Hana al Bayaty on the logistics and inner workings of the Arab Awakening. A conversation with Lieven de Cauter (taken from: De alledaagse apocalyps, van nine-eleven tot de Arabische lente p554 -562)
(March 16th, 2011)
In my philosophy class in Leuven we started from a PowerPoint presentation of the logistics of Tahrir Square, prepared by a Mexican student, Jimena Garcia Galindo. Based on internet photographs, she gave a sort of urbanist view on the events, with photographs indicating how the space of Tahrir square was organized. She showed how it became it instant city in itself with two clinics, a pharmacy, a kindergarten, a press wall, a central stage, a wall for martyrs, an art space, and even dust collecting and toilets; with an informal economy, and of course in the central green of the round about, the tents. In a Skype interview with Cairo Hana al Bayaty, a Iraqi-French political activist who was participating in the events in Cairo, commented passionately.
Hana: We cannot study Tahrir Square from an urbanist point of view without trying to see what it looked like over a longer period. It changed everyday, it was attacked by different forces, and it was reorganized at every moment. It took a new shape every half day. I give you one example, after February 2nd, when state security was attacking Tahrir with motorcycles. On that day the demonstrators had to break up the pavement of Tahrir to create stones to defend themselves. So the entire pavement was cut up to create piles of stones for defensive purposes and then there was a frontline, which did not disappear for days, with barricades, that were set up organically at night. While half of the square is busy making the stones, the others are fighting the secret services on the other side of the barricade. And there is a system of supplying the frontline: each time there is an injured person he is taken back behind the barricade to the clinic and another volunteer is replacing him. Or if people are tired, they are also replaced.
From that day onwards civilian check points were set up to protect Tahrir. These were manned by demonstrators, and they extended to the other Squares. Tahrir has many arteries that go to Tahrir and they all lead to smaller squares. At these civilian checkpoints you were searched, your bag was searched, around seven times before you actually entered the square. They checked that you have no knife, no Molotov cocktails, nothing that could be considered a weapon and especially no bomb. They were afraid that the state security would create some sort of terrorist attack. Every ID was controlled. Egyptian ID cards tell who employs you. So they knew who was who. The entire workforce is affiliated to a trade union or government. If it was written that you work for the ministry of interior you were not allowed to reach the square.
Lieven: You say two things: you have to look at Tahrir in a time line and on a bigger scale.
Hana: From the 3rd of February in the morning there was an entire security machine created by the demonstrators. When you see for example the main stage, it served also as a control centre to warn demonstrators, for instance that one of the entrances to the square was under attack. There was a code of knocking with stone on metal. One rhythm meant that the eastern entrance was under attack, so you had two hundred volunteers running to the eastern entrance. Another code would be that the Northern entrance was under attack, and you had two hundred volunteers running up to defend the Northern entrance, and so on. Children played an important part. The largest part of the children were street kids, orphans, who are fearless, have little to loose, could defend the square, know the city backwards and who set up immediately an informal economy.
Lieven: How did people manage when all the networks were down, when internet was down, when Al Jazeera was down, when mobile telephone communication was down?
Hana: The telephone system was down on the 28th at night. There was a 12 hours battle across the town, across the country. But in Cairo it was most fierce, in every neighbourhood. And people were on their way to reach Tahrir. Many people died that night. The next morning nobody knew who survived, who was injured, who was arrested. You could see hundreds of injured on the streets and all of us were trying to find out what happened. I walked 8 kilometres to visit people, to be sure that they survived the night, for everybody had his own battle field. And the state television was only showing the square that is next to its own building. It did not show anything else. So, we couldn’t know what happened. We had landlines phones, but we could not call each other because we are so used to call each other on cell phones. Sometimes we had to call Europe to have the numbers of our friends or have them call our Egyptian friends.
Lieven: How was the atmosphere on Tahrir Square?
Hana: Once it was taken over by the crowd, Tahrir Square became the safest place in the city. It became a safe haven. The surroundings were more volatile. As said, Tahrir changed shape everyday. As soon there was violence, a field hospital was made in a side street. The second hospital was a Kentucky Fried Chicken fast food restaurant at the side of Tahrir Square. It was vandalized on the first night, that is January 28th. As there were many injuries, it was transformed into a emergency hospital. The free medicine didn’t come from official hospitals but were donations from doctors.
The people radicalized because of the violence of the State. Tahrir was a charivari, a mixture of young and old, men and women, rich and poor, religious and secular, the entire society met on Tahrir Square, quite unique in itself. The amazing thing of the revolution was that it was all generations, all classes. It was really cross-generational, cross class. It was peaceful till the very end, from the side of the protesters, I mean. That was one of the strengths. The People had just been waiting for this for 40 years.
