More Than A Political Revolution

by Samantha Iyer

The story began with the television. On the evening of January 15, my friends told me to come quickly to the living room to watch the news. Both Al-Jazeera and Egyptian stations were reporting that Tunisia’s president, Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali had fled the country, and the president of Tunisia’s parliament had taken over as interim leader. Since early January, people in Cairo had been talking about the on-going revolt in Tunisia. It began, I was told, when a 26 year-old man named Mohammaed Bouazizi set himself on fire on December 17. He committed the act in protest after the police in his town of Sidi Bouzid confiscated the fruit and vegetable cart he relied on for his livelihood. Protests inspired by the public suicide spread across the country in opposition to Ben Ali and his 23 year-old regime. Now, the T.V. was telling us that Ben Ali had finally relented, taking refuge in Saudi Arabia. The responses to the news were not entirely optimistic, but there was a universal sense that this was something incredible and completely unprecedented within the Arab World. “You really think it was the Tunisian people who did that?” one asked.

The other common response I heard that day and in the days that followed was, “Mubarak better be afraid.” Many commentators have made the obvious point that Egypt and Tunisia are different in variety of ways: Tunisians are generally less poor and more educated than Egyptians; repression of political and religious expression is more severe; the size and influence of the military is more modest; and Tunisia is strategically less important for the U.S. But, despite these structural distinctions, events in Tunisia mattered because they challenged convictions about the impenetrable nature of politics. Hatred of the Mubarak regime, if nearly universal, I had found to come out most sharply in Egyptian humor: better to make fun of the system, since not much can be done about it. What the Jasmine Revolution did was put into question the belief that nothing changes in the Arab World or even (I’ve sometimes heard) the Third World. The uprising in Egypt required overcoming not only fear of state repression, but also deep sense of cynicism.

I learned of the demonstrations planned for January 25th through, yes, Facebook. Soon after Ben Ali fled Tunisia on the 15th, people began posting signs as profile photos calling for a revolution against the Mubarak regime on the 25th, the national holiday of Police Day. In general, the expectations for this day were not high. There was too much fear of police reprisal and a belief that the organization behind the event was insufficient to be effective. The scene at Tahrir Square that night was eerie. Countless police trucks, ready to haul off protesters, encircled the thousands that demonstrated at the center of the square. Soon after midnight, there was a sound of explosions at Tahrir as the police set off tear gas and fired rubber bullets to disperse the crowd. That night, after the demonstrators were forced to disperse, I saw a modest procession from Tahrir Square through the downtown region of Bab el-Louq. From their balconies, many watched the demonstrators as they marched and chanted, “The people – want – the fall of the regime!” They quietly cheered on, but did not descend.

On Friday, January 28, the government shut down all mobile phone and Internet networks in an attempt to disrupt the demonstrations announced for that day following mid-day prayers. About twenty minutes before the call to prayer at noon, I walked past a local mosque in Mohandiseen where the staff was laying out large green carpets all around the entrance in anticipation of larger crowds than usual. It was, I thought, a subversive act. At the very least, it suggested that the mosque was cooperating with the demonstrators’ plan for the day. Police had been posted everywhere throughout the city, yet at the mosque there was no intervention or harassment.

What this pointed to was the fact that a variety of institutions, and not just the Internet, were contributed to mobilizations for the protests. The Muslim Brotherhood has played the role of boogeyman in both Egyptian state media and some American media. While many of its members have probably attended the demonstrations alongside everyone else, as an organization, I saw no sign of its presence. On the other hand, common religious institutions contributed in understated ways to organization of revolt. On the 28th, demonstrators took advantage of the fact that the Egyptian state, certainly more than the Tunisian one, has tolerated freedom of religious expression while suppressing independent political parties and organizations. If the protests that day drew over a million participants in spite the lack of mobile or Internet communication, at least part of the reason was that organizers relied on a weekly religious routine and a known protest repertoire. This wasn’t about blind Egyptian hordes following their religious leaders. Given the numbers that day, many must have gone to mid-day prayers specifically to protest afterwards.

In the days after the massive demonstrations on January 28th, the atmosphere at Tahrir Square was festive and, as so many have described, a strong feeling of solidarity pervaded the city. People discussed politics openly and publically, even with strangers. The problem of thug and pro-Mubarak violence only became rampant, I found, after February 1 when the president announced on state television (al-Jazeera Arabic was no longer available by this time) that he would remain in power until the September elections. That night, almost immediately after the speech, in downtown I heard the old protest chants alongside strange new ones. Protestors continued to chant, “The people want the fall of the regime,” also adding, “He’s leaving, we’re not leaving.” Simultaneously, I heard chants like “We love you, Mubarak,” and even, “In blood and spirit we will redeem you, oh Mubarak.” It was only the following day that I understood there were a new group of people on the scene. The previous sense of unity disintegrated, at least temporarily, as pro-Mubarak thugs attacked people in downtown headed towards Tahrir Square with sticks and glass bottles.

The uprising continued, however, because the underlying grievances that sparked it remained. And they have been many, including police brutality, torture, state corruption, the thirty-year state of emergency, a sham election system, unemployment, rising food prices, and inadequate access to social services. While most understand that Egyptians are revolting against dictatorial rule, media reports and analyses have varied in their assessments of the economic grievances. While one might muse over whether Ben Bernanke helped cause the unrest through monetary policies that contributed to rising international food prices, another insists -- given Egypt’s rising growth and development indicators – that the revolt has nothing to at all to do with lack of economic opportunity or poor social services.

But recent events reveal that this is wrong. Egyptian labor unions have played a conspicuous role in street mobilizations, this week carrying out nation-wide strikes. And even a cursory look at the symbols of the revolt suggests that the rising cost of living, high youth unemployment (around 25%), debt, and cuts to welfare and social services since the 1990s have contributed to the crisis. In Tunisia, Mohammaed Bouazizi’s set himself on fire in response to an attack on his livelihood at a street vendor. The numerous Tunisians and Egyptians who followed him by attempting public suicide protested against unemployment, high living costs, and the denial of housing services or food subsidies.

But the problem, I’ve realized, is not just a feeling of economic insecurity. It’s not only about inadequate food and housing or financial misery per se. There’s also the feeling that you’re not truly free, that you’re habitually constrained by the political economic apparatus from realizing your modest life goals. We are trained in the academy to separate the economic and political factors that spark historical events such as these, but people do not live these events as such. Egyptians are revolting because they want freedom, with all the ambiguity that word invokes.

Mubarak is the symbol of this apparatus. It is “Hosni” who is blamed not only for grand problems like water shortages and rising food prices, but even when the electricity fails or mobile phone reception is poor. It’s a joke, but the joke takes Mubarak as the overseer of a system that has failed the people, even in fulfilling the most mundane of ambitions. For this reason, we can only celebrate Mubark’s recent resignation. But Egyptians know that al-nizam, the system, is far greater than him.






2010 SSRC-IDRF Fellow Samantha Iyer was in Cairo when Egypt’s uprising broke out in mid-January. Her IDRF and Fulbright-sponsored dissertation research explores the intellectual and political economic history and pre-history of U.S. international food aid to Egypt and India.