Activists and communities in need of help are finding each other

The revolution continues, or so they say. For many, the reasons to stage a revolution remain: social inequality, police repression, and corruption deeply embedded in the system.

But the masses, who flooded the streets in January and February last year seem to have left the political stage. A body of activists — often from less difficult backgrounds — has been left isolated and often frustrated.

Some revolutionary activists, however, are looking for ways to engage with the everyday struggles of disenfranchised communities, the people the revolution was supposed to protect most of all.

“The revolution continues with the poor, not with us from April 6 [Youth Movement] or the Revolutionary Socialists,” says Fady Mohamed, a 21-year-old activist and engineering student.

But how are middle-class activists connecting to, and interacting with, the struggles of “the downtrodden,” those they claim to fight for?

Many activists think that a gap has developed between them and people’s everyday struggles. They seek to bridge this gap by shifting the focus from overarching political demands to everyday ones.

Activist and blogger Alaa Abd El Fattah says the new political environment has led to activists and aggrieved communities finding each other. There is a lot of randomness involved, because people often “just stumble upon a connection.”

Nevertheless, he says, “it is more likely that people have someone within the community who is active online now, and who has access to mainstream tools like activists, courts and media.”

One such case is that of residents of Shagarat Maryam, a northern neighborhood of Cairo, who were being threatened with eviction by the Endowments Ministry unless they paid exorbitant sums of money, supposedly as a fine for illegal subleasing of apartments. Mohamed Abdel Azim, assistant secretary of the East Cairo Municipality for the Egyptian Social Democratic Party, lives meters away from the people under threat, which is how he picked up on their cause.

Abdel Azim moved his party to exert pressure on the ministry to stop this practice and, in addition, the residents staged protests. Last month, they agreed to an arrangement with the ministry on paying LE80 per month as rent, instead of being evicted. Abdel Azim brought journalists to the neighborhood to allow residents to tell their story.

Another change since the revolution, says Abd El Fattah, is that communities are more likely to start resisting on their own. This prompts a police reaction, which in turn sparks controversy and creates headlines.

“And then we seek them,” he says, referring to activists.

One example is Ramlet Bulaq, a central Cairo slum that has been subjected to raids by security forces and whose residents are under threat of eviction.

Resident Amr al-Bunni was killed by a police officer near the Fairmont hotel nearby on 2 August, sparking riots between slum residents and security forces.

The community is organizing itself through a popular committee, and held its first march to demand its rights on 30 September. Fady Mohamed was one of the activists who helped set up the popular committee.

He first made contact with Ramlet Bulaq’s people before Bunni’s death. The area stands out: The ramshackle slum is adjacent to the opulent Nile City Towers — providing an extreme display of inequality.

“We looked at what groups in Egypt most lack: the means to protect their economic rights,” says Mohamed.

He thinks the revolution is for, and by, people like those of Ramlet. But they need to be told they have rights, he says, and that they can seize them through organizing.

They were initially skeptical.

“I managed to convince people by providing concrete examples of how people have historically acquired their rights: through organizing,” Mohamed explains.

Ramlet’ Bulaq’s people have now gotten the taste for it, Mohamed says, and they are suggesting marches and sit-ins themselves.

“There have been no more security forces violations since the march,” Mohamed says, citing an example of success.

This project, called Alive Only in Name, was launched three months ago by the Popular Socialist Alliance Party. Mohamed is having similar experiences with the residents of the Bab al-Nasr tombs.

He thinks that once they have an example of a success story, it will function as a catalyst for all of Egypt’s slum dwellers to rise up.

The reason they have been successful, Mohamed says, is that what drives them is a genuine interest in the people’s cause, and not electoral gains.

“People were skeptical and kept asking, ‘Where is the catch?’ They are used to the Muslim Brotherhood policy of giving bread, but only to get the vote. People are really tired of politics, and we should not repeat the same mistake,” he says, adding that they neither offered people any material support nor made big promises. “It’s tough, and you have to respect people and take them seriously by being honest.”

Mohamed adds that society is “boiling,” and there is a lot of anger.

“Our role is to connect to the struggles of the poor. We have to make people aware they have a right to health, safety and housing,” he says. “Then we have to make them more confident by giving them the means to realize these rights.”

He thinks that the biggest flaw in the activist community is the prioritization of the wrong issues, thus alienating themselves from the struggles of the poor. Instead of allocating energy and resources to organizing a marginalized community around their right to housing, he says, they are trying to mobilize around the fall of the army, or against the “Brotherhoodization of the state.”

“People will move on their interests, and these are causes that they have grown tired of by now, because they don’t do anything for them. For example, why should people from Ramlet Bulaq care about the appointment of Muslim Brotherhood member [Hassan al-Brince] as deputy governor in Alexandria?” Mohamed asks.

They would achieve a lot if they only had 2,000 people working on these basic rights, he asserts.

“But they need to be among the people. That is the most important thing,” he adds.

Mohamed says helping and supporting is his role, not taking a lead. Abd El Fattah also warns against this and says communities are now increasingly self-organizing, so that the activists no longer have to arrange everything ranging from mobilization to contacting the press.

“This way our role becomes more one of increasing the price of a bullet. It becomes harder to kill if there are middle-class activists around,” he explains.

Hammad Araby, a Ramlet Bulaq resident and the head of its popular committee, says the experience with Mohamed and his cohorts has been “positive.”

“They did really good work on the march. Police violations have stopped. We have more confidence now. Whereas previously we were divided among ourselves, now we are unified and organized in Ramlet Bulaq,” says Araby.

He adds, however, that some of the activists have sometimes pushed particular decisions on them.

“I suggested opening up a channel of communication with the Interior Ministry, but they emphatically rejected that and said the Interior Ministry is our enemy,” Araby says, adding that he agrees the ministry is an enemy, but one they “have to know.”

Mahienour al-Masry, an activist with the Revolutionary Socialists in Alexandria, identifies the same problems. The struggles of the past 20 months depleted the energies of popular committees and activists in sit-ins and demonstrations, she contends.

“The army and the Muslim Brotherhood have taken us into this maze for the past year and a half,” she says.

Abd El Fattah adds to this, saying the popular committees were used as a means to mobilize for the many sit-ins and demonstrations. The neighborhoods were thus brought to Tahrir Square, “instead of bringing Tahrir to the neighborhoods.”

Masry sees the constitution as another of those issues that preoccupy a disproportionate number of activists. She thinks activists should engage with it in a way that relates directly to people’s struggles, using her group’s outreach to fishermen as an example.

“Make it relevant for them. So talk to the fishermen in Abu Qir about proposed legislation surrounding unionization, and show them why setting up an independent union will help them acquire their rights,” Masry says.

Abd El Fattah, meanwhile, contends that “the elections are a distraction,” explaining that while there was a lot of local organizing around the presidential election, “the purpose was not really local.”

“This way you create distance between you and the local cause,” he says.

However, there is reason for optimism. Abd El Fattah mentions the campaigns against military trials and torture as examples of victims of injustice becoming activists themselves. The “experiment” with the popular committees and the unionizing fishermen are other examples.

“It’s not perfect yet, but we’re getting there,” he says.

This piece was originally published in Egypt Independent's weekly print edition.

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