What can Egypt and Tunisia teach us?

The protests in Tunisia and Egypt have won the first of what will have to be many victories. Mubarak and Ben Ali have fled and dictators have fallen to people’s uprisings – the street and the public square have, at least for the moment, reclaimed their voice from the boulevards and corridors of power. Globally, these have been reported and rightly hailed as victories over entrenched dictatorships. Yet the uprisings have much to teach those of us who live in “democracies” – we must not lose the opportunity to ask what Egypt and Tunisia can teach us, no matter where we are.

I’ve been trying to write something about this for a few days now – nothing quite settles at the end of the pen. So here’s a set of thoughts/questions/ruminations that I think we must take on – in rambles, and intended as a provocation to comments and hopefully follow up posts.

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It is worth remembering what began and catapulted the first set of protests in Tunisia and what has been the resounding cry throughout the uprisings. Mohammad Bouazizi, an unemployed man, immolated himself alleging police harassment. It’s a story that could and does belong to any village, town and city in India. Within it, lie two strands of injustice – economic inequality and the indignities and injustices of everyday life in the deeply hierarchical and stratified societies we inhabit. The question lies in the spark that tips them off and the moment than then takes sparks and turns them into organized and unorganized fires. The story of how the uprisings were organized, in a way, is slowly coming to light now – but I doubt we’ll ever fully know or that there is any “one” story of what tipped the scale now as opposed to other moments in Egypt’s history.

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Egypt and Tunisia have both invaded and been driven to their streets. Decades of structural adjustment, “reform”, the withdrawal of basic subsidies and privatization of services and industries alike, has resulted in a deepening and increasingly structural economic inequality. As India’s growth story continues unabated in many people’s eyes despite falling real incomes, persistent regional imbalances, the continuing existence of destitution and hunger, rampant food inflation, deeply flawed and imbalanced land and housing markets in cities alongside rural stagnation and neglect, the echoes of recognition are hard to miss.

The last few times Egypt took to its streets was over bread and unemployment. Aren’t these uprisings not just cries against the political repression of a brutal dictatorship but also the voices of dissent against an economic regime that closely parallels our own?

How the protestors and the new regimes can fight the structural economic roots of their discontent is more difficult to ascertain than how they will demand more political freedom – but in the relationship between the two lies the challenge for both them and us. It poses a question to us: how do we wed our own economic resistances to political ones?

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This reminds me of something that activist and scholar Usha Ramanathan once wrote (I’ll dig up where if anyone is interested) about displacement in the 60s versus in the contemporary moment. She had argued that in the heyday of nationalism when inequality was acknowledged, when the goal of “national development” was ostensibly still the development of all and the needs of the poor were given importance (if not actual resdistribution) — then displacement was politically different. No one used the word, she said, because people believed they would benefit in the end; that the national project was also about them. This, she says, writing about slum evictions, is what has changed in contemporary times – there isn’t a belief that there is a national developmental project. There isn’t a belief that development and growth have to do with the poor at all.

There are many arguments and counter-arguments about whether the welfare state of the 60s-80s was actually better for the poor than the reformist post-91 state. That debate isn’t my point here – my point is to say that the reality of economic inequality is as important as how it is politically acknowledged, talked about and imagined when one thinks about the political space it creates. A visiting scholar from Singapore said to me yesterday that he believes there is a political moment in India today that is full of possibilities of resistance because there is both the expectation of gains from growth but also a simmering anger at those left out of it — not just out of the resources but out of the story itself.

Is the changed political management, imagination and narrative of inequality that we so often lament on this site and in many of our writings also an opportunity we must take? Movements across the country, of course, are doing this in different ways – but is there a meta-narrative that could be told? or even a meso one? Is such an aggregation a value-add?

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Democratic spaces manage inequality in different ways than dictatorial ones [with many exceptions, of course, where they are indistinguishable from each other]. Egypt was seen as politically “stable” despite mass political arrests, a stifling of dissent in the press, control of information flows, and systematized state violence. Its economy was seen by international financial institutions as “well performing” and following a “correct” path to reform. Both these stabilities were built on systemic and sustained exclusions. India arguably has less of the former than Egypt – though many would argue that the gap is increasingly narrowing between draconian laws like the AFSPA, POTA, TADA and a score of others and cases like those of Dr Binayak Sen and others in Chattisgarh. We no doubt, however, have equal or even deeper economic exclusions within our “growth story” as Egypt or Tunisia. We also have the same deliberate and sustained pretence at (and narrative about) both our political and economic “stability”. They key is to recongise the different ways in which this pretense is maintained in order to effectively challenge it.

How does one fight pretense especially in a “democracy” where its levers and pipes are not as starkly visible? We live in a contemporary political moment where economic inequality is openly, morally, ethically and economically defensible and indeed defended – through our media, our leadership, by ourselves and our courts.

