days, in army prison since March, currently awaiting retrial after an initial sentence of three year prison has been annulled by the military itself. Amazingly, he has not been released, even on bail, pending his retrial for his anti military blogpost. Maikel Nabil has been classified as Prisoner of Conscience by Amnesty International and so has Alaa Abdelfatteh who is more aligned with the Egyptian left wing. Alaa too is currently languishing in prison awaiting military trial. Maikel and Alaa have refused to cooperate with the military tribunal system and are being severely punished for their daring to challenge the military courts jurisdiction over them as civilians. It is amazing that the Army rulers have shown significant leniency towards Islamists and indeed some who were serving sentences for the murder of late President Sadat were freed or allowed to return from exile.

The "I'm not alone"s took their celebrations from cyberspace into the streets. So rather than just tweeting 140 characters in cyberspace, the very same Alaa Abdelfatteh pioneered the concept of Tweetnadwa where people stood up and expressed their views on selected topics in 140 seconds. So not only did Egyptians perfect the use of social networks for revolution, they did not stop and moved beyond converging the cyber and physical worlds.

The "I'm not alone"s have produced amazing creativity in street arts, songs, poetry and most recently nude photography. A young Egyptian girl published totally nude artistic photos of herself in defiance of conservative customs to the utter bewilderment and anger at some Salafi ultra orthodox Islamists who advocate covering not only women’s hair but also face and hands. I heard of the daring Allia el Mahdi and her blog on the very same day I heard of a Salafi leader refusing to be interviewed by TV journalist unless she covered herself; what a contrast between the two acts. Allia speaks openly of her atheism and of her boy friend Kareem Amer, who was jailed and tortured for his atheism and her rejection of forced religiosity. Alia and Kareem are certainly in a very tiny minority in conservative Egypt but they are not alone and they know it.

The amazing courage and perhaps naiveté of the young Egyptian "I'm not alone"s of various strips create conflicted feelings in me, I am so proud of them, of all of them, even the ones I disagree with, I am so hopeful for Egypt, because a country with such great human wealth, with so much youth talent and courage, truly, has amazing potential; but I am also so scared for them and desperately want them to be free, safe and happy!

November 18, 2011