Thursday, October 30, 2008

Cairene Houses

Sawsan Abu al-Naga, Cairene Houses (1988)
oil on canvas

Tuesday, September 02, 2008

Saturday, August 09, 2008

An Eclectic Life

Autobiography is my least favourite literary genre, too easily prone to posturing and self-exoneration, or else heavy woe-is-me tales about the author’s suffering at the hands of a cruel world. Life is already too full of braggarts and whiners to have to be subjected to them in books. I remember only two autobiographies that I loved and learned from: Fathi Radwan’s Sira Dhatiya (written in parts and collated in one volume published in 1994), and Edward Said’s Out of Place (1999). Galal Amin’s autobiography piqued my interest because I’ve always enjoyed his elegant prose, “clear as a window pane,” to use George Orwell’s nice phrase (Orwell happens to be a major inspiration for Amin). So I was pleased to find that What Has Life Taught Me? (2007) is neither disingenuous nor ponderous, but refreshingly honest for the most part, deliciously mordant in parts, bland in others, and frustrating on occasion. Which is to say it’s a worthwhile read.

The book is divided into 19 chapters that trace the arc of the author’s interesting life, from birth in a household headed by one of Egypt’s intellectual luminaries of the first half of the 20th century to higher education at Cairo University’s Faculty of Law, on to England for a doctorate in economics and marriage to an Englishwoman, then a long career in Egypt as a university professor and public intellectual, and finally grandparenthood and a pervasive sense of disappointment after the onset of old age. An appendix contains an arrangement of lovely family photos that tell their own story of the life cycle.

Amin is an utterly charming raconteur and a compulsively readable writer. His autobiography is peppered with fascinating details, evocative portraits, and wonderful sparks of humour. The stories about his mother’s reaction to an Italian abortion doctor and his elder brother Husayn’s headstrong resistance to having his tonsils removed are especially delightful. Occasionally, Amin inserts extracts from his letters to family members over the years, a device that I found to be little more than filler that doesn’t enrich the quality of the narrative.

The most inspired parts are Amin’s descriptions of his parents and older siblings (he is the youngest of eight). His modernist father Ahmad Amin wanted only two or three children but his headstrong mother insisted on more, finding in her many children a refuge from an unloving husband and a perfect provocation to her hostile sisters-in-law. Amin’s chapter “The Seven Siblings” is an insightful study of character contrasts, including portraits of the eldest Muhammad (17 years the author’s senior and the mother’s clear favourite), to the frustrated Hafez (a talented playwright who never achieved the recognition he deserved), to the two sisters Fatima and Na’eema: Fatima is modern and adventurous, constantly butting heads with her father, while Na’eema is conventional and uncurious, with no interest in school and no qualms about marrying a suitor who had initially courted but been rejected by Fatima.

Reviewers have noted Amin’s unusual candour in discussing private family dynamics, particularly the details of his parents’ stable but loveless marriage. His account is indeed frank but also sympathetic, lovingly portraying two people of remarkably different temperaments joined in a curious union. Ahmed Amin, the Sharia court judge, university professor, prolific author, and friend of such luminaries as Taha Hussein and Abdel Razzaq al-Sanhuri, was a man with a highly refined ethical sense and an unwavering commitment to the liberal education of his eight children, but at home he was a distant father and a dour, remote husband. He rarely spoke to his wife, never addressed her by her first name, and in several places in his diary (from which his son quotes verbatim), confided an abiding regret that “my wife is not very beautiful,” writing these words in English to hide the sentiment from his wife in the event she laid hands on the diary.

It’s no wonder that Amin’s mother suffered from a palpable sense of insecurity throughout her life. She coped by tenaciously clinging to her favourite son Muhammad, at one point even enlisting the aid of Taha Hussein to prevent her son’s travel to England for doctoral education. She was also fiscally shrewd, saving up enough to eventually buy the house in which the Amin family lived. And she even started charging her husband rent, which he obligingly paid! Zaynab Fahmy emerges as a spirited and remarkably wilful woman in her youngest son’s affectionate telling. Orphaned at an early age, she went to live with her maternal uncle but ran away when he forbade her to marry her beloved cousin (son of his brother), a loss from which she never recovered. In one of the book’s most moving passages, Amin recounts the coincidental way his mother reunited with her first love in 1956, two years after her husband’s death. A short while after the aged lovers reconnected, they died within weeks of one other.

The writing in the rest of the autobiography doesn’t approach the lyricism of the first few chapters (with the exception of the book’s final paragraph), as the author shifts to more public matters of his professional and intellectual trajectory. Here Amin is keen to enfold personal experiences into broader sociological contexts, the same technique he employed to such good effect in Whatever Happened to the Egyptians? (2000) Thus his experiences as an undergraduate at Cairo University and then a graduate student at the London School of Economics are occasions for sobering reflections on the tragic handicaps of Egyptian institutions of higher learning, compared to their thriving cognates abroad. Amin also contrasts his experience as a faculty member at Ain Shams to his later experience as a professor at the more autonomous, resource-rich American University in Cairo, a comparison that is again extremely unflattering to Egyptian national universities. I really didn’t know whether to laugh or cry at his detailed description of the unbelievable exam marking procedures at Ain Shams University.

