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Egypt: Much more than a `Facebook revolution'

February 18, 2011 -- There has been much written in the mainstream and even the alternative media -- much of it superficial -- about the uprising in Egypt, and previously in Tunisia, being a "Facebook revolution" and/or a "Twitter revolution". Rare have been analyses that try explain the deeper dynamics at play beneath the surface, which put the effectiveness of cyberspace organising tools into a political and class context. Exceptions to this are two very useful articles that appeared in the February 12, 2011, edition of the India-based left-wing journal, Economic & Political Weekly, which map the interaction between the build-up to the uprising in Egypt and developments in the labour and working-class movements, and how they influenced the technology-savvy young men and women of Egypt.

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Why Egypt's progressives win

By Paul Amar

On February 6, 2011, Egypt’s hastily appointed vice-president Omar Suleiman invited in the old guard or what we could call the business wing of the Muslim Brotherhood into a stately meeting in the polished rosewood Cabinet Chamber of Mubarak’s Presidential Palace. The aim of their tea party was to discuss some kind of accord that would end the national uprising and restore “normalcy”. When news of the meeting broke, expressions of delight and terror tore through the blogosphere. Was the nightmare scenario of both the political left and right about to be realised? Would the US/Israel surrogate Suleiman merge his military-police apparatus with the power of the more conservative branch of the old Islamist social movement?

Hearing the news, Iran’s Supreme Leader sent his congratulations. And in the United States Glen Beck and John McCain ranted with glee about world wars and the inevitable rise of the Cosmic Caliphate. 

On that same day, an unnamed White House official told the Associated Press that any “academic type” who did not focus on the Muslim Brothers and see them as the principle actor in this drama “was full of sh*t”. The White House seemed to believe that Suleiman, chief of Egypt’s intelligence services, was the kind of keen mind they could depend on.

In reality, the Suleiman-Brotherhood tea party turned out to be nothing more than another stunt staged by Nile TV News. Images of the Suleiman-Brotherhood tête-à-têtes were broadcast at a time when Suleiman’s legitimacy and sanity were appearing increasingly shaky within Egypt, and when this particular sub-group of the Muslim Brotherhood, who represent only one fraction of one faction of the opposition, was trying to leverage an unlikely comeback. As reporters obsessed over which Brother was sitting with Suleiman, they continued to ignore the continuing growing power of the movements that had started this uprising.

Proving Nile TV and the pessimists wrong, 1.5 million people turned out on February 7 -- the biggest mobilisation [to that point] in this uprising. Commentators focusing on the Muslim Brotherhood had completely missed the real news of the past two days. The ruling National Democratic Party (NDP) leadership had been savaged from within. In a desperate attempt to salvage his phantom authority, Mubarak had tossed his son Gamal and a whole class of US-linked businesspeople to the lions, forcing them to resign and froze their assets. And at the same time, Egyptian newspaper El-Masry El-Youm reported that the Muslim Brotherhood's youth and women’s wings had split from the main Brothers’ organisation to join the leftist 6 April Movement. The men sitting around Suleiman’s table were left without much of a movement behind them.

Bands of brothers

The Society of Muslim Brothers [Muslim Brotherhood] is not a marginal force in Egypt. It is very well organised and can be credited with providing health, education, legal aid and disaster relief to citizens ignored or neglected by the state. But it is not Egypt’s equivalent of Hizbollah or Hamas. As Mona El-Ghobashy has described, in the 1990s, the Brotherhood made a definite break, transforming its secretive, hierarchical, sharia-focused form into a well-organised political party, officially banned but occasionally tolerated. In the past two decades it has made significant inroads into parliament via alliances with other parties and by running independent candidates. The Brothers now fully support political pluralism, women’s participation in politics, and accept the role of Christians and communists as full citizens.

