Monday,11 December, 2017
Current issue | Issue 1159, (1 - 7 August 2013)
Monday,11 December, 2017
Issue 1159, (1 - 7 August 2013)

Ahram Weekly

‘Power in itself breeds resistance’

Charles Tripp spoke to Al-Ahram Weekly earlier this year in Paris, shortly before the publication of his new book

Charles Tripp
Charles Tripp
Al-Ahram Weekly

Could you say something about your new book?
It began about four years ago, emerging out of a Masters course I developed at the University of London’s School of Oriental and African Studies on the politics of resistance in the Middle East. In many ways, it was because of the response of the students that I felt I wanted to develop it. I felt at that stage that the attention on Middle East politics had been so much driven by what the elites were doing that people had failed to look at the other side of power, which was the ways in which people subverted it, resisted it and hollowed it out in one way or another. I was trying to look for systematic ways of thinking about this in the Middle East, not just in the immediate present but also over 20th century history. There was a sense in which when you see a resistance movement or something that catches headlines in terms of violence you know there is a history of violence behind it.

Two years ago we saw a series of uprisings across the Arab world which touches very much on the subject matter of your book.
I think that one of the things I was trying to do in the book was to look at the way in which people organise but also think about resistance. So I divided the book into thematic chapters that don’t look at countries as much as at themes. One chapter looks at passive resistance, or non-violent resistance; another chapter looks at violent resistance; another chapter looks at how people resist within the framework of an industrial capitalist economy, looking at the workers’ movements in Egypt as well as Islamic responses to capitalism; another chapter looks at gender and resistance and how women seek to organise around their sense of themselves and their rights within a social order that is deeply patriarchal. The idea is to look at resistance not necessarily as a huge political project, but at how people feed into it in one form or another.
Then I look at how people tell the histories of their countries in order to resist the dominant order. The idea is that resistance is not just a physical thing about occupying public space, but is also about how people re-imagine the nation, the people and the life of the nation. A lot of this has come up in the uprisings of the last two years. You’ve seen the spectacular occupations of Tahrir, but you’ve also seen that people are redefining what it is to be Egyptian and what it is to be Tunisian. This is an imaginative project as well as a political one.

Does the book have things to say about Egypt in particular?
When I started the book, the uprisings had not yet started, but clearly to write a book that would come out in 2013 and not mention what had happened in Tunisia and Egypt [would have been impossible]. I use Egypt as one of the examples, among others, to discover what it was that was happening that created this sense of common purpose and trying to get an idea, therefore, of the ways in which resistance was organised and imagined and why it was so powerful — why in 2011 these things were so powerful, when if you look at what happened in 2008 at Mahalla Al-Kubra, or at 1977 in Cairo, these involved only isolated elements.
What I was interested in was what had happened to Egyptians that had made the actions in 2011 meaningful. Partly this had to do with seeing what had happened in Tunisia, but even in Tunisia you have to ask what it was that was driving Tunisians. In the 1980s in Tunisia there was horrific upheaval, riots and hundreds of people killed, and yet it didn’t produce the effects that one saw in 2011. So there was always this puzzle, and in trying to get at this there was always the notion that resistance is part of a response to a culture of repressive power. People used to talk about the haibat al-dawla, the “awe of the state”, and my argument was that this had long evaporated, that no one was in awe of the state anymore, but that this had been replaced by khawf al-nitham, fear of the regime. When people defied the regime there was the realisation that the regime had nothing more to fall back on aside from fear. In Syria, you could argue the regime has had only fear to fall back on, of course, with terrible and bloody results.

What about the part played by young people and non-traditional political actors in the Arab Spring uprisings?
Some people have argued that when you look at the established opposition in Egypt [before the revolution], despite the fact that they did not like the regime they were the products of that system of power. Some people have also argued that the Muslim Brotherhood needed Hosni Mubarak like Mubarak needed the Muslim Brotherhood. They had emerged out of a system in which you geared your resistance or your opposition to certain conventions. You played the game of parliamentary elections even though you knew it was completely bogus. Occasionally the regime would pick you up and arrest you.
One of the advantages of the younger people and people who were not part of that system was that they could imagine another Egypt. One of the problems of the older generation is that they couldn’t. For them, Egypt was still the Egypt of Mubarak and Anwar Al-Sadat and Gamal Abdel-Nasser, and though they may not have liked it they were very much fixed within that mentality. This is where the imaginative side of resistance comes in, and many people have argued that anyone who had followed the artistic movements would not have been surprised by the intifadat, or uprisings, of 2011 because that’s where defiance and resistance were emerging. Whereas if you looked at the old-established Tagammu, or Muslim Brotherhood, or other political parties, they all thought of making the state better, but it was still the same state.

