Sunday, December 18, 2011
But there is no escaping the agony that accompanies this process. This has been no more clearly evident than in the last 3 days when vicious battles have taken place between protesters and the military.
Let one argue as one might about shared responsibility (e.g., provocative vandalism on the part of the protesters) or unsophisticated tactics (Stones are Easy - Raise the Price of Your Blood), there still can be no justification for the brutality with which military or police abuse and cripple those that challenge them.
For Egyptians, it is especially excruciating that it is their military (as opposed to the never-respected security police who were the targets of earlier protests) that is now, not just occasionally, but fully leading these escalating assaults. The callous, cruel, and sometimes savage beating of citizens that populates news broadcasts of revolutions across the world sears Egyptians particularly, because these military perpetrators not long ago walked hand in hand with those they now abuse.
Indeed, during the early phase of the revolution youths took pains to defend against sterile media portrayals of the Egyptian miitary as self-interested, articulating and explaining how unified the citizenry has always been with the military. Referring to the January revolution, one youth from our project summarized the remarkable calm between citizens and military by expressing, "We knew they wouldn't hurt us; and they knew we wouldn't hurt them." Others elaborated on the heralded bond between citizenry and military that is forged both by the nationalist ethos that is foundational to Egyptian military training ("you are here to serve and protect the people") and by the camradery of peerhood ("they are my classmates").
But, as one youth, Sherine, wrote today, "What is most disturbing right now is that there is no trust between SCAF and the military on one side, and the people on the other. This loss of trust will take years to reclaim and much damage will result until this happens." - and yesterday, "Egypt is getting raped by those entrusted with its protection."
I've had enough experience in Egypt this year to know just how grave these sentiments are. This is not just a blip of an outburst. Deep wounds are being carved in these days, with the essence of the brutality being the betrayal.
No better summarized than by elmoghazy09 in the lead in to his video: The Transgressions of the Military Council and Its Fabrications, and by the awful images it records:
To whomever defends the military council
To those whose eyes are covered and believe that the army and the people are hand in hand
To Ganzawiry, is what you said the truth
And finally . . . are these the good soldiers of the land?
Tuesday, December 6, 2011
As background, Aly was injured in those clashes (In Your Face in Cairo). Some days later we met and were joined by his mentor Dr. Heba Raouf Ezzat who admonished toward evolution in revolutionary attitude and behavior (Stones are Easy - Raise the Price of Your Blood); followed by the unplanned meeting with his father and the consequent disclosure to him of Aly's injury (Father on Son: Trading Life for Dignity).
Although in many ways she saw the effort as a failure, Dr. Heba had advised her youth nevertheless to frame it as a victory and move on. After she had left, Aly offered the following as his interpretation of the victory of those costly days of struggle:
1. The clashes reactivated violence against the regime.
2. It made clear that the security forces/military would not "regain their combat face" against civilians. He saw them having lost this postential to defeat civilians on the brutally violent day of January 28 (when security forces killed more than 800 Egyptians across the country in response to the evolving revolution).
3. Thus, "violence as a tool of oppression is not functioning anymore with people".
4. The renewed clashes made it "very, very clear that we will fight for freedom to the death."
5. "Violence allowed us to unite generations and deligimize SCAF."
6. "Power over bodies is going to be eliminated and transformed in the next couple of years", an issue that he saw as important not only on the political but also the social and cultural levels. "This form of power that smashes bodies is not welcome, and will not be legitimized by the people."
Shortly after his mentor left (Stones are Easy - Raise the Price of Your Blood), Aly's father called. He had come to Cairo to vote on this first day of the initial phase of the parliamentary elections (lower house). Naturally, he wanted to visit with Aly while there, and, just as naturally, Aly agreed and gave the location where we were. He was nervous, however, for he had not yet informed his parents about his injury.
When I asked him about this a few days earlier in the hospital, he said he wanted to wait until his face looked less severe (In Your Face in Cairo). Now, he had no choice. By this day of this unplanned meeting with his father, Aly's face had healed substantially, showing just small scabbing where some of the bird shot had been extracted. But underneath his conspicuously large sunglasses, his eyes and their sockets were still profoundly bruised.
Aly was notably anxious while waiting for his father's arrival, confessing not to know which of two possible reactions his father would have to learning of his injury, either: "how foolish of you" or "you didn't fight hard enough." Eventually, his father arrived.
Aly's dad, a retired professor of agriculture, shorter and slighter in frame, greeted his son unremarkably at the outdoor cafe. Aly introduced me, and we all sat down. Then, surveying his son's bespeckled face and unfooled by the disguise, the father said, "Take off your glasses."
Aly tipped the glasses up, plenty far to reveal the ugly bruising. Acknowledging the injury and after a short pause, his father merely said, "Alhamdilla." Only Aly and his father would understand all that that most commmon and essential of Arabic sayings communicated(literally: "Thanks be to God"). Gratitude that his life was spared? Gratitude for having retained his eyesight? Praise for his sacrifice? Likely these and many other emotions were packed into the telling comment.
Some insight was gained when Aly left the table for a short while. I took the moment to query his father on his reaction to this news of Aly. He said that he was not surprised; that he had already been convinced that his son would have been on the front line. He noted the ambiguity parents feel in such situations - sadness, but also glory. Mostly, he focused on Aly, noting proudly that his son would be ready to "lose his life for the DIGNITY of the Egyptian people." His life is in God's hands, Aly's father, summarized, emphasizing that - given his son's nature and commitment - what is most important is that Aly would be convinced that he was doing something right.
