Saturday, 19 February 2011

Egypt and the revolution in our minds

by Nigel Gibson, Radical Africa

‘What makes the lid blow off?’ Fanon asks in ‘The Wretched of the Earth’, reflecting on the revolution against French colonialism in Algeria 50 years ago and thinking about the future ‘African revolution.’ In Egypt, a country where 50 per cent of the population is under 30 years old and which has known no other regime than Mubarak’s state of emergency, with its torture and surveillance, it was the reaction to the murder of Khaled Said, a young blogger beaten to death by the police, that was a turning point. It began with a protest of 1,000 people in Alexandria during Said’s funeral and then went ‘underground’ onto the internet. Pictures of his crushed face are still on his facebook page. The next spark in the North African revolution was in Sidi Bouzid, Tunisia, ignited by the self immolation of Mohamed Bouazazi, a vegetable peddler whose cart and produce were confiscated by the police. Over the next month, despite increased repression, protests grew across Tunisia and on 14 January President Ben Ali was pushed out of the country. The date of the Egyptian revolution is 25 January but its prehistory includes years of labour struggle: The sit-ins, strikes, and demonstrations of 2006, the almost daily workers’ actions of early 2007, and the massive strike of textile workers in Muhalla al-Kubra in 2008 initiated by working women. These struggles led to beatings and imprisonments as well as some wage increases and bread subsidies as the regime tried to cheaply buy its way out of crisis. The mixture of economic hardship, political repression and social control indicate how deep the uprooting of the old regime had to be.


The 25 January revolution began as a movement against the odds, despite repression and torture and violence; despite the closing down of the internet which seemed so important to its birth; despite the conservativism of the world powers – Obama especially – and at times corporate media’s conformism. Despite all, the movement grew in size and grabbed the world’s attention as it developed in sophistication and in articulation – expressed so brilliantly in the endless debates, platforms and self-organisation (the organisation of the provision of security, food, blankets, stones, and medicine is a story to be told) around and in Tahrir Square, where the once cowed and silenced people of one of the world’s great cities could begin to speak and engage in seemingly endless debates, and decision-making, in open sessions. This had all the makings of a people’s revolution. There have been discussions of the revolution’s similarity with the velvet revolutions of 1989, Tiananmen Square in 1989, people power against Marcos in the Philippines and Duvalier in Haiti in 1986. It is akin to Paris 1968 and its decentralised working and bottom up democracy reflects the new beginning which began with the Hungarian revolution of 1956. Indeed, aided by social media the revolution has been dubbed Revolution 2.0, a revolution without leaders, a ‘Wikipedia revolution’ as Wael Ghonim (the young Google executive behind the ‘We are all Khaled Said’ facebook page) put it. With everyone contributing to its content, the revolution was never simply a revolt of the middle class and as it grew it increasingly came to reflect the socio-economic composition of Africa’s largest city.


The Egyptian revolution is like a Rorschach test: Everyone can see something in it. And while these insights are all true, it is also a revolution of the 21st century, not simply because of the social media technology (plus WikiLeaks and Al Jazeera). In this age of gated cities, of citadels, under surveillance and policed – what have been called ‘global cities’ – the Egyptian people opened up political space, as an ongoing public debate in the squares, outside the parliament, in the streets. Cairo, a city of 18 million – abundant in its history and riches and also in the lived realities of the majority of its citizens who are poor – became associated throughout the world, and especially the Arab world, with liberation. The Caireans have shown the world how social media relates to social transformation and the retaking of public space. They have implicitly brought into focus the idea of the ‘right to the city’ as a collective project of social transformation. They were not stopped by fears about maintaining order, nor by the police and the state’s paid murderers, nor by threats of a coup. Instead they organised a continuous occupation of a city’s central square by tens, then hundreds of thousands, then millions of people, defending it, feeding it, nurturing it, articulating it, developing it as their daily work. Cairo was the centre, but in other towns, like Alexandria, smaller groups – perhaps initially under the threat and reality of even more violence – continually gathered. The regime cracked. To remain hegemonic, Mubarak had to be sacrificed.


For Fanon, the timing of the revolution is a moment when the militants make contact with the poor from the outskirts of towns and rural areas and realise that they have always thought in terms of a revolutionary transformation. In Egypt this is only beginning to happen. What began to amaze organisers during the last days of Mubarak’s rule was the militancy of the youth from poor neighborhoods. Before the 28 January demonstration, for example,, a group of organisers ‘conducted … a field test’ walking along the narrow alleys of a working class neighborhood to measure the level of participation: ‘when we finished up the people refused to leave. They were 7000 and they burned two police cars.’[1]

The turning point in the struggle – the point when the ruling elites decided to dump Mubarak – came not after it defeated the police and paid goons, but as workers in the port towns and across the industrial and service sectors began strikes supporting the movement and raising their own demands. With revolts also in rural areas and in smaller towns, it was the beginning of a national revolution whose first phase ended with the departure of Mubarak. Strikes have continued, indeed expanded, but what is also at stake is whether the self-organisation learnt from Tahrir Square will take on a class character and whether the public political space, the democratic space opened up by the revolution, will remain open.


