July/August 2011 Issue • Volume 39 • Issue 6

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International Perspectives

The Egyptian Revolution:
Ethnographic Notes from Tahrir

Atef Said, University of Michigan

egypt

Banners were significant methods in sending political
messages of the square to the world. This banner
was hung few days before Mubarak was ousted
from his office on Feb 11th, 2011. The banner calls
for Egyptian to gather in all main squares in Egypt
with a unified message/slogan "The People Wan
the Downfall of the Regime." Photo by Atef Said.

The Egyptian revolution has been described as a social media revolution, a youth revolution, and the Tahrir revolution—the latter references the famous square in downtown Cairo, where protestors organized an 18-day sit-in and rallies of more than one million people. Each of these descriptions illustrates the significance of one element in the larger picture, but cannot illuminate the complexities of how that one element played out within the revolution. For example, calling the events a social media revolution ignores the importance of off-line activism and does not acknowledge the Internet blackout imposed for five days—or the revolution’s continuation during that time.

Below I highlight some ethnographic notes from the time I spent in Egypt, while focusing on the sit-in that took place in Tahrir Square. The event known as the Egyptian revolution cannot be reduced to the sit-in or even to the rallies in the Tahrir area of downtown Cairo. Discussions in the U.S. and Egyptian media portray the Tahrir sit-in as if it was a temporally and spatially fixed process.¹  Many in Egypt speak now of reclaiming the "Tahrir Spirit," or refer to the presence of what some describe as "the Tahrir Republic,"² but with a closer analysis there have actually been many Tahrirs.

The life in the square was not a simple sit-in, especially prior to February 2, when secret police and ruling party thugs used camels and horses to attack protestors. Protestors made helmets from boxes and buckets to protect themselves from rocks and Molotovs thrown at them by the ruling party. The occupation of the square itself was a battle, and one that was difficult to maintain. While the primary concern in the early period of protest, from January 25-28, was to form field hospitals to help injured protestors, the priority shifted after February 2 to the protection of protestors. Throughout this period, protestors were also putting more and more tents in place—transforming the appearance of the square day to day. They began to think about survival in the square. More experienced activists and volunteers helped to bring in tents and food; the understood rule among many was to bring food for at least 10 people when you come to Tahrir.

Big Shift After February 2

In the days leading up to February 2, the idea of a strong, unified sit-in had not yet fully developed. Tahrir was simply a battle zone. After February 2, protestors decided to protect the square. They erected traffic barricades and formed protestor check-ins at all the entrances to the square. A low-tech tool was used to sound the alarm when there were intruders: protestors sat on traffic lights and banged on the lights to alert others. Spontaneous committees were formed and organized around specific issues, such as "moral support," organizing, and security.³ On February 4, the Coalition of the Youth of the Revolution, which existed only vaguely before the events of the Tahrir protests, was formed and issued a statement about the collective demands of the revolution. The coalitions comprised six organizations ranging from socialist to Islamists.

I was in the square from February 4 onward, when thugs were still attacking protestors. A leading activist told me that what one might describe as the "revolutionary psyche" shifted not only from one day to another, but also within the same day. He said the typical daily trajectory was as follows: in the morning, concern that not enough people would show up; by noon, confidence upon seeing mass numbers turning up, then later, as people4 start to leave the square, anxiety and eagerness to know what is really happening outside the square.

Communicating and Making Connections

Communication within Tahrir took many forms, ranging from direct speech to cell phones, to the Internet, to delivering statements in large venues like theaters. During this time, the role of those who were daily visitors to Tahrir was very important, for they connected the square with the public and helped to refute the antagonistic propaganda against protestors disseminated by the official media. These forms of connecting Tahrir with the rest of Egypt were important during the Internet blackout (the January 28 until February 2).

Protestors walked around in groups talking about politics. Their banners and leaflets conveyed a unified message to the media. After February 2, professional groups and/or activists began to establish their own spaces or "corners," such as "corner of artists of the revolution," "journalists for the revolution," and so forth. On February 3, the Muslim Brotherhood installed a stage and the next day another was installed by the Coalition of the Youth of the Revolution, financed by Mamdouh Hamza, a civil engineer and businessman critical of Mubarak.5 These stages were crucial in spreading messages and delivering speeches to and from protestors. They served as an important means of communicating in the immense square. By February 11, at least four more stages were installed, complete with huge speakers.

