The civil resistance protests that sparked the January revolution and continue to define it have had spectacular moments. Those, it would seem, belong more to the realm of the imaginative or the visionary than to that of the real. One such moment took place last week, in the early hours of Sunday morning, when a young man, Ahmed El-Shahat, scaled the Cairo residential tower housing the Israeli embassy and climbed all the way up to the flagpole on the roof, pulling down the Israeli flag and replacing it with an Egyptian one.
The sheer sensationalism of the act instantly recalled what the cultural theorist Mikhael Bakhtin once said about modern theatrical forms: that they retain some aspects of the medieval communal performance in the public square. Its significance, the emotional energy it unleashed among the spectators – whether they saw it live or on TV and computer screens later – can only be fully understood in the historical context of popular resentment of the flawed Israeli-Egyptian peace treatysigned in 1979.
On 26 February 1980, the day diplomatic relations between the two countries commenced, and as the first Israeli ambassador to Cairo presented his credentials to the then Egyptian president, Anwar Sadat, a young man from the Delta province of Qalioubiya, Saad Idris Halawa, staged an armed protest at the local council in his village of Aghour. Demanding the expulsion of the ambassador, he was shot dead and subsequently proclaimed insane.
Ever since then, the sight of the Israeli flag at any official function open to the public in Egypt has always triggered popular anger and a demand for it to be removed. In 1980, when Israel was allowed to participate in the Cairo Book Fair for the first time, the flag hoisted over the Israeli pavilion was pulled down by an angry Lebanese publisher – to the cheering of all present. A few years later in 1985, when Israel sought participation again, angry demonstrators besieged the pavilion, removed the flag and scuffled with police.
But if such spontaneous acts of rejection managed to prevent Israel from participating in most public events in Egypt, the Israeli embassy (occupying the top two floors of a residential tower on the banks of the Nile in Giza) has been an altogether different matter. The place is too heavily guarded to allow for any intervention, and numerous attempts to picket it, many by students of Cairo University whose campus is within walking distance, had always been suppressed with the utmost brutality. I recall one such failed attempt in the summer of 1982, following the Israeli invasion of Beirut and the massacres in the Sabra and Shatila Palestinian refugee camps –events which led former president Hosni Mubarak to recall the Egyptian ambassador from Tel Aviv, but not to allow a demonstration outside the embassy in Cairo.
For the next 30 years, and until May this year, every time Israel waged a war of aggression against the Palestinians or the Lebanese, demonstrators would try to approach the Israeli embassy – and fail. On 14 May this year, while Israel was celebrating its national day, activists emboldened by the revolutionary fervour that had overtaken the country since 25 January, decided to march from Tahrir Square to Giza. They were allowed to reach the location of the embassy, but as soon as they began chanting slogans and demanding the removal of the flag, the army patrolling the area and guarding the embassy dispersed and chased them down side streets using live ammunition. One demonstrator, Atef Yehia, is still lying unconscious in hospital, the result of a bullet in the head. Others were beaten up and humiliated by the military for daring to ask that the flag be removed. Some were even hauled in front of military tribunals.
The action of Ahmed El-Shahat, who risked his life last week to remove the flag, must be understood against this backdrop. On Saturday, El-Shahat had joined the thousands of demonstrators outside the Israeli embassy protesting the killing of five Egyptian security personnel by the Israelis. A construction worker adept at climbing scaffolding, he had seen the demonstrators trying in vain to target the flag with fireworks in order to burn it. He harboured the idea of obtaining the hated object but told nobody.
“I jumped onto the tank outside the building, and began to climb. I was more worried about being arrested by the army before I reached my goal than of falling off and dying,” he told a press conference on Sunday. To his pleasant surprise, he told reporters, while in the middle of his endeavour, he encountered a police officer looking out of the eighth floor who greeted him with the victory sign.
The rest is history that many people, the present writer included, have watched many times over on YouTube: the thousands of protestors holding their breath as El-Shahat scaled the building, the mad cheers as he reached for the flag, and the hero's reception he got as he came down, people insisting that he should have the honour of burning the Israeli flag himself after he had brought down.
One young man, Alaa Abd El-Fatah, an activist who has been on the frontline of most of the dangerous street battles that took place during the revolution, wrote about the occasion on which activists were dispersed with live ammunition outside the embassy, on 14 May: “In front of the Zionist embassy, young people, mostly under 20 years of age, bared their chests for bullets,” Abd El-Fatah wrote. “Did they believe they were going to liberate the land by such an act? No, they were merely taking part in a spectacle, demanding to see the symbolic gesture of pulling down the flag. Like Bouazizi [the Tunisian street vendor whose action sparked off the country's revolution],they knew what we did not know– that the revolution is a battle of ideas. They were there to demonstrate an idea: all power to the people, not to any external or even internal force.”
Discussing the role of the poor and disenfranchised in the Egyptian revolution, in the same insightful and moving article published in Shorouk newspaper last June, Abd El-Fatah wrote, “These people, whom we don’t call intellectuals, may not know the meaning of such words as discourse, narrative or spectacle, but they are nevertheless affected by such tropes. They know that Tahrir Square was a spectacle, and that the Revolution was won in the poor alleyways and the workplaces. They know that the spectacular is an essential part of the battle of ideas, and that the dream would fall once the Square fell. For the Square is the myth auguring the reality we have all wanted for so long.”
Ahmed El-Shahat, who had come from his distant village especially to demonstrate in front of the embassy, is, in his decision to stage this spectacular act for all the world to see, one more proof of the power of the spectacle.