“Society for the greater part carries on its own organization.”
— William Godwin
“We went to Tahrir for a joke, we had no idea what was about to happen”
This was the start of a conversation that gave me an Egyptian perspective on the revolution. I say ‘an’ rather than ‘the,’ as this culture is so varied in its ideas and ideals that to describe such people as of one mind or type is both foolish and insulting. A mistake we commonly make for the rest of the world. There is no ‘typical’ Egyptian any more than there is typical Christian, Muslim, or Englishman. It’s a hyper-fragmented culture of parallel and sometimes (rarely) overlapping ideals. But for 18 days, the majority aligned against something they no longer wanted, and fought for three simple things—bread, freedom, and human dignity. Niqabs side by side with Hijabs, and short hair and makeup. Copts next to Muslims, Bahá'í and atheists.
“We are one hand”
I’d come to Egypt to help set up a ‘hub’—a physical space for people to meet, create, share knowledge and establish businesses. I was bored of Berlin, collaboration was too easy and the challenges we sought to address were mostly First World problems. I needed a real problem, and Cairo was providing that opportunity. From Berlin’s low friction collaborations, where projects start in bars and quickly spiral into events, spaces, communities and networks—I jumped into a world where traffic didn’t move, working with a bureaucratic hierarchical institution trying to interface with informal infrastructures. Hierarchy met with chaos, oppression and revolution ongoing. Beer was no longer the shared social lubricant. I certainly got the challenge I sought. It gave me opportunity to reflect on my processes, test assumptions and, above all, meet and work with diverse groups of inspired and passionate individuals working to improve their country.
I was bored of Berlin, collaboration was too easy and the challenges we sought to address were mostly First World problems. I needed a real problem, and Cairo was providing that opportunity.
I witnessed the difference between the mediated Egypt and the reality. Shopping for shoes two streets away from what you were seeing on your screens, where Salafists were tearing down a stage and attacking protesters. All I saw was a road blocked by people and opted for another station. Talking to a photographer two days later, she said nobody wanted her picture of families picnicking on the square whilst riots took place in the background. Nobody shows the images of young men in shisha bars watching the protests on TV screens, the footage from only steps away. Of the young men who phone their mothers from the quiet street parallel to the action to assure them that they’re okay.
Side by side, parallel worlds, parallel stories, but we only focus on the action shots. I took to posting pictures on Facebook, “look ma’, no burning cars.” The greatest insights were the stories from the revolution itself, burned into the Egyptian consciousness. Of course the cameras in this period were too busy trying to capture the shots of tear gas, burning cars and the flamboyance of destruction. The journalists too concerned with the tales of violence and rebellion.
Tales of Facebook and Twitter befitting our techno fetishism. The Arab Spring—“the social media revolution.” BULLSHIT.
Whilst social media played its part, it was just a tool, one that better connected the West with the revolution, that mediated the stories of those who could afford it. Not the stories of the poor, not the illiterate, not everyone. Just the stories of the network-savvy, of the smartphone-possessing. The real social medium that assisted was the people. Knowledge travels fast in the square, rumour and fact alike. Coordination of protest days happens in the streets, sprayed on walls. Just a date, sometimes a message, but the date is enough—everybody knows where they are going.
It was a social revolution, as any revolution. But we are still telling the wrong stories.
The story that inspired me, that I don’t hear told in the West, maybe because the implications would loosen the tenuous grip that the governments of this world still hold: Anarchy works.
I’m not talking about the punked-up, disaffected-youth anarchy, an idea hijacked by the Sex Pistols and glorified as chaotic destruction, distorted by music twisting its meaning. I’m talking about political anarchy, the idea that society can self-organize to take care of our own shared problems. Power structures interrupt these behaviours, but remain in place for no other reason than the fact that we tolerate all kinds of shit so long as we can still feed ourselves and our families. The same behaviours that make anarchy work are those that allow dictators and despots to continue. This applies at least to the working classes without whom no revolution has significant numbers or validity. Power structures allow us to transfer our responsibilities to others, resulting in the erosion of relationships and communities.
The Anarchic reality is families and communities finding and creating security in a place where instability is being encouraged by dying powers, as agent provocateurs attempt to plant the seeds of chaos, looting, shooting, conveying the message, “You need control. You can’t cope without us.”
‘Anarchy in Practice’: Remove the head, even introduce chaos, and the tendency is towards stability and responsibility.
The community response: clean streets, local-armed checkpoints manned by neighbours learning about one another for the first time, even hand-painted road signs and community-built motorway access ramps. At the square and front lines of protest, people self-organize and build armour from cardboard for those closest to the action. Community arises spontaneously to fill the void.
‘Anarchy in Practice’: Remove the head, even introduce chaos, and the tendency is towards stability and responsibility.
This is the larger story I find most fascinating and most inspiring. That when there is no one else responsible for our wellbeing and safety, we come together to address these needs.
It gives me hope, this Egyptian experience of Anarchy in Practice, and the power that burns within. It has given birth to numerous social businesses, grassroots post-revolution NGOs, as well as entrepreneurial projects spurred on by the prospect of being able to grow without being robbed by Mubarak’s cronies, and the acceptance of responsibility for their future.
Likewise, it is this experience that takes them back to the square. The knowledge that they have the power to change their circumstances combined with the new unacceptable trends that took place under President Mohamed Morsi (now removed from power).
