Why Egypt’s Generals Can’t Stop the Revolution

Opinions about events beyond our borders.
Aug. 28 2013 5:21 PM

What Egypt Is Losing

And what can’t be taken away.

Mourners in Cairo, Egypt
Egyptians mourn over a body wrapped in shrouds at a mosque in Cairo on Aug. 15, 2013

Photo by Mahmoud Khaled/AFP/Getty Images

This article originally appeared on madamasr.com.

CAIRO—No matter how many times you witness it, the transformation is still a dizzying one. Kiosks that once sold chocolate and cigarettes, deployed as a gunman’s shield. Shop-window shutters framing sugar-sopped cakes or risqué clothes mannequins, now the roughage of a street barricade and clouded in teargas. Rooftops normally barnacled with satellite dishes and humming air-conditioning units, now specked with sniper rifle sights. All that familiar stuff, wrenched from an old reality and pressed into use as something different. Two and a half years in, the shift from mundane to martial remains disorienting.

What is happening in Egypt and what is being lost? Lives, above all else; hundreds of them—on the streets of Cairo mainly, but also outside the capital in towns and villages beyond the gaze of the global media. It feels remarkable to have to say this when the sentiment is so obvious, but in the bitter atmosphere of recrimination and accusation that seemingly pervades all debate in Egypt at present, it must be said nonetheless: The biggest tragedy of recent weeks is the death of so many, and the maiming of so many more.

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Once again, Egyptians are scrawling their names on their arms in a simple effort to avoid being reduced to a number in a morgue, or worse still consigned to the ranks of the uncounted. Amid footage of besieged mosques, robocop machine-gun fire, and the dreadful, desperate sight of people throwing themselves off bridges to escape a maze of bullets, it’s that little detail—the writing on the arms—that always chills me the most. Like efforts by volunteers to collect and catalogue the belongings of the dead, some of whom risked their lives to retrieve a plastic bag or a duffle as army bulldozers closed in, scribbling your name on your own body feels like the most basic affirmation of presence in the face of a state committed to inflicting absence by the bucket-load: absence of heartbeats, absence of humanity, absence of anything but a narrative in which everything is black and white and people are units to be slotted into pre-drawn political templates. Writing a name on an arm says, devastatingly, “No—I was here, too.”

But beyond people, something else is being lost—just as those most invested in the old Egypt intended. For me, the most powerful expression of Egypt’s revolution has never been anything tangible, but rather that state of mind when the world seems to tip on its head and bevel with possibility, where the landscape of imagination is recast. I first encountered it on Jan. 25, 2011, as I marched alongside a group of anti-Mubarak protesters down the corniche in central Cairo, and felt a heart-pounding distortion of the air as a line of armed central security forces fanned across the road with their shields up, blocking the path ahead.

Before that day, I’d attended countless demonstrations of a few dozen Egyptians shunted to some inconspicuous corner of the street, a tight bristle of political energy marooned in an ocean of black-clad troops. The deployment of the police across the road in front of us was a signal that the next part of this script was about to commence; we would be blocked, come to a stop, engage in some minor scuffling, and then be herded into a harmless protest pen so that Cairo could get on with its day. But on this occasion, with reports of mass unrest spreading throughout the city, something was different. None of the marchers slowed, nobody broke ranks, and instead they just kept on going, right toward those shields, chanting and glaring mutinously into the eyes of those that held them—each of whom glanced uneasily at one another and wondered how to respond. In the end, the troops simply gave way. And as we pushed past them and onto the empty street behind them, several protesters broke into a run—or, more accurately, a skip, a dance, a hodgepodge of hops and jumps. Many began whooping and hollering and even kissing the ground.

Doubtless more important things were happening elsewhere at that moment, beyond that little carpet of liberated asphalt. Episodes of much greater drama would unfold afterward, both that evening as security forces broke the occupation of Tahrir Square with volleys of tear gas, and three days later, when more than 100 police stations were burned to a cinder and Egypt’s people finally forced Mubarak’s security forces to flee into the night. But for me, that single moment—when those around me spontaneously decided to break through the police line and rewrite a mothballed script from the bottom up, that nanosecond where a street was reclaimed and everything in the old universe seemed to stagger, pitch, and tumble forward into infinite opportunity—that was revolution, distilled to its purest form. It felt like a tiresome step dance had just gone freestyle as the performers rethought their collective horizons and careened wildly into a space they had always been told was not for them. It felt like nothing could be the same again.

That newfound sense of agency, of an ability to shape the world around you in ways you never knew existed—that gave me my definition of revolution: not a time-bound event, nor a shuffle of rules and faces, but rather a buckling of physical and mental borders from below. Nothing can pose a greater threat to elites wishing to preserve their political and economic privileges than that sense of agency, and since Egypt’s revolution began not a single farm, factory, classroom, or college has remained entirely immune from its influence.

Which brings us to the scenes on Egypt’s streets in recent weeks. The relentless imposition of state violence creates binaries as well as bodies: You are either with us or against us, pro-military or pro-Brotherhood, an Egyptian or a terrorist. And binaries from above achieve the opposite of imagination from below. When everything is an either/or, and the contours of change are set from on high, it becomes that much harder to even dream of creating your own alternatives because every line of independent thought is subjugated by a more fundamental dichotomy: On whose side do you stand? Judith Butler, the feminist philosopher who has faced opprobrium for her condemnation of the Israeli occupation, has spoken of how her critics seek to destroy the conditions of audibility and force a reality in which one cannot speak out against injustice, a reality in which such words of dissent cannot even be heard. How Egypt’s defenders of the status quo, forced on their heels by a revolution that struggles against authoritarianism and state violence, have longed to similarly destroy the conditions of audibility. In their current “war on terror,” as the ticker on state television puts it, they finally have the enemy, the fight, and the stage on which to do so. Thus far, their efforts are meeting with spectacular success.