Notes on the uprisings in Egypt and elsewhere in the Middle East

February 15, 2011

February 15, 2011

by Saroj Giri

Hang on a minute with ‘the domino effect’

Source – Open Democracy

February 13, 2011

The Egyptian people wanted Mubarak to go and Mubarak has indeed been removed, so let us now move to the next dictator, next country!

Let us not see the Tahrir protests as a one-off show… one minute Egypt, next Yemen, now onto Algeria or Syria. The real fight has only just begun in Egypt. From Cairo’s Tahrir Square, there are reports that many of the demonstrators who filled it for 18 days have rejected the military’s appeal to dismantle the barricades and go home. In answer to the Army communiqués, point for point, there is now a People’s Communique No. 1. An alternative is being forged to army rule.

Already on Friday Feb 11, the day Mubarak’s removal was announced, while the Tahrir Square protests were swelling, protestors assembled outside the Presidential Palace, state television office and several other key installations. They were fanning out and intensifying – and still are. Protesters jubilant at the removal of Mubarak are now pausing to figure out if removal is enough: now some are calling for bringing Mubarak to trial. There is a feeling that things cannot now go back to business as usual without bringing the criminals and corrupt rulers to book. The protests are already undergoing a radicalization.

Despite their only claim so far being the decapitation of the Mubarak regime, these new interim rulers seem to be riding on the wave of the moral legitimacy of the protests. Yet the army is bound by the $1.3 billion it receives annually from the US. It has strong links with big business pursuing extreme neoliberal policies that have even alienated some ‘national capitalists’ such as the business tycoon Sawiris, sufficiently to join the protesters seemingly in support of their demands at least for a while. But the card that Sawaris is playing may be no more than a scary reminder of the planned nationalist development of Egypt’s Nasserite, which only appeared opposed to neoliberalism. As part of the Council of the Wise involved in negotiations with the regime, wasn’t Sawaris a little too ready to accept the continuance of Mubarak in the name of ensuring White House-inspired ‘orderly transition’?

The movement is surely far from over. While the dominant discourse of ‘pro-democracy movement’ and ‘orderly transition’ renders the deeper process of the movement’s radicalisation invisible, if we ignore this we will be shifting our attention elsewhere precisely at the moment when the movement is maturing and refining itself. It was anyways never one homogeneous movement from beginning to end, from say Jan 25 to the removal of Mubarak. The movement with each passing day was changing, learning, deepening and, thanks partly to the intransigence of the regime, radicalizing.

What must be kept in mind is that it was only when the movement had sufficiently intensified to create a general crisis not just of legitimacy but an actual overall crisis of the system, shaking the social order, that the regime had to give in and announce the removal of Mubarak – as damage control. More than heeding to the call of the protesters, this was about precluding their further radicalization.

Two factors were of crucial importance here. Firstly, the labour strikes with workers participating in huge numbers. Not only was the regime losing credibility but the system, the economy (transport and communication, banking, industries) was under threat of collapse. Paradoxically, a lull in protests sometime around Feb 6 became instrumental in charging up and radicalising the protests once they resumed. People returned to their homes and workplaces, a semblance of normalcy returned – but this meant that the next phase of the protest was better organised, better thought out and the struggle entered people’s workplaces.

Then, with people across the board from bus drivers to film makers protesting, Mubarak’s speech refusing to step down just further deepened the crisis. Well calculated to arrest the escalating radicalization of the protests, it was to stem this emerging crisis that Suleiman stepped in to announce the departure of Mubarak. The same process of radicalization, undeterred and full of possibilities, has ensured that the remaining protesters in Tahrir Square today refuse to pack up and leave.

Often, spontaneous mass protests fizzle out, at best with some concessions here and there. This is what Mubarak must have anticipated when he refused to step down in his earlier address and offered sops like not contesting again in September.

What the dominant discourse of ‘pro-democracy movements’ does not allow us to see is that the anti-Mubarak protests, starting Jan 25, cannot be dissociated from country-wide protests and labour unrest, as well as the sheer energy, daring and legitimacy of the Tahrir protests. It is of crucial importance to demand an end to army rule and the institution of an interim government. The army should hand over power to this interim government and it is this government and not the army which should oversee the process of writing a new constitution and setting up a new government based upon it.