However, with the rise of other competing labour, liberal and human rights movements in Egypt in the 2000s, what one can call the “new old guard” of the Brothers (the ones that emerged in the 1980s) have retained a primary focus on cultural, moral and identity politics. The “new old guard” feel this distinguishes them from other parties, a fact they confirmed by appointing a rigid social conservative Muhammad Badeea as their leader in 2010. This leaning can thus bring the “new old guard” more in line with the moralistic paternalism of Mubarak’s government and set them against the trajectory of new youth, women’s and labour movements. This leads to new possibilities of splits within the Brotherhood, as youth and women’s wings feel drawn towards the 6 April coalition.

The moral-cultural traditionalist wing of the “new old guard” is composed of professional syndicate leaders and wealthy businessmen. In the 1950s-'80s, the movement regrouped and represented frustrated elements of the national bourgeoisie. But this class of people has largely been swept up into new opportunities and left the organisation. The “new old guard” of the Brothers’ business wing has started to look like a group of retired Shriners (a secret fraternal organisation linked to the Freemasons), except that in North Africa, Shriners have stopped wearing fezes.

In the past decade this particular wing of the Brothers has been partially co-opted by Mubarak’s government from two angles. First, the Brothers were allowed to enter parliament as independent candidates and have been allowed to participate in the recent economic boom. The senior Brothers now own major cell phone companies and real estate developments, and have been absorbed into the NDP machine and upper-middle class establishment for years.

Second, the government wholly appropriated the Brothers’ moral discourse. For the last decade and more, Mubarak’s police state has stirred moral panics and waved the banner of Islam, attacking single working women, homosexuals, devil-worshipping internet users, trash-recycling pig farmers, rent-control squatters, as well as Baha’i, Christian and Shia minorities. In its morality crusades, the Mubarak government burned books, harassed women and excommunicated college professors. Thus, we can say that Egypt has already experienced rule by an extremely narrow Islamist state – Mubarak’s! Egyptians tried out that kind of regime. And they hated it.

In recent years, as described in the work of Saba Mahmood and Asef Bayat, people have grown disgusted by Mubarak’s politicisation of Islam. Egyptians began to reclaim Islam as a project of personal self-governance, ethical piety and social solidarity. This trend explicitly rejects the political orientation of Islam and explicitly separates itself both from Brotherhood’s activities and Mubarak’s morality crusades.

Military as middle class

At one time, the Muslim Brotherhood represented frustrated, marginalised elements of the middle class. But that story is so 1986! Now there are a wide range of secular (but not anti-religious) groupings that represent emergent economic patterns within the country. Moreover, these groups are swept up in a whirlwind of political-economic energies coming from new or renewed world influences and investors – Russia, Kazakhstan, Azerbaijan, Israel, Dubai, China, Turkey and Brazil, as well as the return of remittance flows into the country as Egyptian professionals got swept up in the Gulf emirates’ building and development boom.

In the context of this new multidimensional globalisation, in which East/West divides and post-colonial patterns are radically remade, the Egyptian military, a misunderstood economic actor, has come to play a very interesting economic role. The military’s economic interests are split in interesting ways. Since the military has been prevented by the Camp David treaty from making war, it has instead used its sovereignty over huge tracts of desert and coastal property to develop shopping malls, gated cities and beach resorts, catering to rich and modest Egyptians, local and international consumers and tourists.

The military's position vis-à-vis the uprising is thus complicated. It hated the rapacious capitalists around Gamal Mubarak, who sold off national lands, assets and resources to US and European corporations. But the military also wants tourists, shoppers and investors to consume in its multibillion dollar resorts and venues. The military identifies very strongly with representing and protecting “the people”, but also wants the people to go home and stop scaring away the tourists. The military will continue to mobilise this in-between position in interesting ways in the coming years.

Suleiman’s intelligence services (mukhabarat) are nominally part of the military, but are institutionally quite separate. Intelligence is dependent on foreign patrons (Israel and the US primarily). But the actual army and air force are quite grounded in the economic and social interests of national territory. The army’s role in countering Suleiman’s lust for repression was crucial to saving the momentum of this uprising. On February 4, the day of the most terrifying police/thug brutality in Tahrir Square, many commentators noted that the military was trying to stop the thug attacks but was not being very forceful or aggressive. Was this a sign that the military really wanted the protesters to be crushed? Since then we have learned that the military in the square was not provisioned with bullets. The military were trying as best they could to battle the police/thugs, but Suleiman had taken away their bullets for fear the military would side with the protesters and use the ammunition to overthrow him.

