“There are a number of basic features that are associated with this magnificent event that are key, I think, to understanding not just the Egyptian Revolution but also the emerging Arab uprisings of 2011. Those features include the power of marginal forces; spontaneity as an art of moving; civic character as a conscious ethical contrast to the state’s barbarism; the priority assigned to political over all other kinds of demands, including economics; and lastly autocratic deafness, meaning the ill-preparedness of ruling elites to hear the early reverberations as anything but undifferentiated public noise that could be easily made inaudible again with the usual means.”
* Article: The Egyptian Revolution: First Impressions from the Field. JapanFocus. Mohammed A. Bamyeh, February 6, 2011
Excerpted from a marvellous essay by Mohammed A. Bamyeh
Mohammed A. Bamyeh:
“First, marginality means that the revolution began at the margins. In Tunisia it started that way, in marginal areas, from where it migrated to the capital. And from Tunisia, itself relatively marginal in the larger context of the Arab World, it travelled to Egypt. Obviously the situation in each Arab country is different in so far as economic indicators and degree of liberalization are concerned, but I was struck by how conscious the Egyptian youth were of the Tunisian example preceding them by just two weeks. Several mentioned to me their pride in seeming to accomplish in just a few days what Tunisians needed a month to accomplish.
Marginality appears to have been an important factor within Egypt as well. While much of the media focus was on Tahrir Square in central Cairo, to which I went every day, the large presence there was itself a manifestation of a possibility that suddenly became evident on January 25, when large demonstrations broke out in 12 of Egypt’s provinces. The revolution would never have been perceived as possible had it been confined to Cairo, and in fact its most intense moment in its earlier days, when it really began to look as if a revolution was happening, were in more marginal sites like Suez. The collective perception that a revolution was happening at the margins, where it was least expected, gave everyone the confidence necessary to realize that it could happen everywhere.
Second, in every sense the revolution maintained throughout a character of spontaneity, in the sense that it had no permanent organization. Rather, organizational needs—for example governing how to communicate, what to do the next day, what to call that day, how to evacuate the injured, how to repulse baltagiyya assaults, and even how to formulate demands—emerged in the field directly and continued to develop in response to new situations. Further, the revolution lacked recognized leadership from beginning to end, a fact that seemed to matter greatly to observers but not to participants. I saw several debates in which participants strongly resisted being represented by any existing group or leader, just as they resisted demands that they produce “representatives” that someone, such as al-Azhar or the government, could talk to. When the government asked that someone be designated as a spokesperson for this revolt, many participants flippantly designated one of the disappeared, in the hope that being so designated might hasten his reappearance. A common statement I heard was that it was “the people” who decide. It appeared that the idea of peoplehood was now assumed to be either too grand to be representable by any concrete authority or leadership, or that such representation would dilute the profound, almost spiritual, implication of the notion of “the people” as a whole being on the move.
Spontaneity was a key element also because it made the Revolution hard to predict or control; and because it provided for an unusual level of dynamism and lightness—so long as many millions remained completely committed to a collective priority of bringing down the regime, represented by its president. But it also appeared that spontaneity played a therapeutic and not simply organizational or ideological role. More than one participant mentioned to me how the revolution was psychologically liberating, because all the repression that they had internalized as self-criticism and perception of inborn weakness, was in the revolutionary climate turned outwards as positive energy and a discovery of self-worth, real rather than superficial connectedness to others, and limitless power to change the frozen reality. I heard the term “awakening” being used endlessly to describe the movement as a whole as a sort of spontaneous emergence out of a condition of deep slumber, which no party program had been able to shake off before.
Further, spontaneity was responsible, it seems, for the increasing ceiling of the goals of the uprising, from basic reform demands on January 25, to changing the entire regime three days later, to rejecting all concessions made by the regime while Mubarak was in office, to putting Mubarak on trial. Removing Mubarak was in fact not anyone’s serious demand on January 25, when the relevant slogans condemned the possible candidacy of his son, and called on Mubarak himself simply not to run again. But by the end of the day on January 28, the immediate removal of Mubarak from office had become an unwavering principle, and indeed it seemed then that it was about to happen. Here one found out what was possible through spontaneous movement rather than a fixed program, organization or leadership. Spontaneity thus became the compass of the Revolution and the way by which it found its way to what turned out to be its radical destination.
It proved therefore difficult to persuade protestors to give up the spontaneous character of the Revolution, since spontaneity had already proved its power. Spontaneity thus produced more confidence than any other style of movement, and out of that confidence there emerged, as far as I could see, protestors’ preparedness for sacrifice and martyrdom. Spontaneity also appeared as a way by which the carnivalesque character of social life was brought to the theater of the revolution as a way of expressing freedom and initiative; for example, among the thousands of signs I saw in demonstrations, there were hardly any standard ones (as one would see in pro-government demonstration). Rather, the vast majority of signs were individual and hand-made, written or drawn on all kinds of materials and objects, and were proudly displayed by their authors who wished to have them photographed by others. Spontaneity, further, proved highly useful for networking, since the Revolution became essentially an extension of the spontaneous character of everyday life, where little detailed planning was needed or possible, and in which most people were already used to spontaneous networking amidst common everyday unpredictability that prevailed in ordinary times.
3. The Primacy of Civic Ethics
Third, remarkable was the virtual replacement of religious references by civic ethics that were presumed to be universal and self-evident. This development appears more surprising than in the case of Tunisia, since in Egypt the religious opposition had always been strong and reached virtually all sectors of life. The Muslim Brotherhood itself joined after the beginning of the protests, and like all other organized political forces in the country seemed taken aback by the developments and unable to direct them, as much as the government (along with its regional allies) sought to magnify its role.
This, I think, is substantially connected to the two elements mentioned previously, spontaneity and marginality. Both of those processes entailed the politicization of otherwise unengaged segments, and also corresponded to broad demands that required no religious language in particular. In fact, religion appeared as an obstacle, especially in light of the recent sectarian tensions in Egypt, and it contradicted the emergent character of the Revolution as being above all dividing lines in society, including one’s religion or religiosity. Many people prayed in public, of course, but I never saw anyone being pressured or even asked to join them, in spite of the high spiritual overtones of an atmosphere saturated with deep emotions and constantly reinforced by stories of martyrdom, injustice, and violence.
As in the Tunisian Revolution, in Egypt the rebellion erupted as a sort of collective moral earthquake—where the central demands were very basic, and clustered around the respect for the citizen, dignity, and the natural right to participate in the making of the system that ruled over the person. If those same principles had been expressed in religious language before, now they were expressed as is and without any mystification or need for divine authority to justify them. I saw the significance of this transformation when even Muslim Brotherhood participants chanted at certain times with everyone else for a “civic” (madaniyya) state—explicitly distinguished from two other possible alternatives: religious (diniyya) or military (askariyya) state.
4. The Primacy of Political Demands
Fourth, a striking development after January 28 was the fact that radical political demands were so elevated that all other grievances—including those concerning dismal economic conditions—remained subordinate to them. The political demands were more clear than any other kinds of demands; everyone agreed on them; and everyone shared the assumption that all other problems could be negotiated better once one had a responsible political system in place. Thus combating corruption, a central theme, was one way by which all economic grievances were translated into easily understandable political language. And in any case, it corresponded to reality because the political system had basically become a system of thievery in plain daylight. Concerning the months before the revolution, virtually everyone had a story to tell me about the ostentatious corruption of the business-cum-political elite that benefited most from the system. Those tended to be a clique clustering around Mubarak’s son. Some of its members, reportedly, stood behind the recruitment of thugs who terrorized the protestors for two long days and nights on February 2-3.”