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Overview from Cairo

This article by Hassan Khan, the son-in-law of a friend, appeared in Le Monde. It offers a good sort of ground-level overview.


This situation is not about politics. It is about something much more than politics. It is not about cabinet reshuffles, changes in administration; it’s not about standing in squares, resisting violent, brutal and fatal onslaughts, first by “Central Security” (Egypt’s large, mindless and vicious corps of riot police) and then by psychopathic thugs on horses and camels wielding whips, crowbars, swords, knives, Molotov cocktails, gas canisters, and, ultimately, firearms. Of course, it is about all of this but it is also about something much more, which is harder to explain.


What we have here is a society, not just a system that has been corrupted to its very core. To do anything, to act in daily life, one has to undergo a process of daily humiliation. In such a system, money (in a visible and material fashion) can guarantee some sort of bought respect, ultimately enforced by brute police power. What guarantees the purchasing power of that legal tender is the enforcer: police power. Therefore everything and everyone is for sale. This means that money does not only buy services, it actually buys people. Within such a system, corruption cannot be understood as a deviation from a social accord; corruption is the social accord, and the basic measure used for everything is one of repression.


A regime of power and humiliation such as this can only operate effectively by using a collective symbol. This symbol, this scepter, is there to ensure that the process of humiliation is effective. And for that symbol to work it has to discredit all other symbols. As a result, you have a system that focuses its efforts on attacking all civil, social and state institutions, in an almost cancerous fashion, with the purpose of creating a condition of paranoia, distrust, and lack of self-respect. A consistent policy of promoting civil strife renders any sort of unity very difficult to achieve and, perhaps more importantly, creates a situation in which no Egyptian can respect any other Egyptian because we are all implicated within that same corrupt system.


These are not theoretical propositions. These are lived conditions, a nightmarish reality. Within this situation, every citizen must understand themselves as existing in a state of war with everyone else: You need to unpack what every person you meet is saying and calculate what to say in order to get what you want even in the most banal and everyday circumstances. If you are not perceptibly wealthy (visibility is important because the system operates on a symbolic level) then you must constantly strategize to win basic respect from each individual you deal with. Everyone is, therefore, living in a state of psychological civil war propagated by the regime of power whose policies, but more importantly whose very mode of existence, have deliberately exacerbated all class, religious, and gender differences.


This is a system that reproduces itself by undermining people’s system of worth, by spreading chaos and dissent, and, ultimately, by eating away at the very fabric of society.


Although for the past decade I have been pessimistically foretelling the implosion and chaotic collapse of Egyptian society, I had no way of predicting the incredible and organic response that erupted on the streets beginning on January 25. The significance of what happened in Tunisia lies in the fact that it made clear to Egyptians the possibility of an actual change. The power of this possibility lies in its promise that people can regain a sense of self-worth and self-confidence.


What began on January 25 is the production of an organic antibody; a structural corrective to the state of near collapse society had reached. What we have witnessed on the square is all differences being put to the side and abandoned for the sake of one central goal: the removal of the president.


There are two important catalysts for this newfound unity: First, the moment people felt that actually possessing a fully valid voice seemed plausible, such differences lost their significance and importance. The second has to do with the nature of the symbol of the system itself.


The president must go. This is incredibly important, not because he is effectively responsible for the corruption of the whole system and because his disappearance would immediately fix everything—far from it. There is a whole apparatus, as well as social class that have benefited from the kind of corruption perpetuated by this presidency. And getting rid of them will be difficult. Rather, it is important because this system and its ethos are understood to materialize in the very person of President Mubarak. His presence, even if he has been stripped of all actual political power, would be read as an insult to everybody’s dignity. His presence is the very aura of the system that sought to undermine personal respect and social solidarity. As a result his departure becomes so incredibly empowering that it acts as a sort of guarantee for the people seeking change. The guarantee needed for a successful transitional period is the resignation or removal of the president. Mr. Mubarak must leave office before the pathological condition of Egyptian society can begin to heal. And heal it will (I am now convinced for the first time in my life) if this very simple thing happens.


Today banks have opened for the first time in a week and when I went to the bank in the morning I witnessed an extremely telling scene. People stood in a long queue, waiting patiently to be let in one-by-one. The moment certain individuals tried to cut in line and demanded (on the basis of their wealth or importance) to be let in ahead of others, those around them immediately responded by insisting that everyone wait in-line as equals. They volunteered their opinion that the time of “wasta” (connections and bribes) was over, and that people must learn new ways. Interestingly enough, it was the bank officials themselves who made things chaotic by trying to create some sort of hierarchy: first by asking for the establishment of a separate line for individuals with “premiere accounts”—a move that was completely rejected by those already in line, some of whom insisted on standing with the bank officials at the door and made sure that people entered according to their turn. However bank officials kept persisting and, at one point, the situation almost spun out of control. Two army special-operation officers appeared with machine guns to remind us of the power of the state, and finally two lines were made: one for customers with personal accounts and one for customers with commercial accounts. However citizens continued to insist that people adhere, as closely as possible, to the original order. The solution was not ideal but it was a beginning.

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