If Tunisia was the spark, the fuse for the uprising on Jan. 25th was the national holiday known as Police Day.
January 25th was Police Day, a national celebration of the role of al-shurta fi khidmat al-shaab (“the police at the service of the poor.”) Police Day was long celebrated by marches and demonstrations, culminating (in Cairo at least) with a speedboat parade on the Nile.
State television covered the events in great detail, with considerable color commentary, culminating in an interview with the Minister of the Interior.
As the regime came to rely increasingly on police repression to maintain power, it year by year increased the pageantry of the events. Finally, in 2009, President Mubarak raised Police Day to a national holiday, during which banks and government offices would be closed.
Anthropologists, sociologists and culturally-minded political scientists have often noted the important role ritual plays in establishing and maintaining nation states. Most states have ritual calendars similar to—and often running parallel with—the sacred calendars of local religious institutions.
Thus the U.S. has such secular ritual celebrations as New Year’s Day, President’s Day, Martin Luther King Day, St. Patrick’s Day, Independence Day, Columbus Day, Labor Day, Memorial Day, Thanksgiving, and so forth.
And Egypt has Sham al Nasim (April), Sinai Liberation Day (April), Labor Day (May), Revolution Day (July) and Armed Forces Day (October).
Holidays like these help states make our nations real by converting the imagined communities of “America” or “Egypt” into collective action. They do this in at least two ways, through shared symbolic content, and through shared activity. On the one hand, they trot out powerful symbols of national identity like flags and anthems and tie them to the apparatus of the state. But even those who ignore such symbolism participate in the collective ritual by virtue of having the day off. Your participation in the nation becomes real through the disruption of your everyday practices.
The Jan. 25th uprising reminds us of the ways in which holidays like Police Day can be appropriated by anti-state actors and wielded against them.
Police Day commemorates a day in 1952 when British troops massacred Egyptian police officers in Ismailiya, after the police refused to put down anti-British protestors in along the Suez Canal.The event sparked anti-British riots throughout Egypt, and paved the way for the revolution six months later.
The state, of course, has always sought to appropriate the moral authority of these patriotic martyrs, casting the contemporary “free” Egyptian state as the result of their sacrifice.
The protestors, however, successfully appropriated the symbolic content of Police Day by metaphorically linking the Mubarak regime to the Colonial regime: just as the Colonial regime ruled the Egyptians for its own profit, so the NDP government exists for self-profit rather than the good of the people.
Perhaps even more importantly, the planned protest took advantage of the fact that Police Day was a day off from work. Unlike Sham al-Nasim, Revolution Day, or other established holidays, where people have developed habitual practices—watching parades on television, picnics, walks down the Corniche—the newness of Police Day meant that many people were at loose ends (although even before being elevated to a national holiday the day had become a regular time for staging anti-police brutality protests).
The call to protest galvanized them, enabling an estimated 20,000 to gather in Cairo alone. The rest, as they say, is history—albeit, history in the making.
One accomplishment of the protesters, whatever else happens, is that they have in this context stolen the ritual authority of the police, the Interior Ministry and, ultimately, the Mubarak presidency.