The father related some of what he told me to Aly once he returned to the
table. Upon hearing that his father had been convinced that he would be on the front line, Aly asked him to repeat it - not because he had not understood, but because he wanted to hear the moving sentiment again.
The tears in both of their eyes confirmed the meaning of the exchange between them, and, to the outsider at the table, it offered access to both the power of the father-son bond and the overriding salience of the collective struggle for long-deprived dignity.
I had made an appointment to say goodbye to Aly and he asked that we meet at an outdoor cafe in central Cairo. There with him was his mentor Heba, who was the one that helped place him in an out-of-the-way hospital after his injuries (In Your Face in Cairo). Rumors were spreading that security officers would come to hospitals to arrest protesters. Dr. Heba's home is at Tahrir Square, and Aly had been staying with her also since his release from the hospital.
Aly had talked often about Dr. Heba and it was a real honor to meet her. She is gentle and soft-spoken, but her message to Aly and his comrades at the table was tough and exacting. Their reverance for her was clearly apparent, and in this case of the challenge she was confronting them with, it was evident in their silence, or in their only very slight pushback against some of her admonitions.
Many had just died in the pre-election clashes and it wasn't clear that any appreciable concession had been made to the protesters. Rather, she surmised in response to my query as to why the protests had stopped despite this lack of success, that the people were simply exhausted.
Then, she proceeded to instruct her students broadly on revolutionary leadership, maturation, and tactic.
AS TO REVOLUTIONARY LEADERSHIP
"You need to be smart enough to know when you are defeated."
"Withdraw from Tahrir Square, and find a way to characterize your efforts as successful." (noting how some of it would be hard for Aly to hear)
"Too many protesters have become stars, not leaders. You should have a leader at Tahrir that can tell you when to stop."
"Get past street politics; you've tried shortcuts and lost."
"Your blood is not cheap; don't just throw it away like that. You must get something in return for it."
"Stones are easy; it is far more difficult to go to long-term negotiation."
"Raise the level of discourse."
"Learn the games of politics to lift your performance."
AS FOR ELECTIONS
"You lost the election; now you have 5 years."
"Don't just deal with those you elected [voted for]. Go to all individuals [who were elected] and demand accountability."
Thursday, November 24, 2011
When getting the call that Aly was wounded and in the hospital, I rushed quickly to see him, not knowing how critical his condition was. Once having received directions to the hospital he is in, I flagged a cab and implored him to hurry because of the urgency. (Here but one of several examples on this trip where the improved Arabic skills I'm gaining in Jerusalem have paid off nicely). The driver understood clearly, but . . the route to the hospital? - directly over the bridge leading to Tahrir. As always these days, it was packed with traffic and we were forced to inch our way, with my frustration growing by the second. I wondered in that moment just how many thousands of people feel even more urgent frustration in accomplsihing their varied activities or duties.
After visiting with Aly, his doctor helped me flag a cab at 1:00 am. With the early hour and the distance from central Cairo, there were relatively few. Finally one came who had a fare that he was dropping off close by. I jumped in to finish that short journey with them, before making the 25 minute drive back to my hotel in Zamalek. The cabbie and his fare soon got into a furious argument, with the man wanting the driver to go closer to his home through narrow streets that the driver insisted were not for cabs, but for "tuk-tuks" (motorized rickshaws).
The driver relented but not without various displays of resentment. On our way onward he explained that he didn't want to enter those streets because he was frightened, given that there are no police around. "These streets are not safe without police and I'm frightened to drive in them", he pleaded as if he needed to defend his position to me. His fear was clearly genuine and he confirmed that the absence of the police was due to the on-going revolution. He didn't seem to be against the revolution, but he surely was effected by it.
Several calls and SMSs went unanswered. I figured that he was simply busy and that we would eventually meet this week for the next in our series of interviews that we've held since I first met him in early March this year.
Aly, tall and burly with a handsome face, has shared passionately in these interviews his commitment to the revolution. He, along with Kholoud and so many others in Alexandria were direct participants in the events of January 25th and beyond. (The coverage of Alexandria's role in the revolution has been pitifully inadequate). When I first met him, Aly had just been injured in his hand and shoulder in a battle with security forces as they attempted to destroy incriminating documents.
Over the months, he, like all other activists, expressed increasing disappointment with the lack of substantive change. Aly's narrative was unique among those I've talked intensively with, however, in his growing conviction that real change would require an escalation in violence on the part of the protesters. In July, he labored heavily with his own growing awareness that the regime's corruption extended far beyond its recently deposed leader. But, rather, the violence, exploitation, and abuses of power are endemic throughout all sectors of society. He articulated that one grave implication of that for him might be that he would end up having to fight those he knows and is close to, perhaps even his family members.
Just a few weeks ago he wrote in an email, "The situation is getting more complicated and I am not optimistic at all with the coming elections. . . I am wondering . . . how could we break this system, what else is needed? I am believing that we need more violence against these structures and those leading it."
Then, two days ago here in Cairo, in classic revolutionary form he posted on Facebook: "It is by all means the time of revolution, emancipation(s), and ...love. SO For God Sake Revolt or die in Shame. It is the correction of the Egyptian Revolution Path; from War/revolution to politics and Again in the correct road from politics of the coward elites to the WAR/REVOLUTION of brave young generation who fights in the first lines, behind the enemy lines and in front and against the heavy machines of war and suppression. They shoot by their heavy equipment and we shoot by faith, believe and anger. Tomorrow we will not die, tomorrow we will be emancipation from who we had been, a new life is going to born from the heart and mud of the battle field of our revolution.
