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.


Mini-officers in Tahrir

In front of the building I used to live in (on which more later!), I came across a family picnicking. Mother, father, two girls, two boys. The girls had black-white-and-red headbands (pretty typical – there was all kinds of face painting and costuming, like at a sports game), but the boys were in full regalia. What’s up with the miniature military uniforms? I’m not sure I understand the semiotics here.

Their father was very proud of them, delighted to have me interrupt their lunch for a photo opportunity, even more delighted to show me the front-page newspaper coverage he and his son had received during the 18 Days.


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!
(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

More from Tahrir

Protesters slip easily into what the Egyptian Gazette called “the Friday routine” of demonstrating.

People kept cool however they could, some putting newspapers on their heads. (A whole range of different newspapers, from Al-Sha3b to Al-Masry al-Youm.)

The Central Security forces occupying the “bowl” at the center of the square and the military vehicles in the surrounding streets had disappeared at midnight on Thursday; the only sign of government presence were some ambulances. Since it has been reported (or at least rumored) that Egyptian security forces have used ambulances to hide weapons to give to thugs to use against the demonstrators, this did not arouse a lot of confidence.
Ambulance at Tahrir
But when I was there no one was nervous either. The atmosphere was like a block party, with friends greeting each other happily (many of these friendships seem to have begun in Tahrir in the first place), vendors selling water and snacks as well as all sorts of souvenirs, and people of different ages and social classes (notably the better-dressed “civil state” demonstrators and the rowdier Ahly crew) greeting each other with great courtesy: Munawwareen!
Some slogans against America and Israel, notably rare (though not absent) in the original Jan-Feb protests, have begun to surface. Check out the intricate collage this guy made!

And this sign condemns “The Tel Aviv plan” and “the children of Uncle Sam” trying to “sow dissent (fitna) in the Egyptian street.  (I thought only foreigners called it “the Egyptian street” anymore?)

Graffiti: “Egypt will not become another Afghanistan!”

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