The ‘regime change’ in Egypt is being presented as exemplary in itself, to be emulated by other countries. But why should people struggle to replicate this in Algeria, Yemen, Saudi Arabia or Jordan? There is no point getting carried away by a ‘regime change’, where the dictatorship of Mubarak is replaced by the ‘democracy’ of Suleiman/Tantawi, or worse where they start donning the colours of the revolution! Instead we should highlight the deeper process of social transformation and political change already under way in Egypt. It is this process which should spread from one country to the other and not just some hollowed out ‘pro-democracy movement’, code-word for not changing anything really. And whoever said that such deeper social transformation should take place only in Arab countries? Why not start with the US?



Source – Mute

February 12, 2011

The moment of Mubarak’s departure is a great victory. While this is not what they wanted, even Suleiman, the US and Israel must also be thinking of this departure as their victory too, for ensuring ‘an orderly transition’ in Egypt. Why? Since Mubarak stepped down and the protests were contained precisely when they were intensifying. The protests were changing its nature from the festive celebration of freedom in open city squares to strategizing, targeting specific locations. Suleiman the spy knew this, so did his master.

On Friday Feb 11, before news of Mubarak’s removal, al-Jazeera reported, many protestors were seen to be moving away from Tahrir square (!) towards the Presidential palace, the state television building and other key installations. Further, trade-specific struggles were reported: labour struggles in factories and companies, film-makers calling for the resignation of those who supported the Mubarak regime, peasant and slum-dweller movements and so on. The Wall Street Journal reported on Wednesday Feb 9, two days before Suleiman’s Friday announcement: “People were always asking why [laborers] don’t join our protests, said Ayman Nour, the head of Egypt’s opposition Al Ghad Party in an interview on Wednesday night. ‘Today, it was the right timing that both parties will become one. We’re organizing with them from now on’”.

Another report said: Bus drivers and other public transportation employees in Egypt have gone on strike as spreading labor unrest adds momentum to mass protests calling for President Hosni Mubarak’s ouster ( Then you had film-makers who joined the Tahrir protests with their own specific demands: “One of the main demands was for the head of the syndicate, Mossad Fouda to resign for not supporting the filmmakers’ stance towards the 25 January revolution and for refusing to sign the statement issued by the cinema makers.” (Ahram Online, 10 Feb, 2011).

In other words, the movement was radicalizing, taking deeper roots and identifying the Mubarak regime in its widespread roots and branches, in the power networks it had spawned. This move from the general demand for freedom and removal of Mubarak to working out its implications across the entire power ladder running through society – such unmistakeable signs of radicalization of the Tahrir protests were sure to frighten the wielders of power. Clearly, one way to contain these protests was to announce that Mubarak is gone, bring in army rule, so that the rest of those in the regime can carry on. It is no wonder then that both Suleiman and the head of the army council Tantawi are emphasising on restoring normalcy, creating conditions for the consolidation of their power. And this has immediate implications for the remaining protestors in Tahrir square who are in a dilemma about whether to continue with the protests. al-Jazeera again: “while people are celebrating Mubarak’s departure, there are growing calls for him to be brought to justice. “People say it’s just not good enough that he’s gone to his villa in Sharm el-Sheikh … And I can’t think of any case in the past where an ousted leader has been able to live peacefully in his country.”

The question is: should the beautiful and sublime Tahrir square protests now end up by putting in place the army with some of the most die-hard reactionaries and conservatives in power? Maybe temporarily, for now, there is no other option and yet the situation is not all that bad since the Tahrir sequence is not over: the process of a longer political struggle, the intensification and wider dispersal of the struggle is already underway. This process means that eventually the present situation of existing centres of power, particularly the army being the end-limit of any political process, might not last till eternity. Can the movement of the people ever emerge as not just carrying the spirit of change and freedom but also emerge as a centre of political power?