What commonalities can be seen between the different experiences of the Arab Spring?
One has to be careful about generalisations, but when you look at the kind of regimes that have existed across the Middle East you can see things that the regimes have had in common, including what I have described in the Iraqi case and in other cases as the “dual state”, or “shadow state”, the idea that you have public institutions, such as ministries, parliaments, and so on, but that they don’t belong to the public. Instead, they belong to a small coterie of people who have seized power and have created around themselves an aura that they have the right to speak in the name of the people. If you look from Morocco to Oman, things are very similar. There are different techniques, there are not always the same cruelties, but the notion that public institutions somehow belong as private property to those who rule the state is still there.
You could argue that in places like Tunisia or Egypt and Yemen and Syria people were very well aware of that. They knew that there was an order behind the order, a nitham behind the nitham, and what they were getting at in the Tunisian and Egyptian cases was that people were trying to dismantle that and to reclaim public institutions. I would argue that this is something they had in common. If you look at the protests and demonstrations, what people were reclaiming was public space, the places that were used as the parade grounds of the regime, the places where people were humiliated. People were not just reclaiming public space: they also demonstrated around public institutions in Tunisia, Egypt and Yemen, trying to reclaim the parliament and the journalists union, for example.
This is not distinctive to the Arab world, since this is something that happened also in Eastern Europe and Latin America where you saw a mobilised public trying to reclaim public space and public institutions. What the Arab uprisings had in common was that people lived under very similar kinds of systems and that therefore the idiom of rebellion was something held in common. People have said that the term the “Arab world” has by now largely disappeared, but here we see a reconnection. On the other hand, there are also differences, and obviously things don’t always work out in the same way.

The people who led and started the Arab Spring don’t always seem to have been the beneficiaries of it.
This is mostly because the uprisings were led by young people who were not members of political parties, largely cooperating with each other not because they necessarily agreed with each other on everything, but that they agreed on their common opposition. They mobilised what has been called the “horizontalism” of the revolution in other contexts, and this was exactly the opposite of the vertical hierarchy of the regular political parties, and for this reason the older party leaders found it very difficult to deal with. This was the immense power of the revolution, but the disadvantage was how to then translate that huge power of horizontalist organisation beyond Tahrir Square? If part of your aim is to re-establish the institutions of a truly public, democratic state, the danger comes when you start to look at the institutions you have, and clearly there are some organisations and groups that are better placed to take advantage of the situation than others.
One of the disappointments has been that the people who made the revolution have been ill-equipped to deal with the institutional compromises coming after it and as a result other people have stepped in to replace them. Many of the organised forces even when they were in opposition knew how to make use of the system, and one of the fears of the people who were in the streets is that these forces are now going to operate the system in their interests. What you may be seeing now is a battle for the “deep state”.

Where do we stand in terms of democratisation as a result of the Arab Spring?
The way it is often written about from the outside gives the impression that democratisation is a one-off thing that happens suddenly. But when you think of our own histories of attempts to hold government to account, you realise that they were very bloody, had reverses, and took centuries to happen. What you are seeing in the Arab world is the beginning of this process. Democracy isn’t going to be the immediate outcome, but what is going to be the outcome is the continual struggle to make democracy work and to hold government to account. There will be attempts by governments, even if they are democratically elected, to evade that accountability, and one of the advantages of looking at what happened in 2011 within the framework of the politics of resistance is this notion that power in itself breeds resistance. Where you have power, you have resistance. One of the extraordinary outcomes of the 2011 uprisings was a culture of resistance of a kind that cannot be ignored, not necessarily only in terms of dissent and opposition, but also resistance to the re-establishment of certain forms of power.

Have there been pressures from outside operating on the Arab Spring?
One of the concerns of Western financial institutions and the West itself is the notion of stability, and stability can be hugely favourable to status quo power. What you have seen is various ways in which Western interests have tried to cement their interests. They have been happy to talk about the democratic opening in Egypt, but then they will say that what we need now is stability, meaning the institution of a neo-liberal economic system, so there is a sort of ambiguity. This will be a telling aspect, whether Western powers will exert themselves to ensure that rights are respected, or whether they will retreat from doing so.

Looking at the situation in the Arab Spring countries today, what would you like to see happen?
There are two things. One is the notion that democracy doesn’t work if you think that just by winning a majority you can do whatever you want. The notion of imposed self-restraint and due modesty is important. The realisation of this is that the way you behave should be on behalf of all Tunisians and all Egyptians. This is going to be a huge test — of how those now in power use the security apparatus and how they behave.
The second thing is making public institutions work on behalf of the public, making them the servants of the public, and making them answerable to the public. Far too often in the old state the idea was that public institutions looked upwards to the presidential palace. These two structural features — that those in power realise they are only conditionally in power and that public institutions answer to the public — are important things that I hope will happen.
I am optimistic about the direction in which things are heading. Something happened in the last two years that hasn’t happened on such a scale before. Of course there are going to be disappointments and setbacks, but something has happened that means that those in power can no longer look at their subjects, their citizens, in the way they used to. The hope is that this has given people a certain dignity, a feeling that they have a right to have a voice, and that has also meant the introduction of a certain modesty or caution in those who rule. Something has seriously shifted, though this doesn’t mean that things have changed dramatically from one moment to the next, and this is where the long haul, the long struggle, comes into play.

Interview by David Tresilian

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