What Cairo must remind us of is how critical it is to challenge this paradigm. What it cannot help us understand is how it can be done – Tahrir Square is one kind of resistance – what are the others? How can the value of work and life and the dignity of many become the barometer of how we judge ourselves as a nation? Will it take our own Tahrir Square? If so, then what is it that we fight against? What can take the form of Mubarak – a single, unifying other? Do we need one? How do we bring people together?

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Public space.

Another thing that keeps returning to my head is the images of the numbers in Tahrir square and how important the square was in and of itself spatially in the moment and the movement.

I think of a rally a few weeks ago for Dr Sen. After a long time, a protest in Delhi wasn’t at Jantar Mantar but actually walked its streets – from the Red Fort to ITO. I remember being struck by how different it felt, and how long it had been, to walk in the city in the name of dissent and protest. Images from Tahrir and the streets of Tunisia now stand next to that feeling in my head. Dissent need not be but often necessarily is deeply physical – the presence of the bodies on the street is as near an experiential sense of the “public”, in one sense, that one can get. Public spaces are the heart of challenging the centralization of control and of creating cultures of equity and dignity – be it in the city or in the nation-state.

In Delhi, for example, the increasing instances of gating, the control over gathering anywhere outside the two hundred square feet of Jantar Mantar, the spectre of Section 144, and a deeply inequitable and fractured housing and land market, have, in very different yet particularly spatial ways, all render the idea of the “public” as an afterthought, a residue – a space that no one can claim. The physical absence of residents in public spaces is both the chicken and the egg of a story of a changing and depleted imagination of a shared public among the city’s residents – be it of services, of resources, of aesthetics, of citizenship and of a very simply idea of dignity, of who can, should and does belong to the city. This story – in similar and different ways – is being played out the scale of a nation as a whole.

Could reclaiming public space for conversations, debates and voices – regardless of what these voices want to say and whether “we” agree with “them” or not – become a single point agenda for a movement of our own? Could the idea of the public bring urban residents together – regardless of what we want to do once we’re in that space? Could public space be an answer that rallies people together – the more voices, the more noise, the more debates, the more antagonism that come, from any point of view, would that noise not represent a resistance to the single story being told about India today?

Could such spaces be created? Would anyone come? How can they be sustained? How can we use new forms of information flows and technologies in this process? What are the new sites and spaces of struggle open to us?

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New Forms of Mobilisation and New political practices

This is something that many are writing about so I’ll just flag it – do Cairo and Tunisia represent new forms of political practice? How are they and how are they not “new”? Certainly there is a visible and immediate absence of identifiable leadership – the framing of the “people” as leading the revolt was critical and the organizing, the people, the smaller sets who must have run some elements of the show (or must they have?) of this “organic” gathering and uprising that was so organized have now been begun to be talked about but still remain largely hidden. What is the import of this?

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The uprisings offer us a renewed hope and also indicated a new mode of political mobilization that we must take seriously – uprisings that are not just based on the structured spaces and familiar institutions of revolution but create a new space where the unions, the Muslim Brotherhood, the elite, the young and the Army found a common language. We may not have a Mubarak to unite us so easily, but could our own political strategies learn from how these various factions spoke to each other, even if opportunistically and momentarily? What could speak across India’s widening political poles in the same way? What would it take to get our own exclusions and injustices back to the heart of our public discourse, the pages of our newspapers, the airwaves of our radios, and the public spaces of our cities?

***

To me, the need for us to build our own Tahrir is clear. It may or may not take the same form as Cairo but this moment must energise us to find our own version of this story. Onward!

22 thoughts on “What can Egypt and Tunisia teach us?”

  1. Onward! Indeed, Gautam. Thanks for this. I too have been long wanting to write but have just not found the time to. Some of the concerns raised by you are precisely mine too – and of many others, I am sure. Hope to follow up your post with mine, inspired by yours…

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  2. If anything ,Egypt has shamed us. Mubarak was going to foist his son on them and they kicked the whole family out. But we, the so called largest democracy on earth, have been inflicted with a dynasty since our independence and the satraps in our states seem to follow suit. Not an eye-lid is batted when Karunanidhi foists his sons and daughters and wives and hangers- on like Raja on us. If Nehru can get his daughter, his grandson into the PM’s office and his great grandson to be PM in-waiting then why blame the Karunanidhis,Yedyurappas or Pawars or Pilots and so on when they try getting their heirs into the Parliament and Cabinet. Will we do anything about it? No.