The gap

But to understand this we must keep in mind the key feature of the Egypt situation: and that is the gap between power and legitimacy. No, this gap is not just to be seen in Mubarak/Suleiman and the army who do not have the moral legitimacy which is possessed by the movement of the people, by the Tahrir protests. Rather, this gap is more seriously in the movement of the people, in this fount of moral legitimacy and revolutionary spirit never itself emerging as the centre of power and only as the biggest and most dynamic pressure group, the conscience keeper of the nation. The gap is between the true and the virtuous, and ‘power’.

Consider the contrasting case of ANC and Mandela in South Africa – they carried tremendous moral high ground, the dreams of a future society and were at the same time a contender for political power. Or, Castro and Che in Cuba, raising the banner of truth, love, beauty and revolution, who were soldiers as well as souljas (soldiers of the soul). Even better, consider Venezuela’s Bolivarian Revolution. The movement of the people there not only carried the moral legitimacy hailing freedom and equality, marching against the repressive regime, but also, in the figure of Hugo Chavez the military man, formed a centre of power.

The Tahrir protestors however in this sense belong to a different register – so far, one would say. The poet Ahmad Fu’ad Nigm told the youth who had led the Tahrir revolt: “Egypt is cleansing herself through you”. But it seems that such a moral, cleansing force might remain hostage to the basic matrix of power given ultimately by Mubarak-Suleiman regime and the army – with perhaps the Muslim Brotherhood as another contender. After the initial euphoria about the spirit of freedom and revolution of the protests, will we have to settle down to reconciling to hard reality, to ‘power’, to realpolitik, to army rule now? Is virtue, beauty, revolution doomed to be tragic, marginal and a failure?

After the outburst of freedom, poetry and communal solidarity the protestors are indeed expected to pack off and allow the wielders of power to work out the rest, the actual details of what will follow. A White House diplomat, while speaking on the Muslim Brotherhood, is quoted as saying that ‘academic types’ do not understand realpolitik and are full of shit. One response to this is to say yea, we want to remain in our shit: we are not going to take power since we are against power as such, we are anti-power. This is how perhaps Subcommandante Marcos of the Zapatistas in Mexico might have responded. Yet today those assembled in Tahrir are going beyond being merely anti-power and not willing to let go.

Change: bridging the gap?

Egypt is no doubt in the grip of this gap between power and legitimacy but things are changing. There are two movements that one can see, two opposing trends involving key actors.

One is where existing power blocs, both Mubarak earlier and the army now, are trying to enter into a warmer relationship with the protests – power is seeking, craving for legitimacy. Mubarak welcomed the protests and saluted the martyrs, but he had no chance of winning the hearts of the protestors. The army of course is much closer to the protests but it is tricky as it tries to balance between Mubarak/Suleiman and the protestors. The army has strong ties with the US which pumps millions of dollars into it. It simply cannot carry the revolutionary spirit of the protests that have reached a great height. There are reports that the ‘young officers’ close to the protests might not accept the hegemony of the older generals. Any fissure here would be good but it does not look imminent. The protests have precipitated another realignment within the ruling circles. ‘National capitalists’ like Sawiris who joined the protests are asserting themselves over the long dominant crony capitalists like Mubarak’s son. Sawiris is very active in the ‘Council of the Wise Men’ who held the negotiations with the Mubarak regime and protestors.

The first movement then is a realignment, albeit progressive, within existing power blocs, trying to deck it up in the colours of the revolution. The second movement is the one we pointed out above, of radicalization of the Tahrir protests with signs that it might go beyond the mere question of the removal of Mubarak. Perhaps we are here witnessing what might be called, the revolution becoming power and not getting mired in anti-power. The revolution is becoming, not seeking power, in the sense that the protests are maturing, becoming more broad-based, gaining a longer life, involving labour and other association. The protests evolved in the course of almost 20 days: from its initial high it kind of leveled out and then again rose up even bigger and this time more organised and strategic: from the Day of Rage, to the Week of Resilience, to the Week of Steadfastness…

