The Fiction of Mercurial Mobilization in Egypt

By Ismail Alexandrani[2] – as a practitioner

As a field activist, I never speak to the public reading from a paper. It’s a rule to me; however I have to break it because of my English and I like breaking rules. Actually, I think this is a good approach to introduce my modest experience in Egypt. The first thing I have learnt in my social and political participation in Egypt is to have the courage to ask: why shall I recognize something as a rule? Who makes it a rule? Why do I have to obey? Do I have the right to disobey? How shall I object? Or, more specifically, how shall WE disobey? What are the repercussions of our actions? What may our response be? How may we escalate? But before going ahead to all the questions, don’t forget the beginning— why shall we believe this rule or consider it as a presupposition?

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يوم التنحي - الإسكندرية

Alexandria Revolutionary Protest, Feb 2011

Why shall we believe the illusions; illusions of stability verses chaos, security verses freedom, safety verses dignity (it is very important to differentiate between security and safety), illusions of the role of the state and the functions of the structures, reform from inside the regime, and the “process” of change which may be calculated by ages of generation?!

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Street mobilization in Egypt used to be surrounded by a lot of illusions; such as “we are dozens of activists and they are thousands of officers and soldiers,” “we always protest and people don’t join us, what a coward folk!,” “security forces are always more and stronger than us,” “those people behave like slaves and will never change,”  “hunger is more important than democracy, we should excuse them,” and  “these people don’t deserve freedom.” A lot of illusions contain undefined pronouns like: we, they, us, them, our, their. And no one knew who exactly WE are, or why THEY had another attitude!

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My Egyptian experience has taught me the following (first rule): Free your mind! Have the courage to ask and re-ask!

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The second lesson did not take a long time to learn, simply because nobody answered us. So, I quickly knew the second rule, which is: Find the answer yourself. If you can’t find it, create yours!

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Throughout hundreds of field activities, awareness campaigns, silent stand-ups, slogan-writing, painting graffiti, posting promotional materials, beside the political and human rights demonstration, we, the Egyptian young activists, found out our mistakes. We were brave enough to admit our failure to mobilize the critical mass needed to bring about the comprehensive change we were looking forward to. It became clear that no single party or movement could make change alone, so the question was not about who might contribute and participate. We reached the highly pure revolutionary moment when Egyptians were “pro” or “against.” More clearly, Egyptians, at that moment, had to be against the corruption, injustice and torture except the regime clientists who were in support of their personal interests regardless the cost paid by people outside their circles. We did not have the luxury of excluding any participating, or even potentially contributing, party or movement. The real challenge was regarding how we should develop our failed experiences and resist the state security penetration in order to formulate a more healthy and productive coalition.

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2010 could be considered the revolutionary travail when a handful of mobilizing events and escalations took places. It was the peak year of repression, torture, electoral fraud, political exclusion by the regime and the ruling National Democratic Party, bequeathing Mubarak’s son, return of Mohamed El-Baradie, launching a public campaign to support him as an appropriate presidential candidate, and founding the National Association for Change. On the other hand, we should never forget the growing labor protest that began in 2007 which encouraged hundreds thousands of workers and employees to act and react in the street against the corruption and the neo-liberal polices facing the huge security forces.

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I don’t like to be reductive in maximizing the effect of Khaled Said’s case (the twenty eight-year old young man who was tortured to death on his street in front of a crowd of people in Alexandria). Actually, I wrote a long article[3] criticizing the activists’ biases which made it a very different in inspiring case even it was not the worst one. I totally refuse the silly idea of symbolizing Khaled Said as Mubarak’s famous victim, and insist on being more honest when discussing the social class biases, the emotional effect of inaccurate digital photos, the geographical and transportation facilities to the location where victims were violated, etc. In spite of my criticism to Khaled Said’s case, I’m proud to have been one of the few activists who invested in this case to shift the street mobilization in the right direction so that the ordinary people became the majority and the activists[4] became the minority for the first time in Mubarak’s era.

Khaled Said’s Silent Protest on Alexandria beach and many other cities around Egypt – ElBadeel.com

  

To go back to the illusions, who said that there is a rule to demonstrate only in downtown’s wide squares or on the stairs of a court or a syndicate?! A little thinking led us to recognize the clear fact; downtowns have a few residents and the crowds there are mostly walkers, visitors, vendors and busy people. Another clear fact is about effectiveness of protesting in wide squares which requires huge numbers of participants to be noiced. Since we are dozens of activists both in Cairo and Alexandria, it’s very easy to be surrounded by hundreds or even thousands of police forces and it is also easy to lose the only advantage, which is being well seen by the passers. These two clear facts were reaffirmed dozens times including during the first solidarity protest for Khaled Said, during which a handful of activists gathered in front of Sidi Gaber police station. These dear friends faced dire physical and legal consequences for their actions, especially since they were alone against hundreds of police officers and soldiers in a wide street.

