As the now historic Tahrir Square filled with protesters over the weekend, the tension between the hope and momentum of the February uprising that ended a 30 year dictatorship and the aggressive, violent military response to a mass civilian demonstration almost one year later was startling. After three days, 23 dead, and over 1500 wounded, it is clear that the transition to a new Egypt is not going to come easily.
Surprisingly, the group that has proved to be the most awkward fit into the new Egypt are the youth who engineered the uprising that brought President Mubarak’s reign to an end. Idealistic, peaceful, and largely secular, the success of the Egyptian youth movement became an instant promise of change and possibility. Now, however, their moment in the sun seems to be fading, eclipsed by a military stronghold and the emerging power of the Muslim Brotherhood that was -once outlawed, and is now the main challenge to the military controlled government.
With the state under a military control reluctant to seize power, and conservative Islamists the strongest contenders to take control, liberals are unsure of who their greater opponent is. As the New York Times noted, “Many liberals were torn between their fears of military rule and a religious takeover.”
Now student Aliaa Magda El-Mahdy has found herself caught in the crossfire of this ideological dissonance after posting nude pictures of herself and a young male on her blog late last month. El Mahdy, author of the blog “A Rebel’s Diary,” has been facing deep criticism from the conservative factions of Egypt for the photos. Though she posted the images a as call for freedom, she has found little support on the left.
The struggle between idealism and practicality has created a small margin for liberal revolutionaries. Many liberals fear supporting a polarizing figure could hurt their chances in the November 28 elections by alienating conservative Egyptians. In a caption accompanying the photos El Mahdy wrote: “take off your clothes and look at yourselves in the mirror, then burn your body that you so despise to get rid of your sexual complexes forever, before subjecting me to your bigoted insults or denying my freedom of expression." The April 6th Movement (to which El Mahdy herself admits she does not belong) publicly refuted rumors she had any connection with them. According to the New York Times, the group’s spokesman Tarek al-Kholi noted that “the movement does not have any members that engage in such behavior.” Secular speaker Sayyed el-Qimni said "This hurts the entire secular current in front of those calling themselves the people of virtue,” even calling it “a double disaster.” (Note that the brunt of criticism is on the pictures of El Mahdy, the photo of the naked male in the post has generally been ignored.)
Some 5,600 miles away, New York City’s Zuccotti Park was quiet this weekend after Occupy Wall Street protestors, having camped there since September 17th, were roughly cleared out by police November 15th. Criticized from the beginning for the unconventional appearance of many protestors, denizens of Zuccotti Park were characterized as freaks and hippies. An early New York Times article likened the protests to “street theater.” On separate occasions the New York Post’s coverage referred to protestors as “crusty,” and “vagabonds.” In The New Yorker, columnist John Cassady referred to the protestors as “a motley assortment of slackers, students, environmentalists, socialists, feminists, and hippies.”
Like El Mahdy’s striking photos, the apparent eccentricity of the OWS protestors threatened to alienate more traditional centrists, making progressives concerned that their message would be lost in alternative static.
Despite criticism and (unsolicited) recommendations regarding their appearance, a funny thing happened—the protestors didn’t listen. As a few days turned into two months, and Wall Street turned into over 100 cities across the country, the U.S. found itself occupied with people of all stripes whose message became louder than their look.
Both the February uprising and Occupy Wall Street are youth led movements that carry with them an inherent danger of being dismissed by an older, more conservative establishment. El Mahdy is protesting in the same way the peaceful protestors did when they filled Tahrir Square in February and how OWS is now-speaking with her body. When you have everything stripped away from your control, your job, your economy, your sexuality, your voice-your body is sometimes the only instrument you have left.
Accordingly, OWS protestors, who, from the beginning have included grandmothers, children, and labor unions, change who they are to be effective advocates of economic change and equality. If liberals, in Egypt and beyond, are going to make the day after the revolution one worth fighting for, they need to see beyond the aesthetic corpus of the revolt and accept the occupational power and potential for individual expression inherent therein.
As forces on the right and left try to disenfranchise her, El Mahdy speaks without words through her pictures. These images, which aresimultaneously confrontational, uncomfortable, and beautiful, are strains of the silent screams of revolution that echo from the Arab Spring to Lower Manhattan. If liberals in Egypt want the revolution of youth fighting convention, secular fighting religious oppression, and new voices fighting for their say, they must accept the reality of revolutionaries acting revolutionary.