On Feb. 1, Egyptians had staged some of the most exuberant, massive demonstrations the world has seen in recent history with a clear and direct message: Mubarak, leave.
The Obama administration said it was listening, though it wasn’t sure what to do—as Stephen Colbert pointed out. Obama said, “To the people of Egypt, particularly the young people of Egypt, I want to be clear. We hear your voices.” Over the next ten days, the administration called for restraint from all sides, and backed “an orderly, peaceful transition, beginning now,” (the now kept getting longer), under the leadership of intelligence chief Omar Suleiman. The NYTimes clarified: “Vice President Omar Suleiman of Egypt says he does not think it is time to lift the 30-year-old emergency law that has been used to suppress and imprison opposition leaders. He does not think President Hosni Mubarak needs to resign before his term ends in September. And he does not think his country is yet ready for democracy.” Apparently they haven’t demonstrated enough interest?
Egyptian demonstrators were very clear: Suleiman was not an option.
Mubarak was also apparently listening tonight as he got on television, with everyone from his party chief to Barack Obama apparently expecting him to announce his resignation. Your demands are “legitimate and just demands,” he said, adding he would not step down. Which demands? Surely not this one: irhal, go.
His speech was vague, incoherent, and he seemed to be in denial. He said he wouldn’t leave. He mentioned he would hand over power to Suleiman. He said he was mourning those who had been killed (the ones killed by his forces) and he called Egyptians his children. The masses in Tahrir Square raised their shoes in anger and disgust.
Tonight the headline reads “Rage in Egypt as Mubarak Stays On.” Obama’s statement: Egyptians “remain unconvinced that the government is serious about a genuine transition to democracy.” You are raging. We hear your voices, but there’s nothing we can do. Rage with restraint. You are our children—
Light-bulb: Paternalism would be a solid policy principle for developing an alliance between America and Arab autocrats!
Mubarak blathered on about making reforms, hinting at getting rid of Article 179 of the Constitution, the emergency law, “as soon as we regain stability and security and as soon as these circumstances — circumstances assure the stability.”
Carl Schmitt knew that the sovereign is he who decides on the exception—that is, whoever can stand outside the law—by founding it, or by being immune from it—is sovereign. Mubarak will probably never get rid of article 179 of the Egyptian Constitution, but if he were to remove the emergency law, or declare the end of a state of exception, he would only be re-asserting his sovereignty—to decide on the exception! He would be implying and demonstrating his power to bring the article back just as soon. In Egypt, Benjamin’s truth-against-liberalism has been more obvious than in most places: the exception has become the rule.
And the people of Egypt must not be threatened by “foreign elements”! “I am telling you, as a president of the country, I do not find it a mistake to listen to you and to respond to your requests and demands. But it is shameful and I will not, nor will ever accept to hear foreign dictations, whatever the source might be or whatever the context it came in.” Because there have been no foreign dictations to Egypt in the last 30 years, no foreign interference! Or this is just a distraction, as in, I will respond to your demands—anyway, how about those bad foreign elements? What demands did you have again? Can we have another round of negotiations?
But the question of “foreign dictations” is a big part of this story, including the emergency law. Mubarak has been a key player in the bogus “global war on terror,” or global wrought state of exception—a valued partner in the CIA’s extraordinary rendition program which tortures suspects in ways we don’t like to (we knew they’d do it, since Egyptian police also torture Egyptian citizens, including children). In September 2001, Mubarak gained only more leeway to use “foreign elements” and “terror” as an excuse after the UN Security Council passed resolution 1373, probably initiated by the U.S. This was the first time a resolution was imposed on all member states without requiring them to be party to a specific treaty. It mandated that all member states adapt their domestic laws to fight terrorism, with two minorly damning lacunae: no definition of terrorism, and no provision for human rights protections.
If it is absurd for Mubarak to remove the emergency law, he is not the only absurd one: that is exactly what the U.S. was claiming his regime would do.
But I think this reflects more general problems of agency and violence that we saw tonight: there seems to be an insistence to apparently put the agency on Mubarak. We ask him to leave, he will leave. But Ben Ali in Tunisia was forced to leave. Mubarak may have to be forced to leave.
So was this apparent waiting for him to step down a gesture that would allow him to save face? Or is it an amazing practice of non-violent protest? Or — is it a reaction conditioned by the military and security apparatus’ continuing monopoly on the use of force? Or maybe this is just getting started. The next step looms: marching on the presidential palace. But the palace is surrounded by layers and layers of military and security forces. One might question whether our lauding of the non-violence of the protesters holds up against the massive potential for violence with which our policies have armed their military and intelligence apparatuses.
How to address the apparent acceptability of the military for many Egyptians? At least from the West, we don’t know much about the military elite, what divisions there might be within it, and whether they would oversee a transition that would be reasonably democratic. And how, for the left, to address the nationalist quality of this revolution, which seems linked to current discourses among many Egyptians about the military saving the nation? These are major problems.
But the more the pundits cheapen this word, “revolution,” the more it is sensationalized on al-Jazeera and uttered by people you would never expect, the more the word “revolution” is shot through with the tension between its explicit and implicit meaning. The Egyptian people, the Egyptian nation, the will of the people, freedom: these terms are uncomfortable and vague. But they are chosen from limited alternatives, and they say a lot more than they seem to say. They hint at the Jordanians, Syrians, and Yemenis following suit; they call up a real solidarity from the widest array of observers, from neoconservatives to the Left—solidarity that plays loudly even in the duplicitous discourse of the Obama administration.
An al-Jazeera reporter remarked tonight on the amazing atmosphere in Tahrir square: “everyone comes up to us, everyone wants to talk to us. They say ‘I have something to say, let me speak.'” The Western reaction has been to hear, but to imagine ourselves outside the situation, conveniently swallowing the lump of solidarity in our throats.
We are in the situation, our solidarity is real, and it is our language, our government that is absolutely not up to the task of representing the depth of our solidarity with Egypt. The Arabs are declaring their democracy; they are ready for it.
To listen would also be to ask ourselves: are we?