The lull in between after the first negotiations (Week of Resilience) meant that people again touched base with themselves, with each other and things around – and came back even more organised, sorted out and prepared. This is of crucial importance in seeing the evolution of the protests, in its maturing where now the virtuous inspires the strategic. The protests showed signs that it is not just targeting the top, Mubarak and his cohorts. It is getting a more direct, concrete manifestation – less spectacular, not involving directly global power-mongers like the US and Israel but a solid maturing and grounding of the movement. The movement is getting more political and strategic in that sense. This however does not run counter to the euphoria, the poetry and the music and the solidarity and love the protests have come to embody – in fact these ‘values’ fundamentally structure the ‘being strategic’. As someone like Che would say, love and revolution go hand in hand…

Interim government

Sadly however it is quite likely that today we might overlook this intensification of the Tahrir protests, the nation-wide protests, the struggle triggered off at different levels of society, in the workplace and in unions. It is not just Suleiman and Tantawi’s calls for return to normalcy and calling upon people to trust the army to deliver, which might undermine the process. In a strange twist, the immediate focus of sections of the left to emerging protests in other Arab countries, might also distract from the half-done work in Egypt – it is when attention is shifted that the ruling classes tend to quickly push changes that then take decades to undo. The protests in other countries must instead lead to reinforcing the process already underway in Egypt.

The question now: how in the face of the Damocles sword of the fully constituted power of the Egyptian army, might the intensification of the struggle be possible? Here the formation of an interim government might favour the forces of change and transformation. The army is today legitimizing its hold over power by promising to deliver on a democratic order, to put up a constitution, ensure free and fair elections and so on. Instead it should only oversee the formation of an interim government. It is the interim government which will take charge so that it will not be the army but this government which should oversee the democratic political process of a new constitutional order.

This interim government must be preceded by a round table conference including the most diverse sections of Egyptian society, particularly the forces that have emerged from the protests: the Tahrir coordinating groups like the Youth Coalition, the April 6 movement, independent trade unions, human rights organizations, perhaps also the Muslim Brother Youth and so on. Through this conference, an interim government can emerge to oversee the process of setting up a constitution, elections and formation of a government. The army’s role must be restricted to only overseeing the conference till the formation of the interim government. It goes without saying that the emergency laws and the present Constitution, including the present Parliament skewed towards Mubarak’s party, must be scrapped. From all accounts, playing around with the present Constitution, reforming and amending it, might not be of much use, so that it must be set aside.

A round table conference with an interim government will keep the army out and allow the political process to work itself out. Both emergency and martial laws must of course be withdrawn. This will allow the momentum of the Tahrir square protests and its intensification to take root and lead to radical outcomes. In this way, the subjects of the Tahrir square protests will prove that their dreams are not just child’s play or the idle imaginings of ‘academic types’. The revolutionary spirit of Tahrir square is not doomed to play the tragic tune of being eternally anti-power: it is already challenging ‘realpolitik’ and with some strategy might soon have ‘a world to win’, in more than a metaphoric sense. The gap between power and moral legitimacy, between revolutionary spirit and strategic thinking, between anti-power and power must be done away with if we are not to fall prey to reducing Tahrir to another spectacle and image in the global counter-cultural scene, yet another ‘pro-democracy movement’ proving the ‘end of history’.


Repeating Tahrir

Source – Bikya Masr

February 10, 2011

The rich energy, higher morality and subversive solidarity, almost a new way of being, which the movement has become shows that the particular demand for the removal of Mubarak became a trigger for the unfolding of a wider democratic and radical, even revolutionary sentiment and aspiration among the people. This aspiration could not have unfolded without the break with normalcy, the negation and suspension of the given social order which Tahrir square has come to stand for entailed. Not just the demand for the removal of Mubarak but this new way of being, reverberations of the new, of the not-yet and beyond – isn’t this what is precious, radical and universalisable and above all, inappropriable by this or that tweaking of liberal democracy and capitalism. But why emphasise on the protests as marking the break with normalcy and the suspension of the given social order?

At the risk of sounding alarmist and cynical about the Tahrir square protests let me raise certain disconcerting questions – and I know that these questions are a bit premature since the protests have ebbed but not over yet. Is the Tahrir square (protests) already getting readied for its fetishisation into a one-of-its-kind spectacle? Is it soon going to get a colour – pink, orange, velvet? Is it already an image a la Che, now in circulation in the global market of anti-establishment images and memorabilia? Is some company already printing Tahrir square T-shirts and mugs to sell and earn more for the market to capitalize on yet another youth sub-culture? Is business already waiting for the deluge of tourists who are soon going to descend in flocks at Tahrir square?

