Cairo The Organizers’ Forum meetings have been outstanding. On our third day we begin meeting with emerging political leaders who are building parties (Egypt Arab Union Party) and standing as candidates for Egypt’s new president (Amr Moussa, former head of Arab League and Foreign Minister) as well as labor leaders and organizers who played a crucial role in the overthrow of the government, though less celebrated in the glare of the media. Quieter meetings, especially with women activists and organizers, have developed a significant undercurrent theme at the grassroots level that may hold the real key to on going institutional capacity and democratic participation though, and the movement to consolidate and connect “neighborhood councils” or the Legan Sha3beya movement, seems to be the most interesting and important of these developments.
When we first met Aswatna Masriya, who had come to our attention originally because of a Facebook page standing up for Women in the push for democracy, it was hard to miss the stories of the fundamental changes she described in her upper middle class area of Zemalek, when the women provided the leadership in organizing intricate neighborhood security systems in January as public safety disappeared and rumors were everywhere at flash point. List were made, young men were recruited, and women perched on balconies taking “block watch” duty until 2 and 3 AM in the night. Intricate inventories of fire arms were recorded, surprising many residents to discover how militarized the neighbors were. There was a recognition that everyone, everywhere including the home guard way distant from Tahrir Square had a role to play in making the revolution live and transforming expectations with their own direct participation.
This theme was picked up by Marwa Boushra Al-Sawi, now working with Oxfam-NOVIB, but an activist in various campaigns around the need for civilian rather than military trials and the need to reform the Family Law dealing with custody, divorce, and other issues. Importantly she felt the neighborhood councils that had survived over the 6 months since the revolution were perhaps the most significant hope for the future. This Legan Sha3beya movement from her reports has linked a number of neighborhood councils together in Cairo and nationally and the groups that have thrived have increased their range of issues and campaigns more broadly than simple security, and are doing so successfully. In a classic move they are pushing the government around garbage pickup and threatening to take the garbage to the government if collection does not improve. Certainly a familiar tactic to many community organizers. A broader “know your rights” campaign is now being plannned.
Some of this is reminiscent of the self-organization at the community level in Buenos Aires of the barrios asembleas – neighborhood assemblies – that grew up throughout the city during the “crises” and in response to the need to maintain public services, create jobs, and provide stability. The energy was amazing in the immediate wake of the Crises. Many of these asembleas have not survived, but they spoke to similar energies and interests.
Importantly, Legan Sha3beya seems to be mainly concentrated in the poorer areas though linked to some of the activity in more middle income neighborhoods. The development of more political parties in the coming election campaign may also make these councils fundamental, if they remain what is united, even as 30 to 120 parties compete for power.