Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Tahrir: too much of a good thing?

No doubt the title of this post has already incensed some readers, but recent events in the square beg the question. Tahrir exists both as a long-needed space for public expression of discontent and as a poignant symbol of Egypt's revolution, a duality that has proved problematic throughout the last few months. In January and February, control of the square equipped the Egyptian people with a powerful weapon against the regime. But the exposure that Tahrir Square provides can also prove a liability for activists who consider the struggle to disassemble Mubarak's authoritarian empire ongoing, as it can work both for and against their interests. How to channel the use of the square in a constructive manner is one of the tougher questions that the protest movement in Egypt currently faces.

Just as Tahrir once magnified Egyptians' common call for change, it now magnifies their differences as well. As the euphoria of the January 25th revolution subsided, divisions re-emerged among Egyptians who worked cohesively for eighteen days. On this point, I highly recommend reading this piece written by Egyptian activist Ganzeer about how Tahrir has become a microcosm for both Egypt's strengths and weaknesses. He writes,

"In the presence of a common enemy, the differences between Egyptian people compliment each other to form a perfectly functioning fighting machine. In the absence of a common enemy, Egyptians are left to pay a little too much attention to these differences than necessary, and the differences start to become points of conflict."

Under the spotlight of Tahrir, solidarity is amplified and discord is painfully exacerbated.
Perhaps more crippling than the differences among Egyptians is the suspicion that seems to have crept quietly but firmly into the calculations of protesters in Tahrir. The idea of "baltageya," or thugs in Egypt has become like a runaway train. Once the word is muttered (and it is muttered quite a bit), situations inevitably escalate into fights and clashes. The idea of thuggery was a theme during the 18 day uprising, as plainclothes "police" on government payroll did in fact seek to create chaos to derail the revolution. But the accusation is a dangerous one in post-Mubarak Egypt. As The New York Times reported with veiled contempt, Tahrir Square self-destructed this week when a few protesters accused tea vendors of being thugs; only a few hours later, Tahrir's tent city had been burned to the ground. As the article describes,

"Over 1,000 young men, many armed with metal pipes and jagged wooden clubs, raced back and forth across the square in pursuit of enemies who seemed to rarely materialize... Passers-by watched as young men scuffled in the square, dusty and scattered with bits of broken rock, running from one end to the next waving crude weapons and shouting 'Thugs! Thugs!'”

Finally, gatherings in Tahrir these days are bound to lend themselves to chaos and disorder due to the absence of security forces. The presence- or absence- of SCAF and CSF in Tahrir is undoubtedly calculated. For example, on May 27th, a day of protest that activists heralded as the "Second Revolution," the army announced in advance that it would not secure the square. This could have been an effort to avoid to confrontation, or, alternatively, to leave the protest vulnerable to its own deterioration. In this type of forewarned security vacuum, civilian committees do an excellent job of cordoning off the square in order to check IDs and search entrants for weapons. But in the event of spontaneous gatherings, no such crew is present.

The reactivation of the public sphere in Egypt was once of the biggest accomplishments of the revolution; for this reason, perhaps any use of Tahrir Square is constructive. It has had some success in forcing the hand of SCAF on lingering issues of reform. However, I would argue that civil disobedience comes in many different forms, and that the more creative (and forward-thinking) attempts to affect change in Egypt after Mubarak's fall are the most successful ones. Egyptians' voice does not lie in Tahrir alone, and the famed square's fading relevance is more a sign of the emergence of alternative campaigns than it is a dying dream.

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