Tuesday, September 20, 2011


            Chou En-lai famously told Henry Kissinger in 1973 that it was still too early to be certain of the outcome of the French revolution.  Although the jibe is widely employed, no one takes it very seriously.  On the contrary, we now live in a world in which the longue durée is at most months and where the ideal model of political conflict is a sports match in all its details:  two sides playing by the rules on the field while their partisans sit politely in the stands and then return home after the game ends.  This certainly isn’t a very good description of politics and it may not even be a good description of sports where passions run high, grudges are taken home, and (from boxing to chess) opponents often engage in harassment off the field as well as on.

            In our world today sports have become ubiquitous.  Pundits and commentators employ sports metaphors with abandon.  Sports are big business and in some places sports celebrities leave the playing fields (or rooms) to enter the worlds of commerce or politics.  After the September 9 takeover of the Israeli Embassy in Cairo, soccer fans—known as Ultras—have themselves at least briefly dominated the political news.  This has occasioned so much nearly hysterical coverage outside of Egypt that it seems worthwhile thinking about how it fits into the past couple of years and what it means for how we think about revolution, democracy, and political change.

            Just so there is no mistake, let me state briefly here I think of embassies the way I think of municipal water supply.  I do not support crowds taking them over.  Nor do I think it’s an essentially harmless enterprise.  Just as they need clean water, the powerfully centralized bureaucracies we call states also need to have some way to negotiate with each other over a variety of issues.  That they do so with little or no transparency protected by ruthless security even in the face of popular hostility is unremarkable.  There is, however, no reason to insist that this practical necessity of ensuring the daily (if not necessarily very smooth or very just) running of the world we live in requires any claims about higher values, morality, or the adherence to sacred duties.   What it does require is that the state valuing the embassy of another state, even one that it considers hostile or a strategic threat, safeguards the embassy.  And if the host state can’t or won’t then it’s important to think about why.  But if the state whose embassy was invaded doesn’t break relations, or formally withdraw its representation (which is different from physically removing the staff), or demand an apology then that’s also something worth thinking about.

            Judging from the comments that have appeared globally, you could be forgiven for thinking that this was such a rare or even unique event that it stands out as a testament to the complete lapse of public order, the norms of decent behavior in Egypt or anywhere else, and poses a crucial threat to the neat progress of Egypt toward democratic elections and beyond to what the French communist leader Gabriel Peri who was killed by the Nazis in 1941 called “singing tomorrows.”  I’m not sure which of these analytic moves is most misleading.

            Almost everyone who writes about Egypt, especially from outside, seems to have a particular story line that can be fitted into any particular occurrence.  Thus we keep hearing the same, more or less apologetic, story about the Mubarak regime which goes something like this:  yes, he was an autocrat, but at least when he was in power even if the trains sometimes ran off the track rather than on time, the police kept order, embassies were respected, and the xenophobia of ordinary Egyptians was kept in bounds both when it came to Israelis and other foreigners.   Ordinary Egyptians, according to this particular script, neither understand nor can be trusted with the niceties of law, order, or the safety of foreign ambassadors especially if they are either Jewish or Israeli. 

A second narrative has recently emerged that recognizes the authoritarian character of the Mubarak (and the Sadat and even possibly the Nasser) regime and accepts that mass demonstrations played a crucial role in bringing it down.  However, partisans of this narrative assert that mass demonstrations were the work of a Cairene (or at least urban) westernized middle-class and that Egypt must now do the real work of democracy.  The middle-class left, according to this view, is too enamored of street demonstrations and needs to buckle down to the hard work of party-building.  Otherwise the middle-class left threatens the transition to democracy.   Autocracy will return despite the desire of the overwhelming majority of Egyptians for democracy. 

            The first narrative blames the emotions of the mass of Egyptians for the failure of democracy; the second blames the emotions of a small slice of the population but it has the added cachet of embodying a paradox.  It turns out that it’s the very people who initially pushed hardest for democracy who are now its primary enemies.  What links both of these narratives is that the army and state bureaucracy bear no real political responsibility.  They only assume power to prevent the breakdown of public order. Purveyors of the first narrative think that’s a good thing and purveyors of the second think it’s bad.

