I spent yesterday afternoon roaming around downtown Cairo looking for the general strike that never was.
Facebook warriors had announced that yesterday – Hosny’s 80th birthday – a(nother) general strike would be held and that everyone would wear black, the sequel to April 6th, when opposition groups attempted to mobilise the masses in protest at rising food prices, corruption…etc. The streets were empty on the 6th but – as yesterday proved – many people stayed home not in protest, but because televised Interior Ministry threats against ‘troublemakers’ had led them to conclude that it was best just to stay indoors and keep out of the way.
There is also of course the Mahalla element: workers at the Ghazl Mahalla factory were going to strike on the 6th and this would seem to account for the momentum which the 6th had and yesterday lacked. And then there is the impact made by the Mahalla uprising, brutally-contained street protests which eyewitnesses agree occurred spontaneously and independently of the clarion calls made by the cyber leaders of the virtual revolution.
Yesterday was business as normal, apart from the green central security trucks parked conspicuously in roads leading to the public spaces which host political protests. Soldiers – seemingly the only people wearing black today – sweltered both inside and outside the trucks. I have always found it interesting that the only difference between these vehicles and those used to transport prisoners, is 1. their colour and 2. the fact that the door at the back is locked when prisoners are inside and left open for soldiers. All in the same wheeled boat.
A line of thin soldiers stood in front of the green vans outside the Lawyers’ Syndicate in their too-big black spacemen helmets, clutching their thick-barrelled teargas guns. Opposite, on the Syndicate’s steps, a handful of people chanted, guided by the apparition of a Moses-lookalike in white who raised his arms above his head and asked Mobarak ‘e7na weladak wala kelabak?’ [are we your children or your dogs?]
Alas nothing at all was parted when revolutionary Moses raised his arms, not the ocean of traffic which surged through Galaa Street nor the plain-clothed thugs stationed outside the Syndicate and paid LE 20 a time to knock people about at protests as necessary.
Much has been made of the role of new technology in political activism: Facebook in particular has suddenly turned into a revolutionary freedom fighter after for so long being a fatuous, image-obsessed piece of nonsense: a bit like Angelina Jolie, perhaps. It is terribly a la mode at the moment to theorise about what this means for the Egyptian political resistance and modes of dissent, and I think today’s non-events will have exploded a few nascent theories.
Which is not to say that Facebook isn’t useful, practically speaking. The crusade currently being led against it in the state-controlled press, and rumours that the government will block it demonstrate that it has the potential to be a useful tool, but in the same way that radio transmitters were of use to the French Resistance: there has to be something to transmit in the first place, someone to transmit to, and an unwavering commitment to transmitting it.
There is much to be said for a forum which allows people to gather in a way they are from forbidden from in the real world but it’s a serious error to mistake this for mobilisation, or even commitment. Israa Abdel Fattah, the unfortunate and unwitting moderator of an April 6th Facebook group who was arrested and placed in political detention for 15 days demonstrates this.
She was lionized while incarcerated, made into a symbol of Egypt the oppressed woman, only to emerge from detention to announce that she had ‘repented,’ and thanked the authorities for treating her so well in prison. She has a sad little piece in El Dostoor today under the headline ‘me? In political detention?! Who am I to be in political detention?!’ Aung San Syu Kyi this is not, and her experience illustrates the crucial difference between bandwagon and conviction politics.
A middle-aged man I was speaking to the other day expressed his admiration of this new generation of technical pioneers. He singled out Wael Abbas for particular praise, saying that Abbas had accomplished in one year what he couldn’t do in twenty, and accused members of his generation who attack Facebook crusaders, of ‘jealousy’. I pointed out that members of my own generation were equally critical of them (Facebookers, not Abbas); of their lack of a clear agenda and disconnection from reality and real people (how many of Egypt’s 80 million people own a computer, never mind are members of Facebook?) He responded by saying that at least they were doing something, making the regime take notice, and predicted that eventually a movement with clear objectives would emerge and more importantly, credible leaders to guide it.
Perhaps, but it will take more than this to shake people out of the catatonic state nearly 30 years of oppression and corruption have produced. How yesterday’s Al Ahram headline (a full-page picture of Hosny with the headline ‘the day Egypt was reborn’) did not single-handedly provoke a revolution is beyond me, but then it should be given a prize for combining historical revisionism with such nauseating levels of sycophancy. In this it is only rivalled by an article published the day before yesterday entitled ‘why we love you Mobarak’.
This charade, combined with Mahalla and the ongoing associated administrative detentions, combined with the prosecution of journalists in cases brought by government lackeys, combined with never-ending police brutality, combined with fear which sits on your chest like a stone is what it means to live in a police state. I have only just began to realise what this actually means (and only very remotely) because of my job, and now have incredible respect for the people who not only risk everything through political dissent, but have the motivation and the strength to keep fighting day after day after day in the face of such ugliness and more than anything, such stupidity.
It is perhaps its stupidity which is the worst thing about this regime – stupidity which manifests itself in its lack of vision, inability to formulate policies to feed its people and its short-sightedness – but which are also evident in the pointless petty harassment, the nonsensical rules which dictate the minutiae of everyday life while buildings collapse and small children fix cars twelve hours a day.
I was reminded of this the other day when Muslim Brotherhood member Abdel Moneim Mahmoud was detained at Cairo Airport and banned from travelling to a conference on press freedom in Morocco (state security have a list of the names of individuals banned from leaving the country). Completely pointless, and if its image they’re worried about, the incident generated more bad press for Egypt than anything he could have possibly said in Morocco.