Egypt: fighting the status quo

The simple binary “Morsi vs. the ancien regime”, prevents us from developing a third way out.

Karim Malak
9 January 2013

Wednesday December 4, 2012, is a day remembered in Egypt because the regime, run by the Muslim Brotherhood (MB), decided to disperse peaceful protests outside the Presidential Palace. The very day the perimeter of the palace was cleared MB forces went around painting over the graffiti on the palace walls. Earlier in that day, as the MB bussed in its members from outside Cairo, and we protesters battled them, I had my cranium cracked with a stone during the clashes. The riot police covered the MB as they pushed forward in a horrific assault backed by police vans, tear gas, buckshot shotguns and live ammunition.  When I was being treated in a makeshift field hospital we were overrun by MB forces who held us for several hours, stuck in no-mans land. I posed as a journalist to avoid torture or being picked up by any of the MB members, many of whom were later forced to confess that they were indeed paid thugs, and part of the ancien regime.  One example was former diplomat Yehia Zakaria who was caught by the MB and beaten up - his is but one of the many stories that have now emerged.

Later the Ultras came along, and seeing we were in MB territory threatened to burn down the whole place. We explained that we were being held there against our will and they let us go. I was taken to a hospital for minor surgery to seal the wound, having lost a considerable amount of blood. I gave my testimony to various Human Rights (HR) organizations, but what follows are my thoughts about those events in today's Egypt.

It is true that several opposition parties called for the protests outside the presidential palace. But what happened on Tuesday, December 3, 2012, was largely spontaneous and uncoordinated. Several marches joined together in surrounding the palace. The sheer number of people overwhelmed riot police who were routed and started running. Police truck after police truck retreated full of soldiers: trucks that were surrounded begged to be allowed to leave and the crowds let them. On that day I remember seeing the entire palace swamped and packed. Shoulder to shoulder. Its defences had fallen and inside stood armed military forces and tanks. Women and old men emerged, and the gathering of protesters started to become reminiscent of January 25, 2011; in other words - people from all walks of life came.

Over the last year our numbers have dropped and dwindled. With state media constantly demonizing any form of protest, and regularly citing, “the successful end of the revolution” no one came out and protested with us and we felt the brute force of the coercive state. It has become rather important to us to note who talks about revolution in the past tense. This has accelerated in particular out of fear of the planned protests on January 25, 2013. In this regard, the use of the term the ancien regime, is also rather problematic. Status quo forces, represented by the MB and its allies, often make this phrase and what it represents their central political starting-point, talking about their wretched past and the previous regime to the exclusion of everything that has happened since. They attempt to create a gap between current police brutality, which for organized labor has been far worse according to their own testimony - and what happened in the past. Discursively, this gap creates an abyss, an area where all current events, violence and protests are delegitimized and erased - an abyss which ensures impunity for the MB and their violence. State media of course helps by simply refusing to host anyone from the opposition.

Second is the issue of “the youth” or “the revolutionaries” and their support for Morsi. True, the April 6 movement has supported President Morsi in what we believe to be a naïve response and they are not alone. But the simple binary they have allowed to be created, of “Morsi vs. the ancien regime”, prevents us from developing a third way out. It is here that Edward Said is such an important figure, since he and others attempted to escape from the binary oppositions which imprison us and to create a countervailing subjectivity. Most supporters of Morsi are forced, by virtue of this binary, to defend MB positions leading to knee-jerk reactions that drag them back to the ways of the ancien regime. Conversely those who attack Morsi are accused of being blind to the crimes of the past regime. Among the mutual accusations of being “inept” and “weak”, what emerges is a "youth" trapped in retrospect and retribution. And they are not the only ones. Those who boycotted the elections make it a moral issue and talk to their respective partners, seeking vindication, and telling them “we told you not to vote, the blame for this cannot fall at our door”. The transformation of any option into a moral question is also part of this performance of a powerful discourse that keeps any constructive action in check.

Where does that leave the rest of us? There are a number of signs that the people are trying to escape from this imprisoning discourse. First the recognition that institutionalized opposition represented in so-called “dialogues” that aims to reach “consensus”- is only a way to keep the opposition in check. To see how the current “dialogue” rounds are a sham one need only look at how Selim El Awa, one of the MB’s allies, chairs one of the sub-committees. The fact that the MB fills all these rounds of negotiations with cadres like El Awa that are supposedly unaffiliated gives no more than a decorative feel to its authoritarianism. Several western think tanks criticize the opposition for being “petty” in refusing to attend these negotiations. But you have to study the options in detail to understand this.

One of the most inspiring developments to my mind was the National Salvation Front (NSF) statement that they do not control the street and protestors, and that they are not going to be like the MB who bus in their members to put down the opposition. There continues to be a learning curve of the means of co-optation and institutionalization of informal power structures. The first step is locating them and revealing all of them, especially the ones that have been normalized and internalized. Is it inevitable that the opposition will reach a point where it must realize it cannot work within the system to achieve its objectives? We who wish to see profound change must consciously aim to wage resistance alongside cultivating our ability to narrate these events, and to keep our accounts alive, finding new ways to challenge the prevailing discourse. No moral position should be privileged from the outset. Aftre all, notions about the sanctity of the private sphere, private property and the right to life seem to be of little value to those in power. 



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