The woman in Tahrir is doubled over, crying. Her 17-year-old was locked away in a military prison three months ago, and the skin around her eyes is cracked and red with pain. Farida asks why she came to the square tonight.
“Where else is there?”
Bar Horreya (“Freedom”), a few blocks from the square, is a divey throng of texting activists and perspiring expats. Beer bottles clink earnestly on chipped tables. Since disclosing to her parents, both doctors, that she wanted no part of the family profession, Farida and her camera have started nightly rounds at the revolution-in-progress. As we talk, she uses political-banner phrases unselfconsciously, with almost childlike disbelief: “Why do they want us ignorant and afraid? I just don’t understand.” Every new story she hears in the square is a fresh wound. Egypt’s pain is exhausting; she can’t sleep.
“So what’s going to happen with Egypt, do you think?”
As temporary contractor with an international democracy-strengthening NGO, I helped lead dozens of public workshops on party-building and campaign strategy with Egyptian candidates and activists. Alongside socialists, centrists and Islamists, my colleagues and I shared in an urgent conversation about how campaigns are fairly won all over the world, and how—despite the continuing uncertainties of democratic transition—these tricks of the trade might serve on the banks of the Nile.
Through these heady weeks of discussion, I learned far more about democratic change than I taught. Forget what the talking heads have told you about the spectral Muslim Brotherhood or the halting momentum of the Arab Spring. If you want to push past the CNN ticker and Sunday-morning bloviation, then I submit for your consideration the following three truths.
1. The Revolution is Personal.
Imagine your neighbors, on both sides of you and up and down your street, streaming out of their houses and joining a crowd of people all shouting together. What sort of indignity would piss them off this badly? How far would they have to be pushed? What would it feel like to join them?
As dwellers in the reality-TV simulacrum, it gets tougher every year to separate screen-fed branded image from lived human experience.
Before my first night in Tahrir, I could only speculate. But after I met Mohey, and Mahmoud, and Ali, and the crying woman, and Farida—whose grievances and ideologies were as assorted as their cause was alike—I started to get it. Indulge a little capitalization here. The real human beings I met didn’t chafe at Corruption, but at having to bribe some greedy functionary; not at Dictatorship, but at the dictator’s brazen wife; not at Intolerance, but at their mom getting fired for praying a different way.
The problem, in short: while a revolution is the product of individual spokes, inside a revolving wheel we see just a blur.
And with what consequences? A few are obvious: policies aimed at collective abstractions (“the Revolution,” “the forces of democracy”) will be wasteful and dangerously dumbed-down. In our rush to throw labels on things, our leaders more often than not choose the wrong ones. And, in this region especially, hateful political and religious figures will inevitably reap the fruits of America’s oversimplifications.
But Tahrir’s challenge is subtler and older. Plato sought the secret of the just man in the imagination of a just republic, inaugurating a school of thinkers who built metaphysical mirrors of great and small. As dwellers in the reality-TV simulacrum, it gets tougher every year to separate screen-fed branded image from lived human experience. And yet, if we in the West want to contribute something real to the lives and causes of Egyptians, we need to look deeper.
Historical change is best comprehended, is only comprehended, in the motivations and fates of its individual actors. Despite the recent tumult, the coming months are overwhelmingly likely to see Egypt’s first-ever basically free and fair parliamentary election. As the Egyptian revolution enters gradually upon its new electoral phase, forget the flash and focus on the spokes.
2. The Revolution is Contingent.
Try keeping tabs on 130 political parties at once. Post-Mubarak Egypt abounds with electoral entrepreneurs, and separating the bona fide players from the three-guys-and-a-Facebook-page was for me a real workout in political epistemology. If the web tells me that the “Peace, Solidarity & Free Bread Party” has 5,000 members and is running 100 candidates for parliament, for example, how do I know they’re not? What about that just-announced coalition of 27 parties that, when we get people on the phone, nobody in those parties appears to know about?
In Egypt’s confusing, exhilarating tabula rasa, you get a gut-level feel for the sheer contingency, the nobody-knows-what-the-hell-is-going-on splendour, of history as it’s lived. This spring and summer, at least four major power bases—the old opposition, the new moguls, the Islamists, and the “youth of Tahrir”—were maneuvering toward and around each other in a political ceileidh whose steps are called by the shadowy Supreme Council of the Armed Forces. For Egypt’ls new political class, the old Chinese curse has come true: they are living in most interesting times.
