“And all the barriers broke down”

How totally lame is it that even Sean Penn made it to yesterday’s protest in Tahrir, and I didn’t? What was I doing, exactly? Staying home while my toddler took a nap? Nursing an intense (and intensely undeserved) sense of bitterness about this whole “revolution” thing?

On Thursday morning I visited my son’s primary school. The Irish-born teacher put on a somewhat surreal little impromptu concert for me; the kids sang along to a YouTube recording of post-revolution triumph songs and then a few Muzak Christmas carols (she saw no tension here).  Part of her civilizing mission, I guess: teach her little charges to stand up straight, sing out loud, snap their fingers and sway to the beat, etc. “It gives them confidence,” she declared, happy to have me as a captive audience. It was sweet to hear this motley crew – the teacher announced their countries as they took solos: kids from Indonesia, Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, Palestine, and one newly arrived from Poland, plus my son –  sing  “Bladi, Bladi” (which means “My country, my country,” contrary to how it might sound to Russian speakers!), a song dedicated to the fallen heroes of the revolution.  But it was downright moving, as in almost made me cry (granted I had pulled an all-nighter to meet an article deadline, on which more later, so was probably feeling more emotional than usual), to hear them sing a song released shortly after Mubarak fell, its lyrics based on posters carried by triumphant demonstrators in Tahrir: “I went down [to protest] and said I’m not going back. And all the barriers broke down.”

Because the thing is, this may be a cheap shot, but they are going back, and the barriers are coming back fast.  Many Egyptians are starting to feel – as in this clever sign that Walter Armbrust photographed yesterday and posted to Facebook – that the revolution is being strangled in its crib.

A salutary rejoinder to the gloom was Steve Negus’ recent piece arguing that the revolution has made subtle but crucial gains that have (in his cautious phrase) “so far survived the counter-revolution.” It isn’t all or nothing.  And much has changed.  Maybe some barriers have broken down inside Egyptians themselves, maybe the political landscape has opened up a bit (though not at the top), and slowly, slowly, there can be an improvement of the political situation?

If the government hasn’t changed, at least the surface of the society (all I get to see, unfortunately) has gotten more interesting. Tomorrow we meet our “fuSHa (literary Arabic) conversation” teacher to talk about the possibility of “coexistence”  تعايش between people of different beliefs and cultures in Egypt, taking as an example the Costa Salafis سلفيو كوستا  and an astute (but decidedly non-fuSHa) film they produced, “Where is my Ear?” So, at least we get to spend our morning basking in the basic civility of Egyptian society. These guys are hilarious!

Two Girls from Egypt

On the plane to the UK I watched a 2010 Egyptian movie, Bintayn Min Masr (Two Girls From Egypt), written and directed by Mohamed Amin (a few details here).  It was kind of an earnest social-critique tearjerker melodrama, as you can see from the trailer:

Like all the other cultural production that has come out of Egypt in the past 10-15 years, this film can be said to “predict the Egyptian revolution” of Jan 25 (yes, the linked article is about a supercomputer model!) or at least lay bare the social frustrations that helped contribute to it (Khamissi, Aswany, etc).

The subtitles mistranslated the title as Egyptian Maidens, probably to emphasize that the desperate 30-something heroines were both virgins — a result of social constraints and their inability to find husbands.  The least expected (and perhaps the least watchable) scene was a conversation in which a group of young women explained this sad fact to… a visiting researcher from Boston University!  Of all things.  The American scholar was depicted as blonde and a bit slow, with an exaggerated American accent.

Other highlights. All the men in the film were either scoundrels working abroad, decent men arrested for falling afoul of the regime (two of these), or depressed. The heroine’s brother was nearly killed after an accident sank the ferry that was carrying him to a dead-end restaurant job in Saudi Arabia. Of the female characters young and old, the only one who occasionally appeared happy was a young nurse or doctor involved in a heterosexual relationship, albeit one that was “external” (i.e., sexual but not damaging to technical virginity) and “urfi” (protected by a customary agreement rather than a formal marriage certificate), and consummated mostly in supply closets.  Everyone else was single or widowed, and totally neurotic/miserable/psychosomatically ill, trying everything (dating offices, the Internet, airport lounge speed-dating with Gulf emigrants) to land a man.

Since I have kids, airplanes are about the only time I get to watch movies. Sometime I’ll tell you about Al-Dealer, another recent Egyptian film I saw on a recent flight to Beirut.  Equally melodramatic but much more exciting, and it touched on the former Soviet bloc!

About last night…

I heard two different theories today about what happened last night at the Ministry of Interior and the Israeli Embassy.

1) The move on the embassy was incited by SCAF provocateurs to make the Tahrir protesters cross the line from non-violence into rioting, not only depriving them of their moral high ground and international legitimacy, but also justifying a crackdown and full reimposition of emergency law;
2) The move on the embassy was a clever and useful gambit for the Tahrir protesters; given the widespread popularity in Egypt of statements and actions seen as effectively standing up to Israel, they rightly calculated that forcing SCAF to shoot at Egyptians in defense of Israeli interests could be expected to deprive the military council of legitimacy in the eyes of ordinary Egyptians.

I think both these explanations, like most conspiracy theories, give everyone way too much credit for strategic thinking and organization.

