Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Election Day

Briefly, the last two days were as follows:  a briefing at the U.S. Embassy on post-revolutionary policy in Egypt, a great discussion of economic development policy with Ragui Assad at the Economic Research Forum,  our first taste of kushori (delicious), and then meeting up with our friends from EYouth, in the old market district of Khan El Khalili.  Then today, the elections began, and we took a tour of the Citadel, Coptic Cairo, the Cairo Tower, and the neighborhood of Maadi for lunch and ice cream.  We hit the wall this afternoon with everyone just about falling asleep on our feet, so this evening we rest, following the news, writing, catching our breath.

Election day is notable for its calm.  Everyone is voting and waiting; my sense is that people are still feeling that they are in a dream, not sure that this can really be happening, and wondering if they will wake up in the morning to find the military back in power, or in fact with a leader they have chosen.  The city is quieter than usual, less traffic and crowds, with people staying home to vote.  Many businesses have closed or let their employees take time off to vote.  We have not seen long lines, but simply the orderly process, with some heightened security presence around town.  The April 6 youth are monitoring stations all over the country and report a range of irregularities—stations opening late, members of various parties attempting to influence or pressure voters in various governorates, or offer bribes to voters.  Turn-out was lighter in some areas because of the high heat, and many people are waiting to vote until tomorrow.  Al Masr Al Youm reports that the candidate from the old regime, Shafiq, was attacked at his polling place, and now that a few of the April 6 youth election monitors were being detained.  A lot of people really do not like Shafiq, and the worst outcome for this election would be if somehow he gets a significant portion of the vote.  That would bring people back to Tahrir.  But over-all so far, it seems to be going forward without any fatal flaws in the process, as was the case with the parliamentary elections.  Our guide reported actually seeing Jimmy Carter at a polling station near his house, as part of a diplomatic contingent observing one of the polling stations.

Our guide for the day was this impressively large Egyptian named Sammir, who, it turned out, had been very involved in Tahrir, and also a gifted historian.  So as he told the group about the slaughter of the Mamluks at the Citadel by Mohamed Ali, he could compare those events to contemporary politics.  We visited the Citadel and the Alabaster Mosque to see what a symbol of power looks and feels like, and can then discuss how Gene Sharp contrasts two views of power—one as a “monolith” possessed by the state, and the other of power as social capital based on authority, obedience, and consent.  Rulers create monuments to “reify” or make real what is in fact an illusion.  The monuments can only be built with people who are willing to build them, or pay the taxes to build them, and the soldiers to follow orders, and so on.  So it is the ideas in people’s heads that is the source of power, and these beliefs can then lead them to agree to build a citadel or a pyramid or a mosque.  And those ideas can just as magically disappear, as they did here last year.

On Mohamed Mahmoud Street (just off Tahrir) yesterday, we saw the amazing street art, in the form of modern-day hieroglyphics, depicting the events in Tahrir, and deconstructing the hegemonic discourse of the dominant regime.  The latest installment was a picture created the day (or night) before, depicting Mubarek, Tantawi, Moussa, and Shafiq as all the same.  In Coptic Cairo we hear stories of the Christian martyrs, see the iconography which tells the story of Jesus and the saints, and then turn to the graffiti memorializing the martyrs of Port Said (in the riots at the soccer match).

One of our new friends from EYouth, Esraa, showed us along Mohamed Mahmoud Street, where many of the main clashes with police took place, recounting stories of the revolution and explaining the stories on the walls to us.  It was not unlike getting a tour of the ancient Citadel, but with the history being here and now.  That night we met up with more members of the Eyouth group for tea and sandwiches in the Khan el Khalili market district.  The students we meet here give one great hope for the future—great people, creative, lively, articulate, fun, and not waiting for someone else to tackle the problems they face.  The greatest tragedy here will be if the state gets in the way of them being able to pursue their interests and use their talents in service to the county they love.

Part of what we speak of is the police, and the ways in which they have lost legitimacy.  One thing we notice around town is how the police are disengaged.  If traffic needs clearing, or there is some argument, the police just sit back, uninterested, and it is the civilians who step in to direct traffic or break up the fight.  The people have turned on the police, and the police, like jilted lovers, are telling the people that, “hey if you don’t like us, well you can enforce the law yourselves.”  This is probably in part strategic too, as a way to send a message to the people that they (and the Presidential candidates who support them) are needed.  But I don’t think the people, by and large, think they are.  Crime is up some, but torture and corruption are down, and on balance, most people seem to prefer this new mix.

