Sunday, February 6, 2011

Out of the Cradle, Now!

[Another post written today]

In my scholarly life, when I'm not frantically reading the news and worrying about my friends in Egypt, I research the politics behind building up and planning cities, and the use of urban space. This doesn't make me an expert in how to run a revolution, but it does give me a particular way of looking at these things, and a specific piece of advice for the protesters: Don't stay in Tahrir square. Move!

My last post focused on why I thought Egypt's revolution was in danger of failing, and what looked like hope for a new regime might turn out to be pretty much the old status quo, with Omar Suleiman at the top instead of Mubarak, with the US perpetually, but absent-mindedly, saying Serious Things about the need for reform. I said that at this point the opposition's best tool for preventing this was to keep the protests active, dynamic, and - yes - disruptive, or else there would be no pressure for the regime to make concessions. I'm not calling for anarchy and madness here, but as long as there's order and normalcy, the regime has no reason to budge. At present, I think they think the immediate threat to their survival has passed. They need to stop thinking that. So:

Every report I get from Tahrir square is that it's become a sort of impromptu community, a tent city that sings songs, chants, dreams of a better future, and is surrounded on all sides by tanks. I hear stories of harassment by thugs, especially at night, but by and large it looks like the regime is perfectly happy to let the Tahrir protest go on peacefully, at least for now: if it dwindles down to a small core, they may decide that it's worth sending in the thugs. Their goal is to restore order everywhere else, and hope that the international media, and the protesters themselves, get bored. Tahrir is rapidly becoming an enclosed space.

The regime perhaps thinks that in cordoning off Tahrir, they're enacting a kind of quarantine. Keep the Cairo-based opposition isolated in one place, and it's no longer a threat to daily life, stability, and the regime. But enclosed spaces are funny things. They can be prisons, but also nurseries. Things can grow in there - unintended things. A little culture seems to be forming in Tahrir square, or more precisely a spontaneous community of shared experience and hope. I think if they are to stay dynamic and meaningfully pressure the regime, they can't stay put. They have to leave the space where their impromptu community has incubated, and where their presence is tolerated and even (to a degree) protected by army tanks.

I suppose what I'm saying is that a space like Tahrir square may have been a blessing - something inspiring has emerged there, something I didn't believe I'd ever see. But to continue putting pressure on the regime, consider leaving the nest.

Even more straightforwardly: Go someplace you're not supposed to be.

I'm not talking about turning violent here. Just leave Tahrir, and go, non-violently, to someplace the government doesn't want you to be. March peacefully to one of the Presidential palaces, or a major ministry. Assert your ability to go anywhere, on any street. Claim not just one symbolic piece of the city - Tahrir square - but any and all of it. If that were to happen, I think we'd see the regime get worried for its survival again, and very quickly.

They are very likely to lash out, repress, pull every dirty trick in the book, but it's when those tricks come out that governments over-reach, or elements of the army decide they're not going to obey, and protesters win. Look: It's not my life on the line - I'm in a library in Istanbul right now - and I don't want to be glib in telling people in another country to go and face down armed thugs while I watch from a safe distance. But I think there's a real danger of the protests ceasing to be threatening to the regime, and I think the best way to keep up momentum this point is to move to new spaces, and make the government worried, once again, the the revolution cannot be contained, then split, then infiltrated, then broken.

1 comment:

  1. Carwil James, something of a theorist of direct action as well as an anthropology grad student, points out that one of the lessons in this How to Protest Intelligently pamphlet that's been going around the web, and presumably around Egypt, is precisely this: to gather and then move to "major streets" and "important government buildings." He has some interesting things to say about it. It does seem like it might be happening less when it needs to happen more.