Whenever politicians differ, they refer to the simple citizen — the man on the street, the people, the average citizen, Egypt’s "true sons," etc. Some may say, “He expressed his opinion through the ballot box, he has already chosen. That’s the end of it.” Others argue, “He is disappointed in politicians and politics, is uninterested in either and only wants to make a living.”
The opposition asserts: “He will battle to topple the regime because he is fed up with the Muslim Brotherhood.” Meanwhile, those in power will assert: “The people want stability.”
Since protests erupted on Friday, 25 January, the second anniversary of the 2011 revolution, the ordinary citizen was once again at the centre of political statements “condemning violence and the barricading roads” or expressing “frustration with politics and politicians who will destroy Egypt;” or rather unusually condemned (as Field Marshal Tantawi did at the time of the Port Said massacre): “How can they remain silent about what’s happening?” or by asserting that “Port Said natives are inherent thugs.”
Such statements contradict a fundamental fact: ordinary folk are the ones who created our revolution and the ones in control of developments on the ground, whether through the ballot box or not. This is unsettling for most of the powers that are at the top of the totem pole of parties and politics.
It is a reality that could not be denied when debaters disagreed during the recent crisis, or when signatories of the anti-violence Al-Azhar document agreed, though their complicated and fragile agreement has no impact on the ground since the street only listens to itself.
“Stay where you are and leave it to me”
The senior official of Gamal Abdel Nasser's Socialist Union is standing stunned in the window as he watches a sea of people chanting “We will fight.” Fouad Fath Al-Bab, played by the late actor Nazim Shaarawi, angrily asks the person at the other end of the telephone: “Who’s letting these people loose on the streets? They are not ours? No …? Who are they, then?” The person on the other end tells him who they are, and he responds: “Who?”
This is the closing scene of Youssef Chahine’s film Al-Asfoor (The Sparrow) that tells us a lot about the masses when they finally take over the scene, impose their own pace and render reformist and deal-making politicians surprised, confused and angry.
Fath Al-Bab is very similar to the majority of post-revolution politicians who have deep contempt for the masses and view them as followers, herded when necessary and dispersed when it’s time to take a decision. In recent days we have often heard: “Who are those over there with?” But there is no answer.
The same applies to most of those under the banner of the National Salvation Front (NSF), along with the Freedom and Justice Party and the elected president: they all are terrified of the masses taking over control, and everyone is talking about institutionalisation and fundamentals of democracy.
There is no truth to accusations that NSF is inciting violence because it has no power to direct protestors whose road to revolution has been blocked by these structures inside or outside power (who are weak and acquiesce to the rules of the old game, or at best pursue hesitant reform in an era of revolution).
But we must not condemn all political activism and organisation since that would serve those who defend smothering politics under Mubarak, and want to keep politics a monopoly in their own hands. While it’s true that most politicians are out of touch with the demands of the street and street organisations, generalising and embedding this promotes banal normalcy and excludes ordinary folk from politics.
Any progress in political life, or hope in the future, came and comes from ordinary people invading the political scene, as we saw during the revolution and two years since, and as we see today.
An opinion poll by Pew Research Center with 1000 Egyptians less than one year ago revealed that 81 per cent of them want a fair justice system and improvement in their economic situation (which is their definition of social justice). This was the highest consensus issue.
Meanwhile, some 62 per cent wanted a media without censorship; 60 per cent wanted the law to be applied; another 60 per cent freedom of opinion; and 58 per cent free elections.
Egyptians today discuss politics in coffee shops, at bakeries and on microbuses, and the constitution is no longer a topic exclusive to employees of international organisations, constitutional experts or party veterans. Hundreds of thousands have entered the world of politics in a direct way, while millions have invaded it indirectly in their own way that shocks institutional politicians who are quick to condemn the ordinary citizen when he takes action on his own causes.
Ordinary folk block roads
The Egyptian Centre for Economic and Social Rights (ECESR) has noted a sharp rise in labour and popular protests in 2012, reaching more than 3,817 protests “by all types of Egyptians.” This is five times the average number during the year since 2000. Notably, 2,700 of these protests occurred in the second half of the year after President Morsi was elected, and after he was given a grace period of a few weeks when citizens resorted to official and other channels to express grievances before going back to the street.
ECESR recorded the types of arbitrary action used to deal with these protestors, not only by businessmen at factories but also by the state and its oppressive agencies (police, military and civilian) with the masses, other citizens and professionals. “These included dismissal, suspension, transfers outside or inside headquarters, detention, beatings and lynching, pay cuts, investigation by administrative or general prosecution, threats and terror, assault by thugs at the incitement of business owners, and threatening or actually closing down companies.”
In reaction to this, workers, employees, farmers and fishermen organised into more than 1,000 independent unions since January 2011, which today the elected president’s government is trying to strip of legitimacy and give the kiss of life to Mubarak’s union that it believes could once again be used to control and undermine union action.
Since institutional political channels are blocked, protestors are using all means available to them, including blocking roads, which they tell us today ordinary citizens condemn. In 2012, ECESR recorded more than 561 incidents of road blocking by “ordinary” citizens (about twice a day); 64 incidents of storming an official’s office (once every five days); and 30 cases of holding an official hostage in his office (once every 10 days).
An incident on 5 June 2012 can serve as a clear example. Fishermen in Ismailiya blocked the road to the beach and burned tyres, then heading to the Second Army Command to pelt it with stones before forces dispersed them. The protest was triggered by a ban on fishing in the Suez Canal for security reasons.
Another example comes from Beheira in July, as described in a news article on Al-Ahram site:
“Hundreds of locals from the villages of Minyat Bani Moussa, Kafr Mahalat Dawoud, Ezbet Masoud, Kafr Saad, Ashraf Al-Barudi and Al-Khazzan from the municipalities of Damanhour and Al-Rahmaniya blocked the railway tracks on the Damanhour-Dessouk line and the road connecting Kafr El-Sheikh, Al-Beheira and Alexandria and the Rural Road. They sat on the ground, set tyres on fire, and placed tree branches and rocks across the road to prevent cars from passing and caused traffic congestion in both directions. They were protesting a lack of irrigation water that was cut off from reaching the fields for 18 days, ruining their crops, especially rice and corn. Drinking water was also shut off for more than 20 days although they pay their bills regularly.”
Thus, the street becomes the only venue for ordinary citizens to make an impact when those in power betray their electoral promises and use the security apparatus to enforce former policies.
The party of the boy in green
He is no older than 11 years old; you see him in the video swimming in the Nile under Qasr El-Nil Bridge. His slim body emerges from the water only wearing a pair of green swimming trunks, surprising State Security forces with their heavy weapons and armoured vehicles. He throws rocks at them from under a wall on the banks of the river in front of the Semiramis Hotel.
Some soldiers and officers engaged in ongoing battles start to turn their attention to him, so he runs away quickly and jumps into the Nile, swimming back in the direction from which he had come.
The political party of the boy in green includes millions of “extraordinary ordinary people" who are standing up to “ordinary politicians” in an age of revolution that demands completion.
This article was first published in Al-Shorouk daily