from From the Potomac to the Euphrates and Middle East Program

Egypt: Home Is Where The Streets Are

July 06, 2011

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A protester shouts slogans at Tahrir Square in Cairo (Amr Dalsh/Courtesy Reuters)

Egyptians and Egypt-watchers are waiting with anticipation to see what will happen this coming Friday, when demonstrations “to save the revolution” are to take place. April 6th Youth Movement, Kifaya!, among other groups under the Revolutionary Youth Coalition,  have called for mass protests in Tahrir and other places around Egypt to register their anger over the events of June 28-29 when police attacked peaceful protesters demonstrating against the slow pace of justice for victims of the January-February uprising.  Some 800 people were injured in the melee, which spanned the better part of 18 hours.  A sit-in ensued along with counter-demonstrations.  All in all, political tension is running high in Egypt.

It is no wonder that the revolutionary groups are going out into the streets.  They have a lot to be angry about in addition to the aforementioned slow pace of justice.  Indeed, much of what the demonstrators have accomplished since Hosni Mubarak’s fall has been tangibly symbolic without being tangible.  To be sure, Mubarak and his sons are in the dock along with a variety of their advisors, henchmen, and corrupt enablers.  Yet there is a strong sense of frusrtation among activists that while they were able to topple Hosni et al, the regime they rose up against remains remarkably resilient.  They only have to point to the behavior of the police and Central Security Forces to drive home the point that when it comes to the Ministry of Interior at least, not too much has changed.  Indeed, people who did Mubarak’s bidding remain firmly entrenched throughout Egypt’s vast bureaucracy.  Some are, of course, entirely innocent of the regime’s crimes doing what they had to do to get by in a soul crushing political environment, but others—especially those in important ministries like Interior, Defense, and Finance—are well placed to try to undermine efforts to build a new, decent, political order.  In other areas, the revolutionary groups who instigated the uprising have found themselves on the losing side whether it was the March 19 referendum, efforts (so far) to delay parliamentary elections, or the broader effort to establish accountability during the transitional period.

Aside from these and other real grievances, there is another reason why these groups are planning a major demonstration on Friday:  They need to be out on the streets.  After all, isn’t it out on the streets where groups like Kifaya!, April 6th, and the other members of the Revolutionary Youth Coalition cut their teeth?  Some of them spent eight years working to bring Egyptians out into the streets to demand change, such as Kifaya! (though that groups’ lineage goes back earlier to Popular Committes established by activists to support the second Intifada).  Street protests became a central way in which those at the forefront of social activism and, quite frankly, average Egyptians expressed their outrage at the Mubarak regime.  They didn’t have much choice given that unlike in democratic polities, the institutions of the Egyptian state were designed in a way to squelch demands emerging from society.  As a result, protests became a common feature of the political landscape in the late Mubarak years.  It as also, of course, in the streets that these activists realized their greatest triumph when Mubarak was forced to step down on February 11th.  It is no wonder then that the Twitter feed from June 28-29 reveals a sense of “joy” and “relief” at being back in Tahrir Square, squaring off against the much hated police.  I am not suggesting that Egypt’s activists enjoyed being tear gassed water cannoned, and shot at.  Yet it is no secret that the revolutionary activists have had a hard time translating the 18-day uprising into a political movement or viable political parties—to the extent that they are even interested in party politics.  As a result, there is a natural tendency to return to the places where they were most effective—Tahrir, the Alexandria Corniche, and al Arbin in Suez. Given the way events have unfolded in the almost six months since Mubarak fell, the street is not only the place where Egyptian revolutionaries have the most leverage, but it is the place where they feel most comfortable.