Bullets or no, the military displaced the police, who had stripped off their uniforms and regressed into bands of thugs. Security in Cairo was being taken over by the military. In public spaces and residential quarters we witnessed the return of a 21st century version of futuwwa groups. As Wilson Jacob has described, in the 19th century futuwwa were icons of working-class national identity and community solidarity in Egypt. Futuwwa were organised groups of young men that defended craft guilds and working-class neighbourhoods in Cairo. But the futuwwa reborn on February 1, 2011 are called peoples’ committees and include men of all classes and ages, and a few women with butcher knives, too. They stake out every street corner, vigilant for police and state-funded thugs who would try to arrest, intimidate or loot residents.

Role of women

Given the threat of sexualised physical violence from Mubarak’s police/thugs, there is a gender dimension to this reimagining and redeployment of security and military power during this uprising. In the first days of the uprising we saw huge numbers of women participating in the revolt. Then the police/thugs started targeting women in particularly horrifying ways – molesting, detaining, raping. When the police were driven back and the military and the futuwwa groups took over, they insisted that “protecting” the people from thugs involved filtering women and children out of public spaces, including Tahrir Square. But women in this revolt have insisted that they are not victims that need protection, they are the leading core of this movement.

On February 7, women’s groups, including the leftist 6 April national labour movement, anti-harassment, civil rights groups and the women’s wing of the Muslim Brotherhood re-emerged in force in downtown Cairo by the hundreds of thousands.

Gutting Gamal’s globalisation

On January 28 the headquarters of Mubarak’s ruling NDP burned down, and with it, Mubarak’s substantive authority was turned to ashes. The rising military and national-capital interests then spat on those ashes on February 5. On that day, they ensured that Gamal Mubarak would resign as head of the political office of the NDP. In his place, Hosam Badrawy was named the new secretary-general of the NDP. The choice of Badrawy reflects the direction the winds are blowing now. Badrawy holds the dubious honour of being the man who founded Egypt’s first private-sector health provider in 1989. All Egyptians are constitutionally guaranteed access to free and universal health care. But Mubarak, under orders from the International Monetary Fund, made draconian cuts to the public health service beginning in the 1980s. Badrawy has championed the privatisation of health care, and has created a national private health-care industry with significant capital and legitimacy.

This industry is threatened by global competition and describes itself in nationalistic, paternalistic tones. Gamal Mubarak serving as a vehicle for foreign investment posed a threat to national businesspeople like Badrawy. Badrawy also served in the past as the director of the NDP’s human rights organisation, a particularly contradictory job to hold during a time of mass repression and torture.

Naguib Sawiris, the self-proposed chair of the “Transitional Council of Wise Men”, is similar in some ways to Badrawy. Sawiris is a successful nationalist businessperson. Sawiris heads the largest private-sector company in Egypt, Orascom. This firm has built railways, beach resorts, gated cities, highways, telecom systems, wind farms, condos and hotels. He is a major financier in the Arab and Mediterranean regions. He is also the banner carrier for Egypt’s developmentalist nationalists.

On February 4, Sawiris released a statement proposing a council of wise men who would oversee Suleiman and the police, and who would lead Egypt through the transition. The proposed council would be a so-called “neutral, technocratic” body that would include Sawiris, along with a couple of non-ideological members of the Muslim Brotherhood’s business wing, some strategic-studies experts and a Nobel Prize winner. Would this Nobel winner be Mohammed ElBaradei, the peace laureate and opposition leader? No. They had found an Egyptian laureate in organic chemistry.

Women, Microbusinesses and workers

We can now understand why we witnessed the emergence, in the first week of February 2011, of a coalition around nationalist business figures in alliance with the military – a military which also acts like nationalist middle-class business. This group ejected the “crony globalisers” and “barons of privatisation” surrounding Gamal Mubarak. Would this group then cement their hold on power, to rule the country with Suleiman as their hammer? No.

