The constitution of our symbols

I find myself craving the cinema these days. Something about the idea of images arranged into a purposeful narrative, characters with distinct conflicts to be either resolved or at least reflected on, is particularly appealing today. Or maybe the appeal is that of a clear arc, a moment of transformation, and maybe a message.

Obviously, this is a projection of my need for a narrative for Egypt’s off-screen dramas that are gripping my attention. We are in a mess, and it is reflected in the clash of narratives of different actors, one that goes beyond theoretical contradiction or incoherence. I have never been surrounded by such deep and extremely manifested political disagreement between people in both my personal life and in wider social conversations. It is expressed in physical confrontation, in vitriolic attacks by the media and in the severing of life-long friendships.

On the eve of the Mohamed Mahmoud memorial marking the bloody security clampdown on protesters in November 2011, I marched with others from the house of Gaber Salah Jika, the 17-year-old boy shot dead during a march last year commemorating the 2011 protests. A woman threw bleach from her window on us as we chanted against the military and the Muslim Brotherhood.

Students from the Students Against the Coup (widely labeled as Brotherhood supporters) ended up battling the Central Security Forces in and around Tahrir Square on Saturday, and were hailed upon by shoes and potted plants thrown at them from the windows of downtown’s residential buildings.

Every street movement now will be dodging a battle between these two self-identified groups — revolutionary activists who are against the Brotherhood, and Brotherhood supporters — both of whom are subjected to chemicals and heavy objects hurled at them from windows of people convinced that the age of protest is over.

We are in the middle of a violent and widening crackdown on activists who have nothing to do with the Brotherhood. The government and military regime brought to power on the backs of thousands of protesters whose “rebellion” the military encouraged and vowed to protect are now outlawing unsanctioned protests. State media goes on about the need for activists to respect the rule of law, as the Ministry of Interior arrests people without warrants, beats them up, and (along with the prosecution) refuses to disclose accurate information about their location or even the scheduling of their hearings. The demand for the application of the law seems limited to protesters of any kind, these days.

The 50-member constitution committee has just passed its draft of the constitution, which contains, many assure me, very progressive articles. But it also includes an article permitting the military trial of civilians. Beyond the content of the document, everyone seems to be ignoring the fact that the drafting and passing of decent laws respecting human rights is insufficient at best and meaningless at worst in a state characterized by corruption and impunity.

I watched the constitution committee after they finished voting, and felt alienated by the obvious pride they felt in their work. I suppose it’s a pride that many Egyptians are feeling now, possibly stemming from the hope that they place in this document. It seems to symbolize some movement forward, after months of stillness. It holds the theoretical appeal of “the law” — reason, justice, and predictability. And it is being touted as the constitution of the revolution.

I wonder what the ongoing confusion and rapid changes of the past three years can teach us about symbols, the fickleness of their meaning, and their power to both mobilize and obfuscate.

Universities are symbols of thought and learning. For some they will become, or have already become, campuses where political expression is met with police assault, birdshot, tear gas and death. To know death as a young person is not in itself an extraordinary cruelty — but to know death at the hands of a venerated institution, one that will stick around, that will have guns and impunity, this is a different kind of challenge.

There will be learning on these campuses, but not of the kind involving libraries or laboratories.

The four-finger salute is a symbol that will get you arrested with no fanfare — even if you are 15 years old and it is just a sticker on your ruler. It will also get you kicked out of certain revolutionary protests and marches. Does the “four” stand for a demand for former President Mohamed Morsi’s return? Or is it a demand that we remember the hundreds of people killed in the span of hours during the dispersal of the Rabea al-Adaweya sit-in this last August, and whose bodies and legacies were abused even beyond death?

Does it matter for those of us on the other side of the street? Is there a way to separate street movement mobilized by earth-shattering grief and a demand for justice, from that mobilized by a desire for political power? If there was a separation, how would we recognize it? How will we ever work around the four-finger symbol? And if we don’t work around it, where will it go?

I remember that Jika voted for Morsi and then died fighting his regime at the first memorial of the Mohamed Mahmoud street battle. Then Jika’s death in November 2012 became itself a memorial.

“One time a guy elected a president, and the president killed him.” This is what his friends wrote on the doors of the morgue as a symbol of their grief — a sad gaze towards irony.  

Downtown Cairo changes from a symbol of elegant history to the visitor’s eye, to one crowded with the architecture of colonial oppression for the more jaded pedestrian. Its streets and squares could be symbols of resistance, of gateways to freedom (freedom most frequently envisioned as some successful endpoint of a struggle, rather than the beginning of many). 

For others still, it teems with breathing agents and memories of misogyny, and maybe of a battle against it. “To Willingly Enter the Circles, The Square,” wrote Wiam al-Tamimi on her experience with Operation Anti-Sexual Harassment/Assault (OpAntiSH). The square is Tahrir; the symbol/stigma is sexual harassment — and the struggle against it.

Meanwhile, SpongeBob is everywhere, as is General Abdel Fattah al-Sisi’s face. Symbols, in theory, of happiness.

Palestine was a symbol of Arab struggle. Before we could chant against our own oppressors and our own miseries, we chanted for Palestine, against theirs. These protests were used by our governments as a symbol of their solidarity with the Palestinian cause, until we started criticizing them by pointing out their complicity in seizing Gaza.

There’s no room for symbolic solidarity with Palestine now, not even in Tahrir, the biggest symbol of them all.

This makes me think that while we are constantly surrounded and assaulted by symbols, there is no time for symbolic acts anymore. The men in uniform are everywhere. They have weapons and a vengeful force; they often do not have warrants but the public mostly seems not to care.

There is no symbol for the revolution. It cannot be unified behind one face or banner or call. It is in us and in our insistence that we continue, despite crackdowns and divisions and hostile media. Perhaps this is where hope lies.

Symbols run their course, their meanings change or they are discarded. But people learn and adapt. We haven’t yet learned how to translate the principles of the street’s resistance to politics and ballot boxes. But we know that a symbolic constitution for a state whose security apparatus continues to wage a war on its own people outside of all law or proportionality is not an acceptable resolution, or even a step towards one.

Yasmin El-Rifae 

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