Lieven: This was very clearly voiced by writer Nawal al Saadawi, feminst/marxist writer of 80 who has been in Jail several times. When interviewed on the Belgian television (for she is quite famous here), she said her friends told her not to go to Tahrir square because it is too dangerous, but she said she had been waiting all her life for this moment, she could not be absent, she could not not be there.
Hana: My father, deep in his seventies, shares this sentiment. His generation can now relax, they walk around with a smile. They say: ‘we can now die in peace because there is a new generation that has taken up the struggle and was victorious’. The people of 40 to 50 smile less, for they are worried on how to defend the revolution, on how to proceed.
Lieven: But even if the future would bring a sort of restoration, even then the revolution should be cherished in and for itself, no? It is not feasible to go back. Even the middle class that was not politicized got extremely politicized in a space of three of weeks. I don’t think they can relinquish their input in the public life of the their country. Lieven: There is no turning back, according to you?
Hana: No, there might be difficult steps of course, but there is no rewinding to where we were before. The most important is that the people have broken the fear.
Here an Iranian student, Payam, steps in and asks whether it could not happen like with the Iranian revolution: after a few months the ousting of the Shah was fully recuperated by the theocratic power of Ayatollah Khomeini.
Payam: How can you know this cannot turn into a new dictatorship or even a fundamentalist dictatorship?
Lieven: I understand that you, as an Iranian, are sceptical, Pajam. But, the first reactions are telling: Kahmenei said it would be an Islamist revolution, Netanyahu said it, and Cameron and the Dutch prime minister Rutte. That is quite a coalition. It is all wishful thinking: Khamenei hopes it will be turned into a Islamist revolution, for a democratic revolution is a nightmare to him, Netanyahu doesn’t want a democracy at his back door, for it is obvious it will not help in the blockade of Gaza as the Mubarak regime did [in the mean time they the crossing], and Cameron and Rutte ventilate this typical right wing European vision that Islam deeply equals fundamentalism. But, Hana, tell us about the Muslim Brotherhood?
Hana: They are definitely an important social force in Egyptian society. They didn’t back the revolution until very late. There is a split into many different constituencies. Since the success of the revolution they are split into various factions. The young ones have spend 18 days of struggle on the square with all other strands of society. Through this experience, the absolutism of Islam, with Sharia etc, was destroyed. They understood that pluralism was their strength. So the leadership of the Muslim Brothers will ridicule themselves if they stick to theocracy. There is already a quarrel over the party to be formed. So we are not talking about a homogeneous force that could take over society. And the army is an important force, that is extremely secular, so I don’t think they would actually let it happen.’
Lieven: But did the revolution not start in the mosques? Friday prayer was the sort of meeting point, and point of ignition, no?
Hana: In the beginning the mosques did not cooperate: believers were asked not to take part in the protests. The same goes for the Coptic Christians, they were also asked not to partake. But the believers did anyhow. You had to take sides, and most did so very quickly.
Lyne Jabri, a lebanese-Palestinian student remarks that the Mosques did take part even if the highest Islam institution in Egypt, Al-Azar, an institution linked to the ministry of religious affairs in the Egyptian, told them not to do so.
Hana: The mosques themselves are something collective, social, something of the neighboorhood. The mosques had to take side, like everybody in society. Even foreigners; like myself, had to take sides. And very quickly. It was a complete exceptional time. So even the Mosques, who might receive some support and directives by the State, acted independently. It is a historical moment, you know.
Payam again, from the back of the room. Hana cannot understand him (as I cannot understand the recording). I urge him to come closer to the mike. ‘Crawl over the benches, this is Tahrir Square! (laughter).
Payam: I feel a contradiction: you said it was across classes and believes, but I know muslim people believe that everything in their lives is organized by Islam. I assume that some people listened to their religious leaders and did not partake in the revolution, and that could weaken the outcome of the revolution, because it is a bifurcation in society, between those who ware part of it and those who abstained.
Lieven: You seem still sceptical, Payam.
Lyne: it was about politics, not about religion.