Other massive social forces were also at work. They are well organised. Legitimacy, organisation, new vision and economic power are in their hands. The new nationalist business-military bloc cannot develop the country without their participation and mobilisation. It is crucial to remember that this uprising did not begin with the Muslim Brotherhood or with nationalist business. This revolt began gradually at the convergence of two parallel forces – (i) the movement for workers’ rights in the newly revived factory towns and micro-sweatshops of Egypt, especially in the last two years, and (ii) the movement against police brutality and torture that mobilised every community in the country for the last three years. Both movements feature the leadership and mass participation of women (of all ages) and youth (of all genders). There are structural reasons for this.

First, the passion of workers that began this uprising does not stem from their marginalisation and poverty, it is from their centrality to new development processes and dynamics. In the very recent past, Egypt has re-emerged as a manufacturing country, although under the most stressful and dynamic of conditions. Egypt’s workers are mobilised because new factories are being built, in the context of a flurry of contentious global investment. Several Russian free-trade zones and manufacturing settlements have opened up; and China has invested in all parts of the Egyptian economy. Brazil, Turkey, the central Asian republics and the Gulf emirates are diversifying their investments.

They are moving out of the oil sector and real estate, and into manufacturing piece-goods, informatics, infrastructure, etc. Factories all over Egypt have been dusted off and reopened, or newly built. And all those shopping malls, gated cities, highways and resorts have to be built and staffed by someone. In the Persian Gulf, developers use expatriate labour but Egypt usually uses its own workers. And many of the workers in Egypt’s revived textile industries and piece-workshops are women. If you stroll up the staircases into the large working-class apartment buildings in the margins of Cairo or the cement-block constructions of the villages, you will see workshops full of women, making purses and shoes, and putting together toys and computer circuit boards, for sale in Europe, North Africa and the Gulf. These shop workers joined with factory workers to found the 6 April movement in 2008. They were the ones who began the organising and mobilising process that led to this uprising in 2011, whose eruption was triggered by Asmaa Mahfouz circulating a passionate Youtube video and tens of thousands of leaflets by hand in slum areas of Cairo on January 24, 2011. Mahfouz, a political organiser with a masters in business administration from Cairo University, called people to protest the next day. And the rest is history.

Microbusinesses

Egypt’s microbusinesses have been politicised and mobilised in very dynamic ways, again with important gender and sexual dimensions. Since the early 1990s, Egypt has cut back welfare and social services to working-class and lower middle-class Egyptians. In the place of food subsidies and jobs they have offered debt. Microcredit loans were given, with the IMF and World Bank’s enthusiastic blessing, to stimulate entrepreneurship and self-reliance. These loans were often specifically targeted towards women and youth. Since economically disadvantaged applicants have no collateral to guarantee these loans, payback is enforced by criminal law rather than civil law. This means that your body is your collateral. The police extract pain and humiliation if you do not pay your bill.

Thus the microenterprise system has become a massive set of police rackets and “loan shark” operations. Police sexualised brutalisation of youth and women became central to the “regulation” of the massive small-business economy. In this context, the microbusiness economy is a tough place to operate, but it does shape women and youth into tough survivors who see themselves as an organised force opposed to the police state. No one waxes on about the blessings of the market’s invisible hand.

The economic interests of this large class of microentrepreneurs are the basis for the huge and passionate anti-police brutality movement. It is no coincidence that the movement became a national force two years ago with the brutal police murder of a youth, Khaled Saeed, who was typing away in a small internet café that he partially owned. Police demanded an ID and a bribe from him; he refused, and the police beat him to death, crushing his skull to pieces while the whole community watched in horror.

Police demanding bribes, harassing small microbusinesses, and beating those who refuse to submit had become standard practice in Egypt. Internet cafes, small workshops, call centres, video-game cafes, microbuses, washing/ironing shops, small gyms constitute the landscape of microenterprises that are the jobs base and social world of Egypt’s lower middle classes. The so-called “Facebook revolution” is not about people mobilising in virtual space; it is about Egyptian internet cafes and the youth and women they represent, in real social spaces and communities, utilising the cyberspace bases they have built and developed to serve their revolt.