What Was Observed

At the beginning, it was obvious from the banners in the square that the majority of the protestors were from Cairo. After February 4, people from nearby governorates6 joined the sit-in. I spoke with people from Alexandria and from El-Sharqiya. Workers from Mahalla, Suez, and other places brought to Tahrir banners and pictures of protestors killed on January 28 in these other sites. When pictures of "martyrs of the revolution" were brought to Tahrir, the square was no longer only a place in downtown Cairo. Tahrir symbolically and politically became the "voice" of the revolution and became the gathering place to remember martyrs from diverse places across Egypt.

In the week after February 4, I saw doctors and nurses wearing coats still stained with the blood of protestors who were injured or died on January 28. When I asked them why they were still wearing these coats, they replied "We have their strength with us today." While the revolution moved to a new stage of a mostly political battle, protestors suggested that it was useful to bring the energy from the violent battles to the continued sit-in.

Despite agreeing on the larger demands of the revolution, workers, farmers, fishermen, and government workers all came and brought their distinct complaints to Tahrir. Every corner in Tahrir was talking politics. But it was never a homogenous place. In tents, I saw students, workers, middle-class professionals, and even business owners. The square was diverse, yet the collection of such diversity in one space sent a common message. An Egyptian-American activist on Twitter: "The weird thing about Tahrir is that, it is a micro level; it may be nothing but people hanging/chanting/flag waving/eating but somehow ends up reverberating far and wide." The author was referring to a rally in Tahrir on May 27, 2011, but the statement describes the situation in the sit-in after the days of the violent battles.

Protestors sought to reach a consensus that would reflect both diversity and unity. For example, one of the key slogans of the Egyptian revolution was "We want a civil state."7 This call for a civil state provided a means of keeping a united voice. How and why protestors were able to negotiate and maintain such a difficult balance of diversity and unity is beyond simple explanation. One reason is that unity was an outcome of the community born in Tahrir, which resulted from the shared pain and experience in the heavy battles with police and the collective experience of seeing protestors killed "before our eyes" as many protestors told me. Participants also shared the experience of sleeping without food and water, particularly in the first days of the sit-in.

Surprisingly, the protestors came with the intent to create a unified message from the first day of the protest. Protestors consistently avoided all politically polarizing chants or demands. One leading activist said, "If there was a main lesson we learned from the previous decade of protest [it] was to be united against dictatorship. Hence, we came ready in unity." As I observed in Facebook pages used to mobilize the initial protest on January 25, and as many activists told me, protesters reached a consensus not to mention any politically polarizing chants, but rather, to focus only on general and nationally-agreed upon demands such as democracy, liberty, and social justice. This was also a lesson brought to the Egyptian revolution from its Tunisian counterpart.

Atef Said is a human rights attorney from Egypt and a PhD candidate in sociology at the University of Michigan-Ann Arbor. His dissertation is tentatively titled "The Genesis of the Egyptian Revolution: A Sociological Analysis of the Egyptian Protest Movement(s) from 2000-2011 and the Making of the Egyptian Revolution." This research is supported by the University of Michigan-Rackham International Research Award.

Endnotes

  1. Some friends/leading activists in Egypt joked about those persons who showed up in the square and became "experts" on Tahrir.
  2. Many Egyptian activists call for reclaiming this "republic" in building a new Egypt in the transition. They describe Tahrir as a utopian "socialist" state.
  3. See http://www.evetalkonline.net/site/article/189 for an article by Noha Wagih describing a day in Tahrir, titled, "Citizens of Tahrir Republic.
  4. During the million-person rallies, not all participated in the sit-in; numbers vary from 20 thousand to 250 thousand who actually slept in the square.
  5. Hamza also suffered in his business from the corruption under Mubarak.
  6. Governorates are the formal term used in Egypt to refer to the 26 administrative units like states in the United States.
  7. Though it was implied that a new democratic Egypt would not be a religious state, protestors carefully avoided the term "secular." The word has negative connotations in Egyptian public media, as it tends to be interpreted as not simply advocating separation between religion and state, but also being anti-religion.
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