Back to the margins

Like many, I came home yesterday after hours of being stuck in traffic congestion, thanks to the long lines of cars queued at gas stations due to an acute fuel shortage. But instead of throwing myself in my bed and ranting about the apocalyptic feeling bestowed upon Cairo on this day, I stayed in the street and started cleaning my car frantically at 1 am.

While I was driving through the Ministry of Defense sit-in earlier, where army supporters were calling for a military come back to end the rule of the Muslim Brotherhood (MB), a protestor coercively stuck a red poster on my car. It read, “Go down to the street on June 30. Do not be a coward.” In another life, this would have been the exact language we would use to call on people to take to the streets on January 25, 2011 to topple Hosni Mubarak’s rule. But what we are witnessing today is exactly how revolutionary language is being appropriated and re-appropriated, and so is revolution itself. Five years ago, a bumper sticker on my car read, “Stop bitching, start a revolution.” Last night, I made sure to remove the red poster calling on people to go protest, applying full force and deploying psychopathic energy to efface its traces completely.

At the pro-military sit-in, I glimpsed through signs that the protestors raised, and I saw slogans like, “Palestinians are made in Israel,” “Save us, now” — addressing the generals — and “Back to your cells, you filthy sheep,” addressing the Brothers. Protesters threw themselves in front of my car, banging and shouting, “You go down on June 30 or we will be stuck with this,” pointing to small plastic sheep toys that they held in their hands.

I left the sit-in feeling stifled over how it stands against everything we are fighting for, namely the end of patriarchy, be it in Islamist attire or military uniforms. It goes against our want of the end of tyranny — that relegated those with different political opinions to prison and torture cells — as well as the end of hegemonic state discourses demonizing certain others — namely, the Palestinians — and holding them responsible for our own decay. As I drove away, I glanced at the pro-military sit-in I left behind in my rearview mirror. I saw people dancing, chanting and making tea on fire next to their tents — all reminiscent of our revolutionary sit-ins, but all eventually fading away from my sight as I moved on.

These are people, the people, al-sha‘ab, that imaginary lot we congratulated for their heroic ability to topple a regime. It does not matter who in this mass of people was actually there on January 25. What matters, at this point, is that these are the people, and their determination to topple President Mohamed Morsi is an expression of a genuine need. Their political articulation of this need is full of contentions, but no one can contest their demands, their desire to be in the street and to challenge the rule of the Brothers.

For one, those assigned the job of articulating street politics, namely the formal opposition, are excelling in their own bankruptcy and decadence. Figures that were once broadly associated with the revolutionary camp, as they fell outside the Islamists-Mubarak regime binary in the presidential elections, are now the ones declaring that there is no solution to end the Brothers’ rule other than a military takeover. In juxtaposition, the Brotherhood elites in power and their self-appointed spokespersons added one more item to their list of sins: They have successfully contaminated the realm of contentious politics with their clan-based practices and their overall inability to enunciate genuine propositions that would put an end to the current stalemate. In other words, they rid the political space of meaning, and hence killed all possibilities for meaningful engagement by the opposition.

This also translates to discursive levels. The Islamist elites have in a way generated some of the counter-discourses of their opponents, who now say, “Let them go back to their prison cells.” After all, it is people like Jama’a al-Islamiya leader Essam Abdel Magid who say things like, “We will cut your throats and come to you with a thousand men, each of them worth a thousand men.”

So, lesson learned, after a three-year-old revolution: Let us not demonize the people, and let us not fall into our repeated failure to understand where they come from. The fight for what we imagine are our revolutionary ideals will need to take a different shape. I still engage in conversations with neighbors, friends and family members who lament the economic failures, the political debacle and the sectarianism, while I keep reminding them that all of these were also attributes of the Mubarak regime and the military junta that followed it. But I often also disengage when they start guilt tripping me about my decision to vote for Morsi in the presidential election runoffs, when he faced off against Mubarak regime figure Ahmed Shafiq. As soon as these accusations begin, I find myself enumerating in my head the list of groceries I need to buy.

But the question remains: How do we take a position, those of us with clarity around the rejection of the very nature of the Egyptian state as a militaristic/security state? How do we handle our sense of possession of a revolution that we wanted so much to be against an unjust, exclusionary state, as manifested in its robust military and security apparatuses, and not simply against a regime? How do we grapple with a revolution transcending our dreams, our aspirations, and even ourselves, while possibly putting us in its camp of adversaries in its new configuration?

Last night, I recognized the hysteric moment of removing the bumper sticker insistently as an unspoken declaration of “I am not one of the people today.” I recognized a Kafkaesque instance where a metamorphosis of self or revolution was unfolding. It is either we have become the counter-revolutionaries, or the revolution has become the counter-revolution. But beyond the insanity and the psychological entrapment of a revolution making a full circle to return to its point of inception, there may be a way out. And it is reclaiming our initial position prior to the revolution.

It is the retreat to the margins, which have always been home to the unorthodox, unconventional, and to the “revolutionary.” I trace the inevitability of this position of retreating to the margins to the day Morsi won the elections a year ago. I was thrilled that his adversary, the old regime stalwart Ahmad Shafiq, did not win and wanted to take to the streets to celebrate. But Tahrir Square was occupied, this time by Islamists, and we did not share the same aspirations or joy. They cheered for Sharia, and I cheered for my revolution. One year later, the masses take to the streets once again with a shared demand to topple the Muslim Brotherhood regime, and the scene is equally estranging.

In this context, we come to terms with the suspension of our momentary presence at the epicenters of the squares of revolt. We remain who we are, we continue to do what we do, but operate from our predetermined and archetypal marginality. But we still hold on to the thought that a revolution was born from this marginality.

This article is published jointly with Jadaliyya.


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