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Finally, we corrected our tactic and held funeral prayer in a different mosque than usual. We normally hold most of activities, including politicized funeral services, at Ibrahim Mosque, one the most famous mosques in Alexandria and its square is the counterpart of Tahrir Square in Cairo. It became a rule to have all public opposition activities there, so we freed our collective minds from this field taboo and moved to another gathering point, Sidi Gaber Mosque, the nearest appropriate mosque to Khaed’s house. The second protest was nearer to Khaled’s home in a little square in Cleopatra district in order to engage as much neighbors as we might can. The third and the fourth were at the same place with a more enhanced capability to dodge the police forces with a protection of people in a crowded residential neighborhood. Participating ordinary people were a majority of hundreds and we, the activists and the organizers, finally became a minority of critical mass to spark big interactions.

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We learned a lot. One of the lessons learned was that we are not more human or keener to defend our freedom than ordinary people, but actually we used to be stupid enough to transcend the logic. Logic clearly says the small group of well-associated activists can easily move to the crowded streets and squares, meet people’s suffering and motivate them to participate. It can potentially expand as onlookers join in, which is much easier than calling on people to come from other parts of the city to join in, to search for the protest in the announced place, to penetrate the police cordon, and finally to join our regular festival of physical clashes where we were intensively beaten, harassed and arrested.

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Protest of “We will never be inherited” – Alexandria, September 2010

During this period, I mean the second half of 2010, the used-to-be reformative activists, like me, stored memories of conversations and debates with dreamy friends from Revolutionary Socialists movements in addition to a little group of anarchists. These memories are called on now from our sub-conscience when the revolutionary path is threatened by the political reformative compromises. They were dreaming of revolution and repeating complicated quotes from their leftist and post-structuralist references. That’s was when all rational analysts, both individuals and institutions, couldn’t think outside the structural box.

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The third rule is: after doing your best, don’t stop dreaming of the best! Activate your fiction and believe in your dreams.

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At that time, our dilemma was to compromise between committing the well-known rule of UNITY (rule four) and to ignore the generation of “dinosaur” politicians without wasting time in useless clashes. This problem was solved by founding a coordinating commission between young activists from nine parties and movements including Muslim Brothers. We were all aware of, and interactive with, activities called by the first successful online mobilization platform, the We Are All Khaled Said Facebook page[5] created by Wael Ghonim and co-administrated by Abdel Rahman Mansour and Ahmed Saleh. I assure you that it has been the first successful online tool because its calls for field actions, silent stand-ups, wearing black clothes, etcetera were unprecedentedly responded, while the call for the strike in 2008 had been raised by the laborers in Al-Mahalla Al-Kobra, the city of textile, then the online Facebook group of April 6th was created by Ahmed Maher who later became the founder and the general coordinator of April 6th Movement.

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Coordination, grass-root networking, flexible cooperation, and multiple-leadership of the activities were all a must. We created our own regulations– there should be no factious slogans, no partisan flags, no personal cheers, each movement’s or party’s delegation has a single vote, coordinating meetings should have no permanent coordinator or secretary, there should be no certain location or headquarter designated to hosts us, no obligatory commitments if a party will not participate in the upcoming activity, and if an entity is not willing to  participate, the representative shouldn’t waste the others’ time discussing the details, etc.

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The escalations went on and Tunisia greatly inspired us. Dreams of a public revolution came true on a rainy evening when we were not sure why we were wet– because of the rain or our tears! We celebrated with a mixture of hope and jealousy. “We can do it! It’s already done by our siblings!” A call for a wide spread display of anger-day on the annual Police Day, January 25. Preparatory meetings were held. Maintaining top secrecy between each movement and the others became the dominant attitude. A plan was developed on the night of  January 24th to start from the popular and poor neighborhoods in order to improve engagement and participation in the movement. Facebook fighting started with silly comments, threatens, fears, courage, “I’m not attending the revolution,” smiley faces, sharing articles attacking Egyptians’ willing, “I’ll participate and I doubt,” “I’m coming back from abroad and will participate whatever the result will be,” etc.

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We started our marches from the popular and poor neighborhoods, chose chants addressing the daily unmet needs and the fundamental violated rights, and hoped people to join our dozens and become hundreds. We began at 2 o’clock with an estimation of two-hour-marches in preplanned paths. We did not plan to cheer against Mubarak or to call for falling the regime, but a few minutes later we couldn’t control the thousands of marching ordinary people who chanted “Down Mubarak!” and repeated the immortal Tunisian acclaim “الشعب يريد إسقاط النظامPeople are willing to fall down the regime. Unexpected participants inspired us and affected our enthusiasm. A dyer left his work, joined the march in his smudged clothes and called his colleague: come and join! Aren’t you Egyptian?! Women on balconies supported us with bottles of water and juice. Hosni and Gamal Mubarak’s huge photos were cut and destroyed for the first and the last time.

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For three hours we went on marching in zigzags with uncontrolled masses of angry ordinary people. I witnessed around ten thousand people in the march I participated in, in addition to other six or seven marches in Alexandria only. Dozens of marches and protests were in Cairo, Suez, Kafr El-Dawwar, Damanhour, Al-Mahalla Al-Kobra, and approximately ten other cities and towns. People knew what they should do. Some of them volunteered to organize the traffic, some other made buffer zones between the marches and each police station we passed on, house and family of the Security Director of Alexandria were protected by some protesters, and the shaking chant was “selmeya .. selmeya” or “Peaceful .. Peaceful”.

