The promise of the square: A Conversation With Motaz Attalla
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    Warren: Can you take us back a bit to how you experienced the early days of Tahrir Square?

    Motaz: One word comes to mind very quickly and that word is ‘intimacy’.  You know when you are in an extraordinary situation, whether it is negative or positive, it becomes so easy to feel very close to other people. And what happened in the square was this state of closeness was allowed to simmer and cook over enough of a period that it became its own distinct thing. And it revealed ways of being together and ways of communicating that had the sort of promise of being this wonderful bedrock for society.

    There was this sense of rediscovering pure community- with all its good and bad. Knowing what it means to receive gifts and give gifts, to receive care and give care between absolute strangers and with a totally open heart. And feeling just a sweetness of courage. And to know that we don’t have to worry about the consequences of stepping out- not because things won’t turn out bad but because there is a lot of support for the act of bravery itself. And to me that’s the glue of society. Feeling like people are for you and you are for people.

    Tana: To what extent is the rise of the collective intimacy you’re speaking of dependent on being in a state of societal crisis? It seems like a big part of what allowed this experience to flourish in the square was that people had no choice but to be in the present moment with each other because of the circumstances. As the movement starts to mature and people start to organize around what they want in the future, how do they also stay in the moment so that they are very consciously co-creating the future in the way in which they are working together? It seems that as soon as the walls come down and there is ‘real work’ to be done, it’s really easy to get stuck in the head and forget to pay attention to how we are working together rather than simply the end goal that we are working towards.

    Motaz: I think it is a real challenge because like you said the circumstances were so exceptional. They very violently, like a clothes iron, ironed down the conditions that are more conducive to intellectual and ideological thinking. All we had was each other and this space and some crackers and cheese and so there was no choice but to resort to a different language. And I think it is very important that it happened because we were able to taste that different language and taste possibility. It was an affective experience- of being looked at a certain way, receiving a certain kind of smile or a pat on the back. Very, very simple things that suggested the possibility of being with other humans in a certain way and that have, when you think about it, certain political implications and organizational implications.

    And to some extent it still exists. There is an affection- a romance even when we meet each other, talk to each other, see each other at events- this sense that we’ve been through this amazing thing together. But now that we’re back to the world of fighting over how we want the future to look, the default is to fall back into more of a mental exercise. The programs proposed by some of the new political parties are just incredibly naïve for me because they are recycling the same paradigm in terms of what is expected of a state or a parliamentary system. And I feel there is a challenge to break that down and to give more space to the Tahrir Square sentiment.

    Warren: The connection between intimacy and agency is an interesting one. The predominant, modern version of agency, at least in the west, has been very much about independence- one’s ability to strike forward and affect the world. I like the idea of widening this definition to include our ability to be intimate with each other. Part of my agency is sharing my experience with other people in a real authentic way, not just bulldozing ahead in silence. There is a generative agency that grows out of intimacy. Organizations come to life in a different way when that kind of intimacy is present- when people are sharing their immediate experience.

    Motaz: I agree…and agency is something that emerges when we acknowledge our affective experience of a given event or person or institution as legitimate.


    The Professionalization of Community

    Motaz: I started a new job about a month ago with a very young and progressive Egyptian human rights organization. It’s 5 minutes from home, which is unheard of in Cairo, and I walk to work!

    They used to work on conventional human rights stuff like reporting on torture cases, but now they are excited about doing more advocacy and grassroots stuff, which they weren’t able to do before the revolution because of security pressures. Now they are hiring people who are sector specialists- like me-I’m the education guy- and there is a housing person and a health person. So we’re looking at all the different actors and what it means for regular citizens to be more engaged in the issues and with each other.

    Yesterday I got an email from an old friend who said, “Hey, I just heard about this guy who is doing homeschooling and I thought you might find what he’s doing interesting.” So she sent me his number and we ended up having this hour conversation and he described to me what kinds of support networks he and the families around him need and what’s amazing is that I was able to say, “Well that’s my job to help you guys get together.” I can find out how what they are doing collides with current policies and laws and then speak to the lawyers at the office to see what we can do to support them. Just very simple things like that. And then hearing from new independent student groups who want to help shape education reform but are not sure quite how. And so they first just want to have conversations to try to understand education reform. And I can help them do that.

