Sunday, February 06, 2011

Egypt: Singing for Revolution in Tahrir Square

The unfolding revolution in Egypt has seen an explosion of new forms of social life and mutual aid as people organise to live as the regime totters. The collective occupation of urban space in Tahrir Square and elsewhere; the establishing of autonomous field hospitals to treat the injured; the formation of street committees to maintain security and hygiene; all this alongside the attacks on the institutions of the state (police stations, prisons, ruling party HQs). According to one eye wtiness account:

'Though the regime continues to struggle, practically little government exists. All ministries and government offices have been closed, and almost all police headquarters were burned down on January 28... During the ensuing week and a half, millions converged on the streets almost everywhere in Egypt, and one could empirically see how noble ethics—community and solidarity, care for others, respect for the dignity of all, feeling of personal responsibility for everyone - emerge precisely out of the disappearance of government' (The Egyptian Revolution: First Impressions from the Field - Mohammed A. Bamyeh).

Naturally music and dancing has been part of this explosion: 'Between protesters roaming around shouting sarcastic anti-government slogans into handheld microphones, others attracting the crowd with original poetry, and young bands playing music, the sit-in in Tahrir Square has turned into a street festival' (The Politics of Persistence at

A number of commentators have mentioned the popularity in the protests of the songs of Ahmad Fu’ad Nigm and the late al-Shaykh Imam. There's an excellent article at Jadaliyya on Singing for the Revolution, which includes the lyrics to their very apt song I Am The People. In this article, Sinan Antoon offers a critique of the notion that events in Egypt can be understood as inspired by 'Western' ideas and technologies:

'Yes, new technologies and social media definitely played a role and provided a new space and mode, but this discourse eliminates and erases the real agents of these revolutions: the women and men who are making history before our eyes. Members of our species have done that before, you know... As if the inhabitants of the region didn’t have a long history of struggles and revolts against all kinds of oppressors, indigenous, but mostly foreign colonizers (white men, by the way). As if liberationist inspiration has only one boring trajectory always emanating from the west and then heading east. As if the uprising in Iran wasn’t an inspiration as well. But why do I even have to expect the citizens of the civilized world to know about the strikes, riots, uprisings, intifadas and protests of previous decades. As if there wasn’t a proud and potent revolutionary tradition and a collective memory crowded with symbols, martyrs, moments, poems, and songs about freedom and justice. One of the rallying chants in Tunisia was a line from the Tunisian poet Abu ‘l-Qasim al-Shabbi (1909-1934) “ If, one day, the people want life, fate must yield"...'

Here's some singing on Friday's Day of Departure demonstration in Cairo with a guitarist leading a chorus (rough translation: 'Down Down Hosni Mubarak, Down Down Hosni Mubarak ... The people want to dismantle the regime .... He is to go, we are not going ... He is to go, we won't leave ... We all, one hand, ask one thing, leave leave'

One final thought...

Why do people keep going on about the 'Arab revolution' and the 'Arab Street' as if people there are fundamentally different from the rest of the world? Even in the Middle East, the notion of the 'Arab revolution' excludes millions of people who don't define themselves as Arabs - most people who live in Iran and Israel for starters.

What's going on in Egypt and Tunisia is linked to movements against austerity, unemployment and rising prices across the globe. I know Trafalgar Square isn't Tahrir Square, but there are even parallels with the recent demonstrations in the UK - see for instance the prominent role of school students in the Tunisian events as in London (and in France and Greece in the last couple of years). Of course, in Egypt and Tunisia they have been confronting repressive dictatorships as well as economic misery, but here too there are parallels with other parts of the world - Chinese bureaucrats must be shaking in their boots as well as Egyptian, Syrian and Iranian ones. The scenes in Tahrir Square resemble nothing so much as Tiananmen Square in the days before the suppression of protests in Beijing in 1989 - hopefully this time with a happier ending.

1 comment:

Atlanta Roofing said...

Reform always carries the risk that it might be hijacked – by the right, often, but also by the left. Change is something governments dislike as much as business executives; it makes uncertain the continuance of carefully crafted deals and predictions of profit. But that’s a poor argument that the vast majority of people should act like medieval peasants and submit to the status quo when that may be as or more harmful as change.