Interview: Anarchism, Tamarod and Sexual Violence in Egypt

2013 0709rr(Photo: Operation Anti-Sexual Harassment/Assault)

Six months ago, in the wake of the Egyptian revolution’s second anniversary and the protests that marked it, I met up with Nana Elhariry at Talaat Harb, a traffic circle that doubles as a gathering point just off Cairo’s Tahrir Square, amidst a surprisingly large and spirited demonstration against sexual violence. An antiwar organizer in the US had insisted I seek her out, given her activist background and familiarity with anarchist and feminist organizing in the city. She quickly became something of a guide, facilitating my introduction to a number of local organizers, particularly in student struggles.

In recent days, according to reports circulating in social media, Talaat Harb become notorious for a different reason: it has been the scene of a number of attacks – the mob sexual assaults that seem to accompany mass protests in Egypt’s capital. The occasion stands out, now, as a signature instance of what so much Western coverage and discussion misses in contemporary events in Egypt: the distinction between State power and popular resistance – a theme highlighted by Egypt’s small but increasingly visible anarchist movement.

With the Supreme Council of Armed Forces’ history of putting thousands through military trials in the months the followed Egypt’s initial revolution, and its widely suspected role in organized sexual violence since then – to say nothing of the military’s control of one-third of the country’s economy – the idea of the people and army as “one hand” strikes many in the streets as a sad and willful amnesia. Whereas Western voices have gone so far as to declare Egypt as lacking the basic materials for democracy, many on the ground argue that the pass popular protest on June 30 and its aftermath represent a chapter of the story that began January 25, 2011. A messy chapter in a messy story.

I checked in with Elhariry on June 8 to discuss recent developments.

What happened yesterday? From the news, it sounds like the newest indication of low-scale civil war in Egypt.

Well, the Ikhwan (Muslim Brotherhood) supporters say that they were attacked during dawn prayers in Raba’a Adwyia’s mosque, with women and children among them and no ambulances to help them get their dead and injured out. Many photos of dead children were circulating early this morning. Meanwhile, opposition figures and activists showed great indifference to the bloodshed, justifying it, saying that it was exactly what they got from the Ikhwan, during Mohamed Mahmoud street clashes in November 2011, and the deadly events in Maspero. They also allege that photos going around are actually Syrian kids killed in one of Bashar Al-Assad’s attacks, and that the army opened fire after prayers, when they used teargas to disperse people, and the Ikhwan responded with live ammo.

When we talked on Sunday, July 7, you were lamenting that people were cheering the police at demonstrations yesterday as though they’d completely forgotten what happened on Mohammed Mahmoud Street. Did the massacre this morning affect that at all? Or is it too soon to tell?

From the reactions I’ve seen this morning – online, and overheard on public transportation – plenty of people still see the army as the only savior and believe that everything happening is an Ikhwan plot of some sort. But you also have people upset with the killing of children and blaming it on the army’s brutality. Nothing I’ve seen on the streets so far makes me feel like the number of army or police supporters has meaningfully increased or decreased.

I know there were military operations in the Sinai and Suez in recent days. This seems well beyond a mere transition of power. From a distance, it has the feel of a Pinochet scenario, but our media has been loathsome in its coverage. What do things feel like, on the ground?

Sinai has always been a hotspot for that sort of thing, between the police or army and Bedouins. It’s just exaggerated now, because of the tensions underway. The Bedouins have always been neglected by the State and it seems that it has dominated almost every part of their land. It’s not clear to me what specifically is driving things there, right now, but it is generally a Bedouin refusal of the State’s domination.

Other anarchists I’ve talked to in Egypt seemed to understand in advance that Tamarod would be okay with a civil or military dictator or regime, so what’s happened hasn’t surprised them. You seemed a little wary, as well, when we talked about it a month ago – that it could be a win for Salafis, even. Now the Tamarod model [collecting signatures to call for a leader’s removal] is being taken up in Tunisia, Syria, etc. Do you think that’s in error?

My problem with Tamarod, is that they had time to come up with some sort of alternative after overthrowing Morsi, but they never did! They had no clear plan of what would happen once he was out. That’s why I feared bloodshed. Honestly, had it not been for the army intervention, it would have been much, much worse. I felt like the Salafis were the only party prepared to dominate the scene, much as the Ikhwan was during the elections after Mubarak.

So, a lot of planning for opposition, and no real reconstructive vision?

I’m not sure we have real opposition! The National Salvation Front are absolutely useless and the rest are activists spending day and night tweeting speculations about the situation. That’s pretty much it.

As an anarchist, how are you processing what’s unfolded since the 30th? Are you able to forge a relationship with it that feels useful?

I think it’s one step toward ridding ourselves of a scenario driven by fanatics. There’s been some movement in understanding religion as best left in the mosque or church, and not as a ruling mechanism. That might prove helpful in arguing more radical ideas in what we stand for, later on. It’s a phase of the January 25th revolution; one that we have to observe closely. I personally find it hard to stand side by side with felool (Mubarak’s supporters), as I know for a fact they are just sick of the Ikhwan, and are fine with other forms of oppression and dictatorship.

It seems horizontal forms of organization are the only game in town, as far as combating the sexual violence in Tahrir – Operation Anti-Sexual Harassment/Assault, Tahrir Bodyguard, and so on. Is that the case?

That’s my experience of them. Generally self-organized, non-hierarchical. Though they’re distinct from each other. Apart from being present in big events, Tahrir Bodyguard isn’t active, beyond accepting new volunteers, whereas Operation Anti-Sexual Harassment/Assault is concerned with raising awareness and uprooting sexual harassment in society more broadly.

Operation Anti-Sexual Harassment/Assault stayed out of Tahrir the last few days, for the safety of its volunteers. And I know you told me you, yourself, had second thoughts about joining recent demonstrations. It seems like a pretty major obstacle to grassroots movement in Egypt at the moment. Given how much organizing against it has happened since January 25th, is there any sense of things shifting, with June 30th? Or has it gotten worse?

It has gotten worse with so many armed civilians, primarily Ikhwan. I know from a friend in Operation Anti-Sexual Harassment/Assault that they risk their own safety just in people trying to get through mobs to assist any given victim. I imagine with the number of weapons on hand at demonstrations, it has gotten far worse. Personally, since late 2011, I’ve entertained second, third, and fourth thoughts before joining any demonstration.

They tweeted yesterday that there were four attacks, three of which they were able to intervene in. That sounded considerably lower than even just days ago. Was that just a coincidence?

I had the same thought! There’s no doubt that almost all of the attacks are organized; that’s been obvious since the SCAF’s days in power. But there is something beyond that, as well, with the people generally. I can’t blame it solely on the system. I have to think about men and young boys sexually terrorizing women on the streets in day-to-day life. That does exist and seems to reach its peak during religious feasts.

Are there things you think people outside of Egypt can be doing to support useful work that’s happening?

I think just not judging the situation with standards that are inapplicable here would be a good start.