I had an immediate sense that Aly would be acting out this admonition himself, and even wrote to a colleague that I wouldn't be surprised to learn that he would soon be a casualty of this newly reenergized revolution.
Last night at about 10pm I thought to try one more time to reach him. A voice picked up and identified himself as Aly's friend. I could hear Aly in the background overruling his friend's decision to turn me away and he took the phone. He was excited to talk, as was I to hear his voice. It wasn't a surprise, but no less difficult, to hear from him that he lay in the hospital with bullet wounds to his head and body. He said that he "would love so much" a visit and, getting directions from Ayman, I hastened to see him.
While his face is severely bruised and swollen, the buckshot, otherwise embedded in his head and torso, missed his eyes or other vitals. He is in good spirits and is eager to leave the hospital when permitted in a few days.
He had lead a group of protesters on the main Tahrir artery where virtually all of the Cairo clashes have taken place (Mohamed Mahmoud Street) in an effort to help instruct them how to confront the police head on and push them away from the Square. Then the shots came.
The swelling in his eyes and mouth clouded neither his pride nor the clarity of his vision on the current phase of the revolution. "They thought that we were just some kids who were playing around . . . but I think we proved that we are more than fighters." He expressed amazement at how peaceful Egyptians have conducted the revolution, bristling against the criticism expressed by some that throwing stones or an occasional Molotov cocktail is violence. "What else should we do?", he protested. He warned that if the security forces continue their real violence - like betraying today's ceasefire and firing on the protesters as they prayed - then the masses will become "very aggressive . . . they won't stay peaceful . . . and the [security forces] will lose a lot . . . This time it won't be just our blood . . ."
After all, "revolutions are about drastic change, not some silly reforms."
Wednesday, November 23, 2011
There were much fewer people at that hour, with those who had obviously spent the night starting to mill about, still wrapped in their blankets, huddling around small fires of burning trash. Yet, there was still action down Mohamed Mahmoud Street, the one artery leading to the south of the Square where the clashes have been taking place, with protesters trying to push the security services back away from the Square toward the Ministry of Security building. This was where the blasts I heard had come from, and it became clear that they were shots of tear gas cannisters.
Previously, this street was too croweded with protesters to get a view of what it was like on the front lines, but this morning it seemed possible. So I made my up slowly toward the front. It's a cat and mouse game, with protesters charging, then fleeing back when the tear gas was fired, often in a high arc so that one sees a smoking trail falling from the sky, hits the ground and spreads a wave of smoke.
I videowed one of these cannisters as it fell near us, and was frankly surprised at how little impact of the gas there was. The day before I had been near the Square several times and the residual gas was very hard to take, causing allergy-like respiratory responses.
But then, somewhat later, the crowd began to retreat again. I followed and was overtaken by a wave of invisible gas that was like fire to the eyes. As I ran back, one young man asked if I was OK, and I bravely said yes and waved him off. But soon enough the others didn't need to ask and they rushed to me (like they did to so many others) and sprayed my face with the antitdote solution mixed of water, sodium and who knows what else. I heard the urgent instructions, "Don't open your eyes. Wait a few seconds." Then they sprayed a second dose, admonishing me not to touch my eyes. Finally, it was OK to open them, and the young attendents carefully wiped the residue off my forehead and cheeks, staying meticulously away from the eyes.
This inivisible gas is the more toxic brand that the security services have been employing in this round of the revolution.
CLICK ON THIS PIC
Tuesday, November 22, 2011
A few days into January's revolution, thugs on horses and camels were sent into Tahrir to disrupt the protest. This along with the killing of over 800 people throughout Egypt stoked the protests into the full-scale revolution that toppled Mubarak.
His replacement - Tantawi (above) - has proven a disappointment for any number of reasons. In the end, it was likely wishful thinking that a military officer who had been a fundamental part of the past regime would be able to act any differently. Most critical has been the failure to curb the very same violent excesses of the state security.
To wit, while no camels were sent, the same brutal treatmenet was given to those who sat in after last Friday's Tahrir Square protests. According to many, it was this familiar response that has fueled the clashes that are expressing a determination and defiance equal to or greater than that of January. So far: 30 protesters killed.
Aly, a 27 year old activist we have been following, offered a simple explanation of what the protesters want:
"We want a ministry that doesn't shoot us."
Then came the shouts and a wave of fleeing persons coming from the artery leading to the Interior Ministry building. A tear gas cannister had been shot very near the junction, and, immediately began the now-familiar dance to efficiently transport the wounded. The alley openend, eager custodians of safety locked arms and a virtual stream of motorcycles ferried injured from the site of the explosion to a field close by.
Mohsen was a bit alarmed when he reached the office, wondering why the tear gas was so strong. He had just come from his nearby apartment where he'd finally gotten some sleep and didn't know that the fighting was as heavy as it was already. During our meeting, a young co-worked rushed in and with real alarm announced that tear gas has been shot directly into the square.
When I left the office an hour later, I could make it only part way back to the Square. The fumes were very strong, such that I had to divert away from the Square to maintain the ability to see clearly. It was obvious that the clashes has been continuing in the last hours, with so much gas residue floating so far from the Square.