The Egyptian difference

In the case of the Iranian Revolution in the 1970s, the “bazaaris of Tehran” (the medium-sized merchants and shop owners) ended up serving as the crucial “swing vote”, moving the Iranian Revolution from left to right, from a socialistic uprising towards the founding of an Islamic republic. In the case of Egypt, the social and political force of women and youth microentrepreneurs will lead history in the opposite direction. These groups have a highly developed, if complex, view of the moral posturing of some Islamists, and they have a very clear socioeconomic agenda, which appeals to the dynamic youth wing of the Brotherhood. The progressive groups have a linked network of enterprises, factories, identities and passions. They would go to any length to prevent the re-emergence of police brutality and moralistic hypocrisy that have ruled them for the past generation.

The women and youth behind the microbusinesses, and the workers in the new Russian, Chinese, Brazilian, Gulf and Egyptian-financed factories seem to be united. And they grow more so each day. Microentrepreneurs, new workers' groups and massive anti-police brutality organisations obviously do not share the same class position as Sawiris and Badrawy and the rich men in the “Council of the Wise”. Nevertheless, there are significant overlaps and affinities between the interests and politics of nationalist development-oriented groups, the newly entrepreneurial military and, vitally, the well-organised youth and women’s social movements. This confluence of social, historical and economic dynamics will assure that this uprising does not get reduced to a photo opportunity for Suleiman and a few of his cronies.

A Cheshire cat is smiling down on Suleiman’s tea party.

[Paul Amar is associate professor of global and international studies at the University of California, Santa Barbara. This article appeared in India's Economic & Political Weekly.]

The road to Tahrir

By Charles Hirschkind

February 12, 2011 -- Economic & Political Weekly -- While the uprising in Egypt caught most observers of the Middle East off guard, it did not come out of the blue. The seeds of this spectacular mobilisation had been sown as far back as the early 2000s and had been carefully cultivated by activists from across the political spectrum, many of these working online via Facebook, Twitter and within the Egyptian blogosphere. Working within these media, activists began to forge a new political language, one that cut across the institutional barriers that had until then polarised Egypt’s political terrain, between more Islamic oriented currents (most prominent among them, the Muslim Brotherhood) and secular-liberal ones.

Since the Islamist revival in the 1970s, Egypt’s political opposition had remained sharply divided around contrasting visions of the proper place of religious authority within the country’s social and political future, with one side viewing secularisation as the eminent danger, and the other emphasising the threat of politicised religion to personal freedoms and democratic rights.

This polarity tended to result in a defensive political rhetoric and a corresponding amplification of political antagonisms, a dynamic the Mubarak regime has repeatedly encouraged and exploited over the last 30 years in order to ensure a weak opposition. What was striking about the Egyptian blogosphere as it developed in the last seven or so years is the extent to which it engendered a political language free from the problematic of secularisation versus fundamentalism that had governed so much of political discourse in the Middle East and elsewhere.

Virtual public sphere

The blogosphere that burst into existence in Egypt around 2004 and 2005 in many ways provided a new context for a process that had begun somewhat earlier, in the late 1990s: namely, the development of practices of coordination and support between secular leftist organisations and associations and Islamist ones (particularly the Muslim Brotherhood) — a phenomenon almost completely absent in the prior decades. Toward the end of the decade of the 1990s, Islamist and leftist lawyers began to agree to work together on cases regarding state torture, whereas in previous years, lawyers of one affiliation would almost never publicly defend plaintiffs from the other.

The most successful experiment at reaching across Egypt’s political spectrum came in 2004 with the emergence of what is called the Kifaya movement, a political formation that brought together Islamists, Muslim Brothers, communists, liberals and secular-leftists, who joined together on the basis of a common demand for an end to the Mubarak regime and a rejection of Gamal Mubarak’s succession of his father as president. Kifaya was instrumental in organising a series of demonstrations between 2004 and 2007 that for the first time explicitly called for the president of Egypt to step down. This was an unheard-of demand prior to that moment, insomuch as any direct criticism of the president or his family had until then always been taboo and met by harsh reprisals from the state.

