Six years have passed since the silent sit in, when thousands of Egyptians, without slogans or placards, wore the clothes of Khaled Said, a young man beat and tortured to death in 2010 by the Egyptian police of dictator Hosni Mubarak.
In their powerful silence, the voice that conveyed the rage for decades of oppression was a Facebook page: “We are all Khaled Said.” Behind it was a young blogger, Abdelrahman Mansour. On Tuesday, Mansour, who since the 2013 coup is studying abroad, participated in a press conference in Rome, together with Amnesty International and ARCI. He spoke with il manifesto.
In many ways you defined the mentality behind the 2011 revolution through your Facebook page, the catalyst of popular anger against Mubarak. Why was that page so successful?
There are three factors that made Khaled the symbol of repression. Because his story was similar to that of millions of young Egyptians, and partially different from that of political activists killed by the state. He surfed the internet, listened to music. His family, especially Khaled’s mother, pressured for the truth to come out. And finally for political reasons: Social media had emerged in that period, and it was the only space for political expression for Egyptian youth. If a party wanted to exist, it would have to join the new virtual space: People like ElBaradei and four of the post-Tahrir presidential candidates took part in initiatives organized online.
The use of the internet in 2011 was overstated by the West, which talked about a social revolution. It was a false characterization because of the reduced internet access for a majority of Egyptians and because it seemed like an attempt to “Westernize” that protest.
That’s right. The Western narrative, in which the Arab Spring was a product of the internet, has served to limit the phenomenon, to treat it with extreme superficiality, simplifying it. It’s an easy story to sell and it concealed Western responsibility: To focus attention on social networks has enabled Western governments, which have for decades supported these dictatorial regimes, to clean their consciences, to drive away the moral responsibility of our oppression. People use the internet for organizational purposes because of the lack of other places of political expression, but it was only a virtual space that opened the way for the real one: the square.
The Arab revolutions in this sense are nothing but part of a larger phenomenon, overall, against different regimes from the Americas to Europe to the Middle East. The Egyptian movement is still alive, in the making, part of the protests of young people in different countries against decades of injustice masked by the Western concept of democracy. We know that concept translates into support to el-Sisi, who receives weapons in abundance and modern espionage systems.
Today, three years after el-Sisi’s coup, will the growing protest movement — from students to journalists to the southern protests for water — lead to another change?
Today’s protests are a continuation of those of 2011. But to understand them we must make a distinction between the two different forms of resistance arising from the two regimes, that of Mubarak and that of el-Sisi: the art of presence and art absence. Mubarak’s dictatorship left open a minimum of political organization, exploited by people to express themselves: the protest was present, visible. With el-Sisi’s regime that has changed. It is hermetically closed, suffocating the base. Because of that the prevailing method today is what I call the art of absence as a form of resistance: invisible, underground and therefore underestimated by a regime that will be surprised by its explosion. Increasing groups of citizens are working underground on different issues, from education to health. An example: When hundreds of young people were arrested for protests against the sale of the Tiran and Sanafir islands, people donated money to secretly pay the fines and make them drop the charges.
Over time, these small movements — water, forced disappearances and torture, university life occupied by the armed forces, abuses against the press and civil society, the economic crisis and inflation — will form the social base for the fall of the regime. That time is not yet come: The anger is spreading to ever more sectors of society, but the system is still too strong because of the regional and Western support. But when the cracks that are appearing widen, the people will do to el-Sisi what they did to Mubarak.
A recent article in Al Jazeera defined the low turnout (28 percent) for the 2015 parliamentary election as a “silent protest.” But there are those who still consent to el-Sisi?
El-Sisi still enjoys approval by a majority of the population, but it is a slice that is reduced every day. In 2013, the coup was backed by millions of Egyptians, but today only a few thousand people come into the streets in favor of the government. The reason is again the regime’s tight-fistedness: Mubarak had a political party behind him. El-Sisi does not, and this deprives him of a minimum opening to the demands and needs of the population. Its legitimacy is based only on the army, and his way of ruling is based on the mere pursuit of obedience, as if he ruled a barracks. The loyalty of MPs who support him derives from personal ties and the monitoring of their loyalty by the military. The point is that if at first he lost favor among the people, now he’s losing support even from within the political establishment because of his inability to manage the country.
The director of the government newspaper Al-Ahram warned a few months ago that the case of Giulio Regeni is potentially destructive in the way that Khaled Said was. Do you think that, if not within, Regeni’s death can attract solidarity from outside?
That editorial is an example of what I said: Even the government establishment is publicizing its dissent. Giulio’s death sparked international attention. When I think of him, I think of Khaled: both died because they were seeking the truth (Giulio on the unions, Khaled made a video of police involved in drug trafficking) and both were like many kids in the world who struggle with some form of injustice. In 2010 we were all Khaled Said. Today we’re all Giulio Regeni.