Thursday, November 24, 2011

Practical Tentacles of Tahrir

One of the explanations the military or its defenders have given for opposing the takeover by protesters of Tahrir Square has been the congestion it causes to transportation in that important area of Cairo. That claim has always seemed shallow to my naieve perspective. Last night, I was afforded two insights that matured my view some. I learned that while it may well be a regrettable but unavoidable consequence of the revolution (as surely the protesters would claim), at least there is some credibility to the argument against the congestion.

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.

In Your Face in Cairo

I had learned from Kholoud that Aly would be in Cairo this week. So, as soon as I arrived on Monday night I called while walking through Tahrir Square. He picked up but the reception wasn't good. He said he was also in the Square, that he was headed to drop off his bags, and would call later. I didn't hear back from him.

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 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

Revolution at Dawn

I awoke at 5:30 am to sounds of several blasts coming from the Square just across the river from the hotel. I counted about 10 of them, then saw a flurry of vehicles driving toward the square with blue lights flashing. Got dressed quickly and made my over to the Square wanting to see how things are at such an early hour.

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.


Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Might as Well Send the Camels Back

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."

No End in Sight

I walked through Tahrir this morning at 11:30 on my way to an appointment with Mohsen (27) at his office at Andalus Institute for Tolerance and Anti-Violence Studies. The security check for entry into the Square - conducted variously by an assortment of older and younger men and women - was less thorough than the night before. As always, they apologize for the inconvenience and assure that their scrutiny is to protect against weapons being brought into the Square. The crowd was surely smaller than the previous night, but certainly not sparse. Nevertheless, I presumed that I could walk through without incident.

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.

Parting the Once-Jubilant Sea

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

Back to Tahrir - Again: But This One Seems Different

Egyptian protesters of all ages have regularly demonstrated in Cairo's Tahrir Square since their Jan/Feb revolution appeared to have some success at promising change for Egypt. There was even a second sit-in of the Square in July that lasted weeks. Some demonstrations served their immediate purposes, most not - and the sit-in in July was forcefully cleared by the military.

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.