The thing about revolutions these days, is that the exponentially accelerated, dizzying pace of change means that the stages through which, say, the French Revolution passed, are now compressed into days instead of months or years. It’s hard to tell what stage you’re in at any given moment. In Egypt today, the news comes fast and furious. During a two-hour panel discussion held at Shorouk Bookstore yesterday evening, the discussion was partly shaped by the tweets popping up on the speakers’ cell phones. The two floors of the bookstore were packed with about a hundred people, mostly young, come to take a crash course in Democracy 101 from author/activists who had been writing against the Mubarak autocracy.
Meanwhile, their peers outside the hall, on the university campuses in and around Cairo, were practicing their own version of “democracy”: an instant “off with their (figurative) heads” applied to university deans, dons, and anyone with ties to the former ruling NDP party. As the tweets came in, the speakers on the panel, from the vantage of their 30-40 years, warned against unreasonable demands, unrealistic expectations, and narrow interest group claims that, unchecked, could effectively overload and crash-burn the revolution before it properly got off the ground. They warned against a failed state.
As even more worrying tweets came in, about clashes between Copts and Muslims in the Mokkattam hills, about harassment of women protesters on a women’s march, the speakers warned against counter-revolution. The extremists elements in both religious communities had never signed on to the revolution or its spirit of religious and gender inclusion, and now took advantage of the
security vacuum to create havoc. But an even more insidious threat of counter-revolution comes from the million-plus members of Mubarak’s NDP party, about to be disenfranchised, and his million-plus security and police services, taken off the streets and sent home in disgrace; both have every incentive to create as much instability and insecurity as possible, in order to stage a return to power.
But it isn’t only sinister forces who are expressing doubts about change these days. The Mubarak regime, and before him Sadat’s, had made the NDP the only patronage game in town for forty years; anyone who had business or political dealings had no choice but to deal with the establishment, and suffers accordingly today.
In addition, women in particular have concerns about security; my women friends exchange recipes for home-made pepper spray and carry it in atomizers in their purses, although none of them has actually faced a threatening situation. People still go out to lunches and dinners in restaurants- now sparsely frequented- but the women wear costume jewelry only; dress down; and forsake their large handbags for small pocketbooks. But Cairo is safe, everyone agrees, the incidents reported all take place outside of the city.
Give the new prime minister and his cabinet time, the speakers plead. “Two months,” one girl kneeling on the floor with her backpack calls out. But two years seems to be the time frame most people expect it will take for things to calm down and shake out. Even the panel speakers at the bookstore seem to favor that timeline. But everything else is the subject of heated debate: parliamentary elections before or after the constitutional amendment? (As of now, the referendum on a new constitution is set for March 19.) What about presidential candidates? Our speakers label Amr Moussa, Arab League head, as “the candidate for those who want continuity with a changed face,” but my informal poll of taxi drivers and hair dressers brings up his name every time. The role of the military? It should lead to a handover to civilians as soon as possible, everyone agrees. But take them at their word, give them a chance, don’t withdraw your confidence in them just yet, the speakers warn.
In the end, speaker Mustafa Higgazi, elegant and aloof in his effect, made an impassioned plea in his unimpassioned manner: approach every situation, every problem, from this stand, he exhorted: “I am a free Egyptian human being.” If that is your posture, he affirmed, you will include all Egyptians, regardless of creed or class, as your brethren; you will include all humanity. You will make your decisions as a free man or woman, nor longer subject but citizen.
Before we broke up, someone warned that she had just received a tweet about disruption on the 6th October flyover, the main artery of central Cairo; it was blocked, and everyone would have to find an alternate route home before curfew.