Annie Rebekah Gardner lives and studies in Cairo, Egypt and is a frequent Canonball contributor.
During the Great Communications Blackout of 2011- I’m reluctant to call it that, because in these days, anything is possible, including more blockages, and in fact I have yet to send or receive text messages, save pro-regime propaganda- my dear friend Max Strasser was able to fill readers in a little bit about the large role that women have played in Egypt’s uprising, and indeed, many media and blogs have followed suit.
Having attended the demonstrations intermittently since the Day of Rage on January 25th, and knowing and following women activists on the ground who have devoted themselves to occupying Tahrir Square (Liberation Square, for those whose media seems to be allergic to pronouncing “Tahrir,” which, really, isn’t that hard to pronounce, BUT I DIGRESS), I will vouch for this fact (also the fact that Nawal el-Sadawi is 80 years old and still a bad-ass), and instead of elaborating on something that ought to be more or less well-known at this point (if I hear one more person bemoan a “lack of women,” I will personally break their fingers), I’d like to consider the role that masculinities have played in the uprising, and how a revolution, should it ever come to pass (as we all more or less know, any transitional government that is US-brokered is highly unlikely to radically shift the status quo of governance here), could hold a potential for re-imagining masculinity in a new order.
As we’ve noted on Canonball before, Egypt’s endemic levels of sexual harassment are not exactly unknown. On a popular listserv that caters to ex-pats in Cairo, warnings were sent out prior to the demonstration on January 25th: women are liable to be harassed in greater numbers in such settings, stay away. I’ve been to enough soccer rallies and gotten my ass grabbed enough times to know that this warning isn’t just hysterical posturing, but aside from a few rogue ass-grabbers (and only on the initial day of demonstrations, at that), the level of sexual harassment within spaces of demonstration has been a steady zero. Exit Tahrir square, and in a few blocks, you’ll be greeted by familiar cat-calls, but in Tahrir proper, politeness (and truthfully, not just politeness, but genuine friendliness) remains the modus operandi, to the point where many opposition figures have taken it on as a boasting point, as well they should.
Some sociological theory suggests that Egypt’s rash of sexual harassment stems from a high population of young, frustrated, unemployed ineligible bachelors (ineligible because of myriad social and financial obstacles to marriage). Now that a popular uprising is afoot, acts of frustration have been transferred to their rightful objects: a repressive regime, a stagnant economy.
“Come down, be a man!”
On January 26th, I marched with protesters on their way to the high court (until we got rerouted by tear gas and I pansied out). I have never seen Downtown’s streets so empty, and as we marched, demonstrators beckoned those watching from their balconies to join the movement, shouting, “Come down, be a man!” There’s something about these words that is potentially problematic, but I’ll go out on a limb here and suggest that this beckoning, led for the most part by young women around my age, heralds a call for new forms of masculinity in the wake of the dying regime’s thuggish paternalism.
In a police state, the greatest act of bravery is risking bodily harm and detention by taking to the streets en masse. That young men, shabaab, have persistently maintained their energy in spite of looming threats, is testament to a rejection of an aging and obsolete hierarchy (this in spite of Omar Suleiman’s positing that Egyptians have always needed a ruler).
While positive, productive kinds of masculinity are being enacted by the youth, the strains of the regime’s old-school masculine tropes linger. I can’t speak to how expansive Mubarak’s security apparatus really is, but for as long as I can remember, Mukhabarat and Baltageyya– secret police and state security- have remained steadfast figures in the fabric of the Egyptian landscape (anecdote: one particular thug, sent to report on an expatriate church, was the butt of my dad’s jokes on more than one occasion. Also one time he tried to kiss my mom, but that’s another story for another time). As Yasmin has said, these figures embody a distinct masculinity that has traditionally been the status quo- the sa3ey dude embodied. Rather than represent a positive brand of man-hood (fatherliness, youthful energy), state security proffers a fearsome, threatening man.
On the second day of demonstrations, outside the journalist’s syndicate I watched as protesters faced off against a row of heavily armed riot police (all of whom are young conscripts performing their mandatory military service). A group off five or six amin al-dowl (state security) emerged from behind the riot cops, and the protesters, about 100 or 200- strong, booked it. Later that day, I watched them drag and beat an elderly journalist. On more than one occasion, I’ve come upon an empty square where they sit with rods and chains, ready for the call to go beat the shit out of protesters. During the aptly named Battle of Tahrir a few days ago, they were merciless, taking extra special care to target women in their beatings.
Mubarak’s thugs and the police go hand-in-hand, naturally. As noted above, the lowest ranking officers are young conscripts, and so while they do the dirty work, their superiors look on and tell them that they aren’t beating people hard enough. More than one source has observed that if circumstances were different, they’d be on the other side of the lines, and in fact most protesters are sympathetic to this. More than one photo has surfaced of protesters tending to injured conscripts, and in mourning the fallen, no less respect is paid to them. Like state security, the police embody a tired, hierarchical kind of manliness that soon may have no place in the order of things. In their absence, rather than entering a state of panic, many neighborhoods grouped together and established popular committees to protect their streets and direct traffic, something that the police have never been very good at, even on the best of days.
Respect Your Father
A curious addition to state security and the police is the seemingly neutral military, which was greeted with elation on Friday the 28th, or Friday of Rage. Released Wikileaks show that, though the military’s loyalties lie with the regime, there is a degree of division and in-fighting, which could very well prove positive. In my personal experience, the military has been much nicer and much more professional than the police, with minimal sexual harassment on the part of soldiers (take note that even the police in Egypt maintain notoriety for harassing women), but even so, represents the fragments of a regimented regime, which does nothing but reflect the paternalism of its high commanders. Newly appointed VP Omar Suleiman chided protesters in the streets, urging their parents to tell them to go home (never mind the fact that many of them actually are parents. This may be a youth-lead movement, but never doubt the multi-generational support it has garnered), asking them to respect their father, Baba Hosni.
Boy’s Don’t Cry (Men Do)
The regime is tiring. It has become a curmudgeonly figure of traditional patriarchy, while the opposition movement’s figureheads like Wael Ghonim cry openly for their people, calling for them to rally against the NDP’s hackneyed politics. Contrast Ghonim’s tearful interview (I dare you not to cry) with anti-protest and old-masculine Tamer Hosny, and you have everything you need to know: the old order of masculinity in Egypt is slowly but surely crumbling, and a new order- one that demands equality and rejects hierarchy- is emergent. While I can’t say for sure whether or not sexist norms, especially sexual harassment, will fade (per usual, I remain skeptical, due to the maddening Patriarchy), I think it fairly undeniable that a new masculine imagination is coming out at a grassroots level. If that isn’t revolutionary, then I don’t know what is.