A bit of folklore around here that I found interesting has to do with the black-uniformed internal security forces, who were charged with trying to disperse the crowds at Tahrir, and are the least admired of the security forces.  The army wears green or camo, the regular police where white, and then the security forces wearing the black.  We saw several vans full of the “black suits” in one neighborhood on election day, along with about a dozen armored personnel carriers (with machine guns mounted on top), perhaps as a show of force, or just on alert in case anything started in Tahrir.

The urban legend is that when the government goes to recruit soldiers, it asks the new recruits if they are educated (or can read and write).  Those who say yes are to go to one side, those who cannot go to the other.  Those that are left in the middle not knowing which way to go are selected for the internal security forces.  Perhaps there is some truth to the story, to the extent that the internal security forces want to have soldiers who are easily manipulated and brainwashed, not sure of their place, and resentful of both the educated elite and feeling superior to the illiterate fellahin.  At a minimum, the story shows how low the regard for these forces has fallen.  The military, aware of this, do their best to forward a positive image, including most prominently the famous photo of an Egyptian soldier holding a young child during the revolution.

The general lack of law enforcement is manifest on the roads, and the traffic and movement through Cairo continues to be remarkable.  I am amazed that there are still 20 million Cairenes left alive, the way cars careen around town.  On our way over to Khan el Khalili, we took a ride in one of the infamous “microbuses,” which was as close to the kind of thing you see in a Hollywood chase seen or video game as I’ve ever had.  I’ve had a few wild taxi rides in NYC, but nothing even close to this.  The driver was amazingly skilled and pretty much crazy, a kind of deranged savant, hell-bent on getting through the mass of cars, people, scooters, and goats at any cost, and then, when stuck in traffic, getting his buddy in the microbus two lanes over to pass him a cup of hot tea.  The horn is used constantly with an elaborate coded language, the vocabulary of which one surmises consists of faster! get out of my way! you idiot! and then a series of increasingly colorful curses in Morse code.  Clearly the horn is a more important (and probably better maintained) part of the vehicle than the brakes (and the car kept stalling when we stopped).  With Arabic rap blaring on the radio, he simultaneously took change, talked on his cell phone, cursed at other drivers, and tore through traffic, missing cars on all sides literally by inches.  If this guy were running for president here, he’d have my vote.  With his skill set, I think he could get the economy running again at 10% annual growth rates in about two weeks.  The ride climaxed with a sprint up an elevated (one-way) highway, only to be encountered by cars and scooters coming back at us, to which our driver responded with a particularly blasphemous utterance on the horn.  But the vehicles were returning because there was a fire up ahead, and the highway closed,  so we turned around as well (no small feat on the narrow road) and returned, only to encounter the fire truck now heading to the blaze.  Somehow two lanes of traffic (heading the wrong way on the highway) were managed to be squeezed into one lane, and the fire truck passed.  Later that evening, we saw where the fire had been—an electrical transformer that had blown, right across the street from the famous old gate to the city.  Good thing the city is almost all stone, so the fire didn’t spread.

Here are a few pictures from the last two days:

The "commodification of revolution" in Tahrir.  With so many people in need of work, everything becomes an opportunity to sell things.
A brilliant new piece of political art (dated May 21, 2012) on the theme "like father, like son" making the argument that Shariq and Moussa are direct descendants of Mubarek/Tantawi (and yes, that's Mohamed in the foreground).

The multiplicity of flags, symbols and signs, in Tahrir, representing the splintering of the old symbolic order.

Modern hieroglyphics rewriting the hegemonic discourse.
Our guide Sammir at the Citadel, delivering a history lesson on a historical day.

The back story on the Alabaster Mosque of Mohamed Ali (modeled after the Hagia Sophia and used less for worship than as a way to impress his subjects).

A well-guarded polling station in the affluent neighborhood of Gazira.  Most polling stations are in schools.

The "recycled" columns in a 14th C. mosque in the Citadel.  I love that they had enough old columns lying around to build a mosque.  Note that the bases for each column are a different height, to make them work together.

Esraa telling the sad story of some of the martyrs of Port Said.  She was choked up talking about the young men who died there.  The hope is that all the deaths of the last year will be redeemed with the results of this election.

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