I’ve been following the writing of Paul Amar on Egypt since he wrote an op-ed in Al Jazeera last week. He has a particularly insightful, and incredibly well-formed global view that gathers the historical and contemporaneous, and identifies all the key actors.
He has an interesting piece today in Jadaliyya, in which he turns the social networking meme on it’s head. Granted, no one yet knows the way in which the unprecedented demonstrations came together, but I am pretty resistant to the Facebook/Twitter memes cropping up everywhere in the punditry.
Since the early 1990s, Egypt has cut back welfare and social services to working-class and lower-middle-class Egyptians. In the place of food subsidies and jobs they have offered debt. Micro-credit loans were given, with the IMF and World Bank’s enthusiastic blessing, to stimulate entrepreneurship and self-reliance. These loans were often specifically targeted toward women and youth. Since economically disadvantaged applicants have no collateral to guarantee these loans, payback is enforced by criminal law rather than civil law. This means that your body is your collateral. The police extract pain and humiliation if you do not pay your bill. Thus the micro-enterprise system has become a massive set of police rackets and “loan shark” operations. Police sexualized brutalization of youth and women became central to the “regulation” of the massive small-business economy. In this context, the micro-business economy is a tough place to operate, but it does shape women and youth into tough survivors who see themselves as an organized force opposed to the police-state. No one waxes on about the blessings of the market’s invisible hand. Thus the economic interests of this mass class of micro-entrepreneurs are the basis for the huge and passionate anti-police brutality movement. It is no coincidence that the movement became a national force two years ago with the brutal police murder of a youth, Khalid Saeed, who was typing away in a small internet café that he partially owned. Police demanded ID and a bribe from him; he refused, and the police beat him to death, crushing his skull to pieces while the whole community watched in horror.
Police demanding bribes, harassing small micro-businesses, and beating those who refuse to submit had become standard practice in Egypt. Internet cafes, small workshops, call-centers, video-game cafes, microbuses, washing/ironing shops, small gyms constitute the landscape of micro-enterprises that are the jobs base and social world of Egypt’s lower middle classes. The so-called “Facebook revolution” is not about people mobilizing in virtual space; it is about Egyptian internet cafes and the youth and women they represent, in real social spaces and communities, utilizing the cyberspace bases they have built and developed to serve their revolt.