The most enjoyable parts here are several well-crafted, very moving portraits penned by Amin recalling famous and not so famous work associates, including Cairo University economics professors Labib Shuqair and Saïd al-Naggar, Ain Shams law professors Helmi Murad and Ismail Ghanem, and UCLA professor Malcolm Kerr (later President of AUB before his assassination in 1984). I also particularly enjoyed reading two choice tid-bits recalled by Amin, one a tragicomic episode on June 9, 1967 featuring Rif’at al-Mahgoub, then a professor of economics at Cairo University and later Speaker of Parliament before his assassination in 1990. And another describing Amin’s run-in with Ottoman historian and Orientalist Bernard Lewis while Amin was interviewing for a position at the University of London (he wasn’t offered the job).

Amin is not classifiable within the conventional currents of contemporary Egyptian thought (Islamist v. secularist, Nasserist v. liberal, Marxist v. capitalist), and an important chapter titled “The Neo-Traditionalists” explains why. For a brief spell in the 1980s, he was a member of an intellectual salon that brought together historian-judge Tareq al-Bishri, late activist Adel Hussein, journalist Fahmi Howeidy and a handfl of others to deliberate on religion and modern life. Each in his own way, these influential public intellectuals began to “provincialise” Western institutions and notions of progress, i.e. contextualise them as products of particular histories that are not universal nor always desirable. The recovery of Islamic heritage is part and parcel of this project, and Amin’s chapter gives a thoughtful rendering of what this entails, with fitting mention of his father Ahmed Amin’s lifework.

Throughout the book, Amin is a congenial, engaging narrator, but he does have a very frustrating tendency to make throwaway claims about serious matters without requisite elaboration. A couple of examples are particularly glaring; on p. 190, Amin says he “doesn’t rule out” that Nasser’s nationalization of the Suez Canal in 1956 was supported or even backed by the American government, but gives no defence of this statement. On p. 300, he says that university and parental intervention to protest AUC professor Samia Mehrez’s teaching Muhammad Shukri’s novel For Bread Alone was justified, but only pages before Amin had praised the academic life he has chosen for the freedom it allows instructors to teach and write without external interference. In these and a handful of other places, Amin’s refreshing eclecticism turns into stubborn self-righteousness, since he simply announces his opinions but does not defend them.

To his great credit, however, Amin does cast his unsparing eye on himself and not just others. He forthrightly recalls and regrets some of his decisions and past behaviour, and again and again confides his lifelong need for the attentions and approval of others, particularly beautiful women, be they students, acquaintances, or perfect strangers. Amin attributes this to an unshakeable sense of insecurity about his own looks, a disarming confession I didn’t expect from a major public intellectual.

And yet for all his voluble recollections of childhood, Amin is puzzlingly reticent about some central subjects in his adult life. He writes plenty about his siblings and their marriages and offspring, but next to nothing about his own happy 40-year marriage to his English wife Jan and their three children (the book is dedicated to them). Family photos make clear that Amin loves being a grandfather, yet he doesn’t write about his experience of becoming a grandfather (nor a father, for that matter). The autobiography ends on a depressing note, with Amin feeling nothing so much as disappointment and indifference in his autumnal years. While this is refreshingly honest, I had hoped for some more introspection about why he feels this way.

George Orwell opened his withering review of Salvador Dali’s autobiography with the now-famous words, “Autobiography is only to be trusted when it reveals something disgraceful. A man who gives a good account of himself is probably lying, since any life when viewed from the inside is simply a series of defeats.” Galal Amin’s account of his life is much too gentle and self-regarding to meet Orwell’s severe standard, but I think that his straightforward telling of the disappointments and listlessness of late life Orwell would have surely trusted.

Monday, July 28, 2008

Master Image Maker

When I read the sad news of Youssef Chahine’s passing, a stream of images from his films passed through my mind’s eye, fragmentary and disjointed images that have stayed with me over the years. The scenes are nearly all in black and white; some are hilarious and others sombre, some are central to the drama and others peripheral, some I remember for their sheer beauty and others because they drove me to tears or deep laughter. Since there’ll be many commemorations and obituaries in the coming days, and repeated overviews of Chahine’s oeuvre, here I want to focus on some small details. These are eclectic, personal favourites, my way of remembering a spirited, restless artist who loved his craft and loved Egypt.

