Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Sun Feb 13, 2011 9:44 am 
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Sunday, February 6, 2011

Egypt: beyond Tahrir Square

"Freedom has a price and we're ready to pay it"

Egypt is a nation of performers, giving the Arab world some of its greatest singers, composers, playwrights, movie stars, directors, and telenovelas. Tahrir Square has become Egyptians' greatest stage of all, a place to show courage, pride, cooperation, and defiance with vigor and humor. No better symbol of that than the "awesome kid" on YouTube Sharif Abdel Kouddous tweeted about, a smiling schoolboy with a red kufiyya wrapped around his head leading a humorous and mocking chant about a "Hosni" so nutty he put a chair in the freezer. The scene in the square is open to everyone anti-Mubarak, regardless of age, gender, class, politics, religion, or class, and all are helping, feeding, cooperating with each other in simple gestures symbolizing a new Egypt. This is a sublimely joyful first moment of revolution when everything seems possible. It is good to hold onto it and savor it, even if the intifada has had its violence and ugliness visible to everyone and its ultimate outcome is uncertain. Millions in the other main cities second its most basic message: THE PEOPLE OF EGYPT WANT THE REGIME TO FALL. GAME OVER. LEAVE. Egyptians all over the world and activists everywhere second the motion.

Mubarak and Obama have received this message, however grudgingly. But behind the stage of celebration things are different. Outside the Tahrir Square love-fest the Egyptian army is picking up and the secret police is locking up and beating thousands of Egyptians. They are detaining, questioning, sometimes beating foreign journalists; Al Jazeera is far from the only target. Representatives of the Mukhabarat go to apartment buildings frightening people who may have hosted foreigners. The non-stop message is: all this is being brought about from outside. And be afraid. This has also been the case in Tunisia.

Is this a "social media revolution," by the way? Malcolm Gladwell is prominent -- in an New Yorker blog -- in debunking this label. Obviously young Egyptian activists did make much use of Facebook earlier to organize, and their use of it may have a lot to do with the involvement of educated youth, but during much of the intifada so far no one has been able to access the Internet, or send text messages. It was down to the old "téléphone arabe," mouth to ear. Rumors spread fast in Egypt long before there were mobiles or social networks. And what does that matter, anyway? The message is not the medium.

Not everyone likes what's happening. The intifada, like any revolution, is messy for everyone. It has closed the banks, shut down businesses. Even basic necessities are hard to get hold of. Everything is at a standstill. While I live in a progressive area where sympathy for liberation struggles is assumed as a given, some people I know, faced with the tumult of Egypt today, have primarily expressed alarm and worry, pointing out that people in Egypt will suffer as a result of the "disturbances." The NY Times Sunday "Week in Review" section led off with the ugly catch phrase, "Blood on the Nile." The conservative US media as usual in such instances have pushed the word "chaos." All those who fed off the Mubarak regime hate the idea of its fall. The fat cat cronies of other Arab dictators are shaking in their shoes. And likewise westerners who prefer the status quo or don't understand how desperate three decades of oppression make you: they just think events in Egypt are dangerous and scary, food for new jihads. That is, if they even know where Egypt is. Not a single local paper had a headline about Egypt today.

Slavoj Zizek has answered the squeamish in a Guardian essay, "Why fear the Arab revolutionary spirit?" He and the Oxford Islamic scholar Tariq Ramadan appeared on Al Jazeera English debunking the notion that Islamists are an automatic threat to the West and that the Muslim Brotherhood will co-opt Egypt's uprising and turn Egypt into a duplicate of today's Iran. Zizek cited Chairman Mao's famous line, "There is great chaos under heaven – the situation is excellent." The point is that disorder is a necessary precursor to a new order. Many Egyptians live on an income of $2 a day. Have they got much to lose? No, it is the shopkeepers and the wealthy who object to revolution, as they objected to the Free Officers one of 1952. But naturally many in Egypt who sympathize with the intifada are nonetheless growing weary as it goes on and on. To the كفاية/kifāya ("Enough!") of the protesters they have their own "Kifaya!" But would you rather have order and quiet -- and joblessness, stagnation, police oppression and terror -- or a new and democratic government with all elements of society fairly represented? Some people are simply not political, and some people are crypto-conservatives, who pretend to be in favor of democracy and change but in fact prefer the security of strongmen -- as the American government has done throughout much of US history. It's a tough tradeoff, but the demonstrators know the meaning of the sign some held up: للحرية ثمن ونحن مستعدون لدفعه /lil-ḥuriyya thaman wa naḥnu musta'idūn lidaf'ihi. FREEDOM HAS A PRICE, AND WE'RE READY TO PAY IT.

Young demonstrator held aloft

Egyptian honeymooners

©Chris Knipp. Blog:

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