Tahrir Round: This Is What History Looks Like
Posted by Al Giordano - February 10, 2011 at 1:00 pm
By Al Giordano
Since Tuesday, January 25, we have learned many things about Egypt, about State power, and about civil resistance. We have also learned that Tahrir Square is not, in fact, square. It is round. “Liberation Square” has served as a kind of Arthurian round table for the global video game that the mass media serves up as “news,” and also a Rorschach print upon which so much of the world has projected its greatest hopes and deepest fears.
Into this video game people and nations all over the world imagine our selves as players, with seats at the round table, presuming to decide Egypt’s future, pushing buttons and keypads to declare what we, as individuals, think should happen: From much of the West: Mubarak must resign, but, oh no, it can’t be Omar Suleiman who replaces him! And: This isn’t about Egypt. It’s about Obama and whether I like him or not! From Tehran, an authoritarian regime that is even worse than that of Mubarak’s also plays the game, typing: Hail the Egyptian Islamic Revolution! But don’t try this at home, kids! Armchair fetishists of “revolutionary violence” tweet and re-tweet anonymous claims that Egypt’s is a revolution of guns and riot porn footage posing as “alternative media,” To the barricades comrades! This is a military battle! And the digital evangelicals proclaim it theirs: The Twitter Revolution! The Facebook Revolt! In explanation as to why the resistance grew exponentially during the five days when the regime had shut down the Internet, the liberal technocrats offer nary a whisper.
The facts on the ground have not confirmed any of these projected fantasies. The discipline and restraint shown by the great mass of Egyptians in the resistance would, more accurately, make low-tech Gandhi prouder than they would Mao Zedong or Bill Gates. Then there have been the predictable arguments by some – Susan Estrich, today, the latest – that all this news isn’t even about Egypt: It’s about Israel! Oh, please, shut the fuck up and listen for a change. Such is the fantasy nature of video games and international “news” alike.
What gets lost in all this spin are the grievances of the only authentic players in the real-life game, those of the Egyptian people, whose demands have been consistent and clear for the past 16 days: Mubarak must go. Political prisoners must be freed. Repression must stop. The rights to expression and assembly must be protected. Free and democratic elections must be held. Those demands come from Muslims and Christians and secularlists alike, from young people with Internet and elders who don’t know what a URL is, and from every sector of workers that shut down the country’s economy with yesterday’s general strike.
As I type, the media tells us that Hosni Mubarak is about to go on national TV and many report that he will resign. This rumor happened once already in recent weeks, to no avail. We’ll believe it when we see it. If it does go that way – and I’m one who shares the hopes of those in Tahrir Square and throughout Egypt that it would be most wonderful news – the debates will begin as to how and why it happened.
A year ago this week, Egyptian journalist and blogger Noha Atef, then 25, was in Mexico explaining the situation in her country to 70 journalists from 40 countries at the 2010 School of Authentic Journalism. She told of her five-year struggle exposing the repressive state police of her country and the tortures they have inflicted. She shared deeply personal history of how her family had been targeted and harassed by those police, and of her father’s death in the midst of those tensions. If there was a dry eye in the house, I did not see it.
A couple of North American participants in that gathering raised what they thought was the “most important issue” for Egyptians: “What about the Army? It helped the CIA imprison and torture people after 9/11.” I stepped in and replied in a voice heavily laced with sarcasm, “That’s right Noha! It’s not enough that you have taken on the entire national police! The sacrifices you have made are insufficient! You’re not politically correct unless you also take on the entire Armed Forces too!” Noha, as I’ve learned is her nature, responded soft-spokenly to the question about the Egyptian Army. She said, “In Egypt the police are our repressors, but the Army is of the people and is the people’s friend.” That was in February of 2010, and her statement left a number of our participants from the Western Hemisphere – where Armed Forces have historically been the worst repressors against popular movements – scratching their heads, unable to comprehend such a statement.
Then, eleven days ago, on January 28, after three days of state police terror and violence upon the peaceful protesters, the Egyptian Army came out of its barracks and, in large sand-colored tanks, into the streets. I was invited to be privy and party on that date to some of the talks among the young organizers and bloggers who have served as the ad hoc organizing network of the pro-democracy protests. A group of them were gathered with elder opposition leader Mohamed El Baradai who essentially said to them, “tell me what to say and do.” There, they decided upon a strategy and tactic to respond to the entrance of the military into the conflict. Although they really did not know what the Armed Forces would do in the streets, and feared they could be there to repress the demonstrations even more violently, they decided on a tactic in which they would fan out and cheer the arrival of the tanks, telling the soldiers they thought they were there to protect them from the dreaded national police, a gigantic act of street theater embracing the Army on a world stage as a friend of the people.
In our interview with Noha last week about the situation in her country, she repeated that sentiment: "I know many people would not believe it, as the Army in many countries is involved in the dirty work. But in Egypt it’s the opposite. Unlike policemen, the military is respected and considered a guard or a freedom fighter; I, and my generation, had our fathers serving or volunteering in the military in the years of the sixties and seventies. We believe that the Army is protecting Egypt."
The tactic worked for the most part. While peoples of other lands might have jumped immediately to the presumption that this would mean a futile street battle with heavily armed soldiers, the young Egyptian resistance strategists’ decision to respond in the most optimistic way possible made their hopes a self-fulfilling prophecy. And that is classic, old school, text book nonviolent resistance strategy that carried the day.
Today, something similar has happened. Based only on the rumors that Mubarak will resign today, the resistance has apparently decided to treat it as a fait accompli, even as many news reports say that it is only an option under discussion in the halls of the Presidential Palace. By treating it as a done deal, with optimism and resolve, every minute that goes by brings them closer to making it a reality. And if Mubarak does resign today, it will be in large part because the resistance chose optimism and parlayed a rumor into reality.
And even if Mubarak does not resign today, they have further weakened his position and that of his regime simply by encouraging their countrymen and women to imagine it as if it is already so. All power comes from the barrel of imagination, after all.
We all have a lot to learn from these heroes of our time, the multi-generational, ecumenical, multi-cultural participants in the civil resistance of Egypt.
Now is not the hour to tell them what they must do or what solution they can or cannot accept.
Now is the hour to listen, look, learn from and study their moves, and apply them to our own lands and struggles.
In the end, the round table named Tahrir, or Liberation, is not a video game. And we, looking in from the outside, are not the players. It is a moment of history that belongs to the Egyptian civil resistance and to them only, one that we all can and should embrace and emulate. But let’s not get confused: They are the protagonists of history, and the rest of us are, at best, merely their students.
What is the first thing we ought to learn from them?
That's easy: What we must learn anew is the power of optimism as a cold and calculated strategy and tactic.
Beyond that, we still have tons more to learn.
Maestros, strike up the band!