    I was speaking to a lobbyist for Exxon Mobil the other day about this idea of policy being a technical issue- the politics of excluding stakeholders from policy and instead bringing scientists to the table. It is a particularly neoliberal way of doing things and it is amazing how common this pattern is across all the different sectors. We’re now trying to reverse it. The technical experts are taking the side of the stakeholders. It’s a really interesting dynamic.

    Tana: What you are saying is reminding me of some of the tensions that I engaged with when I was in Canada and the U.S. It felt that paradoxically one of biggest barriers to community engagement was community organizations themselves. The act of social change and community engagement has become so professionalized that people just think, “Oh, we have these organizations to take care of these social issues, so we no longer need to worry about it.” I really struggle with this tension as someone who has always made a living through my work in and with community organizations. At a personal level, it’s such a privilege to be paid to do such meaningful work.

    Motaz: In my mind this tension will always exist and be adjusting itself. What’s the ideal civil society modality? What does it mean to have actors in society who aren’t stakeholders themselves but who are stakeholder middle-men?

    Tana: Perhaps what’s important is to be conscious of the tension as it shifts over time and to rein it in when it goes too far in one direction. These days, when the media labels someone as an activist, it suddenly reduces their legitimacy in the eyes of the public. They are viewed as a professional getting paid to say what they are saying, rather than a human being who is engaging with an issue out of pure concern, compassion, etc. I agree that you can be both simultaneously, but that’s not necessarily how it is framed and perceived by society.

    Warren: For me it’s not just a sectoral question, it’s also an organizational question. One of the reasons civil society organizations get too professionalized and expertise-driven is because they are following the same industrial model of organization as the rest of the world- where an organization is a bunch of clearly defined functions, with clear boundaries, that has a purpose and that relies on the rise of the experts, including management. And so as we start challenging that and playing with new forms of organization that are more open and participatory, that tension may become less important. People would have an easier time coming in and out of these more permeable organizations, interacting and using them as it feels good, without feeling intimidated or shut-out.

    Motaz: I totally hear you and I’m hearing echoes of a conversation that has been going on around here on volunteerism. A few days ago it was International Volunteer Day. And I couldn’t help but get this uncomfortable response to it. When we distill from the fabric of society a way of being and make it into its own distinct practice or sector, what do we leave for society itself, what do we leave for the day-to-day? So say a few kids decide to start an art project in their neighborhood. They never call it volunteerism. It’s just these kids who are part of the neighborhood and this is their thing. But once they all wear the same t-shirts that maybe someone’s dad made or start to have a website or a model that’s replicated in other places- then they become invited to some conference on volunteerism and become this famous international thing. And then it becomes a brand that other kids from the neighborhood can go and subscribe to. And what feels really tricky for me is the line between them- between just living and volunteerism. The line is very blurred, but there is a line and crossing it is consequential.


    The Streets or the System?

    Motaz: In much of the revolutionary movement, and I myself subscribe to this, there is this feeling that the on-the-ground organizing that is happening is just as important, or maybe more important, than the creation of the super-structure things like parliament and the judiciary and the new constitution that is going to be drafted soon. The same is the case at a sector level. If we see problems with the laws that govern how our schools operate, but engage with the education of ministry as the central voice that has the last word, this reinforces its centrality to the issue of learning. And I believe, as do most of the people I work with, that learning is complex and inhabits each of our lives quite differently and so should not be determined by the ministry.

    Yesterday there was a big demonstration in Tahrir Square to demand a hand-over of power from the military to civilians sooner rather than later. One of the things that people were demonstrating against was a document of super-constitutional principles proposed by someone in government that would give the army incredible power (what many simply refer to as ‘The Document’). It says that the army should have the right to veto any law or decision and is not accountable to any other institution…which is of course ridiculous. In preparation for the demonstration, I made a placard and was wracking my brain all morning thinking about what to write on it. In the end, I just wrote: “The Document? I am the Document”. And people really responded to it. People were like, “Yeah, we have to remember that we’re the Super-Constitution. There are no ideas that anyone can write down that can replace us- our sense of justice and togetherness…that is what this is all rooted in.”

