Thursday, July 14, 2011

Interpellated Subjects in Tahrir Square

All of this week, Tahrir Square has been under civilian control and revolutionaries have shut down the streets around the square. Over the past few weeks, there have been camps set up, and there were attacks on protestors last week, but people came back stronger and more determined than ever, which has been very impressive. People are extremely angry at the failure of the government (the PM’s office and the military) to enact the promised and demanded changes, and by all accounts things have a much different, and more tense feel than they have for some time.

I want to explain, briefly, what civilian control of Tahrir Square means from my point of view. This week, when I arrived downtown (for my Arabic lesson) by Metro, as always, I exited onto the Square. This is a huge Metro station, probably the largest in the system. It includes a maze of undergrounds tunnels and, I am guessing, between 10 and 12 street exits. So, as I approach the street exit, there is a group of young revolutionaries who are checking ids and bags and patting people down. Men and women. Often I am struck by their youth—many teenagers. Always, I have been struck by their professionalism and politeness.

At the start of the week, I only had my university id, which I showed them. They preferred a passport, but were fine with what I had. They seriously searched my bag. And offered an extremely friendly, “Welcome.” Then I came up to the street where you can see hundreds of tents and thousands of people gathered around and a couple of stages. Last week, when there were tents and demonstrators in the Square, but the streets were still open, there were civilians directing traffic and providing security inside the Square. There are also checkpoints at all of the streets that lead to the square. It is, as I said, tense in many ways, but I am impressed by the efficiency and sophistication of such an extensive operation. Their goal is to keep out thugs and police (sometimes one and the same) to prevent attacks on protestors. There have been a few, but they have done their job and held the square. It is not clear what the police will do, which is, I believe, a cause of the tension.

Throughout this week, I was also struck by a relative normalcy on many of the streets around the Square. Many businesses were open and people were doing their thing. (KFC and Arby’s were closed; McDonald’s looked open; there was a cadre of street vendors there to fill the void.) The revolutionaries had blocked the Mugamma government building for several days, but I was really struck, in a good way, with the ability of the revolution to coexist with a certain normalcy. I am not sure if this makes sense, or if it somehow represents a failure in that the goal may be to create a certain abnormalcy. Certainly the activists have effectively disrupted things. The area of the city they control is really the epicenter of the city (and I think few cities have a single epicenter that would be the equivalent to Tahrir).

So why are people carrying on with their lives and business? Perhaps it is because a certain fear is gone. Perhaps it is replaced by a newfound fearlessness. Does this coexistence constitute a sort of tacit or passive support for the revolution, and if so is this a good thing? I like the way that it draws everyone in, whether willing, as in my case, or not, as in the case of my Arabic teacher for example.. (I am much more trusting than I am when uniformed people check me elsewhere.) Everyone needs to show id and have their bags checked. Or follow civilians directing traffic. In doing so, unavoidable though it may be, we are accepting the revolution. It may be Althusser’s idea of interpellated subjects (I should probably be reading his essays on ideology now!)... The conditions produce the subjects.

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