In Chahine’s second film Ibn al-Nil (Nile Boy, 1951), shot on location and made when he was only 25(!), I love the panning shot of the young Hemeida racing through fields dotted with gorgeous palm trees to get to the station and watch the train pull out, the defining symbol of freedom and flight from the sleepy village life he hates. In the next scene, the camera moves away from the young Hemeida standing on the platform then moves back in to see the older Hemeida standing in the same place in the same pose. The older Hemeida is played by a youthful Shukri Sarhan in a wonderful turn as the sullen rural boy who grudgingly marries then abandons Zubayda (Faten Hamama) for the big city.

There are many scenes to love in Sira’ fil Wadi (Struggle in the Valley, 1954), again shot on location (in Luxor), but my absolute favourite is the one when Faten Hamama and Omar Sharif first meet (of course). This is the most romantic scene I’ve ever seen on film, effortless, charming, masterfully directed and gracefully acted. An impossibly handsome Omar Sharif (in his first screen role) plays Ahmed, the young agricultural engineer who helps the farmers produce a superior sugarcane crop that bests the harvest of Taher pasha, played by the deliciously evil Zaki Rostom. Amaal is the pasha’s daughter and a childhood playmate of Ahmed. They reunite after an 8-year absence on Amaal’s return to the village; I’ll always remember Ahmad calling out to her “Batates!”, her nickname from their childhood banter. With this film, Chahine not only created the most dashing couple in Egyptian film (and real life), but he gave us some stunning images of the countryside, images that were later echoed by Atef Salem in Struggle on the Nile (1959) and Barakat in The Nightingale’s Call (1959) and al-Haram (1965). One image I can’t forget is the procession of villagers grieving over their flooded crops, put to a haunting score of sorrowful humming and portentous drums.

Inta Habibi (1957) is barely mentioned when people review Chahine’s work, but it’s a comedic and cinematic gem, rivalling Fateen Abdel Wahab’s best comedies while crafting some indelible images of the landscape and people of Aswan. The priceless scene when Mimi Shakib and Serag Mounir enlist the milkman and the manservant to awaken their son Farid has me in stitches every time. Only a year later, Chahine produced the vastly different Cairo Station, a loving rendition of the invisible porters and peddlers trying to survive in Cairo’s teeming train station. This is where Chahine himself memorably played the lonely, limping newspaper boy Qenawi, in love and obsessed with the flirtatious soft drink seller Hanouma (Hind Rostom), who has her eyes set on the virile and aggressive Abu Sri’ (Farid Shawqi).

Directors before and after Chahine have had a love affair with filming in trains and on platforms (my absolute favourite is the final scene of al-Bab al-Maftuh, 1964), but I don’t think anyone came close to Chahine in exploiting trains’ range of aesthetic possibilities. The famous, tragic denouement on the empty tracks is what I remember most about Cairo Station, especially the intervention by the great thespian Hasan al-Baroudi.

I can’t remember any scenes from Chahine’s later films after Eskenderiyya Leih? (I haven’t seen Heya Fawda), probably because I just didn’t understand them. I like inventiveness and formal experimentation, but I was put off by the later films’ excessive allusiveness, campy style, and aggressive didacticism. Chahine’s autobiographical turn after Eskendriyya Leih? struck me as less compelling than his gift at probing Egypt’s landscape and the textured lives of its inhabitants. And he seemed less capable of eliciting excellence from his actors than he had in earlier films (and no wonder, if he was working with the likes of the horrid Nabila Ebeid).

When I was a child and first saw al-Ard (1969), I didn’t understand it but cried during the iconic final scene of Muhammad Abu Swaylam mercilessly trussed up and dragged by a mounted policeman, his bloodied fingers digging tracks into the soil, just as a village notable had ominously predicted in an early scene. When I watched the film again today, I saw a penultimate scene no less powerful. As government troops chase and beat down fleeing villagers, Abu Swaylam stands still in the midst of his field, a spectre of a smile on his stoic face. A close-up shows drops of his blood sliding off the back of his hand and landing on the snow-white cotton plants, the fruit of the earth he refuses to part with.

Youssef Chahine didn’t create the character of Abu Swaylam, that’s Abdel Rahman al-Sharqawi’s brilliant doing. But Youssef Chahine embodied this willful, reticent fellah in the peerless Mahmoud al-Meligi, directing him in a masterful, transcendent performance that brought me to tears again. For this and his many other enduring, wondrous creations, we can all be grateful.

Monday, July 07, 2008

Friday, May 16, 2008

Four Myths about Protest

It’s now widely recognized that social protest has become a staple of Egyptian politics, what some journalists and researchers have taken to calling an emergent “culture of protest” among an aggrieved citizenry. Opinions differ on when to date the formation of this ‘culture.’ Some date it to 2002 with the pro-Palestine solidarity protests, others to 2004 with labour protests and the birth of Kifaya, still others to 2005 with the mobilisation accompanying the presidential and parliamentary elections. I’m inclined to see it as a grand wave of protest that began in 2000 with several triggers, including the recession and the outbreak of al-Aqsa Intifada. But even more important than the issue of dating protests is interpreting their causes and effects. Since 2005 when pundits dubbed protests a phenomenon, there have been several stock ideas repeated over and over again as if they were self-evident. I want to focus on four that are especially egregious, ideas that are quick to either laud or dismiss protest but are no help in understanding it.