Clearly things were changing during those eighteen days after 25 January and the speed of change, of development, of solidarity and fearless – of a new humanity experiencing freedom – took on a momentum of its own. Steve Biko, the South African Black Consciousness leader, argued that the most potent weapon in the oppressor’s arsenal was the internalisation of fear in the consciousness of the oppressed. But once that mind experiences freedom – not as an abstraction but in and through collective actions – it becomes a force of revolution. ‘People have changed. They were scared. They are no longer scared,’ argued Ahmad Mahmoud. ‘When we stopped being afraid we knew we would win. We will not again allow ourselves to be scared of a government. This is the revolution in our country, the revolution in our minds.’[2]

Once the lid is taken off a police state, it is very difficult to put back on. Mental liberation, Fanon argues, and the radical change in consciousness that accompanies revolution, entails a rethinking of everything, a questioning of everything that has been taken for granted. What had been normal for so long has been fundamentally shaken. After 30 years of life under the dictatorship, the Egyptian people had become historical protagonists. Tahrir Square, the revolution’s focal point, became territorialised by those who had not counted. It became the space of a new kind of work in Fanon’s sense, namely the hard but collectively joyous work of human liberation.

Mubarak’s departure represents a victory for the movement but it is not the goal of liberation. Egypt remains at a crossroads with the military as the only possible institution to renormalise it. Yet under the guise of the national interest any return to the old normal must include suppressing freedom, strikes, demonstrations, and any other manifestation of the economic and social revolt against injustice and exploitation that has been brewing for the past decade.


In 1956, four years after the 1952 Egyptian revolution and one year into the Algerian revolution, Algeria’s liberation movement met in the Soummam Valley to discuss the organisation and programme of its revolution. An important principle adopted there was that rather than militarising politics, the military and any military decision had to be subservient to, and under the control of, the political struggle. It is a principle that continues to haunt Algeria and Egypt where militarised states of emergency have been in place for decades, abrogating political rights and suppressing spaces for public discourse.

In 1959 Fanon presented his ‘Pitfalls of National Consciousness’ (which would become a central chapter of The Wretched of the Earth) as lectures to the Algerian liberation army camped on the Tunisian border. Looking forward to decolonisation, he goes further than the Soummam platform, arguing that the army too often becomes the pillar of a nation, which despite independence, does not undergo any fundamental reorganisation. The military enforces systematic pauperisation and ‘the strength of the police force and the power of the army are [simply] proportionate to the stagnation in which the rest of the nation is sunk.’[3] Where there is no parliament, he continues, the army takes over – as it has done in Egypt. But this changes nothing unless the army is truly nationalised and the development of the officer class is curtailed as it becomes a school of ‘civic and political education.’ Rather than a professional army, he adds, the military should become a political organisation which, as a servant of the people, needs to take the step from ‘national consciousness to political and social consciousness’ and become part of a genuine humanist and social national programme.[4] Too often, however, as we have seen in the fifty years since Fanon’s death, the army, as he feared, takes the place of a corrupt political party, and becomes the organizer of the profiteers.[5] This certainly was the situation under Mubarak.

In Egypt the army – intimately connected to the economy and self-interested in the maintenance of the status quo – is repeating the same calls it made during the last days of Mubarak under the slogans to ‘return to order’ and ‘return to normalcy.’ Yet the people are not naïve. During the commune days of Tahrir Square they understood that the tanks not only protected them but threatened them. People slept in the tank’s tracks not only to stop the tanks from moving but let everyone know that they were ready if the tanks did move; they marched around the tanks by candlelight at night to keep them in their place; and they continued to embrace the soldiers as their ‘brothers,’ but announced further demonstrations and encouraged the soldiers to join them. Thus after Mubarak’s departure and despite the army’s clearing of Tahrir Square and its threat to ban strikes and end street demonstrations, the question is can the military put the lid back on the multidimensional revolt? How reliable are the army’s young and badly paid conscripts?


It is the revolution happening in the minds of the people – including perhaps those among the army’s rank and file – that is really significant. Nasser understood its importance, calling his book on the liberation of Egypt a ‘philosophy of revolution’. A different philosophy of revolution came alive in the movement at Tahrir Square. As Sinan Antoon, the Iraqi born poet, novelist and film maker put it, ‘What distinguishes this revolution is the wonderful and sublime example it sets in terms of solidarity among protesters and citizens at large. The spontaneity and cooperation in managing their daily affairs without a hierarchy is what the state didn’t expect as it deprived the people of basic services and tried to spread fear and chaos to terrorize the citizenry.’ The ‘commune’ at Tahrir Square produced a new political form.[6] And in an attempt to de-communalise that form, it has now been deterritorialised. As youths moved to literally and symbolically clean the square, the military destroyed the shelters, banners, and artworks and removed the people. Traffic now moves across the square – but traffic can also be stopped.


There are at least two potential scenarios which Fanon also considered to be the problematic of decolonisation and the African revolution: On one hand, the horizontal movement based on the inclusivity of people’s power – on its ongoing support and democratic organisation – that overthrew Mubarak is understood not simply a fragment or a moment but something that becomes the basis for daily life. On the other hand, a vertical movement based on the exclusivity of an ‘elite transition,’ controlled by professional politicians, generals and planners with their own vested interest in the status quo, which suffocates the air of freedom and the ‘revolution in our minds.’

As strikes roll across the country, from industrial to service sectors, the idea of reconstituting ‘Tahrir’ in the factories remains a radical possibility.[7]


* Nigel C. Gibson is an activist and scholar.
* Please send comments to or comment online at Pambazuka News.


[1] David Kirkpatrick, ‘Wired and Shrewd: Young Egyptians Guide Revolt,’ New York Times February 9, 2011,
[2] See
[3] Frantz Fanon, The Wretched of the Earth (Grove: New York, 1968) p. 172.
[4] See Ibid. pp 201-3
[5] Ibid p.174
[6] See
[7] See Charles Levinson, Margaret Coker and Tamer El-Ghobashy ‘Strikes Worry Egypt’s Military, youth’ Wall Street Journal February 15, 2010