On a warm evening in June 2013, a Turkish activist named Bulent Muftuouglu was on his way to a concert and protest in Istanbul’s Gezi Park, site of what would become a summer of battles between police and demonstrators. He called his comrades in the park to ask if they needed anything. “Cold beer,” they said. Muftuouglu stopped in a corner shop near the park. The beer fridge was empty. He asked the shopkeepers: “What is going on?”
“Something is happening in Gezi,” one of them said. Thirty five thousand people had descended on the park. The cold beer was gone. Only warm beer remained.
Muftuouglu told this story in plodding, accented English, in Cairo on Thursday morning, to a room full of activists from Mediterranean countries. The activists ringed an oval table in a wood-paneled conference room. The anecdote unleashed a chorus of chortling. One of the Egyptian activists stared straight ahead and raised his eyebrows.
All of this unfolded at a conference titled, “Social Movements and Civil Society around the Mediterranean Sea: What future?” It was a rambling two-day symposium on revolt, including delegates from Turkey, Morocco, Spain, Egypt, Greece, Tunisia, and Syria, who had come to Cairo to exchange ideas, reflect on nearly four years marked by protest and repression, and to begin to chart a way forward.
The tale of the empty beer cooler was the kind of story that every activist in the room could identify with: It was that electric moment when a planned protest snowballs into something larger and more uncontrollable, the kind of protest that the guys in the corner shops are talking about. It signaled the power of the unexpected.
But it was also a moment that playfully highlighted the gaps in experience.
Here’s a deeper example: The activists from Greece and Spain are fighting austerity, unemployment, and alienation from political elites. They are doing so in places where, in spite of police brutality, it is still possible to stage a protest. In Egypt, activists are fighting the same social ills, but they are also fighting a vast police state and an autocratic government.
So, what is the relationship between the movement against austerity in Spain or Greece and the uprisings against dictatorship in Egypt and Tunisia? Are these movements even members of the same species?
During the two days there were a striking number of points that activists from throughout the region could coherently and plausibly compare notes on. How do insurgent movements deal with more traditional structures like labor unions and student organizations? Should such movements contest elections? What is the best way to communicate with the public when the media is mostly controlled by oligarchs?
After two days of exchanges, one could sense the small tensions in the room. The Egyptians used different vocabulary from the Spaniards and the Greeks, whose phrasing differed from that of the sole Turkish delegate. The Spanish anti-austerity movement has spawned a set of radical political parties contesting parliamentary elections. Most of the Egyptians in the room had nothing but skepticism and contempt for formal democracy. The only dissident among them was Alfred Raouf, of the Dostour Party. “Without a majority, how will you bring change?” he said. “You can have all the civic movement in the street, but it’s the parliament that makes the laws.”
At times, the most heated arguments took place among delegates from the same country. In a panel dealing with the role of labor unions, Egyptian labor activist Mostafa Basyouni gave a presentation extolling the importance of the 2008 textile workers strike in Mahalla as a forerunner to the 2011 revolution. From the audience, Sally Touma, an independent revolutionary socialist chided the unions for failing to support protesters during the November 2011 battle of Mohamed Mahmoud Street against police forces. “Labor leaders refused to come support us,” she said. “They said, ‘The revolutionaries are taking advantage of labor issues’.” Basyouni glowered from the stage. The failings of the official unions, he argued, shouldn’t mean that activists should dismiss the workers’ movement entirely.
Some issues, meanwhile, remained on the table as cross cutting questions for all the activists and their different struggles. Some questioned the relevance of the ideological positioning of social movements. Others lamented the lack of theorization, particularly in the Arab Spring mobilizations, to produce a viable political project that can contest the traditional poles of power. And some spoke about the importance of differentiating between squares of dissent and streets more generally, with social movements needing to target wider bases of support.
On the tactical level, participants exchanged notes on the need to both establish parallel media structures that triumph social movements, while also having ways to penetrate mainstream media. They also spoke of the need for innovative counter-narratives to those conceived by the state, such as resorting to bare information-based narratives or turning public spaces into actual media outlets, as the “Liars” campaign did to counter the Egyptian military narrative, as cited by activist Wael Iskandar.
The most compelling moments came when the activists set aside abstractions and switched to a kind of storytelling. Touma narrated the extraordinary scene of marching through Cairo to Tahrir Square on January 25, 2011. Christos Giovanapoulos, an activist from a group called Solidarity for All, in Greece, gleefully told the story of activists seizing the State TV headquarters in Athens in 2013. The stories proved to be a kind of salve to the other, more jagged conversations about the rigors of long term political struggle.
It was a conference that was as much about the aftermath as it was about the future. It was a kind of postwar retreat for a ragged group of warriors, weary from three and a half years of pitched battles and moments of euphoria, but also the capture and killing of thousands of their compatriots.
“These were the utopic moments of this movement. These utopic moments mean that a new birth is taking place,” Giovanapoulos told me on the morning of the second day. “They set up the agenda for a longer period. It’s not that they have completed the task.”