The crowd at Tahrir Square last night was second only in size in my experience here to that which celebrated the one week anniversary (Feb 18) of Mubarak's ouster. Aside from the slightly looser density, last night's crowd differed notably in its careful orchestration. Whereas the countless thousands of Feb 18 milled randomly about in utter excitement and relief, last night's group mostly was observing, or taking a respit from, the clashes occurring on the main artery leading outward from the Square toward the Interior Ministry building.
Likely by signals unknown to me, the crowd would suddenly part, with the corridor flanked by arm-locked cordons of men of all ages, to allow passage of emergency vehicles that either deposited the wounded in the roundabout or took them on further to the makeship hospital in the nearby mosque. This happened repeatedly, at least every 2 minutes, for the full 2 hours that I watched. Some vehicles were simple motorcycles carrying an individual overcome by tear gas. These corridors allowed traffic in both directions, however, as ambulances made their way to the front line to pick up those more severely injured, or to the roundabout to collect those who afterall needed more attention than originally thought.
I left the Square at 1:30am and there was no sign of dwindling as just as many flowed into it as were leaving.
Monday, November 21, 2011
Now as of two days ago, Egypt seems to have awakened from the "nap" that the revolution had taken, as phrased by one of the youths (Omar) that we have been following since February. The killing of over 30 people yesterday by the always-hated security police - but reportedly also backed up by the police of the once-favored military - has surely cemented this current protest into a new phase of the revolution that promises to be more crucial, if also more violent, than the initial phase in the Spring.
I'll arrive tonight in Cairo and will be able to report directly from the voices of our youth as to the various details as to why now. However, it may be no more complicated than the declaration a few days ago from the "transitional" military custodian of the government (referred to as SCAF: Supreme Council of the Armed Forces) that they have formal intentions of solidying a privileged position for the military, in all aspects of Egypt's future government (e.g., drafting of constitution, immunity from prosecuation, etc.).
Not a chance in hell as far as the street is concerned.
Wednesday, September 21, 2011
I had seen the square lonely before (see earlier posts) but this felt different - more permanent. At the end of July on the day prior to the begin of Ramadan, military forecably cleared the roundabout of its dense, tent city that had been continually populated for several weeks as a renewed iteration of the revolution. We had spent considerable time in the little city in July, taking it all in, admiring the double-tent human rights library erected and staffed by the youths from the Andalus group that we now know well, and briefly interviewing the small group of hunger strikers.
Protests have been scheduled since then, but they've had marginal participation, including last Friday - typically a day of much activity. The line drawn in the sand by the military that day seeems to be firm. The activists that camped there during both iterations of the revolution/sit-in now group themselves across the avenue (behind the sidewalks barriers), reminisce sadly, and try to shore each other up by feigning optimism when all know that all are depressed.
Those who were already long-ago fed up with the continual protesting in the square now express relief - as if a pest has been dismissed. Sure, the revolution was important, but it's time to get on with life, they say; enough of complaining at every instance.
But then, tellingly, it was one of strongest proponents of this position of restraint, who, when reviewing potential coming scenarios indicated that if the new political structures do not improve the situation (read, economic), they would simply: "Turn on Tahrir."
Wednesday, July 13, 2011
Kholoud was able to list the several achievements of the revolution - e.g., the resignation of Mubarak and Shafiq, the referendum, etc. - but she is troubled about the lack of progress on other fronts, particularly the failure to prosecute the security officers who killed so many in February. She is also concerned, indeed offended, that too many people have become apathetic to the drive of the revolution.
Aly is worried also. Things are harder now for him. During the revolution, it was clear who the enemy was; now, with the figureheads out of the way and the political structure partially dismantled, the continuing inertia feels ominous, signalling as it does to him that the persistent injustice and self-interest are fundamental to the social and political systems. He has seen that it is not enough to make simple alterations in political leadership, but that society needs to change. Ths frightens him because, in part, it means that the enemy is his own people.
Sayed has had enough of the revolution and totally opposed to the continued protests. They seem silly and aggravate him, distracting as they do from forward progress, particularly the recovery of the economy. Walid shares this position to a degree. He appears to share some of the passion for the protests but knows somehow that it will take time - even years - to make the necessary changes. Meanwhile, life must go on and the temporary leaders must be given the moment to begin the changes.
Sunday, July 10, 2011
Since the original visit in Feb/March, we've received funding to do a two-year project, consisting of: 1) repeated interviews with the core group of youth, every four months; 2) a national survey next year, and 3) begin work on a documentary. To that end, two producers have joined me on this trip and will be meeting the core group of youth to help determine which of them would be best to highlight in the documentary.
So much for brief update. As to how things are now here, I'll know much better as the week-long visit progresses. For the moment, the one conspicuous difference is the absence of military tanks. Previously, there were small tanks dispersed on all arteries leading to Tahrir Square, and large tanks on the artery that leads to the American and British embassies. Walking those areas last night with Sterling and Arthur, I saw not a single tank. One also sees more police (dark blue or white clad). This is noteworthy because it seems like a degree of normality has taken over the city, but all the more interesting given that the protests have become large and vigorous again in the past days. The current concern is the delay in prosecuting the security officials and officers responsible for killing over 800 protesters duirng the revolution, now nearly 5 months old.
Apparently, the Square was filled during Friday's protest, and yesterday (Saturday) we saw that many had camped out in the center of the Square, re-enacting the process of the original protests that lead to the revolution. It will be interesting to see how long this new level of protest is sustained.