    I think there is a better chance of the Iranians following Egypt’s footsteps than Indians. Indians were servile during the Muslim invasions, they were servile when the British came in , they were servile when the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty was foisted upon us, they were servile when hangers on of the dynasty started frothing at the mouth at alleged insults to Sonia Gandhi ( the word Holy Cow is now presumably banned since a particularly obnoxious spokesperson of the Congress went berserk on the news channel when she suspected Tharoor of having insulted her mistress). Indians in general have as much self respect as that Police Official who was diligently cleaning Mayawati’s shoes. And are these the people one expects to do a Tahrir Square here?

    And to top it all even an educated man like Chetan Bhagat recently wrote an open letter to “dear Soniaji” in Times of India begging her to solve our corruption problem. He apparently wrote it in the name of young Indians. If this is the self respect young Indians and their self styled representative have then it is better not to think of Tahrir Square even in our dreams.

    regards
    Ravi

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    1. To Ravi Nayar:
      Well done Mr. Ravi Nayar! You out-tracked the whole subject & issues raised by Gautam Bhan .

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  3. There is a similarity between what was seen in Egypt and the times of Mandal commission when the govt and the then PM Vp singh tried /forced mandalisation.The response of the people against the authorities was overwhelming.A public uprising in India needs a focus/point of agreement ,whether real or perceived by the poor .The problem lies in the huge size of the nation,and that most issues of dissent are remaining localised.God forbid,if any unifying event would happen,perhaps we too would need to be reorganised to remove the unequalities.

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  4. @ravi nayar-were indians less servile before the muslim invasions? does not our caste system have something to do with our abject servility. and why only politics? in every field members of the family are given preference over others-just look at our business houses, the law, academics, the film industry just to name some fields of activity.

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  5. Vakul, true — the oppressors in India are the lower castes. How dare they be given a chance to study, be involved in policy making? In fact we should revolt to eliminate them first. Let us disown these “lowly” people, let us all try to do all the dirty work by ourselves. Clean our toilets, clean our roads, clean our railway tracks, wash our clothes.. That will be overwhelming, and that (and not the uprising against Mandal commission) will be the beginning of our (upper-caste) revolution.

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  6. Shama Zaidi, spot on. You have exposed the covert Hindu sentiments of Mr. Nayar. These anti-Congress right-wingers serve no critical purpose against the Congress and use that sentiment to push a saffron coloured “parivar”ic ideology of India. Caste is the issue, and no other. To bring in the question of Muslim and British invasions in a context which needs political consciousness against upper-caste/class rule in India, is an utter give-away. Indians, unlike what Mr. Nayar suggests, are more prone to masculine nationalism and its sleeping monsters.

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  7. Dear Mr.Manash Bhattacharjee before you accuse me of being anti-muslim read Babur Namah and his opinion of Indians .Zahiruddin Babur came from parts far away from India and in any context can be considered a Muslim invader. By the way I speak and write good Arabic and can read the Holy Quran better than most Indian Muslims. Second don’t bring up casteism in this discussion – I do not know the caste of the man who was cleaning Mayawati’s shoes. He may well be a Brahmin for all I know. Contradict me on what I wrote and don’t stoop to personal attacks about me when you do not know me. Okay? And for your information Mr,Bhattacharjee I speak Bengali and I bet a million rupees that you can’t speak my mother tongue Malayalam. This is not the kind of debate I expected from a Bengali. How in heaven’s name did you know I have covert Hindu sentiments? I am a Buddhist if a man’s personal religion is what we are debating about. but the debate is not about that. We are talking about the Egyptian revolt and its effect on us Indians. My contention is that we can’t emulate the Egyptians. By the way, Mr.Bhattacharjee the Arabic I speak is normally the Egyptian colloquial one. And I know Egypt a damn sight better than you. So don’t bring up my religion or my beliefs, covert or overt, when debating about tahrir Square. Okay?

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  8. Ms.Shama Zaidi ,yes you are right. Our caste system has a lot to answer for. When a society has systematically for aeons designated major portions of its members to be sub-human or to use the Nazi word Unter Menschen, then we can expect the servility I am talking about. But this also is true – when you oppress someone then that rubs off on you too. The servility which we Indians expected from the lower castes, in turn maybe, made us servile when dealing with foreign invasions. I don’t think anyone in his heart fo hearts will deny the injustices committed in the name of caste – how we disenfranchised a major portion fo our polity through century after century. It is just like the Israelis – they came out of the Holocaust, victims of unimaginable horrors and now look what they are doing to a similar helpless population in Gaza or in the West Bank. What happened in Gaza can be compared to what happened to the Jewish people in the Warsaw Ghetto when the might of the Wehrmacht crushed their resistance to invasion. Though I have bowed down and cried at the Auschwitz Concentration Camp memorial in Poland, I cannot forget the horrors committed by the sons and grand sons of the victims of Nazi concentration camps on Palestinians in Gaza or Sabra or Shatila. Human beings unfortunately turn from victims into oppressors rather quickly with circumstances. In India unfortunately we have a ruling mob, whether Congress or BJP, which have now turned into the vilest oppressors – you just have to look at the years of Congress rule and the scams perpetrated, the rule of BJP in Karnataka, or the action against Dr.Binayak Sen by cohorts of the BJP. Tahrir Square will take a long time, if at all, to happen in India. We have been trained to easily accuse the people demanding change as covertly this or that and sabotage the aspiration of a nation for a corruption free, and dynastic free country.
    regards
    ravi

