Tahrir – a novel form of street dialogue and public consultancy


Back to Tahrir Square

South Sudan is moving the wings and Cairo is coming back to center stage; although a train wreck in India, a sinking boat on the Volga and the women’s World Cup are each mounting a challenge.  Today, Sunday, is a workday and government workers are set to return to work after the weekend.  The demonstrators are trying to block access to government buildings as part of the protest.  No one has been hurt, but someone may have been heard.

Yesterday, I was complaining about a conspiracy in the news media – in such a conspiracy the media would move the “big story” around everyday, excepting huge disasters like the tsunami in Japan and even that has a limited news-shelf-life; after all something that happened a day or two ago does not sell papers as well as an unfolding tragedy.  Today, each of the major pan-Arab news outlets and most of the regional ones carried at least one egyptian story.  Some simply registered the obligatory, “and the people of Egypt continue to protest a lack of justice” a couple featured what might be considered a breaking story – the prime minister, not the evil “Marshall” Mohammed Tantawi, Chief of the Supreme Command of the Army, but Prime Minister Essam Sharaf has ordered the firing of all police officers accused of killing protesters in January and February.

The lack of “accountability (Friday was the Day of Accountability) has been one of the major issues in the latest protests.  The quick response by government suggests than someone is listening to the demonstrators.  The best coverage I found came from Al-Jazeerah, it had a long in depth segment on this weekends events with three guests.  Two of the guests were young men involved in the organization of the protests, not just now, but all year and one was an academic from Beirut.   The young men articulated, in accent-less, it-sounded-like-educated-in-the-states English, clear objectives.  Clean the house of Mubarak, move along with the prosecution of the corrupt and brutal, give the people justice and allow them a chance to participate in government.  The two young men were interesting, articulate, involved and motivated, but they were interpreting the events in terms of their own (or their group’s) agenda – not looking for an objective truth.

The other, Rami Khouri, the director of ISSAM Fares Institute for Public Policy and International Affairs at the American University of Beirut, described what he sees as a movement, not just in Egypt, but everywhere in the Arab world  –  a movement toward Arab citizenship.  Khouri says over the last 30 years the general population in the Arab countries have increasingly joined organization the offered some hope for involvement in the governing of the country. For whatever reason 2011 was the year that desire burst into flames in the streets and became visible to everyone, including the Arab leadership.

Khouri also sees something very important happening in Egypt – consultancy.  In much of the democratic world, the sitting government has a mechanism for listening to voice of the people and the process is often called consulting.  Khouri says the people in Egypt are currently involved in a dynamic give and take dialogue with the government.  The government takes whatever acts it deems correct and appropriate – if the people agree nothing is done.  Butwhen, as in the case of the trials or postponement of trials that have taken place recently, the people do not agree they say so.  This weekend in the streets of Cairo, Alexandria and Suez the people of Egypt have been voicing their opinion.

Within hours the government switched its position and decided to take immediate action against the police officers accused of murdering protestors.  Khouri’s interpretation is the first I have seen that goes beyond the superficial or explanation du jour and sees a mechanism.  His is also the only theory that can be tested – over the next few months as events unfold we can watch and see how often the government and the people of Egypt engage in a dialogue in the streets of Egypt.  We can see when the people agree with government policy and when the government is listening to the people.  Today’s decision to fire the offending police came after, not before, the interview with Khouri.  So we can already calk up one in the “correct” column for Khouri and his theory.

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