While I’m quite aware that public safety is a real issue in Egypt, I don’t think I’m the only person who remembers that in November 2009 violence by soccer fans during World Cup preliminary matches provoked a crisis between Egypt and Algeria in which dozens of people were injured, the Algerian Embassy in Cairo was besieged, and assets of an Egyptian-owned telecom company in Algiers were torched.  This might be put down to the exuberance of the Egyptian fans except that I also happen to remember that it was Egyptian government television personalities and officials (including the son of the former president) who played a role in roiling public emotions.   It is easy to imagine a stinging critique of soccer fans as a mob whose violence deflected popular attention away from the deeper issues of politics being written about the events of 2009.  In fact, it’s not even necessary to imagine it; Joseph Mayton, founder of the English-language resource Bikya Misr in Cairo, pretty much wrote this critique for the British paper, The Guardian. 

Obviously there is much wider and deeper popular anger in Egypt about Israel.  Also the Algerian embassy, despite being in a much better known location, was not breached although it did sustain damage.  One crucial difference in the two situations was that in 2009 a phalanx of riot police, despite being pelted with bottles, torches and Molotov cocktails, prevented a smaller crowd from getting access to the embassy grounds although in the process they left a remarkably high wall of detritus on Hasan Sabri street. 

            The Mubarak government had cancelled matches in mid-January and they did not resume until mid-April when the clubs, many of which are owned by the police or the army, complained that if play didn’t resume they would go bankrupt.  The plight of the soccer clubs never figured in the national debate about the economy (the so-called “wheels of production”) that was then underway, but the government did allow play to resume.  And in a game between Zamalek and Tunisia’s Club Africain the police disappeared from the stadium, violence broke out when Egyptian fans attacked Tunisian players and an international incident between revolutionary Tunisia and revolutionary Egypt was only narrowly averted.  

There are differences of course: the Egyptian government rapidly made amends; very few Egyptians have any deep feelings about Tunisia (which at any rate does not pose a strategic threat); and no one attacked the Tunisian embassy (which is not further away from Midan al-Tahrir than the Israeli embassy). 

How is the post-January period different? The Ultras were said to have been especially angered by a battle with police during a match on September 7.  Let’s accept that they were more than ready to fight the police and that many people were angry at the deaths of five Egyptian border guards in a fire fight with Israelis pursuing the men who attacked two buses in Israel earlier in the week. 

            Perhaps the army and the police were taken unawares by an unexpected demonstration from Tahrir Square where at least tens of thousands (and possibly 100,000 by some estimates) had gathered for a “Friday of Correcting the Course” (of the revolution).  A sudden lapse of attention by the army may be a little hard to believe.  The army, which has asserted its control over Tahrir and eliminated ongoing occupations of the traffic roundabout by force, had withdrawn from the area for the period of the demonstration.  Given that almost every Friday demonstration since May has seen thousands of demonstrators split off and walk the distance of about a mile to the area near Cairo University where the Israeli Embassy is housed in a high-rise building and given that thousands had demonstrated in front of the building the week before it is hard to understand why, after building a concrete wall in front of the building, the area was only lightly guarded.

            And yet perhaps it is not so strange.  It has been suggested that the army deliberately encouraged or at least connived at the embassy take-over either to prepare the way for the renewal of an authoritarian dictatorship or to shore up its legitimacy with a population that is viscerally pro-Palestinian and anti-Israeli (if not in fact viciously anti-Semitic—it all depends on who is telling this particular story).   Surprisingly no one (as far as I know) has proposed that the army was willing to have the embassy sacked as a message to the Israeli government.  This tale would at least have the advantage of explaining why the Israeli Prime Minister couldn’t reach Field Marshal Tantawi by telephone.

These particular stories, no matter what the particular spin, seem remarkably implausible to me.   It sounds like we’ve all been watching too much television or seen too many action/horror movies.  The kind where the villain performs the equivalent of flapping hummingbird’s wings (or perhaps commits a heinous murder) and months later, through the action of a Rube Goldberg apparatus, the hurricane bursts when hero breaks through a locked door and is promptly handcuffed by the villain and readied for execution. 