When everyone from Obama and Hillary Clinton to Omar Suleiman to Thomas Friedman and Fareed Zakaria are welcoming these protests (we must listen to the protestors!), such questions might not be entirely misplaced to ask, even if slightly untimely. Against this possible celebration of the protests as a spectacle, as yet another disembodied image, we must immediately point out to what in it resists this, what in it opens the way to its intensification and further radicalization. How can we sour Tahrir square’s impending honeymoon with counter-cultural capitalism, including the counter-cultural left. What in its further unfolding can lead to events that would make it unpalatable to this appropriation so that it does not become just another ‘pro-democracy’ protest. Perhaps one way to achieve this is to place Tahrir square not really in the sequence of Tehran 1979, Berlin 1989 or Tiananmen Square 1989 but to place it in something less global and more concrete: say, the 1977 bread uprising in Egypt mostly led by workers and the popular classes or the social basis of the ongoing movement, its class composition, or what is happening in smaller towns and the countryside.

Break with normalcy

The specific demand for the removal of Mubarak apart, what stands out is the tremendous political charge and dynamic energy which the protests in Tahrir square have displayed. Roger Cohen of the New York Times called Tahrir square ‘a tolerant mini-republic’ which displays ‘serendipitous order’ instead of sterile chaos (Feb 6, 2011). Indeed it felt like the protests were reaching for a much better society than what just the removal of Mubarak and reinstating a routine multi-party democracy would mean. The signs, the sights and sounds from Tahrir square are ominous to any ruling group, be it Mubarak or Obama or Merkel. In bringing Cairo to a ‘standstill’ the protests revealed the ‘still and dead’, petrified nature of existing scheme of things and social order.

The ‘chaos’ and ‘break with normalcy’ pointed to new ways and means of doing things, that a return to normalcy even with the sops that Mubarak has now offered cannot but look like such a compromise. It went beyond merely registering an opposition to Mubarak and prefigured something more – more than what for example Michael Rubin of the New York Times suggests: removal of Mubarak, “establishment of a technocratic transitional government” opening the way for “a new democratic order” (New York Times, Feb 7, 2011). Beyond Egypt, beyond any specific country, democratic or not, it has stirred our finer aspirations and hopes of a society beyond what the present order can accommodate, so that it is not the ‘break from normalcy’ but normalcy itself which feels out of place and not right.

The best way to kill ‘a republic called Tahrir’ turns out to be simple – restoration of law and order, return to normalcy and so on. Let us look at the statement from the Office of the Vice-President, Omar Suleiman released on Feb 6, 2011 following negotiations with opposition groups. The statement recognises the ‘legitimate demands of the youth of Jan 25 (protests) and society’s political forces”. It does not address the issue of removal of Mubarak and his regime but focuses attention on the breakdown of normalcy: “the lack of security for the populace; disturbances to daily life; the paralysis of public services; the suspension of education in universities and schools; the logistical delays in the delivery of essential goods; the damages to and the losses of the Egyptian economy”. It is clear that for the authorities, the best way to defuse the political character of the mass protests is to touch base, state some home truths: normalcy, routine life, business as usual (kids must go to school!) and so on.


This emphasis on return to normalcy and law and order answers some of the questions raised about these protests, regarding the vacuum of a post-Mubarak order. Much has been talked about the inability to put our fingers in defining what exactly these protests meant apart from the ‘negative’ agenda of ‘remove those in power’, remove Mubarak. The US insisted that the main demand for removal of Mubarak was fraught with creating a situation which would enable the Muslim Brotherhood to establish control. Those opposing this position, emphasise instead the secular, democratic character of the protest and the marginality of the Brotherhood.