Of course there were thieves and malicious social elements. Some of the stories of mob justice against such actors are particularly horrific—criminals literally being torn apart by the crowd. But compared to the hidden torture chambers of former President Mubarak and presently, the Muslim Brotherhood, such atrocities are at least short-lived and spontaneous rather than enduring and premeditated. I won’t deny it is also chilling—the power of a mob who feel they have been wronged.
Richer areas were especially prone to looting. Such things were not entirely random, Maryanne Stroud Gabbani, despite being Western, affluent and running a stable next to an informal impoverished community in Abusir, saw her rich neighbours looted, but she went untouched because she worked with the neighbouring informal community; she knew them. Her garden had no wall, she had no need of it. Compare this with the gated communities, who focused on keeping out the neighbours, rather than getting to know them. Such forms of security as walls are less enduring than relationships.
Sadly, this 18-day experiment in Anarchy has reached, for the time being, its conclusion. It has now been replaced by a government more concerned with the beliefs of its citizens than their health and security. This appears to be a common mistake in governments—in Egypt, derived from the pharaonic period, and for us Westerners, from the monarchic experience. As a case in point, look at how highly gay marriage and abortion come onto the political agenda. We allow and push such topics onto the political stage, where rightfully they should come under the bracket of ‘None of Our Fucking Business.’
Society doesn’t need government, at most it needs enablement. It needs to feed, clothe, water, secure and look after itself—and to be allowed to do so. Not to tell people how to live, but to enable them to live.
Egypt is complicated. It’s not some homogeneous group, it’s the polar opposite. A world of parallel beliefs and attitudes, unlikely to see eye to eye on matters of religion, freedom or sexuality. It has high unemployment and 40% of the population is on the poverty line. Introduce into this mix a group whose desire is to control people’s lives according to religious doctrine, who divide rather than unite and who highlight the differences and disparities between the groups and ongoing revolution is a natural response.
My Egyptian friends are genuinely scared for the future of their country. Scared to be shot. Scared to disappear. When a guy who regards tear gas as “part of the experience” starts telling you “it’s getting heavy” and that even during the first revolution he never felt fear like this, you start to feel the fear yourself.
These are the guys who are trying to rebuild their society, in an environment that is not conducive to it. The revolution is sustained, ongoing, but in the gaps they go to work on their projects. Revolution days are Tuesdays and Fridays, sometimes spilling over after particularly violent clashes (engineered with bus loads of paid ‘protesters’ bought and brought from impoverished neighbourhoods by the Brotherhood), or further removal of liberties and freedoms.
A continuously changing state, but life continues in between bursts of revolutionary intent and uncertainty.
I fear for my friends, I fear for the people and their liberty. I believe that they can only find peace if they can unite again to provide for themselves their common and physical needs, and forget about that which some regard as most important, but is in fact a distraction from living: belief.
On my return to Berlin, I find myself reflecting on why this city works so well against the disaster of Cairo.
Berlin is poor. It doesn’t have the money to enforce beliefs or laws that don’t matter. It has just enough money to take out the bins and deal with the provision of basic infrastructures. Above this it doesn’t much care, or appear to care, how we live or what we do in the street. There is a feeling of freedom, of tolerance and of social acceptance—especially where the state would do otherwise. I know of no other place in the world where a refugee camp can exist in the middle of a city, and local bars put up signs welcoming immigrants. We have anarchy and openness on top of a functioning social infrastructure. With this we take care of our emotional and social needs. Berlin is a rich environment for new models of providing for our needs. Berlin works because its government can’t afford to interfere.
Cairo is the polar opposite, where there should be functioning infrastructure there is corruption and chaos; it is not possible to do the most basic of things easily. On top of this you have oppressive hierarchy that prevents positive action, that seeks to limit freedom of movement and expression and that creates genuine fear for safety at any initiative taken. It is illegal to clean up or plant food in Cairo which could be eaten. To make your environment better is against the law.
No doubt such laws exist in Berlin, but we are free to ignore them and the penalties are light.
Berlin is anarchy, enabled.
What I’ve heard, and sometimes witnessed in Cairo, is that even these enablement structures can be dealt with informally. For example the Zabbaleen, an informal community providing a better recycling infrastructure than the European companies that were brought in to replace them (and in doing so messed up the streets of Cairo). Beyond Egypt there are stories of flat companies, factories run by workers and of course my own experiences with anarchic organization and teaching methods. But these constitute a book into which this is but one story.
It is these stories I believe we must seek to learn and to amplify. Stories of how we overcame, how people collaborated and sorted out their own problems. Stories of humanity's better side. To do this we must get more comfortable with the absence of control—something better practiced than told.
Our stories of ‘too big to fail’ are bullshit, look at history—government, society and monetary systems have collapsed before, or been overturned. We coped, we even thrived. We are controlled by fear. The fear of ourselves, of each other, of absence of control.
Maybe we need our own experiences. Burning Man festivals in the city, chances to challenge our paradigms and experiences. Maybe we need our own 18 days. I’m not advocating revolution, however, at the same time, I believe we need not fear collapse. What we should fear instead is power structures that will seek to fill the void that should remain empty.
Oppression is a controlled force. Freedom is, in its nature, the opposite. Fuck control, be free.