Stability again

Egypt is currently strangely torn between wanting fundamental change in the way society is run, and complete, pre-January 25 normality.

Observers have for years peddled a lie that Egypt is a society that thrives on chaos and disorder, and have presented this as a self-evident truth – based on e.g. drivers’ freestyle attitudes to traffic rules and some Egyptians’ poor timekeeping – while ignoring the unwritten rules holding everything together, like thread running through a bracelet.

In Tahrir Square yesterday evening there was a confrontation between street peddlers and the police attempting to move them on. At around 10 p.m., after the main ruckus had subsided, there was still a huge group of men and around six hesitant looking low-ranking police officers gathered around a shirtless man who was then marched off, in the direction of the Qasr El-Aini police station.

Today’s Al-Ahram proudly announced that police officers have cracked down on both street peddlars and microbus drivers who had been blocking a main square in Giza. A number of “thugs and outlaws” were detained, we are told. Read between the lines: violence was used and random arrests made.

The background to this is that the police – still smarting from the lesson it was taught on January 28 – is not operating at full capacity (allegedly over pay demands) and refuses to engage directly with the Egyptian public out of a fear that any confrontation will result in officers getting pummeled to death.

The army and riot police meanwhile are more than happy to engage with members of the public – when they are protesting. Mysteriously, the Supreme Council of the Military Forces drums out its constant tattoo of stability, stability, national security, national security while not penalising or sacking police officers who refuse to do their jobs.

Stability has become a mantra and, inevitably, for some has a more powerful appeal than any of the most impassioned calls for justice and social equality – as it always will.

For all of the media’s talk about chaos and rampant crime and an economy on the brink of collapse, Egypt isn’t doing badly for a country that is in the throes of a revolution, has rid itself of a regime whose tentacles reached every part of society, and is saddled with a police force that can’t do it job without bribes and bullying (receiving and delivering both).

Crime is expressed differently these days. Before January 25 it was committed in: parliament; polling stations; police stations; during demonstrations against protestors who disappeared quickly and silently; in slum areas against nothing people who only mattered at election time. They didn’t call it the “Interior” Ministry for nothing. Its network of hundreds of thousands of police informants was (is?) inside everything, everywhere; the foul blood beat out by the regime’s heart.

And now that regime is slowly being disassembled and the police are adrift. There is more opportunity for both petty crime and the flagrant armed attacks hospitals are experiencing (despite pledges by Essam Sharaf of a permanent and armed police presence in every hospital).

But even more importantly the police’s absence has, for example, allowed the appearance of street peddlers in areas they formerly would have been beaten away from (downtown Cairo for example), has given microbus drivers the freedom to stop in places that block traffic and has led to the appearance of armed men in some informal areas who perhaps formerly would not have been so brazen in imposing their authority (or were perhaps in league with the police whose interest it was to keep them in check).

All this has created the impression of “anarchy”, as the media and commentators on SCAF Facebook statements remind us. Actual crime incidents aside, it is the way that public space is now being used that seems to most irk the stability crowd because it is in direct violation of the pre January 25 rules, i.e. normality as defined by them.

When I was passing through Tahrir Square yesterday afternoon I saw a group of around 20 young men and women, all of them poorly dressed, some of them in rags, other clearly high on something, hanging around and occasionally breaking into bouts of that wrestling that looks serious but may be horseplay, and generally making a racket.

I can’t ever remember a crowd like this being allowed to gather anywhere within a 500 metre radius of a potential tourist. A taxi driver later complained to me about them being “rowdy thugs from the slums”.

On Talat Harb Street peddlers sell their wares on huge almost permanent looking tables. Long gone are the light and easily dismantled objects they used when a passing police patrol was a threat.

All of this violates the unwritten rules governing everyday life. Bribe-taking psychopaths enforced some of these rules, but for years this is how society functioned. Things were ostensibly tidy.

The anarchy and chaos narrative has been integrated into the SCAF’s own campaign against protests and strikes of any kind, deemed responsible for Tantawy and friends for all of Egypt’s economic woes.

And now both the stability and normality camp are not happy and the process of fundamental root change (economic, institutional) seems to be held hostage by a sclerotic military institution that refuses any change and rejects all criticism (the latest almighty cock-up is its summoning of Reem Maged, presenter of popular talk show Baladna Bel Masry and activist Hossam El-Hamalawy for questioning by the military prosecution office after the latter criticised the army on Maged’s show) and a government incapable of upsetting existing power structures.

There seem to be two clear challenges now: firstly, satisfying everyone: the camp who believe that revolution is about proving that Egypt can function “normally” without Mubarak and clan, economically and stability-wise, and those who want a radically different society by which I mean one where citizens are not tortured, are not put on trial for their opinions and earn enough to live with dignity. (The first camp should not be dismissed wholesale as army-sympathisers, old regime stalwarts or conservative members of the economic elite, many of them belong to none of these categories. In any case mass support is crucial as Tahrir demonstrated).

Secondly, it remains a mystery why more noise is not being made about the impending elections, in the form of campaigning and awareness raising. There is (rightfully) a huge focus on holding the former regime to account (as well as the military for its endless transgressions) while little is said about where we go from here.

A group of friends and I spoke to two men playing dominos outside while we walking home from Tahrir Square on Thursday night and we asked them if they would be going to Tahrir to protest the next day (variously dubbed “Friday of rage” or the “2nd revolution”).

“Of course,” one of them said, and when I asked him why, he said because “nothing’s changed”. (His own solution to Egypt’s problems was to distribute Saudi Arabia’s $4 billion equally amongst Egyptian citizens.

His response reminded me of a doctor I spoke to yesterday while they were marching against Ministry of Health failure to respond to increased health spending and better working conditions for doctors – the latest action in a campaign that has been going on for years.

“What’s new?” I asked him.

“Well, we’re free to march now but the demands are exactly the same,” he replied.

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