Meanwhile, at Tahrir

The movement to boycott the elections seems not to have gained much traction; Thanassis Cambanis’ post yesterday quotes some voters explaining why.  The popular blogger Sandmonkey (aka Mahmoud Salem) is even running for parliament himself!  But a number of activists remained in Tahrir yesterday, or showed up there after voting.  As I went to take the metro around 4pm yesterday to pick up my kids from school, I saw them organizing themselves to perform the protest recorded here (Activist Gigi Ibrahim’s video: Tahrir, Nov 28 2011):

The video includes an interesting argument about the Salafis.  Says the man on the left: “They were with us in Tahrir from the first days. Some of the young guys are quite sincere. Those are the people we want.”  His interlocutor is skeptical.  These are some of the divides these activists will have to bridge (and it will require some ideological nose-holding of which almost no one I know would be actually capable!) to be effective rather than just self-righteous.

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Mohamed Mahmoud Street, home of the AUC side gate (through which we would normally enter for our classes on the Downtown Campus) has been renamed “Ayn al-Hurriyya” street: Eye of Liberty. It looks like a sort of modified war zone now: cleaned up, but the field hospitals are still in place (that’s the guy in the blue helmet with the goggles and the piles of donated blankets) and you can see where the pavement has been torn up for rock-throwing ammunition. The guys checking passports at the entrances to the square were exceptionally polite to me. The young man in the white t-shirt and red keffiyyeh encouraged me to take a photo over the tape divider into Mohamed Mahmoud Street.  He said he is not voting: “I lived in England for two years, and when there were demonstrations there, the cops hit you, but they were civilized.  Here, it was like… [a gesture of severe beating].”

Iconized already

Again you can see the revolution iconizing itself in almost real time, and with excellent graphic design help coming from somewhere: the big poster with the running man and the tear gas says: “Heroes of Mohamed Mahmoud Street, Thank You!”


This is Not a Play

Last Friday night we went with my friend Maha, whom I’ve told you about, to see a performance called “Tahrir Monologues” at the Rawabet Theatre downtown. (Strong review here, less admiring review here.)  “This is not a play,” declared the program notes: it was documentary theatre, a pretty moving series of monologues based on interviews with participants in the Eighteen Days that toppled Mubarak. It started hesitant and built to triumphant: the boy who put on four layers of clothes so he could “withstand police beatings and keep going,” the girl who felt mildly guilty because she went home to sleep each night instead of camping out in the square, the young people who saw something within themselves change as they gained courage by confronting the regime’s brutality.

Rawabet was packed, and some of the energy probably came from the fact that many in the audience had been to that day’s unified and celebratory (though Islamist-dominated) demonstration in Tahrir. Audience members who had lived the Jan-Feb events nodded, laughed, and quietly commented: yes, it was exactly like that. But their feeling of nostalgia competed with an odd sense of unfinished business. There they were, back in Tahrir.  The show’s voice-over intro had stressed the psychological achievements of the 18 days, the sense of dignity and fearlessness that Egyptians would carry “regardless of whatever happens after this.”  For the moment, having successfully mustered a huge number of protesters to demand SCAF hand over power to a civilian government, they felt engaged again.

Then on Saturday the violence started. Yesterday (Tues) I texted Maha to check in. She texted back:

Thank u Marg. I go to work in the morning and Tahrir in the evening. Talk to the media if u can, Arabic or English, public or private. Tell them the people in Tahrir r butchered savagely. Tell them we r not thugs. No thug will carry on with the fight for so long.

The Rawabet Theatre collected dropped-off blankets and medical supplies.

Today we texted again.

It’s a war zone there Marg. U can’t imagine.


Pray for those on the front line and those on motorcycles carrying them outside when they r injured. They r so brave Marg. No masks, but they whiz in to the front line and come back.


I have seen more bravery in 2 days than I saw in my entire life.

What was this business about needing to tell people the protesters are not thugs?   (“Thugs” here, baltagiya, often means not just troublemakers, but people paid to be violent.) That’s certainly not how the media in my country are covering it (look, Anthony Shadid is finally here!). British papers either, I think.

But tonight I talked with my downstairs neighbor, a respectable woman in her 70s. She had the TV going, an independent channel but on mute, so just huge images of chaos in Tahrir. She shook her head. “It’s just wrong,” she said. I thought she meant the tear gas and live ammunition.  Instead: “These people have lost their minds. Isn’t there someone reasonable to tell them that this is wrong, that they should go home and stop ruining the country?”  And that is the charitable view, basically the one advanced by Tantawi in his speech last night.  Those poor misguided children.  I’ve heard versions of it even from people sympathetic to the protesters (but concerned that the elections go ahead on time, or worried that the economy is at a standstill and the country almost bankrupt, etc.).  A short hop from there to thinking these naive or too-stubborn protesters are open to being manipulated or paid.

