Saturday, December 22, 2012

In Memorium: Mohamed Mostafa Karika

I was just headed back to the hotel from my second reconnaissance of Tahrir Square for this Friday, December 21, 2012. That morning's visit revealed a relatively quiet square, much like it has typically been before prayers. Like usual, opinions as to the amount of activity the day would see varied from "nothing" to "it will be very big."

I returned to the Square around 5pm, this time, fortunately, with the camera. Small crowds were gathering, typically surrounding unusually large and professionally manufactured banners reflecting contrasting political sentiments. It didn't feel like anything unusual would be happening - but then as I turned to head away I noticed something strange.

From south to north along the western edge of the Square a twisting line of people - mostly youth - had gathered. It was odd, both for its location and its formation. I puzzled over what was happening, and wondered if they might be forming to begin a march to another site, knowing that protests now occur at various places throughout Cairo. Upon closer look I realized that there were actually two lines, at most two persons deep, facing each other.
They formed a twisting alley that extended across a good 50 yards. Despite the volume of youth, mostly male, in a Square that is known for its wild exuberance, there was a perceptible somberness. Soon they began lighting small candles, first holding them in hand, and then, upon some unseen instruction, placed them in the alley they formed.

I noticed several people taking photos - even entering the alley and tracing its length - so I ventured closer, still not understanding clearly what was the subject of this apparently very serious ceremony. I found one of the few open spots in the west facing line and began to take some photos. A young man next to me (who later shied away from me taking his own photo) tapped me gently on the shoulder and asked if I would take a picture of a photograph of a young man that he held in his hand; and, next, of a small card he produced when I asked him who the young man was.

The Martyr, Hero, Engineer
Mohamad Mostofa Karika
The events of the Cabinet
21st Dec. 2011 - 21st Dec. 2012
"Martyr for Freedom"
These were members of the famed sports group Ultra Ahlawi and they had gathered to honor their 19 year old friend and colleague and engineering student who was shot in the back by military forces as they cleared the Square exactly one year ago. He died the next day, despite feverish attempts in the hospital to save him. Apparently, the trail of his blood extended the very length of the alley that they now formed.

Once the candles had dimmed, the group gathered in front of a large projection screen, sat, and watched a series of scenes of their lost comrade.

Monday, June 11, 2012

Shafiq 4; Moursi 0; Abstention 2

The presidential run-off is less than a week away, and by any account it is an unsatisfying choice for many Egyptians: Shafiq, a remnant of the Mubarak regime; Moursi, a Muslim Brotherhood leader. Many activists and professionals we know find the choice insulting and many can't imagine themselves voting for either one. Some plan to "spoil" their ballots by voting for both, an alternative that would preserve the right and action of voting, but at the same time giving no advantage to either candidate. Cairo is plastered with huge, high quality posters of both candidates. Upon arrival on this trip, I spoke with every person I came in contact with while reaching and getting settled in the hotel, in order to get a sense of the pulse from the ground. The Christian grandmother that sat next to me on the flight from Amman found the choice impossible. For her, Shafiq would signal a return to the Mubarak regime, and the thought of Moursi frightens her. She reports hearing that he - the Muslim Brotherhood candidate - would have Christians' throats slit. Otherwise, Moursi to her is deceptive and two-faced. The young man who was first in the tagteam of greeters at the airport was clearly for Shafiq. He will bring strength and stability. He handed me off to the the middle-aged driver, who started out more diplomatically saying it was a difficult choice, but by the end of the 30 minute drive had made clear that Shafiq is the only reasonable choice. Moursi is unknown, and dangerous. A young male receptionist at the hotel said that the choice is impossible and that he wouldn't vote. Another proclaimed clearly for Shafiq. He admitted to some self-consciousness about his preference, noting that some of his friends criticize him for wantiing to return to a police state. Not so, he says. Rather, his vote would be for stability. At least with Shafiq, he reasoned, he knows what he'll get, which would be a better scenario that the scary mystery of what Moursi might bring. Time now to speak with the youth of our project.

Monday, March 19, 2012

A Nation on Hold

The week is now finished. I was able to interview all of our youth who we have followed now for a full year. There is relatively little to report - not that they didn't have much to say, but that the narrative is common. All are disappointed with the state of the revolution, and all attribute it to the behavior of the SCAF (Supreme Council of the Armed Forces). Any hope that they had that SCAF would be a fair and non-intrusive custodial power dissipated long ago.

The trigger was also common, reinforcing a core theme that has emerged throughout the project; namely, that invasive, abusive, and violent treatment by authorities ignites an indignation that propels to rejection of the authority. Perhaps the one clear illustration of growth from the revolution is that these violations of basic dignity - by all reports endemic to many decades of authoritarian rule - are no longer swallowed by the people. We will study for a long time what the complex formula was for the timing of this foundational transformation from tolerating oppression to defiantly rejecting it one year ago. But, that complexity relative to timing aside, the impetus was simple and clear: enough of the violent, abusive treatment.

Indeed, virtually every "explosion" of unrest since the January 25th commencement of widespread protest that lead to full-scale revolution has followed directly on the heels of such mistreatment. Outstanding examples of this include: the killing of hundreds of protesters on January 28th; the violent clearing of the 3-week long Tahrir Square sit-in at the end of July; the literal crushing of bodies under the treads of tanks during the Maspero protest of October; and, again, in November, the violent clearing of Tahrir Square of a small number of families of those slain in January.

That said, while such abuse has reliably maintained the flame of the revolution, progressively it has also lead to the conviction that the SCAF cannot be trusted, and, indeed, behaves no differently than the regime it was assigned to replace. This disappointment fuels much of the current despair, and resulting withdrawal from active protest. It feels from the outside as a sense of defeat. Some youth would be comfortable with that characterization - indeed, claiming that life is no better than it was before the revolution (economically, but more damning, the continued control of insensitive "leaders"). Others would be more tentative in making a conclusive determination, but every one of them - literally - described thmselves as depressed.

It is a depression, it seems, however, that is transitory. For there is also a sense of grudging anticipation and dim hope for the coming presidential election. Youth do not appear to have become disengaged from the overall process; just exhausted from the constant, unsuccessful battles; knowing that the process (far as it is from their ideal) is moving forward and the best they can hope for is a decent leader to be elected. Interestingly, much seems to be invested in the hope of what an individual president can do.

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Free and Clear

Just arrived Cairo for the next (4th) round of interviews. In the year I've been coming this is the first visit where Tahrir Square is functioning as normal: a main traffic intersection. There are some token tents in the center of the roundabout, but life feels eerily . . . normal?

Walking Mohammed Mahmoud street last night with Aly was itself a strange experience. He identified the spot where he'd been shot and relived the moment. It all feels so out of context, as the street - recently an intense battle ground - was non-distinct, with foot and vehicle traffic proceeding as it does on any avenue.

It's too early to tell what the mood is like here, but I sense glimpses of fatigue and forward looking. The few youths I've been able to talk to thus far seem spent, but ready for whatever comes next. The local paper is full of news on the coming presidential election (May 23, 24).