Check out this great collection of images of Egyptian women involved in the uprising. It’s a really important alternative to the male-dominated images of the uprising emanating from mainstream media sources. Egyptian women are evidently taking a leading role in challenging the Mubarak regime.
This revolutionary activism on the part of women resonates with Frantz Fanon’s pioneering but problematic analysis of the transformation of gender roles during the Algerian revolution in “Algeria Unveiled” (in his book A Dying Colonialism). Fanon argued that the veil became an important symbol of resistant Algerian identity in the context of French colonial oppression. It also served as a strategic weapon since Algerian women could transport weapons and explosives to support the resistance movement underneath their veils. When necessary, women activists doffed the veil in order to appear “European” and move freely about the colonial precincts of cities such as Algiers. This experience, Fanon argued, catalyzed a radical mutation in gender roles that spelled the end of centuries of Algerian patriarchy.
As feminist analysts have since pointed out, Fanon failed to consider both the depth of patriarchy in Algeria and the limitation of the roles accorded women in revolutionary times. After the departure of the French, the institutional revolutionary party, the FLN, quickly erased women activists from historical memory as part of a reassertion of patriarchal normalcy.
It is obviously very important to watch Egypt to see the impact on gender roles of the current uprising, and to see whether Algerian history will be replayed forty years later. Circumstances may make the denouement of this revolution significantly different. Women in the Maghreb today (and in Egypt in particular) are far more educated and more engaged in the public world than they were during the revolutions of the last century. In addition, poverty has been feminized over the last twenty years or so in ways that are likely to continue to spur women to challenge the status quo, even after this revolutionary wave recedes.
Watch this absolutely brilliant satire of U.S. diplomatic language:
The unfolding Egyptian revolution is anarchic. Represented in the Western media as recently as last Saturday as a chaotic uprising with menacing bands of roving looters and criminals (anarchy in the pejorative sense), the Egyptian revolution is largely self-organized by the popular masses.
Not only have the large crowds gathering in Tahrir (Liberation) Square in the heart of Cairo been peaceful despite being assembled spontaneously and without any coordinated direction by a particular political party or leader. In addition, neighborhood watch groups formed throughout Cairo and other Egyptian cities to maintain law and order over the weekend after the dreaded security police – minions of the Mubarak regime – withdrew from the streets following Friday’s dramatic confrontation between police and masses of people in Cairo.
For a very thoughtful discussion of the national-popular and the current wave of uprisings in the Arab world, see this interview with historian Vijay Prashad.
The bankruptcy of U.S. policies of supporting autocratic Arab regimes in the name of fighting Islamism is now apparent for everyone to behold. Mubarak is not the first dictator to be driven out of office in the Maghreb, and will probably not be the last. This is an Arab revolution many decades in the making.
The main question now is what will come after the revolution. Will the self-organizing forces that made the Egyptian and Tunisian revolutions be contained or co-opted? Or will genuinely new forms of egalitarian social and economic structures be assembled?
The history of the IMF-uprisings chronicled in John Walton and David Seddon’s Free Markets and Food Riots is instructive here. Back in the late 1980s and early 1990s, in response to austerity policies imposed by the International Monetary Fund, popular uprisings exploded around the world, often sparked by precisely the same issues that lie behind current demonstrations: revulsion against authoritarian rule and anger over spiraling food prices. In those cases, political reform did not lead to significant economic reform. Precisely the opposite: newly installed democratic regimes implemented the most draconian austerity packages advanced by the IMF and World Bank.
Let’s hope we don’t witness a replay of that history. Surely the great difference between that period – the triumphant inauguration of the post-Cold War Washington Consensus – and the present, when the intellectual and practical bankruptcy of neoliberalism is plainly evident to everyone, surely this difference should spell a very different and more positive denouement.