Why does any of this matter? Isn’t the Muslim Brotherhood just going to take over? Surely Mubarak was doomed anyway, right? Won’t the military just refuse to leave power? Witness the facile thinking of the Inevitability Complex—the certainty that major political change is impossible until, upon happening, it was inevitable. My friends who went to Tahrir during those eighteen days (yes, there is now an “18 Days Party”) say they had hazy and varying feelings about whether shouting and getting chased or locked up would change anything. In the confessions of a few late-night sheesha pipes, I learned that fewer people in the world were more surprised at the regime’s destruction than the people who destroyed it.
“Our parents’ generation speaks to us now in a totally different way,” my young colleague Marwa told me over tea one day. “I hear respect in their voices that wasn’t there before.”
Feeling the contingency of these politics has supercharged my appreciation of the risks and successes of historical actors. What did Adams and Franklin really think would happen when they put their names on that treasonous parchment? How about the GI’s steaming toward Nazi guns at Normandy? Or Brutus and Cassius with their daggers? Take off the guise of preordination and the course of human events gets a lot more interesting.
Just as an understanding of contingency should give us greater appreciation for the Egyptians’ accomplishment—when a nation does anything for the first time in 5,000 years, our hats should most certainly be off—so too does it add drama and consequence to the decisions being made right now. If you’re watching which way the revolution will go, election timetables matter. Ballot rules matter. Good candidates and nimble campaigns matter. New constitutional clauses definitely matter. And we shouldn’t be taking our eye off any of these in the months ahead.
3. The Revolution is Sacred.
The third insight from my Egyptian adventure operates in some tension with my first. Yes, the revolution (televised) is nothing more or less than the millions of disparately motivated human beings that enact it, but like the rest of us, Egyptian men and women savor the ennobling power of their higher cause. “Our parents’ generation speaks to us now in a totally different way,” my young colleague Marwa told me over tea one day. “I hear respect in their voices that wasn’t there before.”
As for me, I have felt nothing in my life like the first sensation of standing mid-throng in Tahrir. I saw 22-year-olds in street clothes serving as the protectors of public order at entry points, checking IDs, patting down newcomers and welcoming them warmly to the square. On the edges of a tent city covered in banners and logos, I watched competing stages of speeches and music—Brotherhood on my right, students and liberals on my left—and bridled nervously as a Guthrie-esque protest singer got loud cheers for a “Fuck America and Israel” refrain. (The two guys next to me said I had nothing to worry about; this was about our governments, “not the real people.”) On the corner by the KFC franchise—one of the most oft-used meeting places in Tahrir—an old guy in a bandanna offered me a free shoeshine as a dad walked past with his face-painted daughter on his shoulders.
Communal gathering, ritual celebration, public argument—this is the basic, universal grammar of human society, and Tahrir was white-hot with all of it. Watching these ancient instincts come together in the service of freedom over oppression, for this poor classicist and disciple of grassroots democracy, was about as good as it gets.
But sacrament comes with risk. Those in America, me included, who soared highest on Obama’s 2008 poetry felt especially disheartened by the subsequent dull thud of legislative prose. Many of the “youth of Tahrir” remain fixated on the crimes of the old regime, as millions of Egyptians outside of Cairo are ground down by an ongoing economic collapse. Old religious divisions have spurred street battles between desperate bands of neighbors and mostly 20-something soldiers and cops acting on unclear, potentially conflicting orders. Patriotism and passion yield to distrust and anger, and the Supreme Council remains a black box even for those whom they govern.
A century ago Max Weber wrote that politics was “a strong and slow boring of hard boards.” In a sea of news images and bumper-sticker narratives, the sugary-confected brand of revolution is easy to romanticize and difficult to resist. The heartier, grittier view of political change—the strong and slow shaping of democratic habits—is, however, the far more filling meal.
Even in their jubilee year, I heard my Egyptian friends steeling themselves for a long fight over the future of their country. Captivated by their stories, compelled by the uncertain moment, moved by the sacred work of new democracy, I believe more than ever that this fight is ours as well.
Photograph by Lex Paulson.