The Civil Disobedience Project

The Civil Disobedience Project

On Monday, 23 July, stay at home and raise Egypt’s flag.

That’s the initiative adopted by Kifaya and a half dozen other groups to inaugurate a long term, incremental, and very patient civil disobedience campaign to signal public disgust with Hosni Mubarak, his son, their government, and its policies. The idea is not to stage a symbolic, one-time performance but to begin working seriously and creatively to transform widespread disaffection with the Mubarak regime into concrete, coordinated, relatively risk-free acts that strip the regime of any residual vestiges of legitimacy.

The notion of organising a national civil disobedience campaign has been percolating for some years now, pre-dating the current spectacular wave of protests. In fall 2004, it gained the valuable intellectual and moral imprimatur of retired judge and historian Tariq al-Bishri, who wrote a lucid defence of non-violent resistance as the only feasible and effective method of engaging the increasingly violent and personalised rule of Hosni Mubarak. Reading it again, I’m struck by how much has changed since al-Bishri penned his words. The fragmentation and dearth of collective action that he lamented three years ago are unrecognisable today, replaced by incessant societal movement, to wit: the electoral mobilisation of 2005, the pro-judges’ protests of 2006, the innovative campus organising of 2005 and 2006, the workers’ uprising of 2006-07, and the more recent spate of ordinary people’s street action.

By civil disobedience, al-Bishri meant precisely the kind of street-based collective demand-making and reclaiming of rights that is now sweeping the country, spearheaded by labour unions, craft guilds, professional associations, student unions, and ordinary people. Kifaya et al’s recent initiative goes well beyond this mode. It ventures into the most challenging, the most difficult terrain: seeking to activate societal sectors unused to expressing opposition of any kind, whether street protest or dissent in salons and political parties or writing letters to newspapers or joining a block association or any of the myriad other ways that politically aware citizens air their views.

The stay at home initiative targets those who cringe from making any sort of visible statement about public affairs but are by no means indifferent about current events. It seeks to tap into the intense and ambient sense of anger at the authorities that has settled over the entire country like a thick, low-hanging cloud, the subject of every household conversation and office chatter. It attempts to normalise dissent by weaving into the rhythm of everyday life, whittling it down to a simple, doable, and above-all risk-free act of staying at home (what we all love to do anyway) and hanging the flag from a window or balcony, an eminently respectable and patriotic gesture tweaked just enough to make a bold but non-threatening statement.

It’s no surprise that the idea has generated heated, entertaining discussion on the Internet, independent and opposition newspapers, and satellite television programs. Reactions run the gamut from enthusiastic support to puzzlement to derision. Some laud the novelty and the brilliant simplicity of the idea, for how can State Security punish people for staying at home and raising the flag?! Others don’t see how staying at home constitutes any kind of proactive gesture, for isn’t it the height of passivity and indifference? And don’t people stay at home anyway on a national holiday? Still others are attacking the whole idea as silly and contrived. As for the rulers, I can only imagine how worried they must be right now. Anything that smacks of coordination and aims to enlist the latent energies of millions of citizens is a nightmare for them, especially right now when so much discontent is enveloping the country. So they’ve already mobilised their mouthpieces in the media to belittle and ridicule the initiative.

Personally, I think it’s a brilliant idea and a fascinating experiment. Not only is it simple and logical (a must for any kind of novel political act), culturally resonant, and accessible to all classes of the population, but it holds the potential to be extremely threatening to the authorities. True, the rulers and their agents would like nothing more than atomised families staying in their homes watching television instead of demonstrating in the streets or occupying public space. But if the home-staying is calculated and coordinated by independent groups acting together to make one peaceful oppositional statement; if it brings together the intellectual, the homemaker, the worker, and the farmer to take a simple stance against a corrupt, unjust government; if it is difficult to monitor and punish; if it gathers steam and midwifes more such acts; and above all, if it punctures citizens’ rational reluctance to oppose an ugly, repressive regime, then we’re talking about something more threatening than armed insurrections or a thousand street protests.

The organizers of the stay-at-home say that it’s a dry run for more civil disobedience campaigns to come, perhaps similar actions on work days, perhaps a few consecutive days instead of one, maybe other acts entirely. But the basic idea is to minimise the risk while maximising the impact, always making sure that actions ‘fit’ into the rhythms of everyday life and make sense to those who would otherwise shun or fear them. That’s a tall order for any political organiser, more challenging than orchestrating a street protest, factory sit-in, election rally, silent vigil, petition drive, public procession, or any of the dozens of other well-worn tools of political expression.

Borg al-Borollos villagers block the highway to protest their chronic lack of potable water, 3 July 2007. (Photo from al-Karama).

I don’t know what will happen on Monday, but I can’t wait to see. I’m sure there’ll be lively post-mortems pronouncing the stay-at-home as either a failure or a success, or maybe a non-event. Whatever the outcome, I can’t help but feel that we’re living in momentous times, not because of some purportedly impending regime change, but because we get to watch in real time as a complex society experiments with old-new political forms, grows more assertive and persistent in reclaiming rights, and struggles to craft a more representative and just government. Now some might think this is about as interesting as watching grass grow, but for pedants like me, this slow-motion political transformation is the stuff of riveting drama.