Thursday, March 17, 2011
Saturday, March 12, 2011
But there was nothing to buy! Virtually all of the dozens of makeshift stands, or individuals who just lay the souvenirs out on the sidewalk, were gone. No January 25th t-shirts or bumperstickers or flags. Sorry gang, I waited too long.
So, what stage is a revolution at when the kitsch starts to disappear??
There is much more to say and I hope to complete the several more posts for which there are already titles. I'm sad to go. What an honor to have been here for so long, at such a critical time. I'm deeply grateful for a university that takes international outreach seriously, for a dean and department head who shared the urgency of the trip, to IRB leaders for rapid-fire processing, to colleagues for their interest and support, for students who put up with fuzzy skype sessions for class, etc. etc.
The blog has been titled "How the hell did they do it?" In part, the answer is that they didn't, really. That is, they didn't manufacture or plan out this revolution. All that was planned was a day of protest. None expected a revolution of this magnitude. It occurred because of an unanticpated confluence of regional (especially, Tunisa) and local events that were broadcast in real time via a varriety of technologies with which youth were already quite expert - all underlain by a lifetime of unfulfillment, magnified by the crippling economic crisis.
The most common response I've gotten from youths when asking for their most important memory of the revolution has been a sense of surprise and awe upon seeing so many of their people - young and old - at the January 25th annual rally. That moment for so many was deeply moving and fundamentally motivating - indeed, transforming. At once, they learned that their people might have it them after all to stand together against injustice and constraint, and they, as individuals, discovered an authentic drive to contribute. This is what they did so marvelously - committing so firmly and with such unwavering insistence that the unexpected magic moment not be lost.
When the million people packed Tahrir on Feb 11th as Mubarak resigned, imagine that across the vast sprawl of Cairo, 17 other million people were disbursed, going about their lives. No doubt most of them were glued to TV sets - or more likely other media given the controlled official coverage - but only a small segment of the city was electrified like little Tahrir. Or so I imagine, not having arrived until a full week later.
For the 3 weeks I've been here since, life is far more ordinary than one would expect from only viewing the sensational and fleeting snippets of media coverage. That was precisely my reaction when driving in from the airport, literally wondering "what all the fuss was about" - all seemed so unremarkable. It was only when approaching the big T that the action began to swell, culminating in the intense excitement of the hundreds of thousands in the square that night marking the one week anniversary of the unexpected success of the revolution.
Some days later, I got off the bus too early - WAY TOO early it turned out - on the way back to Cairo from the new campus of the American University in (New) Cairo, a good 45 minutes outside Cairo. The weather was nice, and I like to walk cities, so off I set. That ended up to be an hour and a half sojourn through various parts of ordinary Cairo. One would not have known anything special was happening. By then, even the TSquare rallys had subsided in size and frequency. Sure enough, though, as if it was so timed, as I approached the main bridge crossing the Nile to Tahrir, there was a phalanx of youth, carrying flags and banners and making their way to the square.
Very ordinary also was the return a couple of days ago from Alexandria. Even though I did indeed need a driver, I decided to avoid the harangue of oversolictous taxi drivers and pretended that I didn't need one. Instead, I wallked on, taking the moment to view yet another part of the massive city. Here it was the same - unimaginably dense traffic, constantly chirping and all too often downright blaring car horns, and loads of people going about their lives.
Many have asked if I've felt safe. Yes, always; so much so that the question has seemed unnecessary, and certainly so if it is in reference to the revolution. I wasn't here for the string of days of reported chaos, with citizen militias guarding homes and neighborhoods. I don't know how widespread that was, but it is no longer the case. Life seems as ordinary as in any metropolis. Is there crime in Cairo? - hah!, sure - but likely no more so than any mega-city.
This recognition of the unremarkableness of life in a country in revolt - that is, that daily experience is not consumed with the drama of protest and demonstration - forces attention to - precisely that - the ordinary. And, just what is ordinary here? Ordinary in much of Cairo is dense overcrowding, crippling poverty, insufficient and inadequate housing, etc., None are surprising conditions, but it should also be no surprise that such entrenched conditions are not magically erased, even by what may turn out to be one of history's grandest and most sweeping revolutions.
Indeed, as posted earlier here, successful revolution paradoxically exacerbates some of the very conditions it seeks to redress. Things are worse here economically than before the revolution. Some understand that as a natural and temporary side effect; others are growing very impatient - especially as they have learned just how much of their nation's treasure was hoarded away by their former leaders.
All would agree, though, that the real solution to Egypt's downward economic turn, at least in the immediate term, would be a return of the tourists. So, let me keep the pledge I've given to many and plead:
So, for all of us unfamiliar with revolutions, the lesson is that they are not played out in pervasive, all-consuming, daily drama. Neither is their magic seen in the immediate erasure of plaguing conditions or deep social divides and inequities. The magic of this revolution was the swelling of popular confidence to jointly say no more to the leadership that has oppressed them so fiercely. That they, lead by their youth with heir high tech devices, toppled a powerful autocracy is an astonishing achievement, and in just 18 days, And, the civility of the accomplishment will serve as a model for time to come.
What has changed in Egypt is a heightened sense of dignity and pride and an assertiveness to avoid further manipulation. These are utterly grand transformations. And . . . their effects can only be realized over time. The removal of a regime does not automatically provide a suitable replacement. That is the task to come: to re-birth their nation in a manner that suits their freshly acknowledged goodness.