    Warren: So in terms of our original question- how do you carry the ‘life of the square’ forward?- it seems important to ask ourselves, “Where are we trying to take it forward?” Are we just trying to take it into parliament or are we also trying to take it into all the little micro-governance experiences that our lives are filled with.

    Motaz: Totally, but that’s just people like me who are by our very temperament and disposition more oriented towards things on the ground than the legal and institutional structures. And this does contribute to an unhealthy fragmentation in the movement. There are a number of neighborhood organizers and people engaged at the grassroots who think that a lot of the party work is not important and that people doing it are sell outs. And there are other people who feel that now isn’t the time for grassroots organizing. Now is the time to make sure our voices are heard and so the most important work we can be doing at this point is to support political parties. And so a division of labour is emerging, laced with judgment. There is this hierarchy in people’s minds that what they are doing is absolutely more important.

    So those of us working at the grassroots have to remind ourselves that our parliament is important and stuff gets decided there that has force behind it. Laws will pass there and those laws will be enforceable by use of force. It’s not a joke. Parliament is very consequential. And so there are reasons to be concerned about what happens there. The same is the case at the sector level. For example, the ministry of education and formal education do exist in our lives. They control a lot of our movement around employment, around what kinds of visas you can get, around your access to banking. And there aren’t enough alternatives around to give people a way to do away with formal schooling all together. So there is a reason to engage with the system as it is now.

    Warren: How then do you work at the macro, institutional level without fetishizing it and making everything about that level?

    Motaz: I think it requires that we take a more holistic view. If you think of our natural ecology, there are all these different functions that are required for materials- nutrients, water, elements, etc.- to flow through the system. And at every level of moving these materials, there are different organisms and different spaces that are best suited to do the job. The same is the case here- there are the legal scholars, the lawyers, the party politicians, the academics, the factory foremen, the writers, the media personalities, the guys at the front lines who take on the tear gas. Of course a group or an individual might carry a number of these roles simultaneously, but my sense is that we need to gravitate towards the level at which we feel most drawn. I’ve been listening for what my own role is- how I fit into that broader ecology. I’m inspired by the words of Arundhati Roy- “the bio-diversity of existence.” She uses that concept to say that there are many things that need to be done and many ways of engaging that all need support. So I’m allowing myself the privilege of not worrying about battles that aren’t my battles. And it links back to sustainability; it has helped me to not get overwhelmed and to be more forceful and present and impassioned in the areas that I feel drawn to.

    Warren: I totally buy this, but at the same time I worry that if we get too functional, all those worlds will become very separate from each other. So that the people working at the national policy level become very insulated from the day-to-day reality on the ground- the design and use that you’re talking about. And then the people who are working to give stakeholders more local voice become very disconnected from a larger sense of the whole. And then the interactions between the two worlds become more about self-interested negotiation.

    Motaz: For me, it’s about engaging the system, but in a way that creates more and more space for stakeholder voice. So in the case of education, it involves bringing kids, parents, teachers, administrators to the table so that they can actively participate in formulating policies. My friend who works on urban design once described his work to me. He said, “I’m presented with a challenge, I provide a solution and then I go home. But then the reality of space and how we use it is that people engage with it in a way that is different than what we had intended. There’s always a cutting of a certain corner, a re-defining of a certain boundary.” He says designers should be ever-present and design should be an on-going process. The designer gives a ‘trigger’ that suggests a certain kind of use and then people use it and give him a ‘key’ that reveals how the space is actually going to be used. There should be a perpetual back and forth. I think stakeholder involvement in policy should ideally have a similar dynamic.

    Warren: So how can we keep enough engagement across the different levels so that the policy people at the national level are fed by the ground and the people on the ground are fed by the larger system? How do we keep those two things imbedded in each other without getting overwhelmed by the sense that we need have to have the whole system in our heads?

    Motaz: I’m getting in my mind two contrasting images. One is of a really high-performing, super streamlined corporation that has very distinct workflows, protocols and departments. It is a well-oiled machine, but a machine where ultimately the different parts don’t necessarily know how the other ones function. So it recognizes the need for different bodies within it but functions with a kind of rigidity that is not so healthy. The other is of an organization that is less like a machine and more like a tool box- where the tools are more proximate to each other. There is still an understanding that a hammer is a hammer, but it is sitting in a bed of nails and next to a screwdriver. There is a sense that we’re all in it together. So for me, it comes down to cultivating a deeper communication amongst the roles and more flexibility around the roles people can play so that they can gravitate towards where they feel called and where they feel able to contribute the most.

