ISSN (Print) - 0012-9976 | ISSN (Online) - 2349-8846
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A Year Later: Cairo, October 2012

G. Arunima (arunima.gopinath@gmail.com) teaches at the Centre for Women's Studies, School of Social Sciences, Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU), New Delhi.

A frequent traveller to Cairo recounts her experiences of a city which went through an iconic "revolution" and provides glimpses of a city and country coming to terms with a new politics of hope.

In the past five years I have had the opportunity of going quite frequently to Egypt as part of different collaborative intellectual exchanges with friends and colleagues at the American University at Cairo. While each visit has been special, full of piquant moments and unique insights, since last year Cairo has taken on a different meaning. Needless to say, I am not alone in this; indeed, 2011 was a special year of ‘Egypt Watching’ for the entire world. Despite the Tunisian trigger, it is the 25 January  Revolution in Egypt, and the eighteen days that followed, that has become synonymous with “Arab Spring” (a term many in Egypt find seriously distasteful) and continues to hold the world’s imagination.  

This year I returned to Egypt after almost a year’s gap. My visits in 2011 had been intense, full of changes that were at times worrying, feeding my longstanding desire to learn Arabic. Yet despite this obvious handicap - the principal fallout of which is the dependence on unreliable, and often patently biased English language reportage – it was clear that things were not always as one expected them to be. Last April, I was struck by the differing rhythms around Cairo. The city was full of public protests – from groups in Tahrir and elsewhere, banners all over the city, to walls plastered with protest art and graffiti. Yet one could not but help notice too the almost immediate commodification of revolution – Tahrir Square was awash with “freedom square” T-shirts and national flags of various sizes. Yet it was also a happy place – not unlike the India Gate area in Delhi of my youth – where protesters and ice cream vendors could coexist happily, and lovers and revolutionaries mingled. While my response to commodification at this level remains ambivalent – after all Egypt is a land of memorabilia packaging, so why should one deny a poor man a chance of making a quick buck - it was the nationalism underscoring revolution that was certainly more worrisome. The national flag, and its extreme popularity, through the eighteen days was symbolic of a growing xenophobia which many tell me was absent, if not unusual, in Egypt prior to this moment. Whether true or not, the thought that revolutionary language could easily slip into nationalism remains one that concerns me. Alongside, what is slowly gaining visibility is the other phenomenon that we in this country have certainly always been painfully aware of – of the growth of ethnic and religious clashes. Some of the early attacks on the Copts had begun by the summer of 2011; while these have never reached (and due to the numbers issue hopefully never will) the brutal levels that we in India have naturalised, it was also a mark of the kind of pressure that social upheaval brings with it.

By late autumn last year, the city seemed to have regained some of its verve, and appeared to be gearing up for the oncoming elections. Through the summer and later, my conversations with friends revealed a great excitement about labour movements across the country that seemed to be picking up momentum. Clearly the ‘revolutionary pressure’ had started with these, and had preceded the January 2011 moment by years. Unnoticed by western media, or indeed Middle East watchers in our parts, these had become stronger and were gaining support. I was struck once again by the manner in which, despite its powerful possibilities, the class biases of the socially networked, at least Anglophone, world remained quite unaware of these. It was only much later that I found footage for the labour movements, even a small film, on the YouTube.

However, my conversations with friends in Cairo revealed the complex nature of changes, the spread in other cities, as indeed the changing dynamic in rural areas. Indeed, one of the most perceptive insights I gained in the course of these discussions was the continuity in the neoliberal agenda of the Brotherhood, thereby making them ironically the inheritors of the regime they had helped displace. This naturally further complicates one’s understanding of the relationship between the SCAF (Supreme Council of Armed Forces), the ousted Mubarak regime, the incumbent Muslim brotherhood, and the vast swathes of differentiated ‘revolutionaries’.  This, along with my endless conversations with people on streets, trains, shops and even faluka boatmen, revealed a growing anxiety about the economy. Everywhere I travelled last September people bemoaned the fallout of the crisis in one of the biggest industries in Egypt – tourism – and its effects on everyday life. In my ambivalent position of an academic-turned-reluctant tourist, I was deeply aware of the pathos of the situation – of an economy on the brink of serious crises, revealing its massively skewed entrails. Moreover, it was the unavoidable awareness that livelihood issues and revolutionary passion were not always coterminous, which was by far more sobering.  