Thursday, March 10, 2011
Prior to the Revolution, youths born between 1980 and 1986 - he was born smack in the middle in 1984 - had been deried as the Miserable Generation, disparaged with classic stereotypes of useless adolescents via lampooning cartons, etc. We're "No Longer Miserable," he chided with relish. Indeed, in response to my question of what youth had learned via the revolution, he flipped the question and with genuine pride told stories of what others had learned about youth.
Just one illustration, was the older woman who approached him and his just younger brother on the street recently. "Are you the youths of Tahrir?", she asked. "Yes, mam," they answered. "God bless you," she praised.
More telling still of the competence of this generation of youth are the continuing illustrations, evident, for example, in the control room next to his office that houses the on-line radio program he and his colleagues are running ("all of us are under 30"). One of their next critical tasks: preparing to field questions from Gazan youths who have appealed to them for live guidance on March 15th, next week's "day of rage" in Palestine to demonstrate for unification between Fatah and Hamas.
I walked to Tahrir this morning, anticipating the same Tahrir - full of people and tents, etc. Rounding the corner I was struck with how quiet the atmosphere was and then looked ahead to the raised epicentric circle made by the roundabout at the center of Tahrir Square. It was empty; literally, vacant. Just as notably, it was perfectly clean, free of residue or debris of any kind. It was really stunning, actually - for, at least during my 3 weeks here in which I've spent lots of time at Tahrir - it has always been a buzz of excitement, whether that was the hundreds of thousands there the Friday I arrived (Feb 18th), or the hundreds, or the scores - depending on the day and evolution of events.
The recent, violent sectarian conflicts of recent days, notwithstanding, it seems much has changed in Cairo - the vacant Tahrir a telling sign of that. Hopefully, this means that the grand achievement of last week (resignation of Mubarak-appointed, interim Prime Minister) was satisfying enough to allow the other demanded changes to develop in reasonable time. That said, tomorrow is Friday, and who knows what's on the agenda. Stay tuned.
A very interesting co-incidence (hyphenated to not imply happenstance) with Tahrir's change was the notable presence of the police - these would be the black uniformed police who left the scence a few days into the revolution and have only been apparent intermittently. I'll need to check to see the local explanations of their return. For today at least, it was just as harmonious as it has been over the recent weeks between the citizens and the military. Hopefully, it means some level of reconciliation between the police and people, which, itself would be an impressive sign of forward movement. Stay tuned.
Update a few hours later, after interviewing a 26 year-old, deputy director of a human rights organization - himself having camped out at the circle during the guts of the revolution (much to report on that interview):
- The police are just traffic cops (from the young activist)
- Tomorrow at Tahrir: "2 Million" (from the older gentlemen I spoke to on the way back from the interview: The focus?, I asked: To call for harmony given the recent sectarian clashes and problems with the police, he said.)
Tomorrow will tell ; it will be my last Friday here (for the time being).
Wednesday, March 9, 2011
I went off to interview Aly, a male counterpart and friend of Kholoud - both 26. By the time I'd finished with Aly, the crowd down on the steps to the plaza had grown significantly, and a few hours later it had grown to 1,000 or so. Now more prominent even than before was the Christian presence, seen in the icons many were holding.
The largest cheers and applause came when a uniformed, senior army officer took the speaker's stage and both addressed the crowd and lead them in the chants.
The demonstration was fully peaceful, which is why the morning's news of the deaths in Cairo was ironic. This, because it was in Alexandria, just a few months ago that a suicide bomber detonated near a Christian church, killing over 20. It would seem that in Alexandria, of all places, the anger would be strongest - but I don't know nearly enough about the complexities of demonstrations and their timing or tenor to attempt to explain.
Saturday, March 5, 2011
In the Palestinian case, I've long thought of their particular situation as a struggle for what has essentially been a "forbidden identity." So much of the driving force across the decades has been to call for, or insist upon, the very right to be Palestinian - not so much in the sense that Palestinians deserve rights (which, of course, they do - and this certainly is a fundamental part of their struggle), but rather the more basic, existential plea for the legitimacy to be thought of and referred to as Palestinian.
It is all tied up in who's land it is, what that land should be called, and, by extension, what the identity of the inhabitants of the land (or a portion of it) is. For its part, the intent or effect of the Israeli occupation, out of perceived threat to its own national identity, has been quite literally to forbid a Palestinian identity from developing (if identity is writ large - as it should be - to refer to national identity).
Identity is very much at the crux here in Egypt. But it looks very, very different. Here, the essence of the revolution appears to have been a response to what Egyptians feel has been a "quashed identity" (quash being the best word I can come up with for the moment - and it took some searching through the thesaurus!) That is, no one - here or outside - has any trouble knowing that there has been an Egypt, with people called Egyptians, for millenia. And, to point, for much of that existence, Egypt and its people have been heralded.
What one hears repeatedly now, however, is how utterly constrained Egyptians have felt over the past decades - in terms of realizing and showing their Egyptian-ness. So much of the passion and profound joy that is expressed now everywhere has to do with finally being able - not alone to be free - but to be able to be Egyptian again. It appears to have everything to do with the rigid constraint on expression of any kind that has paralyzed the nation for decades, but it also surrounds the pillaging of the nation's riches by the same leaders, such that the majority of the population has been so poor as to be unable to realize their honor.
