For Egypt, This Is the Miracle of Tahrir Square
There is no room for compromise. Either the entire Mubarak edifice falls, or the uprising is betrayed
One cannot but note the "miraculous" nature of the events in Egypt: something has happened that few predicted, violating the experts' opinions, as if the uprising was not simply the result of social causes but the intervention of a mysterious agency that we can call, in a Platonic way, the eternal idea of freedom, justice and dignity.
The uprising was universal: it was immediately possible for all of us around the world to identify with it, to recognise what it was about, without any need for cultural analysis of the features of Egyptian society. In contrast to Iran's Khomeini revolution (where leftists had to smuggle their message into the predominantly Islamist frame), here the frame is clearly that of a universal secular call for freedom and justice, so that the Muslim Brotherhood had to adopt the language of secular demands.
The most sublime moment occurred when Muslims and Coptic Christians engaged in common prayer on Cairo's Tahrir Square, chanting "We are one!" – providing the best answer to the sectarian religious violence. Those neocons who criticise multiculturalism on behalf of the universal values of freedom and democracy are now confronting their moment of truth: you want universal freedom and democracy? This is what people demand in Egypt, so why are the neocons uneasy? Is it because the protesters in Egypt mention freedom and dignity in the same breath as social and economic justice?
From the start, the violence of the protesters has been purely symbolic, an act of radical and collective civil disobedience. They suspended the authority of the state – it was not just an inner liberation, but a social act of breaking chains of servitude. The physical violence was done by the hired Mubarak thugs entering Tahrir Square on horses and camels and beating people; the most protesters did was defend themselves.
Although combative, the message of the protesters has not been one of killing. The demand was for Mubarak to go, and thus open up the space for freedom in Egypt, a freedom from which no one is excluded – the protesters' call to the army, and even the hated police, was not "Death to you!", but "We are brothers! Join us!". This feature clearly distinguishes an emancipatory demonstration from a rightwing populist one: although the right's mobilisation proclaims the organic unity of the people, it is a unity sustained by a call to annihilate the designated enemy (Jews, traitors).
So where are we now? When an authoritarian regime approaches the final crisis, its dissolution tends to follow two steps. Before its actual collapse, a rupture takes place: all of a sudden people know that the game is over, they are simply no longer afraid. It is not only that the regime loses its legitimacy; its exercise of power itself is perceived as an impotent panic reaction. We all know the classic scene from cartoons: the cat reaches a precipice but goes on walking, ignoring the fact that there is no ground under its feet; it starts to fall only when it looks down and notices the abyss. When it loses its authority, the regime is like a cat above the precipice: in order to fall, it only has to be reminded to look down …
In Shah of Shahs, a classic account of the Khomeini revolution, Ryszard Kapuscinski located the precise moment of this rupture: at a Tehran crossroads, a single demonstrator refused to budge when a policeman shouted at him to move, and the embarrassed policeman withdrew; within hours, all Tehran knew about this incident, and although street fights went on for weeks, everyone somehow knew the game was over.
Is something similar going on in Egypt? For a couple of days at the beginning, it looked like Mubarak was already in the situation of the proverbial cat. Then we saw a well-planned operation to kidnap the revolution. The obscenity of this was breathtaking: the new vice-president, Omar Suleiman, a former secret police chief responsible for mass tortures, presented himself as the "human face" of the regime, the person to oversee the transition to democracy.
Egypt's struggle of endurance is not a conflict of visions, it is the conflict between a vision of freedom and a blind clinging to power that uses all means possible – terror, lack of food, simple tiredness, bribery with raised salaries – to squash the will to freedom.
When President Obama welcomed the uprising as a legitimate expression of opinion that needs to be acknowledged by the government, the confusion was total: the crowds in Cairo and Alexandria did not want their demands to be acknowledged by the government, they denied the very legitimacy of the government. They didn't want the Mubarak regime as a partner in a dialogue, they wanted Mubarak to go. They didn't simply want a new government that would listen to their opinion, they wanted to reshape the entire state. They don't have an opinion, they are the truth of the situation in Egypt. Mubarak understands this much better than Obama: there is no room for compromise here, as there was none when the Communist regimes were challenged in the late 1980s. Either the entire Mubarak power edifice falls down, or the uprising is co-opted and betrayed.
And what about the fear that, after the fall of Mubarak, the new government will be hostile towards Israel? If the new government is genuinely the expression of a people that proudly enjoys its freedom, then there is nothing to fear: antisemitism can only grow in conditions of despair and oppression. (A CNN report from an Egyptian province showed how the government is spreading rumours there that the organisers of the protests and foreign journalists were sent by the Jews to weaken Egypt – so much for Mubarak as a friend of the Jews.)
One of the cruellest ironies of the current situation is the west's concern that the transition should proceed in a "lawful" way – as if Egypt had the rule of law until now. Are we already forgetting that, for many long years, Egypt was in a permanent state of emergency? Mubarak suspended the rule of law, keeping the entire country in a state of political immobility, stifling genuine political life. It makes sense that so many people on the streets of Cairo claim that they now feel alive for the first time in their lives. Whatever happens next, what is crucial is that this sense of "feeling alive" is not buried by cynical realpolitik.
© Guardian News and Media Limited 2011