Occupy Blog: Cairo
| Marianne Maeckelbergh |
Crossroads in Cairo: The Economics of Democracy , Cairo,December 2011
Cairo is a city engulfed in violent anticipation. Activists speak with pride about what they are accomplishing as they enter into their 11th month of struggle. And rightfully so. They “shed their fear” and came together to realise that despite continuous torture, repression, and military dictatorship, they are stronger than the authoritarian state. It’s a strangely powerful feeling that hangs in the air, that permeates conversations, that captures the imagination. The bravery, passion and camaraderie of the people I have met here in Cairo cannot be captured in words. It is a beauty that will inspire me for years to come. Nothing is certain, everything is frighteningly unpredictable, and yet, there is hope. Even those most critical of the current elections, those least satisfied with the authoritarian course the government is taking, have hope that things will get better. Why? Because they have seen, with their own eyes, the power of an enraged people fighting for dignity and a chance at social justice.
It sounds overdramatic when the words are written on the page, but here in Cairo it isn’t a poetic exaggeration, it is a simple everyday feeling. For all the hope people feel, however, they are also being confronted with the violent reality that the struggle is far from over. The transition government is being run by the Supreme Council of Armed Forces (SCAF) who continues to use excessive violence against protestors every time they demand their basic rights. People are still being shot at, beaten, arrested, and tortured for participating in sit-ins or for no reason at all. The SCAF do not need Mubarak to continue these practices of military rule, they are doing very well on their own.
Three important factors bring the political future in Egypt into question. The first, and the most frightening, is that the authoritarian and violent military rule has continued with vengeance. Second, the elections offer Egyptians little to no meaningful options. And last but not least, the underlying economic causes of the revolution remain unaddressed and no political force in Egypt seems to favour a transformation in economic policy.
Military Rule Continues
During the first wave of the Egyptian uprising, the protestors had two demands, the first was an end to the regime and the second was freedom, dignity and social justice. Mubarak may have been successfully forced out of power, but the Supreme Council of Armed Forces has stayed in power and has continued to use brutal force agains the protestors. Since November 19th, three days before the start of the elections, the army has repeatedly attacked protestors holding sit-ins: first in Tahrir square, which led to six days of non-stop street fighting and at least sixty dead, and now, at this very moment, near the cabinet building, where nine have been killed so far and many more wounded, arrested and tortured, as the fighting continues. The military junta that is currently running the country has no shame in attacking and killing those who are fighting for the very same demands that led to the fall of Mubarak.
Elections and Democracy
Perhaps the worst irony is that as the military attacks people in the streets, they are also standing guard at the election booths. Sometimes even on the same street. The protestors I met continuously pointed out the audacity of this contradiction, with remarks such as, “I don’t know what kind of elections they are interested in three days after the police and army opened fire on people in the streets. … We have videos of the army personnel dragging people’s bodies and throwing them in trash piles. What kind of elections, what kind of democracy can you expect?” Or as another protestor put it, “We saw thousands of canisters of tear gas, live ammunition, coming from both the police and the army. It is absolutely obscene to consider elections in that climate. There is still blood in the streets – literally.” The blood keeps flowing as the army and police continue to beat and shoot people for defending their rights.
But this violence, shocking and traumatic as it is, is anything but surprising. Scholars have long argued that there is an intricate relationship between democracy and violence, though it can be hard at times to see it as clearly as it is in Cairo today. In a country that should be celebrating what has been (in retrospect mistakenly) referred to in the press as the country’s first free elections, there is little to be excited about. Rather than usher in a new era of freedom and social justice, the current elections are serving to legitimize the continued military rule and the extreme violence that the army and the police are using against people in the streets. One of the greatest dangers of transitions to democracy, anywhere in the world, is that the word “democracy” brings with it certain assumptions about the existence of freedom, equality and rights. But in practice we often see the term applied in places where none of these exist. Thereby making it even harder for protestors to create political systems that could actually guarantee social justice. When there is officially “democracy”, it is assumed that there is also social justice, and struggles for social justice become, by definition, unnecessary. But the reality is that systems of representative democracy do not automatically result in social justice.
It’s the Economy
Finally, there is a certain irony in world politics at the moment, that is also visible in Egypt. When I was heading to Cairo, I wondered what a critique of democracy might look like in a country that has suffered over sixty years of military dictatorship. I wondered if there would even be a critique. But there was, and it was an insightful one. Many people mentioned the economics behind the uprisings and how they were not only about Mubarak, but also about the economic system that he violently defended. The liberalization of the Egyptian economy began in the 1970s under President Anwar Sadat, but in became “aggressive” in the 1990s when the IMF and World Bank sponsored the Economic Reform and Structural Adjustment Programme. Food prices rose and relative incomes dropped as people struggled to make ends meet. Entrepreneurs and foreign investors profited as workers’ conditions declined.
Faced with a transition government that has promised the European Bank of Reconstruction and Development that it remains committed to the open market approach and that it will pursue it at an accelerated rate following the upcoming elections, many people worry their situation will only get worse. The question then arises, what meaning does democracy have, what use is there in having many political parties, when there is only one economic system? Regardless of the election results, the economic system will be the same. This specific political problem is one people all over the world are waking up to. As another protester in Cairo reflected, “Elections almost have this magical sense to them. But when it comes down to it, there is actually very little value in that process because it is not allowing for change. It is not empowering the people to have their voice heard. The only way the people are going to have their voice heard is by going to the streets.”
The Revolution is Continuous
It has been over ten months since the initial eighteen days of revolution that inspired a global wave of revolts last January, but it seems that in Egypt and across the world, this revolt in unlikely to end soon. The streets of Cairo alternate between calm and chaos, but the political struggle continues. As one protestor in Egypt put it, it is not about winning or losing the fight, it is about continuing to struggle until we find a way to build a better political system, one that can actually ensure the social justice that the Egyptian revolution has inspired us all to seek.
Marianne Maeckelbergh is lecturer in Cultural Anthropology and Development Sociology at Leiden University, Netherlands. She has 15 years experience as an activist, organising and facilitating exactly the decision-making processes that lie at the heart of her study. Her book The Will of Many is available from Pluto Press.
Brandon Jourdan is an award-winning independent filmmaker, journalist, and writer. His film, the July War, is based on the 2006 war in Lebanon and the consequences of the war. Jourdan has contributed to the NY Times, CNN, Babelgum, Reuters, Deep Dish TV, Democracy Now!, the Independent Media Center, Now with Bill Moyers, Foreign Exchange, and Free Speech Television. He is currently based in the Netherlands, where he is working on a film about reactions to the financial crisis. He blogs at Brandon Jourdan