Revolutions worth remembering

Editor’s note: We found it hard to solicit pieces commemorating the January 25 revolution, mainly because we seem to have hit a certain boundary in revolutionary prose. A moment of deep ambiguity accompanies three years of thinking, doing and rethinking. But in the spirit of resisting this submission to boundaries, we went back to what columnists and friends wrote during the 18 days of the revolution and we asked them to revisit their writings. Some wrote reactionary pieces, others edited old work — adding reflections from today, and some rewrote them.

Anniversaries of the revolution are heavy on all of us. February 11 marks the end of the 18 day sit-in that sparked it all, and on such days we struggle with layers of memories from not one, but three consecutive years. The dates that dot our calendars are stained with loss, unfinished stories and uncertainty. An uncertainty that plagues our past just as strongly as it does our futures.

But loss is not all that the memory of these weeks leaves us with, or without. There is much that has been achieved by the “revolution” that should not be forgotten. And by revolution, I do not mean the string of contested events whose anniversaries dot our calendars and whose sacrifices haunt us for different reasons. I mean the many initiatives that the ideas and possibilities embodied in the revolution translated into.

On the night of January 28, 2011 in Alexandria, after the sun had set over the city in smoke, groups of young people gathered in different communities and formed what they coined as the popular committees. The neighborhood watches aimed to protect people and property, manage traffic and eventually secure health and emergency services in the absence and suspension of the state. The morning of the 29, a flier was distributed in the streets of Alexandria for popular committees to coordinate with the central committee in Qa’id Ibrahim. And for the months that followed some of these committees played a role in politicizing communities as well.  Similar initiatives developed all over the country, as an instinctive measure to protect at first, and later an attempt to organize and manage community resources in the way an elected governorate might have. Some of these committees did indeed develop into ideal forms of governance that may prevail if we had a say or input into governing. These left us with an imagination for how the country could be managed alternatively — politically and administratively. Other committees however became vigilantes and, having armed themselves at that moment of insecurity, played an unfavorable policing role in their neighborhoods concerning those that approached them. There are lessons to be learned from both possibilities.

After the army’s first raid of Tahrir in March 2011, and sweeping arrests of what they coined as “baltageyya” (thugs), one of whom turned out to be a famous comedian and well known face, the “No to Military Trials” initiative sprung into being. This is a well-structured network of human rights activists, lawyers and often social workers, that do everything from documenting the arrests of civilians, to quickly responding and meeting detainees at police stations, defending them in court and advocating for their release. The initiative has many members and champions and has been a consistent resisting force to one of the ugliest faces of military rule, arbitrary arrests, lack of representation in court and exaggerated sentences. It is a translation of resistance to military rule into action, in a way that involves the families of the arrested and constantly reminds the state that civilians are engaged in tireless efforts to protect themselves. The campaign has made these dangerous and deadly times significantly safer for many of us, and saved thousands from long sentences without charge.

By early summer, the initiative to draft a popular constitution “Ta’alu nekteb dosturna” developed to bring together a group of lawyers, activists, researchers and techies, to coordinate with popular committees and find ways of extracting ideas concerning “rights” and “entitlements,” as well as attempting to understand what forms of governance might be suitable to ensure they are enforced. Besides the drafting of questionnaires, focus groups and in-depth interview structures — hundreds of which were undertaken — work went into researching various forms of computer software that could organize such information for easy access by researchers and the general public and politicians, to whom this information would have been made available. The initiative was based on the notion that the revolution created a variety of stakeholders that should have a say in the drafting of the constitution. Inspired by the model of a “popular charter of rights” developed in post-apartheid South Africa, the aim was to demystify the constitution by engaging a wider population in the drafting of its elements. In turn, more people would ideally be interested in reading the eventual constitution and pressing for their rights, whilst placing pressure on politicians and finding sources for input from among popular elements.

Many initiatives were developed by artists to bring the emotions of the revolution and the stories untold into the spotlight. These include, “No Time for Art,” that brought testimonies to the stage infused with music and documentary material. The first of this series of performances presented stories behind the terrifying experiences of prisoners forced to evict their cells on January 28 — the so-called “Day of Rage” — only to be shot at by military helicopters as they spread into the desert. Other performances, such as “Tahrir Monologues” represented stories of the different experiences of the revolution: from those dodging bullets on the streets, to those hiding behind living room couches. Still other performances by “Al Warsha” brought testimonies of the mothers of young martyrs, to members of the Ultras and even police officers to the forefront of our imaginations. Groups of artists gathered together to form festivals, such as “Combo Mustaqil” — an attempt to crowd-source a performance festival as part of a larger movement to liberate the art scene from the worlds and whims of patrons and donors.

Another initiative that sprung out of the revolution focused on combatting its ugliest face: sexual assaults on female protestors in the square. “Operation Anti-Sexual Harrassment/Assault (OpAntiSH)” is an initiative of volunteers that has literally saved lives. From spotting cases of harassment, tending to psychological or physical harm, to rescuing and taking women home and following up on them afterwards, this initiative has made the streets safer for may protestors in the absence of a state that cares. It has also made the silence surrounding this matter terribly uneasy.

The numerous initiatives, campaigns and experiences that have emerged into our world, emanating from the sense of possibility, responsibility and communality that came with the revolution are well worth remembering. If we don’t manage the larger goals of the revolution, we managed through all these many small and large initiatives to translate our sense of possibility into action.

From the field doctors in Tahrir, the Vespa ambulances of Mohamed Mahmoud, the well-studied initiative to restructure the Interior Ministry, to the immediate responses to people evicted from their homes and the many forms of independent media that have revolutionized news and travelled to unchartered territories of story-telling, there is much to continue with.

As we grapple with all the souls we have lost, with all the sacrifices made, we must also hold on to every small achievement and carry it through in their memory. We may actually survive this as (better) human beings, after all.

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Alia Mossallam