"Lift up your head high, you're Egyptian!" was the refrain chanted by the throngs at Tahrir on Feb 11 when Mubarak resigned. So it was yesterday too as thousands welcomed the resignation of the Mubarak-designated interim prime minister (Shafiq), and greeted with jubilation a major fruit of their revolution: a leader (Sharaf) from outside the regime that for so long quashed their souls.
Friday, March 4, 2011
Would it be cancelled given the big news? Not hardly. Expectations now are that it will shift tenor, to be mostly celebration at the further evidence of the effectiveness of the revolution, but also to raise to the fore the balance of the main list of demands: repeal of the Emergency Law (allowing arrests and detentions without cause); release of political prisoners; new constituion, etc.
It's hard to keep pace with the variety of demonstrations. Just a couple of days ago I thought that things had settled to occasional, low-level gatherings of small numbers. Then, on a walk along the Nile that evening, I heard the roar of bridge full of young people marching toward Tahrir. The purpose: to insist on Shafiq's removal. Then yesterday, walking back from the US Embassy, the familiar ring of a protest in the making. Just around the corner were gathered about 200 adults, poised in the classic semi-circle with bull-horn equipped leader at the center,shouting vigorous demands. Their concern: the return of the dismissed trade minister.
Crossed purposes are inevitable. The weight appears, however, to be clearly in the favor of those who want a full revolution: read: complete replacement of individuals and institutions.
This makes Sayed unhappy. The big news was for my ears. He's unhappy about the removal of Shafiq because "he's a good man." And he's worried that things are out of control: "Anyone wants a change now, just go to Tahrir."
Wednesday, March 2, 2011
The sequence of contributing events is much easier to see in hindsight. In the case of the famed (first) Palestinian intifada (1987-1993), one would not have predicted that it was to be Dec 7, 1987 when the explosion occurred. But, piecing it together, it was easy to see the immediate precipitating event (the killing of 4 Gazans on their way back from work in Israel) as well as the accumulated series of events - including other moments of violence but also less dramatic, though potent, events such as the Arab League ignoring the Palestinian agenda at its conference.
For Egypt, concrete moments of activism have been occurring regularly for the past 3 or 4 years. Indeed, even if one just focuses on the role of social media (e.g., Facebook) it is apparent that it was making its mark years before this January's revolution(see excellent coverage by Frontline).
Neither was the specific date of the revolution's inception a mystery. Jan 15 had been a regular protest day for years. The magic of the revolution rather was the magnitude of the participation on that day. This magic had several parts. First, clearly the facility of social media in reaching scores of thousands of people was instrumental, and, by 2011, followership of various sites numbered in the scores of thousands. Second, formalized advanced planning - including recruitment of civil disobedience experts from outside - escalated the degree and effectiveness of preparations for the Jan 15 demonstration.
Critically, for many younger and older Egyptians, the catalyst that turned their attention and involvement, hoever, was the very magnitude of participation in that first day. Apparently, they have felt so severly repressed (and incapacitated) for so long that it took the drama of mass participation to give a sense of confidence that anything could change.
Consider Hamdi, one young 21 year-old from the Cairo suburb of Giza, viewing on television the mass demonstrations of the first day shook him dramatically and fundamentally changed his future focus. He was already well under way to emigrate from Egypt. The inertia had convinced him even at such a young age that there was no future in Egypt. He studied Greek, made contact with a Greek girl, and was in the throes of planning to move to be with her there. But seeing the masses on Jan 15 turned him - convinced him that maybe there would be hope. It was as if he saw evidence that his people and nation - who he clearly honored and loved - may not afterall be permanent pawns of dictators and fate.
In him, and others, one senses a deeply gratifying astonishment, a marvel, that Egypt can arise from the dust and drudgery, and chart its own honorable and dignified future course. Hamdi will be part of that - from Egypt. He is no longer going to Greece.
"Welcome to the NEW Egypt."
Tuesday, March 1, 2011
The unity between soldier and civilian is densely evident here. The military is ever-present - at least anywhere near Tahrir Square - with tanks stationed at major intersections, or blocking access (especially on days when foot traffic to the Square is going to be so heavy that the tanks prevent the access of cars).
But there is no menace, no personal barriers. Indeed, one imagines that were it not for protocol, soldiers would be linked arm in arm with citizens. This has been one of the most moving experiences to feel the unity and the sense of honor and protection most feel from their soldier brothers (haven't seen any females soldiers yet).
So, it may well have been the case that the Egyptian military made a calculated decision to not support the falling regime in favor of the people for the self-interest of the military elite. But, for those who don't occupy that luxurious space of enjoying and preserving wealth and power - solider and citizen alike - the decision seems but a natural unity born of the joint recognition of collective intrusion and massive constraint on dignity and freedom.
For, after all, "We are all Egyptians."
Sunday, February 27, 2011
I wandered down to the Square today (Sunday), thinking there would be little there, but found an assembly of makeshift shelters in which people were clearly intending on staying put. Immediately I was approached by three youths, one of whom in fairly good but rapid fire English quizzed me on what I saw, why I was there, and what America was being told. Eslam, age 24, seemed angry, gesturing at the protesters (more like squatters actually) and saying "This is killing Egypt."
"Tell the tourists to come back," implored Mohammed as he ushered me to the pyramids and sphinx. His colleagues couldn't believe that he finally had a "tourist". The sites were virtually empty, with skads of men - young and old - biding their time, poorer even than before. None have regrets about the revolution, but added to the voices of those who appreciate that change takes time and that Egyptians should be patient, are the pleas of the merchants and guides who are hungry.