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Rule five: Trust people! People are the teachers.

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The peacefulness ended when hundreds thousands of security forces around Egypt began using tear gas, bullets, and instigating physical clashes. People did their best to avoid fighting. Alexandria marches moved as a worm[6] many times when the security detachments tried to stop us in narrow streets. As usual, all violent clashes took place in the wide squares and street. Martyrs were first shot in Suez and the wide protests of the day of anger evolved into an uprising. Uprisings began on Friday January 28th and continued until the famous Camel Battle in Tahrir Square on February 2nd when the uprisings evolved into a real revolution.

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There are a lot of narratives to be told, hundreds of documentaries to be made, and thousands of stories will be lost. These stories describe impossible heroism, martyrs increase,  ups and downs, hopes and frustrations, how Mubarak went to jail, and how SCAF came to rule, how politics spoiled the pure revolutionary demands of “bread, freedom, social justice and dignity”, comic trials for Mubarak’s league, military trials for the young revolutionaries, laughs and tears, calls for million-person protests in Tahrir Square and marches in Alexandria street, weak responses from dozens of participants to those “million-person” demonstrations, Islamist-secularist polarization, shameful referendum on temporary constitutional amendments, and finally we lost hope in our capability to rebuild the capacity of mobilization monopolized by the Islamist movements and parties.

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When SCAF showed its ugly face in November 2011, Mohamed Mahmoud Street called on the Egyptians to join and defend their revolution. Millions of protesters went  out to the streets around Egypt and more than a million people gathered again in Tahrir Square, near Mohamed Mahmoud Street. It was the second revolutionary wave when Egyptians refused to kill unarmed peaceful protesters who joined the families of the martyrs and the injured to show their solidarity.

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New epic narratives and heroic stories will be told for endless generations. If I lost all of my memories, I could still never forget the homeless teenager who protected a university student girl by dragging her away from the violent confrontations on Mohamed Mahmoud Street. She had been exposed to huge amount of teargas and other chemical weapons used by the army. The teenage boy told her that she is well-educated while he and his peers are useless, and asked her to keep away from danger, and let him fight with stones protecting the square. He literally said: “We are priceless. Let us die instead of you, and you with your colleagues should live to build and reform the country!”

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Rule six: Feelings, moral motivations and nobleness could never be contained by institutional structures. Political organizations can never control the fluid activism.

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Rule seven: If politics needs to be minded, revolution must be felt.

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Rule eight: Remember rule #1, free your mind from rules, and create your rules!

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[1] This contribution was presented at the practitioners’ panel at the Workshop on Camparative Mobilization and Protest, held at Elliot School of International Affairs, George Washington University, October 13, 2012. Proof-edited by Hilary Collins, Associate Researcher at the Regan-Fascell Democracy Fellowship Program, the International Forum for Democratic Studies, National Endowment for Democracy.

[2] Ismail Alexandrani is a freelance journalist, socio-political researcher, social media expert, and youth activist based in Alexandria, Egypt. He has previously worked with the Bibliotheca Alexandrina’s Unit of Futuristic Studies and the Project on Studying Social Movements at the American University in Cairo, focusing on political activism in Egypt and the Middle East. As a writer, blogger, and civil society activist, he advocates for the political and social integration of marginalized communities across Egypt, seeking to promote a culture of human rights through informal education, solidarity campaigns, and intercultural exchange.  As an online activist, he has trained nongovernmental organizations in the use of new and social media at the grassroots level. He has also trained political activists, emerging political leaders, and human rights advocates in effective networking and capacity building. In 2009, he was a global winner of the World Youth Movement for Democracy’s International Essay Contest on Youth and Democracy. During his fellowship, Mr. Alexandrani is comparing how digital and offline social media are used in Egypt and the United States for collective mobilization

[3] Why was Khaled Said’s case different? When solidarity becomes implicitly violating! (in Arabic).

 http://ismailalex.blogspot.com/2012/06/blog-post.html

[4] Word “activist’ has become meaningless in Egypt since we have had jobless fulltime activists and part-timer activists. In Arabic it is pronounced “Nashett” which stands for the word “active”. Egyptian humor targets its concept and comic comments explain it as “not lazy” or “the person who exercises regularly”. However, I use it in order to refer to groups and individuals who know each other throughout public events address political and human rights issues.

[5] http://www.facebook.com/ElShaheeed

[6] That’s why I call it “mercurial”. I explain it more in “Arab Youth: Twitterizing Mercurial Generation, The original copy of this article published in French and Spanish in Afkar/Ideas Magazine, issue no. 30, summer 2011. (http://www.afkar-ideas.com/), English copy is on https://alexsalon.wordpress.com/2011/06/21/arab-youth-twitterizing-mercurial-generation/, and the Arabic copy is published on Jadaliyya

(http://www.jadaliyya.com/pages/index/1913/%D8%A7%D9%84%D8%B4%D8%A8%D8%A7%D8%A8-)

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