Sunday, December 18, 2011

The Agony of Betrayal: An Ugly Face of Revolution

From a longer-term perspective, the remarkable tenacity of Egyptian protesters (surfacing repeatedly despite bruising setbacks) likely bodes well for the eventual success of the revolution in achieving lasting and fundamental change.

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

Interpreting Victory: "Smashing Bodies is Not Welcome"

This final "chapter" of the memorable afternoon with Aly, his mentor, and his father records Aly's evaluation of the pre-election spate of clashes on Mohamed Mahmoud Street.

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."

Father on Son: "Trading Life for Dignity"

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.

Stones are Easy - Raise the Price of Your Blood

A singular privilege during the recent stay in Egypt was observing the interaction between Aly, some of his comrades, and their cherished mentor Dr. Heba Raouf Ezzat.

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.


"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."


"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."