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Revolution in a social and political vacuum

Martyrs & Tricksters. An Ethnography of the Egyptian Revolution

EGYPT 10 YEARS AFTER: Walter Armbrust has written about the time after the first eighteen days of the revolution: If one considers the revolution on Tahrir Square in Cairo as a rite of passage, there are several good reasons why it went wrong.

(PS. This article is machine-translated from Norwegian)

Ten years ago, in late 2010, the Arab Spring began when the Tunisian people demanded change. It evolved into The Jasmine Revolution, and when we got a little into 2011, the new winds spread Egypt. Here the revolution did not get a name as such, and it may be related to the fact that we identify it to that extent with Tahrir Square. For eighteen days, the attention of the whole world was focused on the square in central Cairo, until 11 February 2011, when Hosni Mubarak acknowledged his defeat and announced his resignation from the presidency.

Those were euphoric days. Many were hoping for new times in Egypt and the Arab world, and many articles and books have been written about it. But the normal approach is to enumerate a number of reasons for the Egyptian revolution, and then assess the outcome based on those parameters, and that of course provides plenty of common sense and also plausible explanations as to why spring ended in disappointment.

However, there is also another way to go and it has Walter Armbrust selected. He is Professor of Modern Middle Eastern Studies at the University of Oxford and, and in his latest book he has chosen to take a closer look at the time after the first eighteen days of the revolution. He believes that this is where we can study the dynamics of the whole revolution and become wiser about why the Egyptian developed as it did.

The critical void

Crossbow calls it a liminal phase. It is a term often used in the science of religion to denote a rite of passage, and it makes a lot of sense here. In the Egyptian context, it will cover the time from the first eighteen days and just over two years onwards, ie until July 3, 2013, when Egypt's current leader, General Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, came to power in a military coup. This describes the book as the final bankruptcy of the revolution, and the analysis therefore revolves around the big question: How could it go so wrong?

Tahrir Square represents the liberal-economic ideology of the Mubarak era.

It is in the liminal phase, the revolution gets his own life. Up until the revolution, the initiators often have a number of common hopes, and perhaps even a common strategy, but once it has reached the point where the world defines events as a revolution, it has also moved into a social and political vacuum. There is also talk of a heterotopic space, because the revolution in that phase often goes in many different directions and no one can say with certainty where it all ends. Armbrust calls it a liminal crisis, and the longer this void lasts, the greater the chances that the end result will be something completely different than expected.

«Tahrir» means «freedom».

In Armbrust's view, physical space is of great importance, and here he naturally thinks of the fix point of the revolution, Tahrir Square. There is, of course, a practical reason why it became the center of events, namely that it is located in the middle of the city, and not least that it is large enough to accommodate the huge crowd. It also gained symbolic meaning because edit means «freedom», while Mubarak's National Democratic Party had its colossal headquarters right next to the square.

First and foremost, however, there is the physical appearance of the entire square. It's not much more than a colossal traffic hub. There is a microscopic island of grass in the middle and the rest is asphalt. A series of major motorways begin and end at Tahrir Square, therefore there is traffic chaos most of the day. In this way, the square represents the liberal-economic ideology of the Mubarak era, which paid homage to the right to private property and thus also private motoring. It is the epitome of urban planning, where all resources were posted in new satellite suburbs for the benefit of the affluent section of the population, while social disparities have deepened.

But if you wear the ethnographic glasses like Armbrust, is #Tahrir a poor starting point for #the revolution. The place is devoid of soul. It houses a number of bus terminals for the impoverished citizens who are relegated to public transport, but when going from there and further into the city, it is almost life-threatening because the whole place is without sidewalks and, to say the least, hostile to pedestrians. It is a non-space, and therefore, in ordinary Egyptian eyes, it also became a revolutionary non-space.

In other words, the events in Tahrir Square became a major spectacle that in itself would never have been able to overthrow Mubarak. The real incidents took place elsewhere in the country, in the form of demonstrations at local police stations and the like, but this was less noticed because everyone's eyes were on central Cairo. And that made the revolution an extremely diffuse affair, even of revolutions to be.

The Maspero Massacre

We saw the result But I hope. It's the name of a neighborhood in the center Cairo, but it has also become synonymous with the large building on the site, which houses the state television. In October 2011, a group of Copts chose to demonstrate in front of the building. They protested that one of the Coptic churches in southern Egypt had just been destroyed by the authorities, and the country's transitional military government chose to crack down on the demonstration. On October 9 and 10, 24 people were killed.

The fraternity was thought to have had a finger in the pie since the Coptic
church building was destroyed.

The Maspero massacre, as it has come to be called, expresses all the danger elements of the liminal phase. The time after the fall of the Mubarak regime had seen an alliance emerge between Copts and Muslim groups, which was something new, and they were in opposition to the Islamists, ie the Muslim Brotherhood and the more conservative groups, the Salafists. And then the Copts chose to demonstrate in a place with a very clear identity, namely the square in front of the TV building that has always symbolized the center of power. At that time, power remained in the hands of the military government, but the demonstration was also addressed to the Brotherhood, which was partly to win the planned election and partly believed to have had a hand in the game when the Coptic church building was destroyed. In reality, the Copts simply followed the goal of the revolution, which is called equality for all citizens, but with the election of Maspero it became a provocation. In the ensuing election, therefore, many people joined the Muslim Brotherhood and Muhammad Morsi – not because they necessarily sympathized with the ideology of this wing, but because the Brotherhood represented some stability in the midst of the liminal crisis.

General Sisi

The rest is history, as they say. General Sisi seized power and established a regime even more authoritarian than Mubarak's, and he was allowed to do so because the first eighteen days of the revolution were a success, followed by a few years without goals and with. No one really took the reins in the crucial phase of the revolution, and they chose the wrong symbols and the wrong fix point, namely Tahrir Square.

Hans Henrik Fafner
Fafner is a regular critic in Ny Tid. Residing in Tel Aviv.

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