Egypt: the Power of the State and the Authority of the Street

Recently I travelled to Egypt for an International Film Festival in Cairo. I knew that there was happening a lot in the Egyptian capital, and that this festival would be different. I knew that film culture would be influenced by the many public debates: the polemic around the new constitution, the sit-in of the opposition in Tahrir Square, the full powers by which the newly elected president wants to rule, the many discussions about how a new Egypt should look like after the uprising of January 2011. In such a context, a film festival seems trivial. When film professionals celebrated ,the seventh art in the prestigious Opera building of Cairo, other people were occupied with so-called “more serious things” not far from there, in the legendary Tahrir Square.

All this happens at a time when Egyptians are discussing a new constitution – probably the most important moment since the uprisings that led to the fall of Husni Mubarak in January 2011. The country is divided in two: those opposing the project of Mohammad Morsi on the one side, and those supporting the newly and legitimately elected president on the other. The former have been in the streets for several days contesting the presidents decisions and the non-democratic constitution; the latter have been organizing a sit-in in support of their leader. Thus the festival started when the two opposing groups were preparing a bloody confrontation which will certainly occur.

The festival took place without any incident. However, the atmosphere parties and official dinners were different. Some international guests preferred to join the demonstrators in Tahrir Square, mixing with the people and risking to be pushed around or have their wallet stolen. But even in this uncomfortable situation, the euphoria of the moment helped to consider things with humour.

Like everybody else, I came to Egypt with a lot of expectations about this extraordinary synergy that I was looking forward to seeing in real life. The first steps in the land of the Pharao’s, even before I passed the customs at the airport, confirmed my feelings. A scene involving a police officer and a young Egyptian citizen summarized for me what was going on in the country: after just a few words the tone went high. Suddenly the young Egyptian shouted loudly in the face of the police officer: “ You don’t have the right to yell at  me”. The officer shouted back: “You should stay in line and respect the rules”.

Such a scene could not have happened before January 2011. The officer would shout, the young man would probably obey and that would be it. But the first acted as if in the past, and the other in the present. From there comes the tension. The two men shouted on until other people stood up against the officer telling him that he should show more respect and should not yell at people. They were clearly more on the side of their fellow citizen than that they were against the officer;the latter was perhaps wrong, but the crowd didn’t even check who was right: they spontaneously stood up against the official – which he quite quickly did. He apologized as if he suddenly recovered his consciousness saying that he was only doing his job and that he didn’t mean to be disrespectful. He was forced to set the record straight. Later I went to Tahrir Square with a friend, a British filmmaker.

In the euphoria of the crowd, my friend lost his wallet; apparently there were also pickpockets active there. The amazing thing was that when we asked where the nearest police office was to make a declaration, people laughed at us: “do you see any single police agent here, said somone. They are out of order”. We were advised to talk to some people called “committees”, groups of young people who provided for the safety of the people on the square. We were brought to the stage where activists were making their speeches, and behind the scenes we spoke to a young man who was apparently in charge of the lost and found service.  After writing down my friend’s name and data he explained what the procedure was: the issue would be announced publicly through the audio system and we had to return after a while. It was obvious that he was the man in charge. He had a notebook with him in which he registered the data of all things lost.

We continued experiencing the energy of a country in uprising, listening to the speeches with me sometimes translating to my English friend what was said. One of the things I had to explain was what was repeated many times about strange movements in the crowd. The speaker asked people not to get involved in conflicts, adding that there were comittees in charge for securing the square who would handle any disorder.

Later we went back to the young man in charge of “lost and found” service. Unexpectedly, and without explanation, he took my friend by the hand saying only: “come with me!” He was almost running through the crowd shouting to people to make way, which happened as if he had a police car with emergency lights flashing. Shortly we arrived at a tent in the centre of the square, where we saw a lot of wallets and bags waiting for their owners. My friend got his wallet back, but unfortunately without the tiny bit of money and his passport.