However, most commentators (including pro-protest ones) seem to agree on the absence of any clearly left-wing or right-wing character of the protestors. Nawal el-Saadawi the 80-year old pre-eminent Egyptian feminist said this from Tahrir square: “The protestors don’t belong to the right or the left, or Muslim. There was not a single Islamic religious slogan in the streets. Not one. They were shouting for justice, equality, freedom, and that Mubarak and his regime should go, and we need to change the system and bring people who are honest.” Arab commentator Amr Hamzawy writes, “activists from small leftist organisations have attended, but the usual denunciations of global imperialism, colonialism, and Zionism were absent”. And yes, “the Muslim Brotherhood youth and some of their leaders participated in the protests, but there were no signs saying, ‘Islam is the solution’.”

Does this make the protests a post-political, post-ideological phenomenon? Such a reading finds its perfect ally and expression in the characterization of the protests as a social media revolution of facebooking blogger-citizens – middle class, blackberry urban youth. An eerie word is now coined: webolution! Detaching the protest from any substantive or concrete demands being made apart from ‘freedom’ or ‘liberty’, with their default liberal meanings, it is sometimes unwittingly presented as the effect of social media technology. It is almost as if social media is the cause of, and not the tool of communication for, the protests. The actions of the regime in cutting off the internet made the internet appear more important than it is.

So no left, no right, and the protests are not just dispersed, direction-less and leaderless, but an effect of social media: does this ‘lack of content’ not mean that it is the liberals again who must come and take the cake. Some writers have already called upon the US to dump Mubarak and reinstate liberal democracy. The liberals just need to put in place a democracy, do away with the despotism of Mubarak, allow opposition political parties to flourish, freedom of speech and assembly, regular multi-party elections – so you are back to liberal democracy as the end point again. The protests, we are told, are just asking for a true liberal liberal democracy! US realpolitik interests are running counter to the tenets of liberal democracy, but liberal democracy is what is being indicated by the protests, liberalism as the understated subconscious of the Tahrir protests!

Suspending the social order

It is here, precisely when liberal appropriation is knocking at the doors that what is inappropriable about the protests must be foregrounded to cut the flab of spectacle and ubiquitous praise. Recall therefore the vice-president’s anxious and desperate emphasis on order, return to normalcy and routine business. Indeed, large parts of Cairo and other towns like Alexandria had ‘come to a standstill’, meaning it hindered the routine operation of the economy and the ritual practices that keep the existing social and economic order in place. People were no longer carrying out routine tasks doing the bidding for the well-heeled and those in control but came to assert their subjectivity and agency. Moreover people were not withdrawing from work, refusing to be pushed around by the system, being a cog in reproducing the status quo, only to then slide into private life, say taking a holiday, or withdraw into a new age commune and so on.

Rather this withdrawal was from work and business into something really public, more public than work and business – the realm of politics. Individuals in the protests were saying that now they know that they are not alone in thinking. The realm of work and business (‘private labour’ in Marx, or ‘private use of reason’ in Kant) now suddenly appears for what it really is – where ultimately we are suckered in as isolated, private individuals without a sense of collectivity and solidarity. Against this, the protestors in Egypt assumed their really public role, engaging in politics and challenging the very social order which tries to subsume and repress them. This moment of politics, of breaking with their prescribed roles and suspending the present order and demanding its reconfiguration – wasn’t this what was involved in the protests? So it was not just the rejection of the regime or demand for Mubarak’s ouster but what is important is the modality of this rejection, the manner in which people organised themselves or refused to carry on with normal business and redefined the terms in which they related to each other as fellow citizens, as fellow protestors and formed themselves into the ‘movement of the people’.

Such modality of the protests thus meant that from the overt rejection of the Mubarak regime, it has indeed been a small but crucial step to questioning the very social divides and economic inequalities that constitute Egypt today. The rant against the chaos, disruption of normal life, the call for a ‘peaceful and orderly transition’ by the US – all of this shows that the fear for those in power is clearly not about the formal violation of law and the constitution but about the questions that might be raised about the inequalities and injustice of the very social order on which the present regime is parasitic. Thanks to the nature of the protests the discussion has today gone beyond just lack of ‘democracy’ or political rights, even for mainstream commentators. Salwa Ismail writes in the Guardian that the intransigence of the Mubarak regime is not just about politics. In her ‘A private estate called Egypt’ she points to “a tiny economic elite controlling consumption-geared production and imports has accumulated great wealth”. Further, “it is estimated that around a thousand families maintain control of vast areas of the economy. This business class sought to consolidate itself and protect its wealth through political office”(Guardian, Feb 6, 2011). So here we have: socio-economic divides, business interests in the regime and so on, all questioned and contested now.

