Geopolitics

How Life Got Lonely In Tahrir Square

Once the symbol of national unity, Cairo's central square has become a mix of camped-out revolution holdouts and pent-up bursts of violence. Has this instantly iconic location too quickly lost its historical significance? Or does Tahrir just refl

An Egytian family has their say in Tahrir Square on March 9 (Gigi Ibrahim)
An Egytian family has their say in Tahrir Square on March 9 (Gigi Ibrahim)
Heba Afify

CAIRO - A little over a year after becoming a national symbol of unity, Tahrir Square has become a very lonely place.

Amid the complete absence of the state in the iconic square, those who chose to continue residing here feel abandoned and isolated. The public often blames the square's residents for harming the revolution that the holdouts say they've been camping out for months to save.

Most of those who filled Tahrir last year to force then President Hosni Mubarak to step down have left, either believing that they have already won the battle or that Tahrir is no longer the way to advance the revolution.

A few remain there in small groups with different motivations, all believing that the square is the only place that has yielded gains throughout the past year. Within these groups, there is little trust in the political process beyond the confines of the square.

In the grassless roundabout, Mekheimar Khamis Mekheimar, who was shot on January 28, 2011, dubbed the Friday of Anger, sits in front of his tent looking at a symbolic grave he made for himself.

The headstone reads, "I will not live without freedom, this is my grave, down with military rule."

"We started our sit-in demanding our rights as the injured of the revolution," said Mekheimar. "But when we were attacked, our demand became the fall of the military rule."

The sit-in has entered its fourth month, sustained by less than a dozen mourners. It started on November 18 with a mass protest that Islamists mobilized against the supra-constitutional principles proposed by former deputy Prime Minister Ali al-Selmy. The bill was dubbed as an attempt by the military-backed government to impose the vision of the ruling Supreme Council of the Armed Forces on the state.

Following the protest, the sit-in held by the injured of the revolution to demand their rights was attacked by the police, instigating a bloody four-day standoff between police forces and protesters who came to the aid of those attacked.

Since then, the square filled up during days of violent confrontations and the occasional million man protests, after which people went back home. But Mekheimar and his group have stayed in the square for the duration.

With governments that have failed — over the course of a year — to implement any major reforms, and a parliamentary performance that revolutionary forces deem disappointing, those in the square express a loss of faith in the formal political channels, which are viewed by many as a legitimate replacement of the square.

Other agendas

"We became completely separated from parties and political powers because they are only interested in leadership and power," says Mekheimar. "Until the day I die I will keep calling for the demands of the revolution from the street and not in an office in a suit and tie."

Not everyone in Tahrir Square is sticking to the demands of the revolution though; some went there with demands that they can't take anywhere else.

A small group known by the name of its leader, Dr. Omar, is camped out in Tahrir Square demanding the excavation of a tomb under building number 21 on Nour Foundation Street in the Zaytoun area, which, according to their interpretation of one Quranic verse, holds the name of the next president.

A Nasserist group that is in the process of founding a new party, "The Popular Nasserist Conference," is also camped out in the square, promising a revolution inspired by former President Gamal Abdel Nasser.

Having set up a stage, complete with a big screen television showing nationalist songs and a photo gallery, every night in the square since the anniversary of the revolution on 25 January, the group raises the reform demands of the revolution, in addition to cancelling the Camp David peace treaty with Israel and expelling the Israeli Ambassador from Egypt.

Abandoned by political forces and the state since November, Tahrir residents function as a state within the state.

"Everyone here melted into one society where the good and the bad mix. Our society is not based on any discrimination, we only reject those that harm our interests and don't abide by the peacefulness of the sit-in," says activist Mostafa Aly.

Read the full article in Al-Masry Al-Youm

Photo - Gigi Ibrahim

Keep up with the world. Break out of the bubble.
Sign up to our expressly international daily newsletter!
Society

How Low Trust In Government Fuels Violence Against Politicians

The deadly stabbing of UK MP David Amess confirms this researcher's ongoing study on trust and governance in democracies around the world: It's bad.

Tribute to slain UK MP David Amess in Leigh-on-Sea on Oct. 15

James Weinberg

The killing of British Conservative MP David Amess, who was stabbed to death in his constituency on October 15, is a tragic moment for democracy. What makes it even more devastating is that such a catastrophic failure is not without precedent or predictability. Labour MP Jo Cox was shot at her constituency surgery in 2016. Before her, another Labour MP, Stephen Timms, survived a stabbing in 2010. And Andrew Pennington, a Gloucestershire county councillor, died in a frenzied attack in 2001 while trying to protect local Liberal Democrat MP Nigel Jones.

This is to say nothing of the 2018 attack on the Palace of Westminster that left police officer Keith Palmer dead and MPs in a state of shock.

Beyond these critical junctures in the public debate about politicians' safety, elected representatives must live with an increasingly insidious level of popular cynicism that threatens violence on an almost daily basis.


Between the divisive politics of Brexit and the growing polarization of British party politics, MPs currently work in a low-trust, high-blame environment. Even before the existential angst and subsequent politicking of the COVID-19 pandemic, a recent Hansard Society audit of political engagement concluded that “opinions of the systems of governing are at their lowest point in the 15-year Audit series – worse now than in the aftermath of the MPs' expenses scandal."

