“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!

The people wants… its chairs back!

On the way home tonight we saw a very small demo on Mohamed Sabri Abou Alam Street just off Talaat Harb Square.  Maybe fifty peaceful protesters, guarded by not very many red-bereted military police. They were chanting, among other things: “The people want the downfall of the Field Marshal.”  Really, at eleven o’clock on a Wednesday night, that’s what they want?
Apparently, according to some friends of my friend whom we ran into at the scene, the military had picked this fight. Military police had inexplicably arrived at the Borsa pedestrian area and started clearing chairs out of its open-air cafes, making some spurious argument about it being too crowded.  This despite the fact that the Borsa area has been pedestrian for years (it’s actually a really nice area), and also that the city is full of other spontaneous cafes and fruit stands etc. that really do tie up traffic and call out for enforcement.  As people are tweeting now (do I know these things?), there was also a soccer match on.  So the military successfully roused people who had wanted nothing more tonight than to drink their tea and watch their football, and got them to stand up and demonstrate.  Well, duh, when you take away their chairs.  (My friends said Borsa was the one part of the city where cafes had stayed open even during the revolution. As though nothing was happening.)
As we walked by Borsa on our way to Midan Falaki to catch me a cab we saw the cafes open again: sheesha, tea, plastic chairs and little tables in full swing. As though nothing had happened.
(Later, after we left, more military police would arrive; the lights would go out in Talaat Harb square; a few protesters would head to Tahrir. All this was after I was home in my pajamas.)
Update next morning: even sports talk shows on the radio are touching on the event: why close down these cafes in particular? Why in the middle of a match and not wait till it’s over? why not publicize the new “rules” about public chair-positioning in the newspapers and on TV, rather than leading with the enforcement?