The four myths can be roughly divided into two that are chiefly concerned with the causes of protest and two with its effects. The bad ideas about protest causes assert that: a) the government allows protest as a safety valve and b) that social protest is not about politics, it’s about survival. The bad ideas about protest effects claim that a) widespread protest will topple Mubarak’s regime and b) protest will lead to democracy.

A Grand Wave of Protest

First a few remarks about the current protest wave. It’s not the first such protest surge in the country’s political history, but recalls earlier moments of heightened social conflict in 1946-1952, 1968-1972, and 1977-1980 when various sectors of the population took to the streets to make a variety of claims. What is unique about the current wave is that it’s longer in duration and broader in scope, oscillating between intense peaks and extended troughs. It can be classified categorically, with electoral, rural, industrial, sectarian, cost-of-living, and democracy protests as some of the obvious categories. It can also be broken down into sets of distinct protest issues, participants, and techniques. Spatially, protest is now commonplace in diverse social locations, from campuses to villages to shop floors to marketplaces to schoolyards to train stations, and on the steps of ministries, police stations, courthouses, professional unions, agricultural cooperatives, municipal buildings, and—intriguingly—parliament. This is not counting the street, the public square, and now the highway as commonsense locations for social protest.

We know all this because of the rise of a competitive field of independent media in the past few years that has featured excellent coverage of protest events. Photographs and footage of angry, demonstrating citizens make for juicy teasers that attract more viewers and readers, so editors have their own incentives to cover protest. But increased news coverage has salutary effects: it generates more opinion pieces, more demands on government officials to explain their policies, and more incentives for protesters to clarify (and sometimes escalate) their demands. I’ve always been a news junkie, but reading the independent papers and watching the satellite channels these days is unusually edifying, revealing the extraordinary range of social problems and popular collective action that the government wants hidden or distorted. Consider this random selection of protest events culled from recent news reports: car repairmen amass in front of a police station to protest the municipality’s forcible closure of their workshops; displaced residents of Kafr al-Elw protest in front of parliament to demand compensation housing; three months earlier, Port Said residents had done the same; 300 Basateen families congregate at the Abdeen courthouse to publicise their suit against the municipality for ordering their houses demolished; Beheira villagers erect a road blockade for five hours to protest the killing of a woman and child, blaming a police official for their death; residents of Ezbet Khairallah protest in front of the Cairo governorate building, blaming officials for failing to provide potable water and trash collection.

Fortunately for us press junkies, both the independent and the government media also offer outlets for all sorts of ideas about protest, the good, the bad, and the banal. Let’s focus on the bad.

Bad Ideas

1. Widespread social protest will destabilize or topple Mubarak’s regime. This may be the heartfelt wish of anti-Mubarak activists and the worst nightmare for Mubarak’s rotten shilla, that Egypt will be another Iran circa 1978-1979 or the Philippines in 1986 or Serbia in 2000. It’s especially tempting given that protests characterized Nasser and Sadat’s final years in power, and Mubarak’s succession problem further nourishes the notion that his regime is particularly unstable. For example, both times that demonstrators tore down and destroyed the huge posters of Mubarak (in Cairo in 2003 and Mahalla in 2008), some commentators feared or hoped that this prefigured an actual ouster.

It’s certainly possible for social protests to remove autocrats from power, but it’s definitely not inevitable nor common. It’s doubtful that Mohammad Reza Pahlavi or Ferdinand Marcos were brought down by protests alone. Retrospective accounts may stress the defining role of a tremendous popular revolt, but in reality the autocrats’ downfall was the outcome of a years-long process of regime disintegration, including defection of key regime loyalists, economic and fiscal crisis, and a withdrawal in American support.

There are a host of other problems with this idea, but the worst in my view is the implication that protests are only significant insofar as they affect regime “stability,” anything else is irrelevant. This leads to assertions that either exaggerate or belittle protest events to suit one’s political commitments. Thus, activists see in every public demonstration or worker collective action a direct threat to Mubarak’s survival, and regime supporters ridicule every protest as futile, insignificant and/or dangerous. It’s easy to see how this can devolve into a shouting match or the worst sort of cocktail party political chatter, since it’s impossible to predict when or precisely how a regime collapses except after the fact. In the meantime, all the important but unsexy issues are ignored, such as how protestors articulate their claims, how authorities respond, whether (and what kind of) a compromise is worked out, and whether (and how) protest spreads to more societal sectors. Assessing protest exclusively by its impact on regime stability is the favoured activity of intelligence agencies and “political risk” firms (whatever those are), but is not a serious way to understand any political phenomenon.

