(Street Art by Alaa Awad)
A graffito on a wall in Tahrir Square, Cairo read: “The regime did not change, but the people changed”.
It is five years since the eruption of the “Egyptian Revolution” in nationwide mass protests on the 25th of January, 2011. To the cry of “bread, justice and dignity”, hundreds of thousands would take to the streets in daily demonstrations and occupations. The symbolic centre of the movement was occupied Tahrir, where protest evolved into resistance, where rebellion metamorphosed into the creation of autonomy. After 18 days of occupation, and some 1,000 dead at the hands of the national security forces, Hosni Mubarak resigned from power.
But the events that would follow, leading to the presidential election of Marshal Abdel Fattah Al-Sissi, would mark in the minds of many, both in and outside the country, the death of the revolution. For the current regime, as was the case under the government of Mohamed Morsi or the transitional presidency of Adly Mansour, the 25th of January anniversary is unwelcome. If Sissi this last Sunday, on television, could salute the noble principles of the movement, he also added that the popular uprising against Morsi and the military coup that overthrew his Islamic Brotherhood government had “corrected” the revolutions direction. (Le Monde, 25/01/2016)
Since 2013, all demonstrations on the occasion of the anniversary have been prohibited and repressed. This year has been no exception, with some 5000 raids on private houses having been conducted over the 10 days before the 25th, along with the censorship of internet communication, official sermons in mosques condemning all protest as irreligious, and the saturation of Cairo’s streets with police and military. (Le Monde, 25/01/2015). Since the military coup d’état, hundreds of political and human rights activists have been arrested and condemned. The 6th of April Movement, at the heart of the 2011 protests, is today classified as a terrorist organisation and many of its leading figures are in prison. Repression justified by security and a “war against terrorism” serves as alibi for the intensification of authoritarianism. The revolution is dead, killed in fear and blood.
And yet to so read events is to limit our understanding of events to changes within institutionalised politics. It is to be blind to deeper changes that were lived and continue to resonate within Egypt and beyond, changes that explain the continuing worry of the authorities before the 25th of January.
If for many, both on the right and the left, the “Arab Spring” could be reduced to a demand for the freedoms of “liberal democracy”, what expressed itself in the street protests and occupations was of far greater significance. What was created and what was at stake was autonomy, the autonomy of peoples self-constituting themselves and their social relations in ways that were politically unprecedented in the region. This was an autonomy that was lived and expressed at a diversity of levels, physically, psychically, politically, breaking with restrictions, taboos and fears that isolated, weakened and pacified individuals. Rebellion and rebels were born in Tahrir Square and elsewhere; a rebellion that was spontaneous, horizontal, anti-authoritarian, multi-centred, trans-ideological and from which sprung a social reality that occupied/created both space and time, generating thereby new restless subjectivities.
Some might argue that no power, organisation, thought emerged from Tahrir, to carry the revolution forward. But it is not clear what any of these demands would amount to, or how they could be given form. And it is by no means obvious that all of these are necessary to transform a rebellion into something politically efficacious. This last week’s mass protests and their repression by local authorities, in tunisia, against on-going and wide spread economic hardships testify to changes that continue to echo through peoples in the wake of the “Arab Spring”. (Le Monde, 22/01/2016) And the events in tunisia point to a possible transformation in the contestation, namely, in a movement away from simple political demands to socio-economic demands as well.
With every protest, for those in the streets or in the halls of power, it will be the living spirit of Tahrir which will animate the rebels and cause those in authority to tremble.