Kifaya not only succeeded in bringing large numbers of people of different political persuasions into the streets to protest government policies and actions; they were also the first political movement in Egypt to exploit the organising potential of the internet, founding a number of blog sites from which to coordinate and mobilise demonstrations and strikes. When Kifaya held its first demonstrations, at the end of 2004, a handful of bloggers both participated and wrote about the events on their blogs. Within a year, the number of blogs had jumped into the hundreds. Today there are 1000s of blogs, many tied to activism, street politics, solidarity campaigns and grassroots organising. Many of the bloggers who helped promote the Kifaya movement have played key roles in the events since January 25.

Citizen journalists/activists

One event highlighted the political potential of blogging in Egypt and helped secure the practice’s new and expanding role within Egyptian political life. It had long been known that the Egyptian state routinely abused and tortured prisoners or detainees (hence the Washington’s choice of Egypt in so-called rendition cases). For its part, the state has always denied that abuse took place, and lacking the sort of evidence needed to prosecute a legal case, human rights lawyers and the opposition press had never been able to effectively challenge the state’s official position. This changed when a blogger named Wael Abbas, whose blog is titled al-wa’i al-masri (“Egyptian Awareness”), placed on his blog site a cellphone-recorded video he had been sent by another blogger that showed a man being physically and sexually abused by police officers at a police station in Cairo. (Apparently, the clip had been filmed by officers with the intention of intimidating the detainee’s fellow workers.)

Once this video clip was placed on YouTube and spread around the Egyptian blogosphere, opposition newspapers took up the story, citing the blogs as their source. When the victim was identified and encouraged to come forward, a human rights agency raised a case on his behalf against the officers involved that eventually resulted in their conviction, an unprecedented event in Egypt’s modern history. Throughout the entire year that the case was being prosecuted, bloggers tracked every detail of the police and judiciary’s handling of the case, their relentless scrutiny of state actions frequently finding its way into the opposition newspapers. Satellite TV talk shows followed suit, inviting bloggers on screen to debate state officials concerned with the case. Moreover, within a month of posting the torture videos on his web site, Abbas and other bloggers started receiving scores of similar cellphone films of state violence and abuse taken in police stations or during demonstrations.

This new relation between bloggers and other media forms has now become standard: not only do many of the opposition newspapers rely on bloggers for their stories; news stories that journalists can’t print themselves without facing state persecution — for example, on issues relating to the question of Mubarak’s successor — such stories are first fed to bloggers by investigative reporters; once they are reported online, journalists then proceed to publish the stories in newsprint, citing the blogs as sources, in this way avoiding the accusation that they themselves invented the story. Moreover, many young people have taken up the practice of using cellphone cameras in the street, and bloggers are constantly receiving phone footage from anonymous sources that they then put on their blogs.

This event played a key role in shaping the place that the blogosphere would come to occupy within Egypt’s media sphere. Namely, bloggers understand their role as that of providing a direct link to what they call “the street”, conceived primarily as a space of state repression and political violence, but also as one of political action and popular resistance. They render visible and publicly speakable a political practice — the violent subjugation of the Egyptian people by its authoritarian regime — that other media outlets cannot easily disclose, due to censorship, harassment and arrest. This includes not only acts of police brutality and torture, but also the more mundane and routine forms of violence that shape the texture of everyday life. For example, blogs frequently include reporting on routine injustices experienced in public transportation, the cruel indifference of corrupt state bureaucrats, sexual harassment encountered in the streets, as well as the many faces of pain produced by conditions of intense poverty, environmental toxicity, infrastructural neglect, and so on.

Facebook 'general strike'

The blogosphere was joined by another powerful media instrument in 2008. On April 6 of that year, a general strike took place in Egypt, an event that saw vast numbers of workers and students stay home from their sites of work or school. The strike, the largest anti-government mobilisation to occur in Egypt in many years, had been initiated by labour activists in support of striking workers at the Mahalla textile factory who had for months been holding out for better salaries and improved work conditions. In the month leading up to the strike, however, the aim of the action enlarged beyond the scope of the specific concerns of the factory workers. Propelled by the efforts of a group of activists on Facebook, the strike shifted to become a national day of protest against the corruption of the Mubarak regime, and particularly against the regime’s complete inaction in the face of steadily declining wages and rising prices.