2. The government allows protest as a safety valve. A position shared by both pro- and anti-government activists, this common dismissal was routine in 2005 when Kifaya was holding demonstrations nearly every week. When it’s explicitly articulated (and it rarely is), the reasoning goes something like this: Mubarak tolerates limited forms of protest either to stave off greater unrest or to deflect international pressure or as a barometer to gauge societal discontent. All of these are cogent reasons, and there’s no doubt that tolerating certain forms of protest is useful for the Mubarak regime. But the notion that the current protest wave is somehow part of a coherent plan by the regime and has been “allowed” to continue is bizarre. It grants a mythical amount of omniscience and omnipotence to rulers, ignores their repression of the vast majority of protests, and conceals a very important political development during Mubarak’s tenure: the routinised management and policing of protest.

The well-worn image of Central Security Forces and trucks encircling every public gathering has become so normalised that we forget how Mubarak’s police officials have worked to devise an elaborate and standardised set of procedures to deal with protest, from master plans sealing off greater Cairo in expectation of unusually large gatherings (as during the funeral of the Ikhwan Murshid Ma’moun al-Hodeiby in early 2004) to street-level tactics like the horrific corralling and then squashing of demonstrators by CSF recruits. Anyone who’s been at a demo has observed the intricacies of protest management, how police commanders and amn al-dawla officers work the crowd, consulting with their superiors via walkie-talkie, negotiating and bantering with the demonstration’s organisers, coordinating with the hired plainclothes thugs, and giving orders to recruits to attack (or refrain from attacking) protestors. It’s not unusual for the Interior Ministry’s all-important Cairo security chief to go into the field and supervise crowd management himself: recall Nabil al-Ezabi’s frequent shouting matches with Kifaya leaders in 2005 (he was later rewarded with the governorship of Assiut), and Ismail al-Shaer’s hands-on management of the pro-judges’ protests in spring 2006 and the 6 April general strike this year.

I don’t pretend to know the details of protest policing strategies hatched in Mubarak’s fortress-like Interior Ministry, but I know that they exist and are bankrolled by vast sums in the state budget. I would guess that they’re a combination of staple tactics inherited from the 1940s, recent innovations emanating from field experiences, and perhaps even the protest policing procedures of other Arab autocracies (the annual Arab Interior Ministers’ conference must be a fun, fun gathering). I’d also conjecture that techniques differ depending on not just the size and location of a protest event but the kind of participants (worker protests are policed differently than elite pro-democracy protests or student demos), the broader political context (the regime’s assessment of risk and threat levels), and the Interior Ministry’s internal bureaucratic politics (I’d give an arm and a leg to be a fly on the wall during their meetings). If we take the protests of 2005 alone, differences between pre-emptive and reactive police repression is immediately clear. Mubarak’s regime doesn’t “allow” protest then, but it does seek to contain, manage, and defuse it, ironically routinising this form of collective action.

3. Social protest is not about politics, it’s about survival. This idea is repeated over and over again as protest spreads to social groups who don’t routinely engage in it and have good reasons for avoiding it, such as the homeless of Qal’at al-Kabsh, Tebbeen, and Qursaya, or the fishermen and farmers in Kafr al-Shaykh and Gharbiyya protesting water scarcity last summer, or the Mahalla youths last month. A sister notion holds that the recent string of protests by doctors, industrial workers, farmers, and tax collectors embody “parochial” demands about wages and working conditions and therefore can’t be classified as important political events.

This is the one of the oldest canards about ordinary people’s collective action, a hoary myth that refuses to die. Not only is it incredibly condescending toward the human striving for a dignified life, but it basically believes that ordinary people are incapable of sustained political thought. It also involves quite a strange conception of politics.

Who said that politics only includes national structures of political power? Politics has always been about local constellations of power, and bread-and-water issues of survival. Politics is involved in any act that makes demands on the rulers and their agents. When homeless poor people amass in front of a municipal building or parliament to demand housing, or when Borollos villagers block a highway for 12 hours to compel their governor to supply them with potable water, or when Qursaya islanders cling to the soil to resist eviction by the army, they’re not “just” fighting for survival. As is obvious to anyone who pays attention, they’re making concrete demands on state officials, regardless of the specific issues at play. If that’s not political, I really don’t know what is. When workers strike to demand increased wages and food allowances, they’re making demands on management, yes, but they’re also demanding that the state either step in and force management to make concessions or enforce a breached compact or regulate exploitative work conditions. Demanding fair wages and defending other “parochial” interests is just as political as establishing a political party or insisting that Hosni Mubarak step down.

A final thought: I’m not convinced by the oft-made, strained argument that economic protests somehow “spill over” into political protests through some vague process of osmosis or something. Economic claims are already political by virtue of targeting government officials, policies, and interests in some fashion or another.

