Beyond Tahrir Square Egypt's uprising is one that intersects with grassroots struggles in Europe: that's what the elites fear most
The apartment blocks on my street in downtown Cairo have accommodated many cycles of Egypt's political tumult in the past 18 months. A stone's throw from Tahrir Square, they have been enveloped in teargas, pockmarked by Molotov cocktails, pressed into use as urban barricades by both revolutionaries and pro-Mubarak militias, and provided the backdrop for some of the post-Mubarak military generals' most violent assaults on the citizens they swore to protect. They gaze over the gardens of the Egyptian Museum – a regular home for one of the army's pop-up torture and detention centres where those still daring to rally for meaningful change have been brutally acquainted with the realities of a junta-curated "transition" to democratic rule.
This month my buildings' latest revolutionary iteration was unveiled – two giant billboards sporting beaming mugshots of Ahmed Shafiq: former Mubarak-era prime minister, current presidential candidate and feloul ("regime remnant") figurehead par excellence. The election campaign's last batch of polls suggests Shafiq could emerge triumphant, sounding what many in the media would describe as the final death knell to the "liberal revolutionaries" of Tahrir who have been steadily battered – by guns at the hands of the state security forces, and by public delegitimisation at the hands of the state media – since those heady images of collective protest conquered global TV screens 18 months ago.
If Shafiq fails to win, the argument goes, then the similarly regime-tarnished former foreign minister Amr Moussa may squeak over the line, or the victor may emerge from one of the two Islamist camps consisting of Muslim Brotherhood candidate Mohamed Mursi and a Brotherhood breakaway alternative, Abdel Munim Aboul Fotouh. Any of the above options are said to be a sad body-blow to the spirit of Tahrir, but the very existence of a democratic electoral process is itself trumpeted as a conclusive success for the revolution.
There are a million empirical holes that could be picked in this chronicle – the only results we have so far (from Egyptians voting abroad) put Moussa and Shafiq in fourth and fifth places respectively, while the lazy insistence of characterising Aboul Fotouh as an unreconstructed Islamist (and hence automatically anti-Tahrir) bears little relation to the substance of his support on the ground. But away from the specifics, is this general evaluation even the best way of conceptualising the revolution? Or is the battle for the presidency merely the institutional tip of a far deeper revolutionary iceberg, just one site of contest and dissent among many – some of which have just as big a part to play in determining the country's political and socioeconomic future?
Two misapprehensions underpin much of the discussion. The first is that the metric of revolutionary success lies solely in the formal arena of institutional politics, and the development of democratic mechanisms within it. The second is that Tahrir, along with the ludicrously titled "Facebook youth" who populated the square in January and February last year, is the only alternative space in which pressure on the formal arena is thrashed out.
That pair of skewed observational lenses produces a narrative that suits many elites – both domestic and international – because it contains the energy of the revolution within relatively safe limits. If the ultimate goal of the revolution is the establishment of "representative" institutions, and revolutionary progress can be measured along a linear scale with the authoritarianism of Arab autocracy at one end and the holy grail of western liberal democracy at the other, then the contours of political change thrown up by the Arab uprisings can be squeezed neatly into existing global power dynamics, reinforcing them in the process.
In reality, the purview of Egypt's revolution is far wider, posing a potentially more powerful and existential challenge to present systems of political and economic control.
And it's that energy which those who benefit from the status quo, from western governments to multinational corporations, really fear. Little wonder that there has been a rush by the world's most powerful entities – from Hillary Clinton and David Cameron to Morgan Chase and General Electric – to simultaneously venerate Tahrir (as long as the demands voiced within it don't overstep the mark), echo the generals' calls for "stability" (shutting down broader discourses of dissent in the process) and form links with the largely neoliberal Muslim Brotherhood (whose policies, despite anguished op-eds in Washington thinktank journals, pose little threat to American interests, and indeed offer up many opportunities).
The Islamist/secularist divide gets all the attention and is undoubtedly important – but it's also only one faultline among many, and a convenient one to concentrate on at that, as it smartly sidesteps the deeper rumblings of discontent that are continuing to sound below Egypt's skin. As long as the basic tenets of Egypt's Chicago-school economic orthodoxy remain stable, men with beards v women with no headscarves is a political divide that western policymakers and Egyptian elites are happy to contend with.
What they're less keen to acknowledge – because it carries the revolution out of its sheltered borders – are the other trenches that are increasingly being etched at the margins of Egyptian society, dividing those who have reaped pharaoh-esque riches as a result of 20-odd years of "structural adjustment" from those left behind in zones of neoliberal exclusion.
You don't have to move far from Tahrir to find these social cleavages. They aren't packaged for primetime but remain deep, growing and fuelled by grievances that none of the presidential candidates knows how to resolve within the existing political and economic apparatus. Islands of informal settlements dot the Nile whose residents battle security forces to avoid eviction – a government-orchestrated community clear-out to make way for financially speculative holiday resorts.
Travel north-east up the river to Damietta, and you'll find Egyptians who have been blocking ports and facing down tanks in protest at the pollution from nearby foreign-owned chemical factory. You can sail south to Qena, where locals have occupied railway lines and threatened to sever the electricity supply running from the Aswan dam to the north. From those employed directly by the state – like the central security force conscripts who mutinied a fortnight ago – to those locked stubbornly outside it, such as the Bedouins of Dabaa on the Mediterranean coastline who recently stormed a government nuclear plant and blew up an under-construction reactorto demonstrate against the illegal appropriation of their land, Egyptians are asserting control over their communities, their livelihoods and their future.
Forget Shafiq's advertising hoardings: the revolution is everywhere and it is potent. It encompasses the educated middle-classes as well as the urban and rural poor, and while subalterns may make contingent and strategic alliances with a wide variety of political forces – from political Islamists to former Mubarak acolytes – in the long term the inability of those forces to even articulate a language of genuine change, never mind actually deliver it, means that rapid mobilisation of protests on the street is always only a single volatile moment away.
Contrary to popular perception, Egypt has been a nucleus of radical dissent throughout its history, and certainly long before the anti-Mubarak uprising exploded. Just ask the residents of Kafr el-Dawwar, site of a barely reported insurgency in 1984; or the farmers of Sarandu, who in 2005 fought armed thugs and riot police attempting to seize their plots in accordance with a new Mubarak-promulgated "liberalising" land law. The difference now is that those agitating for transformation know that the winds of revolution are behind them, transforming what could otherwise be purely "local" or "parochial" concerns into a sustained and collective assault on the status quo.
As the sociologist Asef Bayat has argued, actions that appear to be individualistic strategies for survival and not explicitly political attempts to bring down elites can, in the right circumstances, become unstoppable and interlinked channels of mass rejection, a struggle for real agency in an era of globalised corporate cosmopolitanism that strives to deny it to so many. This is Egypt's revolution, one that intersects with grassroots struggles from Athens to Madrid, Sanaa to Santiago, and it is the revolution that existing elites are scared of the most.
The Egyptian revolutionary Alaa Abd El Fattah was once asked whether he'd like to see the revolution establish a British (parliamentary) or American (presidential) system of liberal democracy. "Neither," he replied. "We want something better than both."
In that light, does the presidential election – and those looming billboards of Ahmed Shafiq that flicker late into the night – really matter? Absolutely, because its winner will assume a crucial role in either enlarging or restricting the space in which those far broader struggles play out.
But is this month's vote the all-encompassing final product to be spat out at the end of the creaking revolutionary factory line, now that the "Tahrir youth" have been supposedly muted? That's what the revolution's enemies are hoping. They are likely to be proved wrong.