A Mediterranean encounter in the heart of Cairo
Courtesy: http://www.tiedonantaja.fi

Throughout years of struggle for regime change and an overall change of political mindset in Egypt, the question of how local this struggle is continued to be present, both in theory and in practice. While for some, the moment is usurped by local matters, which has created a sense of contentious exceptionalism, others keep looking beyond – more as a necessity and less as a luxury.

In this conversation in a Cairo coffeehouse after a heavy meal, scholar Marta Agosti speaks with activist Christos Giovanopoulos about the birth of new movements, the potential for a new kind of transnationalism geared towards acts of contemporary decolonization.

Giovanopoulos, an activist and member of the SIRISA party that came out of the Greek social forum. In his research life, he looks into the political economy of the media, TV film theory and cultural studies.

Agosti is a PhD candidate at London’s School of Oriental and African Studies. She has lived in Cairo since 2009 and looks into how political and economic structures tailor the life choices of ordinary women.

Christos Giovanopoulos: We need to think strategically about the Mediterranean space. We have to decolonize the map that we have in our minds. From our side, we need to stop thinking about the European Union as the single reference. We now have common references; memories of these different revolts and movements, where we can pinpoint hubs or starting points, which can then be used to recreate this imagination.

There is a necessity: we cannot have successful change in any country without strong international support to change the geopolitics of the area.  For instance, the fractures in Greece meant a fissure in the EU geopolitical space, and as such, all the measures that took place to “rescue” Greece were in a sense a way to rescue the EU itself. On this side of the Mediterranean, it happened similarly; there was a threat and regaining control entailed escalating the conflict, so security concerns would predominate over possible changes. Hence, what was not there was an international body to support us. This is particularly important now in Greece, because we may have a possible change in government. This means that the margins to move around may shift and generate a space to renegotiate with the Troika to build a different policy; an alternative to austerity measures.

The situation is very volatile and we will still have destabilizing tendencies, which also signal the weakness of established regimes.

We have memories, that we can start using to build this other kind of international space from below. I don’t think it is going to be easy but it is possible. The intensity of the local struggle is very present and big, and for many also a matter of life and death.

Marta Agosti: What do you think is the common base we can define? For example, when protest movements gained international coverage, what happened? It seems that a set of values and principles gained visibility. In a sense, isolation was broken by all the movements: people talking, images of protestors, political meetings, networking on social media, people living outside the country returning, journalists covering events and creating references for other countries

Giovanopoulos: There are a lot of common things. First, people’s right to participate in the decision-making process of their own lives. In Arab countries, this was highlighted quite obviously against autocratic regimes and the demands to create a more open public sphere. In Europe, it took a different form. It was about contesting the bourgeois democracy of the past. In the EU, economic governance has been outsourced to unelected unconstitutional bodies, and as a result absorbed all the political forces of the elected governments. This has caused a complete split between the political institutions and the parties of the past, and this is an ongoing tendency, from the social body, the public.

Agosti: Can we say that on both shores of the Mediterranean, there is the possibility for reconsidering a different citizenship?

Giovanopoulos: Yes, these movements were the first break of large parts of society that are from different roots. They do not fit in this political framework. There is no space for them and there are also structural questions, such as the discrepancies between economic developments and the established political structures. In this sense, it was the economic logic that laid the foundation for the current crisis and opportunities.

The EU project was supposed to bring the periphery of Europe closer to the canter of economic power. However the opposite happened; the periphery of Europe got far from the metropolis and in order to survive the Troika promoted policies that transferred resources (social and capital) from the periphery to the centre, and in that sense the periphery of Europe became closer to Africa. So there are very real material conditions that have created different situations. Within these conditions, you have the movements that try to break through and develop their own strategies. Of course, there are the political specificities of each country; in the EU we have the Troika, in Egypt, you have a different battle. However, the main theme is the same: we have new social subjects emerging with new political players from the bottom, not clearly defined yet but who are also fighting regression.