4. Protest will lead to democracy. Let me confess right away that I have a soft spot for this myth and constantly catch myself revelling in it. The reasoning is that more protest leads to more people voicing demands, which leads to more opportunities for powerholders to be subjected to popular consultation, which constrains their power and therefore promotes democracy.

This is most likely right, but only half the time. The other and probably more common outcome is greater repression and a contraction rather than expansion of democratisation. The key flaw with the more protest equals more democracy thesis is that it wrongly equates protestors’ claims with protest outcomes. However, claims are one thing, consequences are something else. We can’t judge protests by their claims, but by their indirect effects. For example, Kifaya and allied social movements demand that Mubarak step down, refrain from handing power to his son, and convoke competitive, free and fair elections. This has not happened. Do we then judge Kifaya’s impact by its failure to oust Mubarak and install democracy? That would be ludicrous, but it would also be wrong to assume that since Kifaya was a pro-democracy movement, it automatically added an increment of democracy to Egyptian politics. The fact is that the consequences of Kifaya’s protests are two-pronged: on one hand, they effectively set the agenda of public discourse for at least a year and acted as a counterweight to the Ikhwan. One the other, and contrary to movement members’ intentions, Kifaya’s protests increased the regime’s repression of democracy-seeking coalitions and may have improved the government’s capacity to throttle future such coalitions in their cradle. It’s not clear yet which of Kifaya’s effects will prevail, the point is that pro-democracy claims do not unambiguously result in pro-democracy consequences.

It also works the other way round: anti-democracy protest claims may paradoxically result in more democratization, if they spur counter-movements to mobilise, thus bringing more participants into the political space and routinising protest as a form of collective pressure on public authorities. The example of Egypt in the inter-war period comes to mind here, with its diverse set of political-ideological groups all taking to the streets and forming coalitions with parliamentary factions, competing with each other for political standing and influence: Ikhwan, Misr al-Fatah, the congeries of socialists and communists, the Wafd and its factions, and endless splinter groups and underground societies. Some were avowedly pro-democracy and others were vocally anti-democracy, but their combined effect on politics was democratising by increasing the numbers of politically active citizens and forcing government accountability through periodic elections.

Ultimately, the consequences of protest on democratisation is very difficult to gauge, precisely because protest has the dual effects of on one hand expanding political participation and subjecting rulers to popular consultation and on the other provoking popular fear of ‘chaos’ and inviting greater state repression. However, we can see the connection more clearly if we don’t confuse protest claims with protest effects. Important mediating factors always step in, confounding intentions.

A Good Idea

So now that I’ve so arrogantly proclaimed some ideas to be so bad, what, pray, are the good ideas?! For starters, the current protest wave needs to be carefully documented; constructing a comprehensive catalogue of protest events is fortunately now feasible, given extensive media coverage and various research and human rights groups’ tracking of protest incidents for some years now. Once we have the information, we can begin the analysis, looking for salient patterns, identifying the likely causes of protest, tracking changes in its morphology, explaining how it diffuses, and understanding government containment strategies. Regarding causes, we know that privatization has triggered the frequent labour strikes, so we can conjecture that government and/or business resource-grabs such as increased taxation and land appropriation are propelling citizens to protest; think of the remarkable Dumyat mobilisation against the planned Agrium facility, or Qursaya islanders’ mobilisation last year, the Dahab and Warraq islanders’ protests in 2001, or traders’ protest against the sales tax in 2001.

Morphological analysis might include constructing typologies of protest claims, protest targets, and protest locations. It ought to examine innovation and diffusion in specific protest techniques, such as my favourite tactic: the increasing resort to protests in front of parliament. There’s also the spread of the internationally resonant candlelight protest, or the intriguing sash phenomenon, which the judges first started in spring 2006, then the Ikhwan MPs mimicked it in their protests against the Lebanon war in August 2006, then it was diffused to opposition MPs protesting the constitutional amendments in March 2007, then Giza lawyers picked it up when they protested lack of courtroom space last autumn, and who knows who’ll borrow it next?

There are so many ways to describe and interpret Egypt’s protest wave, isn’t it a great shame to keep invoking the same reductive, anaemic ideas, ignoring all the rich empirical information right under our noses? In other times and places, sustained protest waves illuminated the intersection between politics and everyday life, tracked momentous changes in political structures and economic organisation, and midwifed new ways of doing politics. Above all, protest waves always transformed relations between citizens and government agents. Beyond their momentous effects, protest waves are intrinsically fascinating. The phenomena of ordinary people struggling to preserve their honour and dignity, organising to make forceful demands on those who control their fates and livelihoods, activating their citizenship, this is an awesome thing to behold.

*To the memory of CT, with love and grief.

Photos from al-Badeel, al-Karama, Associated Press.