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    1. Our system is protected by two processes. Firstly, upper caste Indian middle class, which eagerly joined the chorus of latest theme song of ruling classes i.e. India the Super power, shed all pretence to a commitment to liberal/egalitarian ideals. Secondly socially upward mobile ‘lowly’ castes are embracing undemocratic and authoritarian culture of ‘upper’castes. there is a third element that needs a mention. Post-Modern Shibboleth, which keeps sections of intelligentsia apolitical and provides legitamacy to their strategic inaction, robs a needed leadership from movement.
      As long as these anti-democratic and pro bourgeois currents are in full swing, it’s difficult to expect a Tahrir in near future. But how to work among youth ,students and workers in these times is a huge challenge that needs to be taken up by all people committed to radical change in this country.

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  9. Sorry for jumping the insinuation, Mr. Nayar. And well, you are right, I can’t speak Malayalam. But I make it up by listening to old Malayalam songs by Yesudas and Jayachandran. I also cook Kerala cuisines well. Currently am learning cuisines from Lathika George’s ‘The Suriani Kitchen’ which a friend posted me as a gift from Bangalore. Good day.

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  10. Sandeep,when you overdo charity,throwing out the baby with the bath water it definitely hurts.Our politicians are trying to play a game of one upmanship with each other in trying to compensate for the caste problem.Our forefathers including Dr.B.R.Ambedkar deemed 25 years of caste based concessions as enough.It is our politicians and people like you who feel that being a lower caste entitles them to a concession in every avenue,including passing with less than 10% marks whereas in Medicine it is 50 % for the general category,,gaining seniority in the overall list,more seats in post graduation without meerit,more jobs and so on and so forth.perhaps reservation in the cricket team,and other sports,including the army and in politics with the seat of the prime minister,Finance and Home ministry, and foreign ministry reserved for them top jolt us back to meritocracy.

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    1. Vakul, my name is Sudeep, not Sandeep (I believe you were addressing me). And I am not talking about charity.

      If you believe you are doing charity by allowing people their rights, I don’t think we can blame the dynasty families and other “leaders” who think the power and money they have access to is all theirs, and if they do anything for the country and its people, it is charity. (I think it is in our blood, isn’t it?)

      B R Ambedkar hoped that the rest of India would co-operate and will involve the “lower” caste people in its decision making policies. He did not know that those who have the access to money, power and education will hold on to it, and reservation will be the sole tool that the others will have to cling to if they were to get any share of it.

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  11. @Ravi Nayar
    “We have been trained to easily accuse the people demanding change as covertly this or that and sabotage the aspiration of a nation for a corruption free, and dynastic free country” – Don’t you think you are doing the same.

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  12. I have been watching this thread unfold and find that there is a general intolerance of views and opinions, bordering on mockery of democracy.When Shama Zaidi brought up an innocent question, : “were indians less servile before the muslim invasions?” it was turned into an exposition of “covert Hindu sentiments”.

    How can we defy history? Things happened; expressing that those things happened cannot make you into a right winger.

    As a lecturer, I have often faced this dilemma. How do you talk to different groups of people and convey an opinion that fits everyone’s cup? How do you motivate young people and also tell them the truth? Is truth one party’s/group’s/majority’s domain or does it belong to one who has spent time seeking it?

    Thank you Gautam Bhan for such a thought provoking article….you have unconsciously revealed through Egypt’s upheaval how splintered the Indian identity still is.

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  13. Ravi,

    Unfortunately I too came to the same conclusion..that an Egypt may not happen in India — at least just now. There has to be enough understanding of the need for everyone to have human rights…not that the indigenous people in MP/ CH/Jharkhad/ Orissa have to sacrifice themselves for “our” 11 % growth..when 70% of them have been systematically starved — and have a BMI of less than 18.5. In to what haven of freedom has our country woken up to?
    Kochu

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    1. Kochumariamma, I don’t think it is only about the Adivasis of MP/CH/Jharkhand or Orissa. It is also about the one-(two-three..)-up-caste-ship that we hold dear in every interaction we have with other people.

      A friend wrote on facebook : “Mubarak ho, got a realization today that it is very easy to fight against a dictatorial state in comparison to a dictatorial society. It just takes 30 years to defeat the first one :-)”

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  14. An Army-backed regime got displaced by another Army-backed regime in Egypt…And India has to “learn” from that?

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