Agosti: Do you also think that bourgeois elites here share common threats and perceive that they are being challenged, as they are in Greece?

Giovanopoulos: In a very fundamental way, yes they do. In Greece they would not have survived without the Germans and the political help from the Troika; a very colonial mentality. The International Monetary Fund discourse was: “We have a lot of bribery, a big system, nobody has control over what is happening and we need someone to teach us,” which is the same kind of discourse we can hear here. This is a kind of inferiority complex, internalising the problem: we are responsible, we are the problem; which completely erases the issue of looting resources (human and material) from the periphery to the centre, which also preserves the elites’ control of power. This is the mentality: because you are not good enough, you have to pay for it. That is the discourse promoted by the government: we do this for the sake of the nation in order to stay part of Europe, which is, indeed, mainly in their own interest.

Agosti: But at the same time, they also claim to be the repertoire of nationalism; the ones that are holding the nation together. Here, that is a common accusation: anybody that goes against something that has been mainstreamed would be accused of not being a patriot, of wanting to destroy the country. So by reflection all these businessmen, and other powers, appear to be the ones holding things together. It is a very perverse relationship.

Giovanopoulos: The question of sovereignty leads directly to the question of nationalism. First, all these terms do not have one meaning. What does the national flag in Syntagma Square or in Tahrir Square mean? Is it a symbol? Isn’t it one of the many dominant symbols that people use to reclaim, to say that this country belongs to them, and that they will decide? Speaking about nationalism demands that we also speak about what we should do in order to deconstruct nationalism, not on an ideological level only, but to describe this condition, which shows that the choice of the bourgeois is the one that keeps the nation as a slave.

Agosti: …And keeps preserving inequalities.

Giovanopoulos: Bourgeois elites use the language of nationalism to speak on behalf of the nation to maintain their privileges, however the movements brought the notion of We, we against them, and we have to carry on this analytical tool: you do not represent Us. This ‘We,’ to me, is the result of informatisation, liberalisation and globalisation. On an abstract level, bourgeois democracies, as they privatised the economy, also privatised political institutions, so the people became marginalised and at the same time an organic part of building the new infrastructure of globalized capitalism. Moreover, their material conditions worsen every day, which creates tensions. It explains why traditional political subjects did not play a role. Instead it was the social subjects who are now trying to gain political presence. Still the traditional powers will manipulate, kidnap, change, co-opt a lot of the rhetoric of the movement.

Agosti: We are talking a lot about youth. Definitely the youth are an important factor, but what do we mean by this? I think it needs to be contextualised. If we look at the images of the movements, we will see a lot of differences; people we consider young but who do not fully fit into the definition of youth. For instance, how old are you?

Giovanopoulos: 45!

Agosti: Haha. The way we talk is full of class resonances, and we still have in many of the movements the jargon of the Marxist framework. We talk about proletarians, we talk about regimes, and we talk about bourgeois. And I think, in a sense, our language does not fit with what is happening, does it?

Giovanopoulos: I think you are right, because the term “youth” changes historically. I think that the term “youth,” as a special category, does not exist anymore. First, because you have many different definitions of “youth”; differences in class, movements, habits and culture. The other thing, most importantly – and this is a difference from the 1980s to the current generation of 2011 – is that the “youth” became more conflated, meaning that they integrate themselves with the problems that the rest of the population have. For instance the issue of jobs, housing, survival, the “youth” mainly had to be flexible, because young people didn’t have stability to build their lives in their 30s. This flexibility now has been extended indefinitely, and it has been generalised, affecting many different parts of the society. So there has been a synchronisation of the problems of the youth with problems of the society.

And this is important, because it is the youth that give life to these movements and that is the most dynamic part. In Greece, paradoxically, the youth was not as we imagined them. They were in the clashes, but the majority that participated in the front lines were not youth. Until 2011, the youth in Greece were very radical, but they suddenly disappeared because other problems had absorbed them, so they merged the problems being pushed forward in universities with the problems that the society had in general.