    And I’m thinking about the organization I work in. Every meeting is open to everyone, and there is a sense that it is important for everyone to know what every other sector is doing because it is all about human rights- and it’s all about reform. So I often find myself drawn to conversations around police sector reform, even though my work focuses on education.  And my input is invited in. And from this there is a growing sense of parallel realities and a common language is helping to bind things together.

    Warren: So I like that flexible role-based approach. Generally our definitions of roles are too narrow to respond to people’s sense of calling. So when we take a sense of calling as the fundamental thing, then the roles are going to come out in all sorts of weird, hybrid, beautifully messy ways that will change over time as people themselves grow. And it will entail a lot more crossing over. And because you are not rigidly defined by your education role, you are a bridge between those different sets of experiences.

    Motaz: I think it also requires us to open up to more parts of ourselves in the moment, when we engage with a given problem or concern. Are we engaging as specialists whose work is in that particular sector? Or are we also engaging with it as people who have experienced fear in a given moment and who are insistent on not experiencing that fear again? Or are we engaging with it as someone who has a particular dream for their kids around the neighborhood they want to live in? So it’s really about the lens that people are using. Maybe speaking more from the place of ‘I’ and recognizing a kind of holistic-ness.

    Warren: For me it raises a really critical and paradoxical point: That cultivating an appreciation of the diversity of the whole requires that we speak from this ‘I’ place. It requires that we share with each other why and how we are feeling drawn to a particular piece of work. And paradoxically, I think this language of the individual helps us to better connect to and appreciate the whole. Whereas when we talk about the whole in the language of abstraction- “This is how the world works, it is clear that we need to being doing X if you look at the larger picture” – it actually shrinks our connection to the whole.

    Motaz: The whole by itself feels overwhelming. There is so much going on in so many places that it becomes hard to acknowledge and engage with it. When I think about demonstrations that are happening in other parts of the country, I’ve come to a point where I feel like I can’t even give them a moment of thought. I’m like, “Oh, yeah, okay.” It’s like hearing about a natural disaster on the other side of the world. It’s real, but you don’t have space in your head to take it in fully. It’s a disconcerting feeling, because it suggests exhaustion and burnout, and it’s scary for the future because I don’t know what I’m going to do, what I’m going to focus on. I feel I have no choice but to decide that that’s okay. I’m not going to feel guilty. I’m not going to beat myself over the head. If that’s how it is, that’s how it is.

    Warren: For me anyway, the anxiety of the whole, the overwhelmingness, comes from a desire to control it mentally- to have it all in my head and framed. When I approach the whole more as a mystery- that can never really be take in- I become more open to it, but without it feeling overwhelming. I can sort of let it move through me. I don’t have to shut myself off from it because I’m not trying to solve it, contain it, understand it particularly, it’s just part of my experience. So I take the mystery of the ecology as something I will never completely grasp. For me that lowers my anxiety level and raises my openness without correspondingly raising my burnout.


    Tasting the Future

    Tana: At the beginning of our conversation you said you were able to ‘taste’ a different language and a different way of being together in Tahrir Square. I love that you used that word because it is so visceral and brings us back to the role that our present experience plays in helping us to shape the future.

    Motaz: Although the movement has become much more intellectualized over the past several months, I feel there is a way to revisit that taste. And I think it’s through conversations where we can start to break down the many masks, lenses and frames that we’ve inherited, through which we interpret society. We need to host imagination.

    Part of what needs to be done hasn’t been done before and part of what needs to be done is rooted in pure affect- rather than legal or organizational precedent. So we need to recall and revisit that affective experience and sit with it enough so that we can maybe hear clues around ways forward organizationally and politically.

    And I think that’s already kind of happening. People are wondering what it means for us to have a constitution that is implemented well. A lot of people have this very intuitive, sort of frantic response to say, “I am the constitution, it is me,” and, “We’re legitimate, the street is legitimate,”…not as a principle but really as a feeling. There is a strong sense that it can’t be about paper, it can’t be about rules. Of course we need those, but it’s ultimately about what is true. And the only way to acknowledge what is true isn’t through some legal process, but what my heart tells me, along with the hearts of thousands of other people.

