Why fault the barricades?

Wael Gamal , Wednesday 30 Jan 2013

Clashes over concrete walls in downtown Cairo should not be surprising as they symbolise, and are mechanisms of, state oppression

In a film nominated for seven Oscars and that won a Golden Bear at the Berlin Film Festival in 1998, a bloody and very bizarre battle unfolds for control over a mound in an isolated uninhabited island of marked strategic importance in a war between two sides that we never completely identify.

The director of The Thin Red Line, Terrence Malick, does not reveal the face of the enemy that the characters are battling as they die one after the next to accomplish their mission. These tough warriors appear as human beings who have fears, dreams, passions and hatred. With the absurdity of the mission, Malick's The Thin Red Line satirically the bizarre nature of colonial wars fabricated to serve the interests of warmongers.

In Egypt, we witnessed in the past few days battles on the streets that are absurd in terms of what each battling side wants to accomplish. Protestors willingly sacrifice their lives to take control of Qasr Al-Aini Street or the headquarters of Suez Governorate or gain entry to the offices of the Freedom and Justice Party (FJP). They are firmly and fiercely confronted by police forces, that don't mind the killing of dozens of protestors just to protect a building or keep control of a barricaded street according to the plan of the Ministry of Interior.

On a television programme two days ago, spokesman for the Muslim Brotherhood Ahmed Aref denounced those involved in these battles on the protesters' side as having no connection to the revolution. Aref asked: Why are they attacking buildings and throwing rocks? Why are they attacking concrete barricades?

The fact is, these battles, where the Egyptian police is killing dozens and injuring hundreds, are linked to the development of the Egyptian revolution and where it is today. Though the parallel to Malick's film may spring to mind, there is a logic in these events, if not a justification.

The mirrors of revolution

Some people remember the revolution as they participated in it: sweeping and cleaning Tahrir Square or the street where they live on 12 February. Others remember their visits to Tahrir for million-man marches. A third group still remember the comrades who fell by their side on Qasr El-Nil Bridge trying to reach Tahrir Square in any way possible. There are also those who will remember how they set fire to State Security offices in villages and towns, their first and last expression of revolution.

Everyone’s experience has been different since January 2011. Various social strata like to restructure history in their own image, interests and way of thinking. Thus, the January revolution for some becomes a peaceful demonstration of “innocent virtuous youth,” which is contrary to the truth. Others view the revolution in which 1000 martyrs died, thousands were injured, and the offices of governorates, State Security, police stations and the National Democratic Party set ablaze, as a purely peaceful process "that is totally different from what we are witnessing today."

The determination to enter Tahrir, on 28 January 2011, was not an absurd goal, and the blood that was shed was not to protect alien interests, as the combatants in The Thin Red Line, but part of a major confrontation against social control by the regime and its forces of deterrence using ideas and weapons.

This is evidence that these confrontations were not an invention of the revolution; for years Egypt witnessed similar expressions of this rage and clashes, such as blocking streets and confronting Central Security Forces, and others, albeit at a smaller scale as we have seen in the Omraneya Church protests in November 2010. Moreover, it is not an Egyptian phenomenon and stemming from nearly the same reason everywhere: the way the ruling classes and their police manage the tools of social control.

Concrete barricades and social oppression

A book published in 2011 by New York University, entitled Shutting Down the Streets: Political Violence and Social Control in the Global Era, expands the definition of social control to beyond direct police action to curb protests and demonstrations. The three authors, Amory Starr, Luis Fernandez and Christian Scholl look at 17 anti-globalisation protests at 17 international summits and develop a comprehensive concept of social control where space and place play a key role.

According to this concept, repression includes a broad number of methods including soft tools: infiltrating social movements, psychological warfare, observation and surveillance, and control of space.

“Police tactics operate on the notion that protest is a criminal act, and thus illegal. This approach summarises the interests of the elite and non-elite at the same time, which diminishes and ignores the policies proposed by protestors. It also sends a message to protestors and those who are thinking about protest that what they are doing — contrary to what they believed when they started — is insignificant in benefitting society, and — to the contrary — does not make sense, is abnormal and unsafe. They could respond by making their protest more reasonable, pleasant and cohesive, or respond by embracing a subculture that deplores prevailing ideas.”

The authors call this marginalising social movements, and link it to the emergence of protest groups such as the Black Bloc, which appeared in Egypt recently as a means of confronting the regime’s overall political violence.

The book’s concept of political violence by the state, which generates resistance, and its three components apply to Egypt. First, political economy: the high cost of “protecting” buildings and summits. The book mentions the millions spent by Europe and the US to secure summits for G8, the World Trade Organisation, and others over the past decade, and pose the question: Who supplies the police with this equipment, at the expense of whom and at what cost, and what is its relationship to the military industrial complex in the US?

In Egypt, this year’s budget allocated LE2.2 billion in wages alone to the Ministry of Interior administration, while the deficit funded by the budget for the Ministry of Interior administration, the security agencies and police jumps to LE17.5 billion. The additional allocation of LE50 billion by President Mohamed Morsi reveals a clause worth LE1 billion entitled, “inevitable national necessities that often relate to security.”

While the police do not protect homes or regulate the street, this sector was bestowed with blessings — despite this age of austerity — with new uniforms, weapons, gas (imported from the defenders of democracy in Washington), and even helicopters.

The Ministry of Interior is a priority in the age of the elected president, with the same faces and previous duties; in political economy, it takes precedence over healthcare and education.

The second factor, which may seem absurd but isn’t, is geography and space: controlling certain streets to encircle and limit protests; shutting down entire areas with concrete walls and barricades and using barbed wire, etc. This is accompanied by controlling the movement of the people (as we see with Sinai residents, for example). This factor, which has always been present in Egypt but recently intensified, leads to the third factor, namely social control that also uses the usual police measures: “Accusations of conspiracy; preemptive mass arrests; police assaults even on peaceful gatherings; increasingly criminalising protests by equating the crime of damaging property to violent crimes, and even terrorism; militarising the police and even involving the army in confronting demonstrations,” state the authors, as if they were describing Egypt.

This is a high level of political violence that our rulers still resort to in order to criminalise, distort and regain social control over the public domain in Egypt. This violence influences protest movements as seen in Egypt (the same thing happened in Europe), by causing one of the following effects, according the authors: protestors stay away from confrontations and even avoid peaceful methods of protest to protect their image; or closed organisations emerging to fight their own battles and moving away from the broader mainstream social movement.

One may differ with the transformation on the street in recent days, in terms of whether this is the best organisational and political means to continue the revolution on which the regime continues to wage a war. But the clashes over concrete barricades are not absurd like the wars of those who manufacture teargas for export to Egypt, and that are condemned by Malick’s film. The blood that spills and breaks our hearts flows for the sake of liberation from the control of social oppression and police brutality, and the figures behind these policies.

Yes, it is the fault of concrete barricades and those who use them as a shield from the people.


This article was first published in Al-Shorouk daily


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