Friday, May 09, 2008

Saturday, April 05, 2008

"We Want a Living Wage"

A broad coalition of blue- and white-collar national forces has called a general strike for tomorrow 6 April to demand decent living conditions and protest all the man-made ills afflicting our society: corruption, nepotism, inflation, torture, poverty, police brutality. The plan is to stay home and not report to work or school, or alternatively to join others in street processions converging on main city squares.

The general strike is the brainchild of the Ghazl a-Mahalla workers, later joined by Kafr al-Dawwar labourers. Kifaya, al-Wasat, al-Karama, the 9 March Movement for University Autonomy and a slew of other collectives have also signed on. The Muslim Brothers have been wholly consumed with the battle to register for municipal elections scheduled for 8 April, but a few days ago they felt compelled to issue a lukewarm statement of support for the general strike.

This latest attempt at civil disobedience emerges from the recent wave of wage revolts sweeping all sectors of Egyptian society, and perhaps for this reason it has received far more attention than last summer’s maiden endeavour. Of course, the government and all its institutions have been mobilising for days to obstruct and ridicule the very notion of a strike. Today, the ever-informative Al-Ahram quoted a judge who reminded citizens that Article 124 of the Penal Code punishes all those who shirk their work obligations with a prison sentence of 3 months to one year, and double that for all those who incite others to strike. Civil servants, teachers, police officers and many others have been given strict instructions to report for work tomorrow, and amn al-dawla has been busy alternately threatening and cajoling workers to abandon or abort the strike effort.

Egypt’s slow-motion socio-political transformation is proceeding beautifully.

Monday, March 31, 2008

Tuesday, January 01, 2008

The Organiser

Like many others, I’ve been riveted by the Real Estate Tax Collectors’ strike and sit-in. How did these civil servants manage to launch such bold and sustained collective action over a period of months? And if indeed their grievances have been festering since 1974, why was it only now that they took action? Most puzzling of all is how they managed to garner sympathetic media coverage and drum up public support. After all, the Egyptian civil servant is not exactly a beloved figure. Who hasn’t had a bad experience with some obstructionist, misanthropic muwazzaf? (Yes, I’ve been stung a few times). The tax collector especially is richly reviled, perceived as a thief in official garb, extracting revenues for a state that has long ceased to provide protection and services. How is it that tax collectors all of a sudden became sympathetic figures with a just cause? With all of these questions and more, I went in search of an unusual tax collector, a lifelong political activist, and a very endearing man with a wicked sense of humor: the remarkable Kamal Abu Eita.

First I wanted to know how Abu Eita became a real estate tax collector, so we started at the beginning. Kamal Muhammad al-Rifa’i Abu Eita was born on March 1, 1953, one of eight children of a minaret-maker in Bulaq al-Dakrur who went on to establish a contracting business. Kamal enrolled at Cairo University in fall 1972, and like generations of Egyptians before and after him, received a first-rate political education at this storied institution. He became active in campus politics and was a founding member of the Nasserist Thought Club (Nadi al-Fikr al-Nasiri), the student initiative that midwifed the contemporary Nasserist movement. After college, Abu Eita joined the Tagammu’ party until the formation of the Nasserist party in 1992, which he joined but then left for the neo-Nasserist Karama movement in 1999.

Throughout his political career, Abu Eita combined partisan commitment with para-partisan advocacy on behalf of a wide range of causes, from peasants to prisoners of conscience to public sector workers. For his efforts, he has been imprisoned a whopping 19 times. “I’ve been a guest at all of Bulaq’s police stations and nearly all of the country’s prisons!” he chuckles. Especially significant for the December sit-in is Abu Eita’s capacity to enrich his organising with his politics while at the same time not imposing his politics on his fellow tax collectors.

Abu Eita’s unlikely career as a civil servant began immediately after college. Right after graduating in 1976 with a B.A. in philosophy, he applied for a teaching position with the Ministry of Education but was turned down for security reasons. He spent six months as a clerk in the Giza governorate and was then transferred to the Giza Traffic administration, but the office responsible for the security of the Israeli embassy was located there and Abu Eita was deemed a threat (!), so he was transferred back to the Giza governorate and stayed there until 1979, when a friend casually let him know that the Real Estate Tax Authority was hiring with decent salaries. So Abu Eita applied and became a tax official.

Next, the conversation turned to Abu Eita’s tenure in the Authority from 1979 to the present. In 1982, he was instrumental in establishing the first union for Real Estate Tax officials, but did not become a member for fear that his superiors would crush the fledgling experience. Four years later, when the initiative had gathered steam, Abu Eita ran for union elections and became vice president. He continued to contest union elections, winning the highest number of votes in every election and becoming president until 2006, when the government weighed in with all forms of administrative interference and intimidation to ensure pliant unions led by cooperative henchmen. As with the parliamentary elections, the labour and civil servants’ union elections in 2006 witnessed meddling at the vote-counting stage by poll workers, and Abu Eita lost. He now laughs when remembering this: “And I kept bringing them sandwiches and tea all day, those sons of bitches! But it’s ironic, losing the elections actually gave me freedom of manoeuvre to manage this strike.”