Interestingly, some of the readers comments to this Guardian piece ask the writer whether such economic inequalities are specific to Egypt and do not for example apply to the UK or the US. The chain of ideas triggered off by the Tahrir protests takes us beyond any specific country and beings in its train the question of the socio-economic order, of global capitalism itself. The politics here is not just multi-party democracy, elections and freedom of expression nor is it therefore about the West and non-West divide. Beyond cultural specificity of the Egyptians or even of ‘cultural translation’ this moment of politics puts them in immediate solidarity with similar struggles elsewhere, not just in the Middle East. Some of us are asking in India: where is India’s Tahrir square protests? The point is not: can we export some democracy from India to help out the Egyptians? Rather, since the protests and what they stand for are beyond mere ‘democracy’ (multiparty elections, free markets, privatisation etc), it is apt that each country today can today look for their own Tahrir square which will challenge the global consensus of the rule of capital and ‘democracy’.

The suspension of false social and cultural divides and the emergence of a common, universal space is attested to by pictures coming from the site of protest at Tahrir square. A newly-wed couple pose for a photo, Christians guard fellow Muslim protestors as they pray, men and women share the same space, ‘foreigners’ are welcomed to join them, placards are written in Hebrew, anti-regime doctors treat wounded soldiers, Western reporters get a free ride in local cabs and so on. Tahrir protests as emblematic of the suspension of the social order and its false divides provide for us today a vantage point, an engaging standpoint from which to view things. It allows us to see how in spite of appearing congealed and hard to dislodge, the established order is not really impervious to the ‘movement of the masses’ and how precariously it feigns that the divides and inequalities are natural and here to stay. Tahrir square clarifies, clears the immobilizing haze. We now see that there is no necessary necessity to the present global capitalist order and US dominance: this necessity is merely contingent. The recent student protests in the UK showed this, as did the workers strikes in France, and now you have Tunisia and Egypt. Where is it next: India, China?

Tahrir as image

I started by pointing out how if Tahrir is not to be reduced (or, actually, inflated) to a spectacle, an image circulating in the global counter-cultural market, then we must ground it in the concrete conditions of Egypt – flesh out what Slavoj Zizek called the ‘Arab revolutionary spirit’. As Lenin would have said, we need ‘concrete analysis of concrete conditions’.

A good start would be to look at the role of the capitalist class and workers in the protests. A top capitalist joins the protests: “On Monday, 31 January 2011, we saw Naguib Sawiris, perhaps Egypt’s richest businessman and the iconic leader of the developmentalist “nationalist capital” faction in Egypt, joining the protesters and demanding the exit of Mubarak. During the past decade, Sawiris and his allies had become threatened by Mubarak-and-son’s extreme neoliberalism and their favoring of Western, European and Chinese investors over national businessmen. Because their investments overlap with those of the military, these prominent Egyptian businessmen have interests literally embedded in the land, resources and development projects of the nation. They have become exasperated by the corruption of Mubarak’s inner circle” (Paul Amar, ‘Why Mubarak is Out?’, Feb 1, 2011, The same report draws attention to the recent labour unrest providing a backdrop to the ongoing protests: “2009 and 2010 were marked by mass national strikes, nation-wide sit-ins, and visible labor protests often in the same locations that spawned this 2011 uprising.”

Apart from the class and societal basis of the movement, any attempt to preclude it from becoming another pink tide counter-cultural image, might involve displacing the focus from Tahrir square and seeing it as part of demonstrations and protests in other parts of Egypt. Consider this report by Mohammed Bamyeh : “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 looked that a revolution was happening, were in more marginal sites like Suez” (Feb 5, 2011,

Perhaps we need more of such probing if an appreciation (and why not, celebration) of the deep political import of Tahrir square is not to slip into its iconisation into a global marketable image and spectacle, or a social media creation. It is only as such that we can think of Repeating Tahrir.

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