I think we have to get rid of all these terms that prevent communication. Not to get rid of them historically, as ideas, but in terms of being able to create spaces for communication, new language that can speak about what matters to both of us, even if we come from very different backgrounds.

Agosti: I was also thinking about this terminology that carries a lot of connotations. And I also think it has repercussions when it comes to translate these social movements into political ideas. We used the question of youth, but we could’ve used “class” for instance, and we would be having the same kind of conversation. They are very loaded terms that somehow impose a structure in the mind that gears more towards the past than the future. I think that would be a worthy discussion, because some academics define “youth” as the new proletariat. And this is my problem with these terms.

Giovanopoulos: Terminology splits you from people. As much as the political movements of the past have been trying to supersede the division between political structures and society, the movements are trying to bypass that. They are trying to create a different relationship with political and social engagement or political agency.

As much as the political movements of the past had the idea that we have to conquer the state, equally, the social movements that were born after the 1960s failed too. I do not think in those terms: social movements on this side and political parties on the other side. I think both of them are in crisis and we have a mixture of things, people move around and this is part of digesting the earthquakes of 2011 that shook governments and the geopolitical map. So we have to rebuild something that will have material from the past but in a completely new relationship among themselves.

The most important thing about what you were saying is not to create affinities aligned to that ideology. The issue is about created space, where everybody can relate and which is about what matters. What is important is what the best way is to keep communicating, and there I see many occasions where the organisational logic and language divided people. First, because the connotations given to words are very different among ordinary people. Second, the people have new ways of doing things in their day-to-day life and they relate much more to that: being innovative and transferring the skills that each of them has, enriching the repertoire of the movements, and in this way they are changing the agenda.

Agosti: All this organic way of thinking and the controversy on how to translate it into political terms led to discussions about changing the term public to common. Can you elaborate on this? And how do you envision the relationship with the state?

Giovanopoulos: This is about framing a thing that already exists differently. Public goods are associated strongly with the political developments and the kind of imagination of the modern state, which means mass production, equals mass consumption and the development of public services. The main idea is that the state takes on a social role of the regulator between the different classes and works for their benefit or as a compromising force. This implies that all the different classes recognize the political strength of the state and are involved in the negotiating process. This is broken today. The state has retreated and has left whole areas un-served and uncovered, losing its public character, and is not considered a provider of social services anymore.

The state privatises services, and services go where they have profits. So the state retreated from many areas, and these areas are the new battleground. You will have mafias, churches, charities and NGOs filling this gap. Within these, movements are a big player. They represent the will of the people to reclaim these spaces and give a different solution to our needs, so in this sense the common replaces the public, and this is what common tries to create, another pillar of the We: We as the common.

In this scenario, the state is needed to create the conditions that favour these enterprises. The political task of these movements is to request further decentralisation to create these spaces for the communities to take over responsibility. The key to simplifying this activity is for it to become closer to the daily life of the communities, to work out a different idea of politics altogether.

Agosti:  How can these movements be transnational? It is clear that there is an anxiety on how to translate these ideas into concrete actions.

Giovanopoulos: This is the most difficult part, because the fundamental needs at the local level are so intense. The needs of concrete local materialisation at the local level are so demanding that to coordinate something internationally is perceived as a demanding effort. Also, all the differences and asymmetric developments of the movements make coordination difficult. We have to build a different imagination to take some shape in the gross national region in the Mediterranean. From there, we can take concrete actions to create an international body. We do not start from scratch, there are already informal networks connecting between countries. Besides this, we can align and support each other in particular struggles and issues such as strikes, the migrants question and labour issues that can bring a more concrete sense of proximity. We draw some border in our mind and try to create a big network of flows of principles, solidarity, concrete actions… It is not going to be easy, maybe because the most difficult issue is the scale of confrontation and the differences.

The most important thing is the popular memory of all these squares. Just saying their names evokes people’s imagination of the revolt, and this is something we lacked before and we are now only three years on.

Marta Agosti 

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