Both build on elements of truth. Feeding into Theory #2, the mother of a man allegedly killed by troops defending the wall around the Israeli embassy has been quoted in the press as saying: “To hell with Israel. Why is the army protecting Israel and killing my children?” This is indeed resonant stuff, viscerally more powerful than the protesters’ other Friday talking points (about military trials for civilians, judiciary independence, electoral redistricting), which are all relatively abstruse and remain in danger of being eclipsed by everyone’s desire for stability and “for the country to get back to work again.” I have actually heard people blame the would-be revolutionaries themselves for the fact that nothing has changed since the revolution, as follows: “Change? Nothing has changed! All I want is for the country to move forward. I want to make a living, to feed my children and educate them with dignity. But how can I work when they keep shutting down the city and tying up traffic with their pointless demonstrations?” A stand against Israel would no doubt help the revolution regain some patriotism points with people like this.

Meanwhile, going along with Theory #1, there are reports that the embassy rioters will now be tried in emergency courts (not just the already objectionable military courts) and that P.M. Essam Sharaf and his government may resign, further consolidating SCAF’s naked rule.

BUT my impression is that this was not a premeditated move or even a moment of strategic opportunism on anyone’s part. As I said yesterday, I think there was a some confusion in Tahrir, some nostalgia for the revolutionary days when everyone could rally around a single slogan. Also a lot of energy, boosted by the Ahly ultras and the soccer-stadium atmosphere they brought to the demonstration. So at the end of the night that energy found an outlet in chanting the old lines, scratching the old itch. (Even ten years ago, while Israel was reoccupying the West Bank during the Second Intifada, there were protests in Cairo with people shouting the same chant that was heard last night (in Arabic it rhymes): “أول مطلب للجماهير قفل السفارة وطرد سفير” – “The first demand of the masses/ Is to close the embassy and expel the ambassador.”) Not that the grievances against Israeli cross-border incursions and so forth aren’t legitimate, but was this really the right moment and the right way, people?

Juan Cole breaks it down here (for both the theories mentioned above, see his last paragraph); Zenobia has a good post on it here.

Last note of the night: the September 11 anniversary is a total non-issue here. Only way to hear anything about it is to turn on Al-Jazeera English or CNN or BBC.

My friend in Tahrir

My friend works in H.R. for an international company and speaks fluent English. She never gave much of a damn about politics before last January. Then she was in Tahrir almost every day. Her Facebook posts went from English to colloquial Arabic. We met up this afternoon.  I was so happy to see her again, after only communicating online since my last visit in 2008 – she looks great!
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(The sticker on her shirt says “civil state” — part of the Dawla Madaneya campaign. I was given one too, though no one for a minute mistook me for an Egyptian.)

And apparently my friend is starting a project to help educate rural Egyptians about political decision-making and electoral rights. Didn’t catch all the details this time (as she hurriedly explained them to the representative of a group of fellaheen, peasants or farmers, who had come to the square to counter the government’s attempt to coopt them by creating a new holiday and holding an official Farmers’ Day celebration) but I’ll keep you posted

Tahrir Square, Sept 9, 2011

Some photos from Tahrir Square today. I was there in the early afternoon shortly after Friday prayers, long before the unpleasantness with the Israeli embassy that happened later. The group that was the loudest and best organized were the Ahly Ultras, supporters of Al-Ahly soccer club whose `asabiyya (group loyalty, ibn Khaldun’s term) and personal courage, not to say plain thuggery, was essential in winning and holding Tahrir Square during the 18 days.
Ultras at Tahrir
Their big sign appealed for the release of some Ahly supporters detained by the police after scuffles around a match on Tuesday.

Another group of young demonstrators, closer to the main stage (there was only one today) carried pictures of Gamal Abdel Nasser!

Nasserists at Tahrir

Nasserists at Tahrir


This was billed as the rally to “Correct the Course” of the revolution, but there was a feeling of confusion about it, at least at the beginning, and even nostalgia for earlier protests when the goal was completely clear. Some people wanted to talk about election districts or judiciary independence or an end to military trials for civilians, others about whether the state should be religious or “civil” (madani – don’t ever say ‘almani, secular, or they’ll think you mean laique like France!), and others wanted to talk about Israel, a few guys even marching with hammers and chanting “The people/ want/ the demolition of the wall!” (Meaning the protective wall recently built around the Israeli embassy.) There was much disagreement over whether this was relevant to the revolution’s goals at this point or not.
In general these are policy questions, not easily decided by demonstrations. It’s not like the military could announce any particular edict that would “satisfy all the revolution’s demands,” so the demonstration’s end (also in the sense of goal) was unclear. So some people tried to re-focus attention on the revolution’s unifying theme:
Mubarak noose poster
But the abundance, variety, and occasional subtlety of political opinions is a joy to see. People (not just intellectuals) read newspapers, listen to the radio, think, take an active interest in politics. I still think what happened in February was technically a military coup, the SCAF deciding that it would best serve their interests to put Mubarak on a helicopter. If there has been a real revolution, it is happening in people’s minds, their souls, their voices. Perhaps in a few years, a couple of decades, it will translate to a better system of government.
AUC wall graffiti
I didn’t stick around to see what this man was painting, but there was a heated (occasionally humorous) argument about it.
Debate in the streets

Mubarak’s trial resumes

Mubarak’s trial resumed today.  Issandr El Amrani has a good breakdown here of what happened and what’s at stake.  Just reading the newspapers this morning, it’s interesting to see how easily and offhandedly irreverent several papers (Tahrir, Dostur, Al-Masry al-Youm) manage to be toward the Mubaraks.  E.g., calling his sons Alaa and Gamal by their first names, referring to him as “the deposed” (or, “thrown-off” president).

Egypt’s feisty press, somewhat liberated even since 2005, has prepared this political overhaul and seems to be thriving under it.  There is actual news to read, and people are reading it!  (Rather than turning directly to the sports section.)