As long as I’m reporting vicariously through Maha, let me tell you what she once told me about the eighteen days. The hardest part, she said, was after Mubarak’s Feb 2 speech where he offered all the apparent concessions, offering to resign in September and promising Gamal would not run to replace him. That’s when people started calling the protesters terrible names, blaming them for being stubborn and unreasonable, unwilling to compromise, for destroying the country. The same words some people are saying now.  “But he gave you everything you were demanding! What else do you want?” Then came the camel battle; Mubarak resigned 9 days later.

Normal Travel II: On not going to Tahrir

Actually, it is true that “normal travel can continue.” We are in Zamalek today – met with our teacher in the Supreme Council of Culture at the Opera complex, one metro stop and less than a kilometer from our usual classroom in Tahrir, and it was all coffee as usual. Later, at the Beano’s coffee shop in Zamalek, we saw people in business clothes sitting and typing away on their laptops just under big flat TV screens showing a footage loop of protesters in Mohamed Mahmoud Street throwing stones at police (and, since this was state TV, not showing the police firing at protesters, aiming — to judge by the reported injuries – for their eyes).  As though it were happening in some other country.  I wanted a photo of the juxtaposition but was afraid it would make people self-conscious.  In the rest of the city, too, all the action is on TV (except maybe you hear some gunshots at night?  and sirens?).

Although I really want to, I’m not going to Tahrir today.  Because 1) this is not my country, and 2) I’m not a journalist or a doctor, just a literature professor, so I think it would just be voyeurism, not even useful solidarity.  I don’t need to smell the tear gas; I might even be in the way.  You can find the real news on Twitter and Facebook today or look for a live stream of ONTV Egypt or read any of the many wonderful English-language newspapers and blogs. The story is being told so well, by so many articulate voices and talented photographers, in English and Arabic. The situation is not at all like when I started studying Arabic in 1997.

Will post photos from Friday’s demo (the happy peaceful part I attended) when I get a chance. The best chant was addressed by the protesters to each other, not to the regime (which was anyway not listening): “Say it say it, don’t be scared, the Military Council has to go” (قول، قول، ما تخافش، المجلس العسكري لازم يمشي).  It sounded aspirational 48 hours ago, perhaps more imaginable now. Things are evolving fast. (On Qasr El-Nil bridge on Friday, the demand was for SCAF’s long-ago-promised transfer of power to a civilian government by April 2012; the guy trying to push for earlier, starting a chant of “سلم السلطة يا عميل، مش هنستنى حتى ابريل” got shouted down.)

Basically I see two forces in play.  Both involve (well-founded) suspicion and distrust.  The first is the distrust felt by the political groupings for each other: secular vs. Islamist, or organized groups like MB vs. come-latelies like the Salafis.  The second is the distrust felt by all the civilian groups toward SCAF and its tendency to hold onto power.  How will these two types of distrust balance each other over time?  Which will be stronger?

Go East, young AUCians!

“I’m gonna go where the desert sun is
Go where I know the fun is…”

My husband and I are studying downtown, but last week we had to go obtain our university ID cards (which flatteringly said “graduate student” – made me feel young again!) at the American University in Cairo’s new campus. It’s located in the middle of nowhere, in a new desert development about 40 km east of downtown Cairo.

AUC location map

As the university’s web site tactfully points out, the suburb of “New Cairo” (not to be confused with old New Cairo, Masr al-Gadida, i.e. Heliopolis) is “designed to be a predominantly middle-to-high-income residential community with schools, cultural facilities, commercial enterprises, government agencies, hotels, open spaces and parks, with the AUC campus at its center.” Students and faculty enjoy either a safe but boring life on or near the new campus, or a 1- to 1 1/2-hour commute from the city. Fortunately, the university has contracted with a company to provide highly punctual, air-conditioned, wifi-enabled buses from many parts of the city, so commuters need never look up from their laptops.

But I was glued to the window. A huge Christian cemetery:

A shiny new building for (ironically?) a Housing and Development Bank.

Tons of unfinished construction on very fancy-looking gated communities. (Some of these had pretty elaborate guard towers too. They could be taken for high-security prisons, except I suppose that if they were ever inhabited, the guards in the towers would aim their guns outwards rather than in.)

The curious thing about these construction sites was that, driving by mid-morning on a weekday, we did not see any actual construction occurring on any of them. Were they halted because of the legal gray area that has followed the revolution? Or did they run out of capital long before that? Anyway, it doesn’t matter much; I’m sure it will fill in eventually, and the congestion and pollution will get as bad out there as they are in the city center now. Or what are they going to have, zoning laws?

As my husband points out, Cairenes have a history of this sort of behavior. Fustat getting too small? Repurpose it as a garbage dump and build a new capital a little further north. New dynasty? Build another one.

The university itself is quite lovely, apparently well-designed for an undergraduate experience, full of food courts and cheerfully interacting students, and also, at the moment (even as it largely vacates its Tahrir campus), trying hard to associate itself with the Jan 25 Tahrir movement through an enormous display of artwork based on iconic photos of the revolution.

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