Tahrir’s creative destruction: The revolution continues

The revolutionary voices of people fall on deaf ears as Egyptian military rulers continue with business as usual.

A hastily installed memorial in Tahrir Square was quickly defaced and destroyed [Reuters]
A hastily installed memorial in Tahrir Square was quickly defaced and destroyed [Reuters]

There have been few constants in the still young revolution that began on January 25, 2011, in Tahrir Square. But the Egyptian military and security leadership’s penchant for self-inflicted wounds born of utterly clueless arrogance is, without a doubt, one of them.

Listen to the words of General Hany Abdel Latif attempting to justify the sudden installment of a memorial to express the government’s “condolences” to the martyrs of the revolution, or as he put it, to “all martyrs of the revolution whose immaculate blood will nourish the tree of our national struggle”. It’s impossible not to recall the words of former President Hosni Mubarak on February 10, 2011, when he delivered the last of his infamous three speeches, and instead of announcing his expected resignation, he made it clear he wouldn’t go anywhere willingly.

“I am telling you before anything, that the blood of the martyrs and the injured will not go in vain,” he proudly declared, adding, “I will hold those in charge who have violated the rights of our youth with the harshest punishment stipulated in the law.”

Most important, he declared, “I would like to tell you that my response to your voice, to your message, to your demands, is an irrevocable commitment and I am determined strongly to pledge what I have promised you with all seriousness and frankness. And I am committed strongly to implement all of that without any hesitation.”

They gave me a week. They asked me to design something which symbolised the Egyptian people rising up, but which won't stay here forever.

Mahmoud Faranawi, Artist

Before the last sentence was even uttered, the enormous crowd in Tahrir understood the true meaning of Mubarak’s speech and began shouting “Irhal” [“go”], and “ash-Sha’b yurid isqat an-nizaam” [“the people want the fall of the regime”], the two most prominent slogans of the January 25 revolution.

Lessons not learned

It’s amazing that, after all this time, the leadership of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF), still doesn’t understand that even if a large share of the population retains a measure of faith in the army as an institution – at least compared with the Brotherhood – there remains incredible anger at the security apparatus for the huge amount of unanswered blood that remains on its hands.

The wanton murder of protesters during the Muhammad Mahmoud protests of two years ago, which itself came on the heels of the massacre of Coptic protesters the month before at the nearby Maspero television complex, epitomised the utter disregard of the state for its citizens at a moment when an entire generation had been motivated to take to the streets, in good measure, in response to the security forces’ torture and murder of one of their peers, Khaled Said.

Indeed, the revolution began on that day specifically as a protest against Mubarak’s National Police Day and the mockery of the most fundamental dignity and rights of Egyptian citizens such holidays reflected.

Disposable art

Given the skill with which the deep state manipulated the Tamarrod protests to re-establish its control over Egypt’s political life, the leadership’s own goal with the Tahrir statue might seem surprising. Why provide a rallying point for a seemingly bedraggled opposition to rally around, and compound it by making statements attempting to demonstrate support for the martyrs for whose deaths you are inarguably responsible?

One possibility is simply that the regime felt so confident in its position that it decided the time was right for an aesthetic re-conquest of the heart of the revolution, Tahrir. But the manner in which the monument was built suggests a very different motivation – fear.

Here’s how the artist, Mahmoud Faranawi, explained it: “They gave me a week. They asked me to design something which symbolised the Egyptian people rising up, but which won’t stay here forever.” Apparently, it didn’t really matter how good the monument looked, only that it went up fast, in time for the government to claim the martyrs of Tahrir on an anniversary that, more than most events, reveals what the state thinks of the people.

This kind of disposable, placeholder art is in sharp contrast to all indelibly powerful art produced in Tahrir, and along the walls of Muhammad Mahmoud, during the iconic protests of 2011-2012. That art wasn’t physically permanent either – banners were taken down, street art and graffiti would be painted over, the rhythms and melodies of the revolutionary anthems would die out eventually. But it inspired and motivated people over and over again during the last three years, distilling and bringing the central themes and desires of the revolution into constant relief.

It’s not surprising that the new monument didn’t last a day before it was partially torn down after being defaced with slogans like “Down with all traitors: army, felool and Ikhwan,” which point to the essence of the Tahrir uprising: against all forms of oppression and exclusionary power, whether Brotherhood or military. As important as the aesthetic readjustment of the monument was the sense of hope among artists and protesters that their actions generated. In the wake of Morsi’s removal, the Egyptian press might have declared that Tamarrod spokesman Mahmoud Badr “owns” Tahrir, but as he watched the protest against the new monument unfold, revolutionary singer Ramy Essam – who would never claim such a title, even though he certainly deserves it far more than Badr – enthusiastically declared that the “true revolutionaries” had returned home, if only for an evening.

Miserable human rights record

If you look at the websites of most of the major Egyptian Human Rights organisations – the Egyptian Initiative for Personal RightsThe Cairo Institute for Human Rights,  and others – the evidence is overwhelming that the situation for the most fundamental human, political, economic and civil rights has got worse rather than better since Morsi’s removal. But the human rights situation in Egypt has been miserable for decades. It is the steady state of Egyptian political life.

As long as those with political and economic power can keep people afraid, they can retain their position.

In the months after February 11, creating a series of new internal enemies and threats to the “Egyptian nation” would become a key strategy for weakening the revolutionary opposition to the system as part of the deep state’s attempt to reconsolidate its power. This was achieved in good measure by incorporating the politically burgeoning Brotherhood into the power elite, at least until it proved a disastrous liability.

This strategy, crucially, saw the Brotherhood, on the cusp of a major victory in the soon-to-be held parliamentary elections, stand with SCAF and against a revolution it had never really supported. Indeed, in the months and year after, the Brotherhood and Freedom and Justice Party leadership labelled protesters as “inauthentically Egyptian” and even condemned them to damnation – the same type of demonisation that would, ironically but by no means surprisingly, be used on it this summer when it suffered an even more extreme fate than the protesters of 2011 and 2012. 

The state can maintain its control over society to the extent that it “dazzles” the people – that it “fascinates, terrorises and immobilises” the people through various ideologies that function to excise any group that threatens its order from the social body – thus the Brotherhood is accused of being a “foreign” entity, a patently ludicrous accusation given it was founded in Egypt in 1928. But as Michel Foucault famously demonstrated, power is not something any one group or force can possess; it is by its very nature constantly rechanneled, contested and ultimately “shaped from below and by those who are afraid”.

That’s the key. As long as those with political and economic power can keep people afraid, they can retain their position. Against them stands revolutionary discourses that Foucault argues inevitably teeter between “bitterness and… the most insane hopes”. Watching protesters temporarily reclaim Tahrir from the control of “all the traitors” [Ar] who continue to repress the mass of Egyptians, you can see why the Egyptian leadership remains scared enough of the memory of Muhammad Mahmoud to go to such ludicrous lengths to whitewash it – especially when a just-leaked government report determined that the police “deliberately killed” protesters. 

That it so miserably failed is a good reminder that the war for Egypt’s future still has a very long way to go.

Mark LeVine is professor of Middle Eastern history at UC Irvine, and  distinguished visiting professor at the Center for Middle Eastern Studies at Lund University in Sweden and the author of the forthcoming book about the revolutions in the Arab world, The Five Year Old Who Toppled a Pharaoh. 

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