    Some of the people working on police reform are realizing that it’s not enough to simply restructure the current system in order to rid it of corruption. We need to revisit the very notion of security…What is security? What is safety? What is community well-being? Who is to enforce these things? We need to be asking ourselves when have we felt safe in our lives, when have we felt secure, when have we felt that we have been able to contribute to other people’s feelings of being safe and secure or to our own?

    And the same with learning. Instead of jumping head first into reforming the education system, we need to take a step back and listen what our experiences have taught us about learning. What are the most important things that I have learned in my life- that have helped me to be a good person in my family, in my neighborhood, in my work, in my civic duties? What have I learned, where have I learned it and what are the kinds of conditions that have enabled that kind of learning? And to start to distill from that a sense of what an education establishment would look like.

    And around health, what is my experience of physical and mental well-being? What are the spaces in which I’m able to feel that more? What are the times when I’ve been able to feel well with doctors or in hospitals?

    This is the time to revisit the core principles within a lot of these sectors as part of that re-imagining of the sectors. Partly to root our ownership of them mentally back into our experience.

    Tana: And maybe it would also help to take people back to their experience of the square, where people had such an intense taste of all of those things- safety, healing, learning- in a different way. What did that experience teach them that could help in the re-imaging of the different sectors?

    Motaz: I’m standing in my room looking out my window. It’s kind of cloudy, but it’s a nice day. It’s a Saturday, so the streets are not so crowded. I’m looking at these people walking down the street and I’m wondering, “What is ‘community’ for these people?”. That framing of our life, our neighborhood, the resources that we use, we’re discovering them. We’re having to learn what those are to begin with.

    In theory it’s already articulated- there are these local governance councils and city councils and parliament. The government should be able to take care of all these things. But part of me is thinking that we need to re-learn and change a bunch of things. There is something kind of positive and exciting about not knowing where things are going.  I think that acknowledging the fact that we don’t know where things are going is in itself a generative thing. It leaves us in a new space and pushes us to discover what is the common language for us now. And for me, that’s exciting. I’m getting this militant, aggressive sort of excitement about redefining our community and insisting on things that make sense to me.

    For example, as someone who does a lot of freelance work, I have to get paid under the table and I’m very careful about how I put that money into my account. I’m not able to pay taxes on my freelance work because there isn’t a tax bracket or taxation mechanism, or insurance for that matter, that is suitable for young people who make small amounts of money from different gigs. There is just no way for us to be taxed. So we have all these professionals, mostly in the arts and research, who are part of the informal economy. And recently we’ve been like, ‘why isn’t there a law for us?’ We had never thought about that before, but now there is a budding insistence that the State, which is the ultimate expression of organizing our collective experience, reflect the reality of our lives. So in turn it is inspiring us to listen to what is really going on. What do we really want, what really makes sense to us, what really makes life comfortable…or uncomfortable?

    Warren: That’s a beautiful way of thinking of it- to engage with all of this work in a more mysterious, learning-based, open-ended way.

    Motaz: For me and for the other people I’m around and working with, what we’re banking on is this idea of agency in every aspect of our lives. The feeling that the world is there for you to engage in fully. Nothing is for the experts, nothing is for the politicians alone. They have their functions, but they are with us and we are with them in everything. So for example, in education there is no such thing as feeling like the system is too big, too messy to make inroads. Let us imagine the core of that experience that we want around learning and then start to re-define and re-assemble the very idea of an education establishment around it. You know we want to learn so that we can be happy, fulfilled, productive citizens and communities. So it’s this idea of re-imagining institutions from the ground up as a way of opening them up to us. Whatever political form you end up having is only as good as the people can enforce it.

    Warren: That reminds me of one of my favorite quotes from Foucault: “The only guarantee of freedom is freedom.” We keep talking about the experience of these things, and then we can work to create healthy structures from that, but they always have to be interrogated back against the experience itself because there is no causal thing that will ever keep it alive in perpetuity– whether it is freedom or engagement or community or creativity or safety or love. It is the continual inquiry into these states that keeps them alive. Because it is the thing itself that guarantees itself, not any kind of superstructure.

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