x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 17 January 2018

Egyptian student protesters betray the spirit of the revolution

The sit-in at the American University in Cairo shows that the love affair Egyptians have with civil disobedience has now gone too far

Pep Montserrat for The National
Pep Montserrat for The National

A long time before I was born, a moment of a young woman protesting was captured in the click of a shutter.

With her 1960s style short hair, she was waving a flag on the streets of Paris, hoisted high above the crowd by an unseen friend, captured in the determination of youth by the photographer Jean-Pierre Rey; a young woman among the millions who demonstrated in France in the student protests of 1968.

In the Egyptian capital, the spirit of the student protests of the 1960s is alive and well. When the autumn semester started last month at the American University in Cairo, the student community was kept home. For 10 days, all education activity on campus was restricted as hundreds of students staged a sit-in.

Upset at the university's attempt to raise tuition fees by 7 per cent, students barred the gates of the elite university and refused to let anyone in. In the nearly century-long history of the university, this was the second time such a demonstration had taken place. The first was last year, after Hosni Mubarak was toppled.

The students got their way, too. The university announced a smaller increase of 2.3 per cent and on Monday last week, the gates were opened and classes resumed.

When we went to the streets for the first time in 30 years in 2011, millions gathered from all walks of Cairo. We all had one wish. And it was achieved.

But I wonder, looking at the protests on the same campus I studied at, whether our voices now are branching into a hundred others, making it difficult to be heard. I wonder if we are protesting merely because we can.

The revolution last year unleashed the feeling that we the people own the country's public property. We occupied the country's largest public squares and even the army could not dislodge us. Even death could not induce us to move. It was a heady, exciting feeling. After so many years of the rule of Mubarak, we actually felt it was our country again.

But I fear we are in danger of squandering that spirit. We must beware not to protest merely because it is possible, or we devalue the ideals of our revolution. By repeated use, our raised placards can become whiteboards of our postrevolutionary epoch, to be filled with whatever argument is most current.

Admittedly, the way AUC authorities raised the fees was extreme and created in the minds of the protesters the idea that they, too, could react by using extreme action.

Institutions impose regulations just because they think they have power. But by taking those institutions hostage, we become abusers in the very same way.

Egyptians were not used to rebelling and expressing themselves before the revolution and they're still exploring new forms. But the truth is, there is no limit to this kind of expression.

Egyptians now have to be careful of voicing their disapprovals through protests instead of negotiating their demands. If we constantly have to chant to get our way, then one day our voices will fade. Instead of listening, passers-by will plug in their headphones, and not even ask why we are protesting.

The square that led us to a new Egypt will become just a venue; the people who created this new dawn for the country will become merely background.

Instead, the students could have taken as their inspiration a different sort of civil disobedience: the graffiti in Cairo that celebrates those who fell in the Tahrir Square protests.

In particular, I am thinking of the graffiti on Mohamed Mahmoud Street, one of the most well-known roads in downtown Cairo, near Tahrir Square.

Graffiti artists have renamed it the "Eye of the Martyrs" street, a powerful memory to remind the public of last November's military attack on protesters.

Since February last year, new graffiti has appeared every time the old murals are washed away. Now, we watch to see how much longer until the newer ones are gone.

Last spring, a mural of a mother and the martyrs of the Port Said massacre, on the AUC campus that borders Mohamed Mahmoud Street, became a firm favourite. When it was washed away in late September, artists restored their art again. It was a signature of time and memory.

I like to see this graffiti as democratic dialogue. Graffiti artists go back and forth over the same wall, creating a forum for disagreement. This is something that the AUC protesters could learn from.

For Egypt's youth, acts of disobedience have become a sign of the times. It is like a popular sport. As an AUC graduate, of course I would have been happier to pay less for my education. But I am not sure that trampling on public property is the answer. Taking ownership of a wall, a classroom or a street isn't the key.

In fact, what happened at AUC was an anti-education movement. While the graffiti in our streets is trying to start a dialogue, the sit-in was a way of shutting down dialogue.

Graffiti is art and a way of recording and reminding people of problems in society. Going back to the wall and painting over and over creates a dialogue. Both the authorities and the people have the space and power to do as they wish. Authorities can erase all traces of art, and the next day, graffiti artists can go back. As long as each party is left to do as they wish, everyone is happy.

I love the creative interaction this generates in our city. But by locking the gates of the university and refusing to allow the AUC community in, force had already been used. Where were the discussion and debate? Critical thinking, one of the essentials of a university education, is important so that we can communicate and live with each other peacefully no matter how many disagreements we may have. If we use force as our first option, what is the point of an education? Why should students even bother with decreasing the fees if by their action they prove the education is of no value anyway?

I realise this is a provocative statement, especially after the sacrifices we made in the revolution. But I think that it is because of those sacrifices that we should be careful of using what we fought so hard to get.

Resistance can take different forms. The power of images matter, but so does the power of words.

How many more strikes will be announced on Twitter? How many more gates will be barred until those in charge change their minds? How many times will we take to the streets until we realise we aren't achieving much by doing the same thing over and over again?

We should try to explore other ways of expressing rebellion. Graffiti is a productive statement while the AUC sit-in was destructive. Rebelling comes to life only in the last resort, not in the first. If we want to last longer, we must think more deeply and work harder.

I say this love affair with disobedience must end. There is a bright future ahead and now that we have made the chance to get it, we should take the chance it offers.

As Anton Chekhov reminds us, nothing lasts more than a season. "Worm eats grass, rust eats iron, and lying eats the soul." For sure, the seeds that birthed the Arab Spring will soon be replaced by something else. Revolutions, too, can't last forever.


Nagham Osman, a graduate of the American University in Cairo, is an Egyptian filmmaker. She is currently working on her first feature documentary Little

On Twitter: @NaghamOsman81