Our adventure at the heart of the event revealed to me something about who wields effective power situations such as these. When we were waiting in the tent, a couple of young people, dressed in green like the workers in the street, came in with a young boy whom they apparently arrested. They explained to the leader that they brought him in because had been aggressive towards another boy when they were interrogating because he was harassing a young lady among the demonstrators. The young boy tried to explain that he just wanted to protect the young woman against the aggressor. Suddenly the one in charge started shouting at him: “What are you meddling? This is not your task. There are people who are in charge of this”. Imagine the tone of the guy, resembling that of an angry Egyptian father talking to his kid. When we left I could hear the young man muttering a few words of excuse.

Later we had to go to the police office to make a declaration to enable my friend to apply for a temporary passport for travel out of Egypt. There we witnessed another shouting scene. First we talked to a police officer in our hotel who just filled in a form and told us to go to the main office. Before we left his superior came in. After questioning us he ordered his subaltern to call the organisers of the festival or remind them of their agreement that festival guest would go near Tahrir Square because the police could not guarantee their safety. Indeed, the place was beyond control of the official police who had no influence on what was happening there. Meanwhile, the superior kept yelling at the officer as if the whole issue could be blamed on the poor guy.

In all those situations I thought about the meaning of power. The police officer in the hotel was ordered by his superior within a common hierarchical relationship. Even though the tone was disproportional, the situation remains understandable. In Tahrir Square, the man in charge – the guy in the tent − had no official responsibility, yet he had such an authority that people obeyed him and recognised him as someone with power. The first scene at the airport could be viewed as a parabola of what happened in Egypt after the uprising:  initially the police officer started behaving according to the power he obviously thought he had. But the people around him reminded him that perhaps he had the power, but not the authority. He then understood that the balance had changed and that he had to act accordingly.

Ben Ali and Mubarak, the dictators brought down in Tunisia and Egypt, were in this same situation. Both had legitimacy, they were internationally recognized, and at that time they were lawfully in power. However, they were not prepared to admit that they didn’t have the authority to run the country. They had to learn the hard way during the uprisings. If you listen to their speeches when the people took the streets, you will see that there were three crucial moments: in first instance they ordered the people to go home, stating that they would not admit any disorder.

Then they they started making concessions saying that foreign forces were manipulating the crowd and promising reform towards more democracy and more freedom. But that was not enough because what they said was based on power, but not on authority, and it was difficult for them to admit that the power now fell into the hands of those who had the authority of the street. When they forced the two presidents to stand down, it was clear that the authority of the people was stronger than official power, and that it was the people that decided. That was the third crucial moment, when the two presidents finally understood  the people’s will and literally left the power to them.

With the new islamist transitional government in Egypt the same confusion exists between institutional power and moral and effective authority. For President Morsi the legitimacy he gained through the democratic process makes him want full power. He does not understand that he still doesn’t have the authority for that. He thinks that the strength he is endowed with through his legitimacy allows him to legitimately use force against the people. But there are two kinds of power. The one relies on repression and state violence; the other has a moral legitimacy which can be translated in real and effective authority and stable governance. The first is recognizable in the behavior of police officers hiding behind their uniforms, the latter is incarnated by the committees coordinating the security of the crowd without any ‘official legitimacy’ except that of the street.

In Egypt, and also in Tunisia, the people have developed a highly adverse sentiment against all kinds of confusion between Power and Authority. The best example of this is the declaration of martial law in some regions of these two countries as a last resort measure to control a rebellious population.  Governments think that the legitimacy they have gained through a democratic process that has brought them to power gives them absolute power and authority over the people. However, the popular uprising means that they still do not have the moral authority. To really be able to govern, they really have to deserve the authority first.

At this moment of transition, the people obviously do not trust the young yet very arrogant government.  People will not tolerate any agenda or policy as long as politicians seem unable to make a distinction between the power of the State and effective political authority, and that even when they wield the former, they do not automatically have the latter as well. They should learn not to shout in the face of those who brought them to the power. They should learn how to listen to the people instead of giving the order to stay quiet and stay in line. The little stories I witnessed show that a uniform doesn’t make you an agent of order.

The people have authority and the people decide when politicians run the State and wield power. En they decide when they have give that power back. And only those who acknowledge and respect this order of things will be able to really govern, peacefully and effectively.

This entry was posted in Middle East, Politics. Bookmark the permalink.

Comments are closed.