Popular committees hold first general conference

Yassin Gaber, Friday 22 Apr 2011

Their initial role might have been to protect homes and shops, but now a group of popular committees from across Egypt hope to bring politics back to a local level

Egyptians in Tahrir
Egyptians shout anti- Mubarak slogans during their protest at Tahrir Square in Cairo, Egypt, Sunday, April 10, 2011.(AP Photo/Amr Nabil)

The Popular Committees for the Defence of the Revolution (PCDR) are now holding their first general conference in the revolutionary Tahrir Square  “to announce the political orientation [of the PCDR] during the next phase [of the revolution] and expand the techniques of joint action, cooperation with other committees and the introduction of other initiatives.”  The organisation of such an event in Tahrir today will see the venue, once home to the typical Friday protest, continue to grow into a forum for discussion and politicisation. 

Committee members from across the country – those from Suez, Mansoura, Tanta and Alexandria, among other cities – have been gathering every Monday at the Centre for Socialist Studies in Giza to discuss the PCDR’s public debut. They’ve had heated debates for the past two weeks on the group’s political focus, the recruitment of new members, the venue of their conference and even the creation of banners and signs. They’ve leafleted many cities across the country. 

According to the leaflet: “The conference will convene under the main slogans of the revolution ‘social justice, freedom and the trial of the corrupt.’” The conference’s programme will include speeches by political figures and representatives of the public committees from different governorates. 

Sayed Abdel Rahman, a scientific researcher from Dar Al-Salam, a “popular” district in Cairo, and a member of the PCDR, points out that the conference will be more declarative than political. “We will discuss and explain who we are and, for those who are interested, we will explain how to start and form local committees of their own...we are mainly targeting those independent voices who aren’t a member of a party, nor have a clear ideological standing.”

The PCDR looks to create a forum in which people from all social classes with a wide range of demands can trade ideas and understand local and national politics better, explained Rahman. 

It was in the wake of the constitutional referendum that groups such as the PCDR began to realise the ineffectiveness of their campaigning techniques. Whether there was too much focus on Cairo and Alexandria and not enough on the less progressive and more remote areas of the country or whether movements were largely fragmented and unfocused, the need for grassroots mobilisation became vital and this, they realised, needed to come through a unification of several smaller units. 

Rahman states that the “millions who took part in the [January 25] revolution returned their communities...needed a means to reorganise in a political manner and connect with others. The public committees created roles for those who previously had no political roles. Whether it was for...cleaning up the neighbourhoods or to guard against police harassment, torturing or the unlawful detainment of political prisoners.”

Khaled Abdel Shaheed, an active member of the organisational committee and author of its initial public statement, believes that the “three slogans: change, freedom and social equity” used during the 18 days in Tahrir Square need to be championed continuously until each demand is achieved. Shaheed suggests that “for this to happen after 11 February, a group of the Tahrir youth needed there to be social activity outside the old or the newly forming political parties.” 

Shaheed stresses that the spirit of Tahrir needed to be maintained and not necessarily through the formation of parities. ”The point was to create some sort of coordination and continuation of the same spirit of Tahrir where one couldn't differentiate between leftists, conservatives and other political groups,” he explains.

It became clear that pressure by the people is what actualises the demands,” emphasises Shaheed, adding that maintaining this pressure for now and for the future is paramount. “Our ultimate aim is for there to be social monitoring in the coming period for all branches of the government and all institutions as a guarantee of the revolution’s consummation.” 

The group’s first public statement, which will officially be released tomorrow during the conference, has been the source of much disagreement. Many within the group have argued that the group’s focus, at least as outlined in their statement, is too national and transnational, giving little focus to local politics. For example, the statement focuses on Egypt’s gas exports to Israel and the rescinding of all deals made with Israel during the years of ousted president Hosni Mubarak’s rule. The demand for the election of a civilian council to replace the military council currently in charge also veers away from local politics, whereas the only call for a change to the local political landscape seems to be for the dismantling of the government appointed local councils.

Public committees assumed an important role when the uprising began and their continuation, in one form or another, is proof of a need to mend affairs not only at the highest levels of government but also at its lowest levels. It was the shocking and rushed withdrawal of police forces and Central Security Forces in the first week of the 25 January uprising which created a security vacuum, followed by rumours of prison breaks, gangs on the loose and state thugs roaming the streets that galvanised neighbourhoods across the country to informally organise public committees. These protected monuments, banks, homes and perhaps most conspicuously Tahrir Square and other areas of protest.

The 32 or so groups who will be convening tomorrow, however, are not the only public committees that formed during the events of 25 January. Zeinab El-Agrouby, a university graduate, hadn't heard of the PCDR but has herself helped to organise and run a public committee for her neighbourhood, the Zahraa El-Maadi Youth. “It's not official. We're just girls and guys painting our streets...Most of us didn't go to Tahrir. But we decided to be positive and started painting the streets and telling people that the revolution starts within ourselves.

We were no more than 80 or 90: men, women and children of all ages cleaning our neighbourhood. We didn't sit at home and say ‘what is it to us’ like people used to do before. We decided to take initiative.”

In Ain Shams, a low-income district in Cairo, the Family of the Country’s Sons, held a conference last month with around 2,000 people in attendance to discuss community services such as charitable foundations and the need to build better hospitals. Spiritual leaders from the Muslim and Christian communities were invited to attend as, explains Family member Sami Samir, the group is fighting to end sectarian tensions. 

When asked about tomorrow’s PCDR general conference, Samir expressed his disdain for a return to Tahrir, arguing that it was time to return home and let the military continue rebuilding the country. “Enough Tahrir! Our police are our public committees,” stressed Samir, explaining that the country needed to start moving forward. 

Apprehension about Tahrir being the meeting place has often been raised in meetings and even now some members feel it might harm the conference’s turnout. Rahman stated that the recent tension in Tahrir could potentially have a negative impact on tomorrow’s conference, but Islam Medhat, a PCDR member from the East Cairo committee, which consists of Heliopolis, Ain Shams and surrounding areas, is not too concerned. The committees, he believes, will only grow with time. 

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