Most stunning about the event, and most worrisome to the Egyptian state, was the way the idea of a general strike had been generated: Esra’ ‘Abd al-Fattah, a young woman with little experience as an activist, who lived just outside of Cairo, had initiated a group on Facebook calling for a sympathy strike with the textile workers. Within two weeks, close to 70,000 Facebook members had signed on. Political bloggers also began to promote the strike, and by the time April 1 came around, most of the political opposition parties had been brought on board and were vigorously trying to mobilise their constituencies. When April 6 arrived, Egypt witnessed its most dramatic political mobilisation in decades, an event that brought together people across the political spectrum, from Muslim Brotherhood members to the activists of the Revolutionary Socialists.

Egyptian Facebook activists and bloggers took up and extended the political platform that the Kifaya movement had introduced into Egyptian political life, the same exact platform that has brought millions of Egyptians into the street in January-Febriary 2011. Four issues have defined a common moral stance: a forceful rejection of the Mubarak regime and a demand for its end; a stand against tawrith, or “succession”, specifically Gamal Mubarak’s succession of his father as president of the country; a demand for the expansion of political freedoms and the creation of fair and democratic institutions; and a condemnation of routinised state violence.

Common ground

Although those who forged this common ground online have done so through different institutional experiences, and have brought with them different conceptions of the place of religion within politics, they write and interact as participants in a shared project. While they recognise the difference between their political commitments and those of other online activists, they engage with an orientation toward creating conditions of political action and change, and therefore seek to develop arguments, styles of writing and self-presentation that can bridge these differences and hold the plurality together. As one secularist blogger put it in commenting on the protocols of online engagement: “The atheists reign in their contempt for religion, while the religious bloggers — who would not even accept the existence of non-believers in the first place — can now see some shared values.”

For Islamist activists and members of the Muslim Brotherhood, this agenda marks a radical shift. Until quite recently, Islamist political arguments have focused on the importance of adopting the sharia as a national legal framework, and on the need to counter the impact of Western cultural forms and practices in order to preserve the values of an Islamic society. Granted, an earlier generation of intellectuals linked to Islamic political parties had, since the mid-1980s, emphasised the necessity of democratic political reforms. Leading Islamist writers such as Fahmi Howeidi, ‘Abd al-Wahhab al-Messiri and Tarek al-Bishri had attempted to build a movement that would bring about an end to the rampant corruption afflicting Egypt’s political institutions and establish a solid basis for representative governance, but their viewpoints generally remained marginal within Islamist political currents, and the organisations they tried to establish were largely undermined by the state.

For many of those making up the new generation of Islamist activists, however, the goal of creating a flourishing Islamic society must start with the reform of Egypt’s stultified authoritarian system and, therefore, with the development of a political discourse capable of responding to the requirements of this task. This political reorientation can be seen in a statement made a few years back by Ibrahim Hodeibi, an important voice among the new generation of Brotherhood members and a well-known blogger. Writing in the context of a debate with fellow Brotherhood members about the future of the organisation, Hodeibi suggested that the Brotherhood slogan, “Islam is the solution”, should be replaced by the religiously neutral “Egypt for all Egyptians”. This is indeed the call we hear today rising up above the streets of Egypt.

These online activists have played a key role in transforming the conditions of political possibility in Egypt during the last decade, and of paving the way to Tahrir Square. They have sought out and cultivated new forms of political agency in the face of the predations and repressive actions of the Egyptian state. They have pioneered forms of political critique and interaction that can mediate and encompass the heterogeneity of religious and social commitments that constitute Egypt’s contemporary political terrain.

[Charles Hirschkind teaches anthropology at the University of California, Berkeley. This article is based on research conducted in 2008 with a group of bloggersin Egypt.]

 

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