This feeling was further accentuated when I went to Cairo for a briefer visit towards the end of November 2011. Clearly militarisation had not disappeared, and an anxious population awaiting elections seemed unsure of its efficacy. For me, as indeed many friends here, having dreamt of revolution (whatever that might be) and understood politics, at least in part, as the deft workings of the ballot box, this anxiety regarding elections was unsettling. Was this what happened to a people freshly free of dictatorship? Despite Egypt’s history of trade unions and syndicates, it was apparent that ‘political participation’, a short-hand we use here often to refer to voting, seemed alien and alienating. Yet, I did worry then, and have continued to do so, if this did not mask a more serious problem with ‘democracy’ itself. Indeed, what some of my friends there would argue is that elections, and democracy itself, are a mere façade for neoliberal governmentality. While I do not wish to indulge in needless amounts of conspiratorial speculation in this regard, this is unarguably a political trend in different parts of the world.  

This October I returned to Cairo, via Cape Town. The flight was eerily empty, with rows of seats on offer for one to sleep on. While recent statistics seems to be suggesting the opposite, it looked as though tourism, and who knows – even trade – appeared to be flagging. At a superficial glance it was also striking that the direction of tourist travel seemed to have shifted – with China and south-east Asia replacing the usual floods coming in from the west. Clearly tourists, like investors, require ‘stable environments’. As the first two days of our meeting were at Al Sokhna, we left Cairo for the Red Sea coast. Perched very near the Suez, this little town is the weekend get-away spot for the Cairo middle classes. Other than the fact that our hotel was practically uninhabited, with half-built accommodation studding the landscape, it was also positioned in between two sites of ongoing strikes. One was that of the port workers, and the other was at the local ceramics factory. The feel of Al Sokhna, and its environs, was that of a ghost town where its strange emptiness spoke volumes about this moment in its political life. Once back in Cairo, with its teeming millions swilling around, it seemed as though the silence of Al Sokhna had been a dream. Yet it marked a significant moment in the drama unfolding in the capital. In many ways the euphoria of last year seems to have turned into a more watchful, sometimes despairing, period for many in the capital. Violence of different sorts appears to be on the increase, even as the newly emerging state tries to bring this under its control. An instance of this was a rather worrying story that I heard of vigilante student action at the American University, where a group of what sounded like young neo-fascists held the university community at siege. More than the fact that the absence of organisation at any level (students, teachers, or workers) seems to have enabled this situation, what was truly depressing was the complete absence of any understanding of politics amongst the protesters.  In many respects they seemed like the Egyptian equivalents of the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad (ABVP) and the Youth for Equality (YFE). Yet ironically, despite the blatant flaunting of wealth, power, and family connections, they too seemed to use the language of the recent revolution as part of their ‘political action’ on campus.

Back on the streets, for the very first time in all these years of visiting Cairo, I was assured (by my taxi driver) that Egyptians were good people, and devout Muslims. This did not mean that I should think Christians had no place there, he said, pointing to a happy bunch of young school girls walking along the kerb. Gesturing to the one without a head scarf, he explained to me that though she was Christian they were all friends. I replied, well yes, surely they would be as they were all Egyptians, and schoolmates. I wasn’t sure what to make of this conversation; surely being Muslim was never an issue in Egypt, even though more recently the Salafic presence seems to be insisting on a greater avowal of public forms of piety. I was struck afresh by this while walking along the old AUC campus, photographing the now monumentalised graffiti wall on Mohammed Mahmoud street and its immensely layered icons of resistance. Later a friend explained to me that the government had whitewashed the original graffiti, leading to a fresh spate of artwork on the walls. Except this time round, the Brotherhood had added its own artworks of protest alongside other revolutionary iconography. Of these, the most moving to me was the constant salutation to the ‘ultras’ – erstwhile soccer fans, of mostly working class extraction, who became allies in the uprising due to their contribution to the eighteen-day uprising.

Despite the sense of deep disappointment many in Egypt have with regard to the turn of events in post revolutionary months, most people appear not have given up hope. As the strikes continue, with some amongst the more radical teachers and doctors organising afresh, it is apparent that people are fighting the present state with challenging demands, and a renewed social justice agenda. Who knows, the revolutionaries of Misr may yet lead the way for imagining new alternatives, and enabling a global reordering of power.

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