Rather it seems to me that a military whose legitimacy is based on the claim that it did not fire on the demonstrators in January and which, with the collapse of the police lacks the kind of force necessary to control demonstrators preemptively, has decided that withdrawal is sometimes the better part of valor.  Thus, just as the police withdrew from the Zamalek-Tunis match and the army withdrew from Midan al-Tahrir on September 9, there is no reason to believe that the army was prepared for a more serious assault on the Israeli embassy than had occurred the previous week when the so-called “Flagman” had scaled the building to tear down the flag.  Nor does it seem to have been ready to fire on demonstrators on the evening news.  The presence of a small fortress of a building that houses a police force for the Giza governorate more or less across the street may have given them false confidence.   That it too would have come under siege was probably not something they considered.  And if, as unconfirmed and possibly unreliable stories in the press indicate, Egyptian Prime Minister Esam Sharaf was trying to resign while all this was going on it would also explain why reaching Tantawi was so difficult. 

One important result is that the events of recent weeks have clearly attracted the attention of Prime Minister Netanyahu.  If, whatever the causal chain behind the events, Egyptians really wanted to convey the message that things are not as they were under Mubarak that message has certainly gotten across.  And the Israeli government seems to have been uncharacteristically quiet in its official responses even if private citizens and commentators have not.

            Focusing on the foreign punditry on the attack on the embassy, however, two important things to think about become salient.  The first has to do with demonstrations and elections.  My sense is that there is, at least among American observers, a tendency to focus on elections as both the goal and medium of democratic revolution.  Like embassies and clean water, elections can be very useful practices.  As the Egyptian political scientist Rabab al-Mahdi pointed out in a recent article for the daily Al-Shorouk, “correcting the course” means thinking seriously about what you think the course ought to be.  And the goal of the revolution was to allow Egyptians to have greater control over their own destiny.  Electoral democracy in contemporary capitalist societies (a category which includes Egypt) is a notoriously imperfect instrument for affecting the lives of most citizens.

To paraphrase the century-old work of Robert Michels, political parties can become like professional sports teams, owned by their administrative staff and other investors.  They engage in biannual or quadrennial playoffs around which their partisans are mobilized while most of the fans are largely demobilized awaiting the outcome.  Politics, in short, becomes a game to be watched rather than an activity in which citizens engage.   When American foreign policy experts (in government and academia) talk about democracy, I always suspect that this is what they’re thinking of.

            The increased number and intensity of demonstrations, by teachers, industrial workers, students, and government employees, are testimony to the ways in which Egyptians have continued to participate in politics.  Without minimizing what the impact of the Israeli embassy take-over could have been, it is clearly not like the occupation of the American embassy in Iran in 1979. That take-over was the extension of an internal conflict between components of the revolutionary coalition seeking dominance over each other.  Egypt is awash in demonstrations and strikes, but demonstrations, strikes, protests, and public debate are also part of democratic governance. And, as far as external observers can tell, most of them are local and immediate in the nature of the demands and leadership.

            A good example is precisely the protest about “correcting the course” which addressed, at least in passing, the problem of the election laws. These have received remarkably little discussion outside Egypt.   The decision of the Military Council days ago that the upcoming elections will be wholly based on proportional representation (rather than a mix of proportional-list and individual candidacies) appears to be the outcome of the persistent mass demonstrations, not very transparent discussions, and some emerging tension between the army and the Muslim Brothers.  While foreigners will not be able to contribute to election campaigns, it’s less clear what kinds of rules will govern how Egyptian businessmen and wealthy individuals are involved.  There are, technically, strict limits on how much campaigns can spend.  It remains to be seen how those rules will be extended, massaged, or enforced. 

            The second issue about protests and Cairo is to note how little attention external observers seem to have paid to the importance of mass demonstrations in the capital.  Much has been written about why the Egyptian (and Tunisian) military reacted differently than armies elsewhere especially Syria and Libya.  Much has also been written about the economic motives of mass discontent and the importance of demonstrations (sometimes with significant violence) in provincial cities.  These are undoubtedly all part of the story.  Less attention has been paid, as far as I can tell, to what difference it made that mass demonstrations occurred in capital cities (Tunis and Cairo) where government was paralyzed and the sheer size of demonstrations in a primate (that is, the largest) city overwhelmed the repressive forces of order.   Twenty percent of the population of Egypt and Tunisia live in the greater metropolitan area of the capital.  The inability of the revolutionary movement to enter Damascus and its repression in Tripoli seem to have played a role in the political process in Syria and Libya. 

             Attempting to downplay the importance of Cairo in the Egyptian revolutionary process or the role of demonstrations as forms of participation (and not only contestation) is as misleading as expecting that the Egyptian revolution will be over in a month or a year.  Chou would have known better.