By Omar El Sabh
For the extended periods of time I spent in the square, during the various sit-ins and protests, it became clear to me, from day one, that the social rules and dynamics of Tahrir are of a nature of their own compared with the rest of Egyptian society. Problem is that recently it has been increasingly obvious that the square cannot completely escape the tenacity of some norms in Egyptian society, as they have infiltrated the very core of the square’s social twine.
Recently, many sexual harassment cases have been reported; foreign female journalists and Egyptian women who have been either groped or sexually harassed by large groups of men- to state the least- are worrying signs that lead many to think of the reasons for this new phenomenon appearing on the square (because it is new considering the amplitude and frequency of the reports).
Moreover, reports by foreigners being verbally abused by chauvinist protesters, being told to “go back home” or “this is not your country, what are you doing here?” is an alarming sign that Tahrir is becoming more of a dystopia compared to the square the whole world was used to seeing during the 18 day uprising.
However let’s not confuse what happens outside the square with the special nature of the square’s social structure. Conflating the phenomenon of sexual harassment, xenophobia and bigotry on the square with the larger social problems that plague Egyptian society would not constitute a good assessment of the dynamics that are taking place on the square on the one hand and in Egyptian society on the other. The goal of this analysis is not to explain the larger social context or reason of Egyptian social ‘ills’ but to seek to explain why Tahrir is becoming less immune to them.
Tahrir is becoming less immune to them because for one, Tahrir is a sitting duck for forces that seek to corrupt the cohesion here on the square and for two, as a utopia, Tahrir never existed. Tahrir as a utopia was only a naive assessment by foreign media and many Egyptians that detaches us now from the actual struggle Tahrir is wagging as a nascent microcosm of democracy and a new type of Egyptian society.
At first sight and as far as the dynamics of the square are concerned, the evolution of “Egyptian social problems” slowly creeping into the square has been an increasing linear function, with X=0 representing Tahrir during its 18 days of glory and the progression along the function representing the increased accounts of “social disruptions” (E.g. Harassment, bigotry, intolerance, etc…) in the square.
During the July sit in, we’ve witnessed this evolution first hand. Every day, more and more problems would surface.
Fights related to intolerance were becoming a recurring event. Street vendors would be asked to leave every night because of the way they allegedly “corrupt” the spirit of the square and clashes would ensue as a result of some hot headed elements trying to impose themselves as the protectors of security and “justice” in Tahrir. The main problem at the time seemed to be the way a fascistic hierarchy was taking place; committed by people who took it upon themselves to deliver justice in the square. The infamous Tahrir “prison” cell was a place where the square’s security forces would punish those who “breached” the codes of ethics of the square by either beating them up or delivering them to the military police. This revolutionary righteousness could be compared to the French revolution’s Jacobin terror, a terror with virtue, but a terror nonetheless.
Some of us camping in Tahrir thought that the whole bulk of the problems were related to the rational of some people, who by trying to secure the “spirit of Tahrir” were actually perpetrating the same violations they originally came to the square to fight against, perpetuating the idea of revolutionary “justice” in a blind fashion.
Nevertheless, it was thought that this is only the natural evolution of a sit-in that didn’t have much popular support and one that had it’s protesters become increasingly frustrated with the fact that its were not being met (I.e. The immediate trial of Mubarak, delivering social justice and the swift trial of those who murdered the martyrs of the revolution).
Now, with the third official sit in taking place at the moment, some things appear clearer now in hindsight. They serve to explain the weaknesses of Tahrir as a social cohesive element that ideally poses itself as a utopia rather than a place plagued with the social problems of Egyptian society.
That weakness is, at first sight, being used by counter revolutionary forces to vilify the protest and make Tahrir appear as a place of chaotic rules rather than a cohesive entity with the values of a great anarchic society.
One rationalization follows the conspiracy theory rationale. It is being propagated on social networks and states that some “infiltrators” are trying to disrupt the social cohesion of Tahrir by creating disturbances – this time related to sexual harassment and nationalistic bigotry – even fascistic hierarchy is still present.
This mindset seems to gain validity when one can just rhetorically ask himself: “Is it completely ludicrous to think that some counter revolutionary elements in the country are actively trying to publicize Tahrir to foreign media and local residents as a place where chaos and fascism rule instead of the rosy picture most are used to knowing of the square?”
The thought doesn’t appear to be completely farfetched.
By saying that some elements are trying to disrupt the image of Tahrir and advertise it as place of intolerance, no one is excluding the fact that bigotry and sexism are very real social problems in Egyptian society at large. However the argument here is that Tahrir’s weaknesses to those social problems is being used against it as a tactic to vilify it to foreign media and local “couch party” members in light of discouraging participation in what has been dubbed a “second revolution” — although the term is very misleading. The tactic basically states: “Look at Tahrir now, and look at what it was during the 18 days.”
This argument of exogenous disruptions is somewhat justified by the myriad reports of cases of harassment that have surfaced on the Harassmap initiative and Twitter. Most were reports by foreign female journalists but also Egyptian girls (veiled and non veiled).
One case in point: Two of our friends and prominent Egyptian female activists were brutally harassed by the Mohamed Mahmoud checkpoint (N.B. The checkpoint has been identified by many activists on the square as having Muslim Brotherhood members and SCAF sympathizers). This serves to show that infiltrating and disrupting the social twine of the square is not a mission impossible.
Tahrir has weaknesses, weaknesses that can be very easily used by any counter revolutionary force or faction that prefer the status quo to any real tangible change. Those weaknesses appear each sit in and expose new feeble points that can create a dichotomy between the “ideal values “of Tahrir and what actually goes on a grassroots level.
Tahrir, a utopian dystopia
Utopia is actually very dystopian, Tahrir is beautiful but it is far from perfect or ideal.
Even during the 18 days, so much has been blanketed over because of the unity that was so strong against one symbol of oppression that drowned all other social ills from surfacing; Lara Logan’s brutal harassment was simply the expression of the disappearance of this unity and the infiltration of the reality of Egyptian social problems into the square. It was only a veiled dystopia and it should not serve as basis of discouragement from participation.
The argument that there was never a Tahrir utopia gives us a more objective view of what Tahrir’s spirit is fighting against. It’s fighting to create order and deal with problems from the ground up. Whether these disruptions are endogenous or exogenous it all boils down to the fact that sexism, bigotry, blind nationalistic fervor and intolerance are not external to those who go to Tahrir because every participant is part of the larger social framework of Egyptian society. Things we normally need law and order for are not present in Tahrir (arguably in Egypt at large) and they can serve as a point of vulnerability to those who want to corrupt the image of the revolution or better yet and more pragmatically as “ills” that we must be aware of in order to have an objective assessment of what Tahrir’s is striving to fight for.
As a nascent society that seeks to promote democratic values, Tahrir was never a place of ideal norms being expressed in one place; it was and is a place that actively works to cure the ills of Egyptian society in a controlled environment that learns progressively from its past mistakes…there was nothing “ideal” about it.
Like a toddler it can’t be looked at as being immune from mistakes, it has to be looked at as a pure new born entity that practices trial and error. Some may try to vilify Tahrir, but the real ‘residents’ here know that this will not happen as long as rational, objective assessment can be used to promote the struggle of an imperfect society that Egypt has never seen before, one that can hopefully pose as an example for Egyptian society in the future.
Omar El Sabh is a senior political science student at the American University in Cairo.