Hana: Islam is a not only a religion, but a civilization. Most Muslims don’t want an Islamist state. Also some Copts are very fundamentalist, but the majority of both communities is moderate, and have other political affiliations. The state gave, via Al-Azar, the order not to partake in the demonstrations. They were amazed by the scale of the demonstrations on the 25th of January and from 26th onwards they started to go on television to give orders not to participate. But the call of the organizers was to go on Friday 28th to the Mosque and to try and go from everywhere in the city to Tahrir Square and occupy it. The Christians went in front of the mosques to protect the people while praying and to make sure they could come out of the Mosques unhindered afterwards, and go together to Tahrir. They came out in the thousands, probably 400.000. And from the 28th till the 11th of February it just kept growing. By the end there were three million, just on the Square! And everyday they organized prayers. I have friends who are completely secular, who would go on purpose to Tahrir to pray together. For it was a great strength, this spiritual bonding together. It is not religious in the sense of bigotry.
Lieven: For me the period after 9/11 was dark, but now I am in aperiod of optimism, of wishful thinking even. I believe that project of theocracy, both in Islam, Judaism and Christianity (think of the born again Christians in America, who were a very important political force in the Bush years and are now united in the tea party), as an alternative for all the western, modern political projects, like Marxism, Nasserism, other globalism- that this project, is over. That is the world historical significance of the Arab Awakening. The youngsters said in Tunis and Egypt: we don’t want Sharia, we want freedom, democracy and social justice. And that is why in Iran the leaders are so scared’ (Payam nods in agreement.) Even in China they are scared: as you know they censured the word jasmine on the internet and are arresting all sorts of activists and personalities like Ai Wei Wei.
Hana: ‘The revolution is not over, the Tahrir Square moment is more or less over, but the revolution has been taken everywhere; there is an incredible trade union movement coming up. There is an attempt to purge every institution of corruption, whether it is the Press, the ministry of education or the ministry of Health. The revolution is taking hold of the institutions; it is from within the institutions that you have a revolutionary purge. This revolution is about social justice. The fundamentalists never had a political program that was clear about social justice. They were willing to make deals with capitalist countries that do not benefit the people. The people now are very aware of what is just, what is real development, what is a real health system, what is a real education system, what are union rights, etc. I hope the fundamentalists will be discredited because they have no real program. And whether people are deeply religious or not; whether they take of their headscarves or not, is not my problem In fact, the girls in Tahrir square might not have taken of their veils yet, but their bodies have changed, their relation to males have changed, their relation to public space has changed.
When the slide comes up of a guy resting on the wheels of a tank, the last picture of Jimena’s presentation and I say that this well known image shows how people blocked the tanks from moving into the crowds, Hana looses her patience.
Hana: I told you before, Lieven, it is not to prevent them from turning against the crowds, but to prevent them from leaving the Square! There was an entire system; hundreds of people were going in shifts, sometimes 20 for one tank, either lying on the wheels or with the head inside and their body sticking out, so the tank could not leave. For the only protection the revolution had, was the army.
Lieven: Thanks for you clarifications, Hana! Now it is maybe time for some more dirty, or tricky questions. There are rumours and even seemingly well documented articles (by reséau Voltaire and others) that the CIA was behind it, that Georges Soros and his foundation are behind it. What do you have to say on this?
Hana: Basically there is no State funding, no Arab money for the development of these new technologies. So anybody who is interested in Twitter, or Facebook, or web 2.0, will attend conferences that are organised, by for instance by the Open Society Institute, which belongs to Soros. But does it make you a CIA-agent if you go for a ten day workshop to improve your in IT technology?
Lieven: The type of the organization is clear by its name, Open Society (with its reference to Carl Popper famous book), it is a sort a liberal initiative for the empowerment is good to fight dictatorship. But it is not the CIA.
Hana: CIA or not, I know three quarters of the people involved in the movement and they might attend any workshop, but beside this they have a very patriotic agenda.
Lieven: On the other hand, the idea of Fukuyama that liberal democracy is the end, the final destination of history. The Arab awakening is an sort of embrace of this. Of course it is much more leftist, as it stresses social justice. But you could say that Fukuyama could be rather happy: after the fall of communism by the democratic uprising in Eastern Europe, now the fall of dictatorships in the Middle East by democratic uprising.
Hana: It is a fact that the youngster want liberty and freedom of expression. Is this the property of the West or is it a universal value? And you can base a counter argument on the fact that they are deeply anti-zionist, all of them. So, if it were for the benefit of America or the CIA, then would deplore their position. We have heard the entire Square chant songs to liberate Palestine.
Lieven: So it cannot be co-opted by a neocon agenda. I fully agree.
Hana: A crucial point is that the people who called for demonstrations via Facebook, Twitter, and via texting on 25 and 26th, don’t have a base, they don’t represent any one. There are no leaders to the revolution. The activists themselves have been amazed by the massive response and the scale of the demonstrations. It is truly a popular revolution.
