ahorbinski: a bridge in the fog (bridge to anywhere)
2011-01-28 21:06

From Kyoto to Cairo

It's not every day that, reading a book about a city on another continent five hundred years ago, you find yourself thinking, "This is just like what's going on in Country X right now!"

In this scenario the city is Kyoto, the book is Mary Elizabeth Berry's The Culture of Civil War in Kyoto, and the country in question is Egypt.

…the passage itself suggests some of the resources that fortified [the city's] residents: the ability to conceive of their overlords as illegitimate, the will to protest, the occasional standoff (surely a victory of sorts) in their contests.
[…]
The politics of demonstration was not a series of random explosions, however prominently such acts figured in wartime; it was a politics of ambiguity. It required calculated steps and then flexible retreats, a relationship with its audiences that mixed coercion with adroit appeal. It flaunted strength but existed only in the absence of a hegemonic authority. It expressed resolve but was premised on an internal and external testing of commitment that invited counterdemonstration. In short, demonstration was both a structure of political action and a medium of social reconfiguration.
[…]
The force of number remains the critical element, for demonstration drew its power from mass witness.

(59; 104-05; 145)

Obviously, the differences between Kyoto during the Sengoku (Warring States) period [1467-1568 CE] and contemporary Egypt, and Cairo specifically, are immense; for which reason I am struck all the more by the immense similarities, across two continents, as many cultures, half a millennium, and the real rupture of modernity. What brings down oppressive regimes? People going out into the streets to demonstrate, as long as there streets to go out into.

I don't know what's going to happen in Egypt, though I know what I hope is going to happen; given that a week ago almost no one would have predicted the revolt happening at all, at this point I tend to find prediction itself rather suspect. I do know what happened in Kyoto; the Lotus Uprising, which governed the city more or less independently for nearly four years, was brutally suppressed in 1536 by a disparate alliance of elite factions who could not abide the challenge the commoner government offered them by the very fact of its existence, despite the fact that those elites had been literally at each other's throats for more than half a century, and remained so for at least the next thirty years. Institutions will ultimately make the difference in Egypt too, no matter how illegitimate they are perceived to be. But those institutions' actions will be determined by their complex negotiations with the demonstrators who are defying the curfew in Cairo to bear witness to their own desires, and to assert their right to be there.

Some links: Al-Jazeera's live feed from Egypt;
the Times article about the revolt;
at the Times, an interactive map of the demonstrations,
Five Things to Understand at TNR;
a personal anonymous account from Cairo,
and a video cutting together some of the demonstration footage.

My heart is with the protesters. If there's one thing history teaches, it's that while nothing is predetermined, some things are probable. May it be, this time, the right things.