So how does one organize government clerks to coordinate a strike and sit-in, and why now? As usual with such collective action, there are important but forgotten precedents and equally important but also forgotten triggers. Abu Eita reminds that the precedent was set in March 1999, when property tax collectors gathered in Tahrir Square to demand benefit raises, then staged a sit-in in front of parliament and the office of the Minister of Finance. Their demands were met, though less than 10% of tax collectors participated in the sit-in. “The government agreed to our demands in 1999 because the economic reform and privatization programs were not as far along and the state’s fiscal crisis wasn’t as severe,” Abu Eita explains, arguing that today the government is more strapped than ever, rendering ministers extremely reluctant to concede to wage increases of the sort tax collectors are demanding.

If tax collectors had the 1999 precedent to go on, they were also prodded to action by a more proximate trigger. In 2005 as is well known, the government issued a new law attaching sanitation fees to the electricity bill and entrusting the Electricity Authority to collect the fees. What is less well known is that before the new law, property tax collectors were the ones tasked with collecting sanitation fees, earning a minuscule commission that was nevertheless important given their hardscrabble lives. Added to the persistent corruption and mismanagement of the municipal governments that supervise tax collectors, the new sanitation law was the last straw that galvanised the civil servants to action.

“First, my comrades and I talked to fellow collectors all over the country and found that they were all on our side, not allied with the administration as many were in 1999. When I suggested a one-day protest, they said, ‘Why only a day, why not a sit-in?’ So we tried a sit-in on 2 May, the day after Labour Day. Then we added more actions gradually. On 10 September, we gathered in front of the government complex in Giza for a full day and held up signs that read “My salary equals 2 kilos of meat,” and “My salary is worth one pair of shoes.” The Daqahliyya local picked up the thread and began their own sit-in. All the while, we were constantly sending letters to officials, with no response. In the meantime, collectors in 15 out of the 27 governorates were holding their own sit-ins, and a new motto began to emerge, “And we won’t collect!” Remember that the peak season for property tax collection is October, November, and December. Because of our action, the state lost 80% of its revenues from real estate this year.”

“On 21 October, we headed to the Ministry of Finance in Nasr City and called out to the Minister, “Come down from your ivory tower!” but of course he didn’t because he was busy in America. We then walked in a huge procession to the Cabinet building, but security prevented us from entering to negotiate. On 13 and 14 November, we held our sit-in at the Egyptian Trade Union Federation on Gala’ Street; they locked all the bathrooms and meeting rooms, leaving us only the pavement of the entrance. Then and there we decided to hold another sit-in but didn’t publicise the location until the last minute, and that was the Hussein Higazy sit-in that started on 3 December.” It was at that final sit-in where Abu Eita could be seen carried aloft on the shoulders of his colleagues, innovating catchy, eloquent slogans and waving the keys to the offices and file cabinets that he and his colleagues had abandoned in their walkout.

There was something about the December sit-in that captured the public imagination in a way that surpassed even the massive Mahalla strikes of December 2006 and September 2007. The reasons for this are complex and will not be fully apparent until some time has passed and we gain some distance to analyse, but there’s no doubt that the tax officials’ collective leadership and deft tactics succeeded in making the lowly tax collector a stand-in for the hardworking, downtrodden everyman and woman, ravaged by high prices and hovering on the brink of poverty. Significantly, the civil servants courted both regime figures and anonymous members of the public. Their slogans were careful to appeal to the president and invoke his sense of fairness and to praise the Interior Minister for the discipline of his forces. Their conduct of the sit-in respected the residents of Hussein Higazy Street and sought to minimise disruption to their lives (no bullhorns or slogans after 10 pm, for instance).

The residents were won over. Abu Eita recalls the details of their supportive acts. “They made their bathrooms available to the women and children in the sit-in; they removed the rugs from their living rooms and threw them down to us to cushion the freezing pavement; one resident sent his wife and children to his in-laws and offered up his apartment for the protestors to sleep in.” Opposition papers reported that street residents also refused to file complaints against the sit-in with the city government.

After 11 days of the sit-in, Finance Minister Youssef Boutros-Ghali, acting on orders from Hosni Mubarak, informed the collectors that their core demands for affiliation with the Ministry and wage parity with general tax collectors would be fulfilled; that they would receive bonuses equivalent to four months’ pay; and that no tax collector would be punished for participating in the sit-in. This agreement was finalised yesterday, the last day of the year.

So concludes this remarkable episode of the last quarter of 2007, the first time since 1924 that civil servants staged a work stoppage to ameliorate their conditions. As we usher in 2008, I can’t help wondering what comes next in Egypt’s extraordinary cycle of protest.

*Photos courtesy of Hamada Abu Ghali