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Power is a Force That Gives Us Meaning

August 12, 2011

10 August 2011 – Cairo

A few years ago some friends and I questioned a few young Egyptian men about their aspirations for the future. As I recall, one of them said they wanted to study law and another said computer science. But it was the words of the third man that have stuck with me, because he said he wanted to become a police officer. A bit shocked, one of my friends asked him why he chose that profession. His answer: It is the only job where the ordinary Egyptian can have power.

Power is an interesting thing. Like money or love, it is easy to become obsessed with and for reasons that are not always tangible to us. Here in Egypt it seems the idea of power is always teasing and for the first time in a long time it has become available to the ordinary Egyptian in ways it never was before.

The revolution was about change and many things, but it was also about shifting an inner balance of power. Taking power out of the hands of Mubarak and his officials and putting it back into the hands of the people. Of course, this is the watered down version, but behind every chant and banner hung in Tahrir over the past few months I find it hard to argue against the idea that what Egyptians are seeking is power in the hands of the ordinary.

I believe such an idea makes it difficult to identify the current relationship between the army and the people. The military council aside, most Egyptians will tell you it’s not the army that is the problem. Of course, the upper echelon headed by Mohamed Tantawi has been the target of many complaints and demands, but the ordinary soldier does not receive that same backlash.

However, given recent events following August 1 and the takeover of Midan al-Tahrir one might be tempted to observe a change in the relationship between the people and the army. It has always been a symbol of power but now they are threatening to absorb absolute power and force the revolution into a regressive state.

It’s far too early to tell if anything will really change, but there are too many differences between now and a few weeks ago to say that things are the same as before. When I was last in Cairo I watched as young children ran up to soldiers to shake their hand. Now, I have watched young children run back and forth between the sidewalk and the black uniformed security forces guarding Tahrir, taunting them, daring them to use their batons or step from the heavily prized platform at the square’s center.

The Military Council has long been the subject of Tahrir chants and criticism but when the army as a whole comes under that same criticism I would argue that a different element than before is at play. Perhaps there exists graffiti elsewhere in Cairo of a similar nature, but I saw for the first time black spray painted criticism of the army, without excluding a soldier from its wrath. The anonymous author asked if the Army remembered the true meaning of Ramadan and the Mosque, no doubt in reference to the events of August 1.There is a new friction, which could perhaps dissipate depending on future actions and the attention of those Egyptians that pushed the revolution forward.

Former New York Times war journalist Chris Hedges published a book titled “War is a Force That Gives Us Meaning” in which he explains war is object of seduction for society but it is not what we make it out to be. Power is not entirely comparable, but I don’t think one can be too far off in putting it on a similar level. It seduces people, drives them to the edge. However, its only when we can move past the fascination with power that productivity can take hold.

As onlookers along the rim of Midan al-Tahrir fixate their gaze on the tanks, officers, and security forces that surround Cairo’s power center the revolution becomes a stalemate in a war over authority and control. Power cannot be the force that keeps this revolution afloat.

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