So fresh and radical are the changes, that many seem not sure if it's real or a dream. Sayed and Walid seemed quite nervous at the beginning of my interview with them recently, particularly when I asked if I could tape record it. "No, you can't record us." Toward the end of the hour, feeling apparently more comfortable with me, but more critically, with the experience of speaking their minds freely, they reconsidered and suggested that I might be able to record the next interview. "We're free now, we can say what we want" they said aloud, looking at each other as if they weren't sure what they were saying was (could be) true.
Later, at their home in Giza, just outside of Cairo, their father motioned to the walls, pointing out that there were no pictures of Mubarak. "Before the revolution, everyone had to have a picture of him in their homes. His picture was everywhere. But now, we are a New Egypt."
The newness is also visible in a freshness, a cleaner Egypt. Remarkably, part of the youths' activism has been to clean the country. Thus, via Facebook (of course), children and youths have been invited to clean the streets and to paint the curbs with the colors of the Egyptian flag.
Descriptions of such initiatives are proclaimed with a moving sense of national pride. "We want to build Egypt," said 22 year-old Walid.
Tom Friedman recently bemoaned the garbage on the streets of Cairo as an evidence of Egypt's failure. Hurry back Tom, the streets are being cleaned.
A movement of this magnitude is bound to have mis-steps - whether by protesters or authorities. In general, it seems, it has been remarkably orderly and mature. From many - old and young alike - I've heard that it is now time to stop. Not that all has been achieved, but many recognize that it will take time for changes to take effect. No doubt most are pleased that Mubarak is gone (although many are careful to lay the blame not on him personally, but on the excesses of one of his sons, Gamal). Some wish for a full cleansing of his ministers and continue to protest for their removal. Many others, though, seem willing to give the military time to re-organize the government and to accept the continuing role of some of Mubarak's associates - especially Shafiq, the former head of the airforce.
"It's time to be quiet," said a teacher to me in the square last week. "We need to be careful now; these are good people that are leading us now." "We've done enough now," said 22 year-old Walid, who had spent several days at the square during the movment. "It's time to let the government and the military do their work."
With full confidence he completed his thought: "If they mess up. We'll go back to the square."
Friday, February 25, 2011
But still, two weeks past Mubarak's departure, it fills quickly and remains the focal point. Today marked the one month anniversary of the inception of the revolution. By early afternoon the square began to fill. Now, at nearly midnght, I still hear from my window the happily honking horns, and the voices of many celebrating.
Tomorrow, it will be quiet again.(?)
Then, the closer we got to Tahrir Square - ground zero for the protests - the road became congested with young people, the air covered with flags of all sizes, and an atmosphere - an emotion - suffused the area. They were headed to the party in the Square!
My online search for a convenient hotel proved to have been successful as the cab delivered me to the Novotel El Borg, situated just across the Nile from Tahrir. After checking in I made my way toward the Square. Those 300 yards or so ended up taking half an hour, as the bridge was packed with people, streaming in both directions. The din was dense - from honking cars, vuvuzelas reminiscent of the Cape Town soccer matches, and groups of all sizes singing and dancing.
Once in the Square, it was surreal. How many people? Some said that 3 million were there earlier in the day, but "just a million now." How does one count such a mass? I surely had never been amongst so many people, nearly shoulder to shoulder. New Year's Day-like fireworks were going off and bright floodlights lit the entire square.
I ended up talking at length with a group of late teens - who were disappointed that I didn't have a Facebook page that they could post our pictures on! How did they feel? "We are now of one hand, the whole people," said Esam, the taller one on the right. A while into the interview, another of them left and brought over a man from Alexandria to help with our language communication but also to demonstrate the unity that was so viscerally present. Ahmad (striped sweater) explained that he'd been there all day, that he and the youths had met during the festivities and that they felt a bond across the generations - "They are like my sons. We are all Egyptians and now are free to live honorably."
Progress is fast and encouraging on finding funding to do a documentary about this unique revolution, and to begin extensive research initiatives. More about those designs in a later entry. Check out our website which will soon have postings of audio and video interviews, etc.
Following closely after a successful revolt in Tunisia, Egyptians orchestrated a civil resistance that has had an unparalleled effect on Egypt and the broader region. While the news coverage of the movement inferred that youths were instrumental, images typically conveyed a broader, more popular involvement. Thus, it wasn't until a Feb 15 NYT article by Kirkpatrick and Sanger that carefully documented the explicit role youths had played in planning and carrying out the movement that I became aware of just what an unprecedented moment this is in observing youth capacity.
How did Egyptian youths accomplish such a stunningly fast and remarkably peaceful overthrow of one of the strongest governments in the Middle East?
According to the news coverage, they did so in large part by using social networking technology, such as Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube. Documenting the extent and strategy of such high tech activism will be critical, but in the end, the success of the movement had to have been informed by other factors, not least of which appears to be the unique role the Egyptian armed forces have played in refraining from squashing the protests.
Given that our Center at the University of Tennessee (http://youthviolence.tennessee.edu) is devoted to understanding youth's involvement in political conflict, I decided to go to Cairo and observe the immediate aftermath of the toppling of the government. How do youths feel about this dramatic event? How hopeful are they that meaningful change will occur? How united is the population? How accurate has been the media coverage of their role?
I'll submit continuing blogs with what I learn.
Brian K Barber
Director, Center for the Study of Youth and Political Conflict, University of Tennessee