Lieven:I heard peopled started preparing this a year ago. Is it true?
Hana: Since many years… for the last six years I have seen activists questioning the legitimacy of the regime, trying to organize strikes, demonstrations, demonstrating against torture, blogging on the secret service. Those are the people behind the revolution. They are behind it in the sense that they were very courageous and outspoken, much earlier than the rest of society. But if there hadn’t been Tunisia, and if there hadn’t been the day of the police just a few days earlier… there would have been much smaller demonstrations. The overturning of the regime would have happened eventually but maybe not at this specific historical moment’
Lieven:The day of the police?
Hana: The 25th is the national day of the police. That is the day we are supposed to celebrate the police, but it is the force that uses systematic torture, bribes, humiliation, etc. So, it turned into big demonstrations against the police. The police could not take their day off, because there were so many people protesting. (Laughter in the room)
Lieven: So that was the first day of anger. That’s interesting. How important was the trigger effect of Tunisia?
Hana: It was very important. It is very important for all the Arabs. It was a youth movement that was later joined by the workers and the middle class, that actually was able to put down such a well established dictator and client regime of the West. Of course this has given hope to every other client state that had a dictator and was based on police repression.
Payam: In a sense it all started after the elections of Achmadinejad in 2008. It was all triggered form there, the use of the internet, Twitter, etc. I honestly believe that was the first twitter revolution, even if it didn’t succeed.
We all agreed on this. (Payam explains that Musavi and Charubi, are arrested and will be executed, that might ignite the next revolt in Iran). Then I shout: ‘Last questions! Last questions!’
Lyne: How come the Americans did not back Mubarak?
Hana: The Americans remained silent for days and days – days of extreme violence. Before they opened their mouth they were very… economic about the events. But the movement was so massive. Maybe if it only happened in Cairo, it could have been repressed, but it was national, in every town.
Lieven: also in Alexandria there were massive protests.
Lyne: I read that the Americans learned from the revolution in Iran that they shouldn‘t back the regime, because otherwise the people would turn completely against them.
Hana: The Americans are with anybody who can assure economic and political stability. So if the revolution brings some kind of neoliberal policy they will back it. But they were trying to see what the trends were, and realized you could not stop this revolution. Whatever kind of force you would use. Even non politicized people, some of my friends, were ready to die.
Lieven: On all Jazeera people said it loud and clear: we are here for freedom or to die. That has been crucial: if the fear factor goes, when people are ready to die, then the people are very strong. But I have still a question on the US: would it have made a difference if Bush was still in power?
Hana: Basically, because of the speech of Obama in Cairo, the people of Egypt were ready to give the United States a chance. But in practice Obama didn’t chance anything from the Bush years. The war in Iraq continues, Afghanistan, the support for Israel continues, etc. People understand that changing the face doesn’t change the policy.
Lieven: Question from another, unidentified student: What happened ever since Tahrir square? How to purge the system that was in power for so long time.
Hana: I told you already about the trade unions. And currently there are trials against several officials for corruptions. The ministry of justice was somehow independent from the regime. It always took very patriotic decisions, but its decisions were never implemented by the executive branch.
Lieven:there was a remnant of the partition of power, of the state of law?
Hana: Yes. And now there is the will to implement its decisions. For example the minister of interior who was responsible for sectarian violence in Egypt and for systematic torture, and who opened common law prisons and released prisoners on the 28th at night, is currently in front of the court. Even the presidential family is now being interrogated. Business men are interrogated for corruption. So, there is a movement of accountability. And then there is a proposal for amendments of the constitution, to change the electoral process. There is a referendum that will take place next Saturday (March 19th) and people are discussing publically whether they agree with the amendments or not, elections in six months or not. There is a very rich political process going on. There are workers actions, civil service actions, … They dismantled yesterday (March 15th that is) the security forces, which was the most feared, this kind of dark, underground force that was the backbone of the regime. So a lot is going on. I don’t say everything is positive, there are many draw backs, but it is ongoing. Tahrir remains the point of reference: every time there is a request that is not met, or when people fear the reforms are stalled and the revolution it derailing, they take to Tahrir square.
Lieven: With these words we can finish. Now it is for all the Muslim migrant neighborhoods and for all the youngsters in fact elsewhere in the world, in Brussels, London, Paris, etc, to learn from Tahrir. My slogan these days is: Everywhere Tahrir Square! Let’s give Hana a hand.
Hana (shouts from afar): And no scepticism!