The ramifications of governing in such an age of distrust are significant for the mental health and wellbeing of politicians. With colleagues, I've argued that such visceral and endemic distrust is a key stressor in political life. People are not simply wary or skeptical of politicians, they now routinely criticize their personalities and dismiss their good intentions. At its most severe, this “distrust stressor" manifests in the growing threat of physical violence faced by politicians.

Unfortunately, the distrust stressor is commonplace in the febrile climate of post-millennial UK politics. Serious cases of stalking and harassment have become a “common experience" for MPs. In the UK general election of 2017, for example, 56% of surveyed parliamentary candidates expressed concern about the levels of abuse and intimidation they had received and 31% said they had felt “fearful" during the campaign. Misuse of anonymous social media accounts has intensified these problems and created a toxic environment for elected politicians that regularly exposes them to online rape and murder threats.

Governing under threat

As part of an ongoing study of trust and governance in five democracies around the world, I recently carried out more than 50 in-depth interviews with junior and senior politicians in national legislatures, including questions on the stresses and strains of political life.

Reflecting on the ramifications of simply doing their job, one Conservative MP commented:

There have been votes that have been controversial, and you can then get a lot of abuse as a result of picking a side. My office has been vandalized, I've had stuff sent to me in the post, I've received death threats. And you do build up a very thick skin doing this job, there's no shadow of a doubt. Because one week in it, if you're not able to roll with the punches, you won't see through a whole term.

Almost 40% of interviewees were able to cite more than one instance of serious abuse or threats of physical violence. Not only are these experiences felt across both sides of the political aisle in the UK, but they also appear to be growing more common in other democratic contexts where the climate of politics has been presumed to be both calmer and more volatile. As one MP in New Zealand told me:

I've had some pretty horrible death threats and I've had a lot of abuse, particularly through social media. But also, funnily enough, in writing and phone calls. Unfortunately it's becoming more part of our political life.

Another, this time in South Africa, said:

What [this group of constituents] were saying is that if the water supply was not fixed by a certain time, they were going to kill me. And what they did is they took a tyre and said that this tyre was going to go around my neck and they're going to light it and that was going to be my demise. Listen, when you see your life flash before your eyes… you start to question whether it's worth it.

In the UK, analysis of data from the Representative Audit of Britain (a survey of all parliamentary candidates who stood in general elections between 2015 and 2019) suggests that the harassment, abuse and intimidation of elected and aspiring politicians is also highly gendered. Women politicians, and black and minority ethnic women in particular, experience a disproportionate share of sexualized abuse online. They also receive more aggressive and sexualized threats offline.

Contact between politicians and the public is at the very heart of effective democratic representation.

It is relatively easy to understand why all this would be detrimental to politicians' professional competence and their sense of personal worth and wellbeing, but it is harder to find solutions to this crisis.

Home Secretary Priti Patel has called for increased security measures in the wake of Amess's death. This is welcome but it's an instrumental response which might not be easy to implement. Political contact between politicians and the public is at the very heart of effective democratic representation – and it is unlikely that most MPs will agree to suspend constituency surgeries or fill their offices with armed guards at a time when governor-governed relations are already so strained.

Photo of \u200bNew Zealand's parliament in Wellington

New Zealand's parliament in Wellington

Guo Lei/Xinhua/ZUMA

Compassion and education

While specific issues around MPs' security and training are grappled with, we also need a call for conscious restraint and compassion in political discourse. When some politicians themselves resort to dog-whistle populism, verbal abuse and infighting, it broadcasts an image of politics as an arena for incivility. At the same time, it perpetuates a binary worldview that crowds out the possibility of empathy and compromise.

Alongside this, we need to overhaul the media coverage of politics. Increasingly intent on personalizing the political and politicizing the personal, a 24-hour news media too often drip feeds blunt stereotypes about politicians' personalities and motives. In contrast to much news coverage of politicians, my own research with hundreds of elected MPs and councillors has shown that the majority enter politics with an extraordinary dedication to improving the lives of others that is rarely perceived or appreciated by those they govern.

A deficit in democratic education leads to inflated public expectations about what is possible.

Equally important, nations around the world must commit to fully funded and well-resourced programmes of democratic education. Politics is messy and full of contingencies, and a deficit in democratic education leads to inflated public expectations about what is possible or desirable. In turn, this breeds disappointment and lowered self-efficacy, which together disrupt the positive potential of deliberative participation.

Ultimately, there is no place for political violence, harassment or intimidation in a functioning democracy. At the very least, politicians are ordinary humans attempting to undertake an extraordinary job on behalf of everybody else. Whatever their political views, nobody who has the courage to "step into the arena", to paraphrase Theodore Roosevelt, deserves to fear for their life in the pursuit of public service. To say that we need to rediscover civility and respect in our politics is once again an understatement of a devastating truth.The Conversation

--------------------------------------------

James Weinberg is a lecturer in Political Behavior at the University of Sheffield

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Keep up with the world. Break out of the bubble.
Sign up to our expressly international daily newsletter!
THE LATEST
FOCUS
TRENDING TOPICS
MOST READ