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The International Writers Magazine: Eygpt:

Eygpt Waiting
Jack Shenker

Towering over the polluted chaos of one of Cairo’s main flyovers is a huge advertising billboard. Sandwiched between colourful posters for Pizza Hut, Coca Cola and Doritos, the billboard features nothing but a giant red question mark, accompanied by the words ‘Wait For It’. 

Tens of thousands of cars sweep under the sign every day, many of them middle-class Egyptians grinding their way impatiently through gridlocked traffic as they flit between the wealthy enclaves of Zamalek Island, Nasr City and Heliopolis. Relentlessly trying to keep pace with the frenetic demands of Egypt’s increasingly materialist consumer culture, the frustration of these drivers is etched on their faces as they are indeed kept waiting – waiting for job opportunities, waiting for foreign visa applications, waiting on the cusp of a ‘Western’ lifestyle revolution that has been dangled in front of them ever since President Sadat’s economic reforms of the 1970s claimed to be ushering in a new era of economic growth.  

Down in the shadows of the flyover, propped up on rickety chairs scattered around the metal base of the billboard, poorer Egyptian men have perfected waiting as an art form. They sit nursing a shisha pipe, whiling away the hours armed with little more than a pack of dominoes and endless cups of tea. Despite promises to the contrary, little of the obscene wealth concentrated in the hands of Egypt’s political and business elite is trickling down from above. As ever, this community remains disenfranchised from many of the political and economic processes that govern their lives; now, the social welfare institutions that used to provide a safety blanket in hard times have also been dismantled, a victim of the neo-liberal orthodoxy aggressively pursued by the Mubarak regime and his Western allies. 

Amidst scenes like these, it is no surprise that Egypt is often characterised as a ‘nation in waiting’. Indeed, that was the title of a recent Al-Jazeera documentary on the country, which assigned the Egyptian masses a purely passive role in the modern history of their own country. It quoted Abdelhalim Qandeel, a journalist, who argued that Egyptians are simply accustomed to being ruled by a centralised government – a product of the nation’s Pharaonic past in which the political leader was also considered divine. Galal Amin, a popular academic and author, agreed. “So many Egyptian writers, journalists and intellectuals think that revolution is around the corner,” he told the programme. “I don’t adhere to this view. I think the Egyptian people are very slow to revolt. They are not a revolutionary nation at all.” The documentary ended with shots of sad-looking Egyptians crouched on sidewalks and bus-stops. “As they have done throughout the ages,” concluded the narrator, “Egyptians are just waiting”. 

Which would all be very well, were it not profoundly untrue. The notion that Egyptians are psychologically incapable of actively shaping their own society may be fondly held by the present ruling clique, but it is belied by realities on the ground. From the peasant insurgencies in Upper Egypt that shook Mohammed Ali’s rule in the early 19th century, through the anti-colonial uprising on the streets of Cairo in 1919 that was defeated only by a hail of British bullets, and to the country’s own 1968 revolutionary fervour which saw students take a state governor hostage as the army occupied university campuses, Egyptians throughout the ages have consistently challenged state power and forced concessions from their political masters. In the past few years, Egyptians have been more assertive than ever in demanding an expansion of their political and economic rights, a trend which has been most visible in the wave of industrial action currently seizing the country. The latest United Nations Development Programme report notes that, “The longest and strongest wave of worker voice since the end of World War II is rolling through Egypt.” The newspaper Al-Masry Al-Yom has suggested that the number of annual strikes back in 2006 was around 200; this year they estimate at least two new labour actions are breaking out every single day. 

Many of these strikes have been inspired by the success of the Real Estate Tax workers in Giza, who occupied their offices for eleven dramatic days at the end of last year and in the process faced down both the government and their own trade union, which was vehemently hostile to the workers’ action. Tax collectors in other governorates followed suit and the Ministry of Finance eventually caved in to their pay demands, setting the precedent for a wave of civil-servant action taking its cue from the industrial militancy spreading out of factory towns like Mahalla. And protest isn’t only limited to work stoppages; a flick through the independent and opposition newspapers on any random day show the incredible spatial diversity of dissent in Egypt today, from schoolyards to train stations. Of course apologists for the ‘Egyptians can only wait’ line have tried to play down the significance of heightened social protest, even whilst being forced to acknowledge its increased frequency and scope. Thus we often see actions like that of the tax collectors rejected by commentators as ‘parochial’ (and hence apparently not ‘political’), whilst others write-off the demonstrations and mobilisations as futile because they have so far failed to topple the Mubarak regime. But as the female Egyptian blogger ‘Baheyya’ has eloquently argued, such fables are disingenuous.  Protests cannot be assessed solely by their impact on regime stability; nor can citizens addressing predominantly local concerns be ‘isolated’ from the growing consciousness of direct political action that is unfolding throughout the country. “Politics has always been about local constellations of power, and bread-and-water issues of survival,” writes Baheyya. The idea that supposedly ‘docile’ social groups like farmers or doctors only engage in protest when they have own interests at heart – and hence can’t be classified as part of the ‘general’ protest movement – is “one of the oldest canards about ordinary people’s collective action, a hoary myth that refuses to die.” 

Given the impediments faced by those who stand up to the system, it would indeed be easier for most Egyptians to simply sit back and wait for change rather than to stand up and demand it. The physical geography of Egypt has led to a tradition of strong, centralised government that brooks little dissent; on the streets of Cairo today there is one baton-wielding representative of the state (including policemen and members of the security services) for every 37 Egyptians, possibly the highest police-citizen ratio in the world. Add to that the constriction of severe poverty – 24% of the population fall below the World Bank’s main two poverty lines, with a further 20% classified as ‘near poor’ – and you have a substantial majority of people for whom the financial costs of striking or protesting (which can so often lead to jail) are dangerously high. From this perspective, what is so fascinating about the response of Egyptians to social hardship is not, as the documentary talking-heads suggested, that a lot of people are following that instruction on the advertising billboard and merely waiting for something to happen. Rather, it is that so many are embracing collective action, in spite of the barriers they face when doing so. 

Ibrahim Aslan’s seminal novel ‘The Heron’ depicts a neighbourhood in the poor district of Imbaba, set on the eve of the 1977 bread riots that almost brought the government to its knees. As with the drivers stuck in traffic jams up on the flyovers, or the old men sitting motionless beneath them, the book’s characters appear initially to exist in something of a static world devoid of any political dynamism, pre-occupied with ‘parochial’ concerns like love affairs, job opportunities and the fate of the local cafe. These, after all, are the Egyptians, who have been merely ‘waiting’ throughout the ages. By the end of the story, the neighbourhood is in flames and crowds of locals are battling the army with rocks torn up from the streets. 

Somewhere in the middle of this transformation, Aslan warns the reader against conflating stillness with apathy, using a fishing analogy. Like the Heron of the book’s title, the main protagonist “learned that fishing depended on precise timing, on when you pulled the line ... How many times have you been fooled and tensed your whole self, and the moment almost arrived, but the fish had finished the bait and swum away? But how many times did you seize the moment, the moment of pouncing, knowing that if you had jumped one second sooner, or delayed longer, the fish would have gotten away? This signal should become an inspiration for us all.” Those who dismiss Egyptians’ ability to effect change for themselves from below, those who believe this is a nation only capable of waiting and never seizing the moment, should pay close attention to Aslan’s words.

© Jack Shenker August 2008

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Belgrade has straddled the border between East and West since the 4th century, when the Roman Empire was torn apart by a schism that would last over a thousand years.

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