Thursday, March 17, 2011

Moved on the Gaza

March 15 was the day set aside in Palestine for youth to protest. I left Cairo on the 13th to get to Gaza on time.

Saturday, March 12, 2011

Rally to Revolution - (and, Where Has All the Kitsch Gone???)

My last night here (for just the time being, I hope). After listening to a Czech youth leader from the revolution there some twenty years ago address a group of 25 young Egyptian activists and try to answer their eager questions about how to do revolution right, I did a sentimental tour. First, to the koshari restaurant for a last meal, then through T Square, and to the famed bridge leading to it. My real goal was to buy the momentos I had planned to gift my staff.

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.

What's a Million in the Face of 18? - Contextualizing from the Ground

A camera lens takes in but a scene, a sound bite records just a moment or two. When only these are transmitted, an unreal sense of what it's like to be in an area experiencing dramatic change is relayed - especially when the view and bites are of intense action.

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:

"Tourists, come back to Egypt. Please!!!"

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

"The Miserable Generation" - Cancel That

In today's interview, Moshen bemoaned the pidgeon-holing of Egyptian youth, variously as Youth of the 25th, the Facebook Generation, etc. While such appellations seemed relatively incidental to this 26 year-old deputy director of the Andalus Institute for Human Rights and Tolerance, he was delighted to describe the formal nullification of a label that had clearly hurt.

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.

Back to Tahrir - Clean and Spiffy, "Empty" and Quiet

The last two days in Alexandria were enjoyable and instructive. Getting perspectives from people outside Cairo was important, especially in Alexandria where much of the revolution was inspired. More on that later - for now just a quick post about Tahrir.

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

Crosses and Flags - Just One Challenge to Egypt's Unity

This post would have been different had I written it as planned last night. But this morning's news of several deaths in Cairo yesterday during protests adds a different chapter to the unfolding story of inter-religious conflict here. Yesterday, I was in Alexandria, a 3-hour train ride north of Cairo. On the way to a meeting with a young female activist I've been interviewing, I noticed a small demonstration on the steps of the stunning Alexandria Library that faces the equally stunning port. Kholoud tells me that the design of the scence is that knowledge flows directly from Alexandria University through the library to the sea, and on to the world (and vice versa).
It seemed that about 100 people there, in customary form (see upcoming post about the dynamics of demonstrations), which, even with the masses in Tahrir, typically includes a rather remarkable order and control. I lingered taking pics and videos, picking up enough of the boisterous chanting to know it was about Christian/Muslim harmony, inspired by a recent attack on a Christian church south of Cairo. That in turn, had been triggered by a bitter, family/tribal conflict that surrounded a relationship between a mixed-religion couple.

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.

Suffice it for now to say that this is an unfolding story. It is not surprising that once the common enemy has been crippled (the regime, in this case), contests would devolve to the issues that divide socieites within. No doubt there are many challenges coming to Egypt's newfound freedom of expression and dissent.

Saturday, March 5, 2011

The Quashing of Egyptian Identity

Political conflicts often surround issues of identity - i.e., people struggling for their rightful place in society. Some struggles are about relative positioning (e.g., ethnic or religious minority groups demanding more equal treatment). There are other types of identity struggle, however.

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

Cancel that Protest - No, Just Change the Focus

Yesterday afernoon I received a call from Sayed, one of my youth contacts, saying, "I have big news." The Mubarak-appointed Prime Minister, Ahmed Shafiq, had just resigned. The news was timely as a major protest for today (Friday) had been planned to continue to insist on the resignation. This had been one of the major demands - that all of the vestiages of the former regime be removed. I had already made plans with other contacts to meet at today's protests - in Tahrir, of course - to witness what was to be another major moment in the revolution.

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 Crowd Made Me Do It - Thank God!

The precise moments in which grievances explode into action are difficult to predict. The formula seems to be some combination of the magnitude and breadth of grievance across a population, a succession of concrete events that bring the discontent to a simmer, and then one or more precipitating critical actions or events that bring the simmer to a full-fledged boil.

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

Those Blessed Soldiers

A recent NYT article by David Sanger explains the critical role that militaries play in political evolutions or revolutions. Essentially, he documents that military institutions have their own interests in mind, whether it be to preserve their power or their largesse. I don't doubt for a minute that such is the case, but I'm struggling to see the relevance here - at least on the ground, amongst the everyday citizen.

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."