Thursday, June 7, 2012

Pride and Prejudice in Tahrir

Tahriris in a celebratory mood on Monday evening.

As we entered Cairo after our drive up the Red Sea coast from Hurghada, our van was directed away from Midan Tahrir by the citizen police that have established themselves there.  There are barricades and some barbed wires at streets leading into the square.  We could see that the square was fairly full, even at 9:00 on a Monday evening.  Not packed, but occupied to be sure.  After settling back in to the Shepheard Hotel again, we met up with our friend Ahmad Affifi, who walked with us down to the square to get a feel for the place.  We entered with excitement and trepidation, although Ahmad was comfortable, and we found the place peaceful, with an atmosphere that is a mix of carnival and political demonstration.  People were scattered all over the square, congregating in small crowds to chant, or debate, or drink tea.  There are tents everywhere, and people lying or sleeping on the plaza, there for the duration.  It might seem rash to go visit the Square, but on the ground here we can access the situation and see that one block away the streets are quiet and empty.  I am struck again by the difference between the perceptions one gets from the media (danger, violence, people injured) and what we experience on the ground (largely people going about their business). Regardless, we stay as a group, stick with our local guide who speaks Arabic, and make sure we have an exit strategy, an unfortunate and often overlooked requirement for foreign visitors and imperial troops alike.
Marchers on the Qasr el Nil Bridge, heading into Tahrir (as viewed from my hotel balcony).

People were very curious about us and asked why we were there, where we were from, and what we thought of the revolution.  Their understanding of America was filtered largely through pop culture, so we were often equated with some media figure—I was compared to a professional wrestler named Kane (an unfortunate association), and one of our students, who looks a bit like a hobbit, was pegged as Samwise Gamgee.  Andra, who has an impressive set of dreadlocks is constantly identified as “Bob Marley!” which gets old pretty quickly.  We were offered food and tea, and there were lots of smiles, picture-taking, and goofing around.

Street discussions, flags, street vendors.

But at the same time, the tone there is definitely serious.  The political messages around the square focused primarily on the martyrs of the revolution and on the determination that the struggle would continue.  There were banners and posters in honor of those who had died, a mock cemetery, and Mubarek hung in effigy from a lamp post.  Conversations generally centered on how to respond to the verdict in the trial and to Shafiq.  This is where politics is all too real and the need for careful strategy and debate are essential if the revolution is to succeed.  What “success” looks like is also an open question.  But the people in Tahrir are determined not to give up.  They are proud, they are angry, and they have had enough.  They have come too far to give up now, they are demanding justice, and the revolution will continue.  The energy in the square, even on a Monday evening, was clear evidence of that.

On Tuesday, by late afternoon, the numbers in the numbers in the square had swelled to the point that the center of the square was pretty well packed.  Not being able to get a view from above, I couldn’t begin to guess the numbers, but it was clearly many thousands (akin to the iconic aerial photos we have come to see now almost on a monthly basis).  By a strange stroke of luck, as I went to the corner store near the hotel, I ran into our guide from the Pyramids, Sammir.  He is former semi-pro basketball player and seasoned participant in the revolution, so an ideal guide, and was just heading into Tahrir to interview people, take video, and stand up and be counted.  He is a historian, and this is history in the making, and he (and the rest of us) don’t want to miss out.

At the edge of the crowd the conversations immediately began, with people asking what Americans thought of the revolution and election.  A common question as well is what people think of the Muslim Brotherhood.  Clearly most of the people in the square are very supportive of the MB, and obviously everyone there hates Shafiq.  And they wonder—do Americans fear the Brotherhood?  I try to explain that most Americans are either fairly ignorant or have a view informed by Hollywood and post-9/11 rhetoric, that most support the revolution, disliked Mubarek, and had mixed feelings about Israel and Palestine, and that there is a huge variety of views on all these topics in the U.S. 
Memorials to those killed in the square.

Clearly, for them, whatever fear we may have does not make sense to them.  One could imagine a Christian American asking similar questions of a Muslim and being similarly baffled as to why anyone would fear or hate us (although the thousands of “Christian troops” still in Afghanistan and Iraq and scattered around the globe might provide some explanation).  The Tahriris in the main see the Brotherhood as a benign group who is doing good work in Egypt, as having been brutally persecuted for decades, and believe that they would be tolerant.  Several men I spoke with insisted that Copts or Sufis have nothing to fear from the Brotherhood and that what fears there are stem from the biased media.  I’m sure I would get a different perspective talking to local Copts, and know that the situation is all so complex I will not be able to really get a grasp of it.

Although there is clearly a majority who hate, or otherwise dislike Shafiq, the country is quite polarized in terms of views on the Brotherhood.  There are some who see them as a real threat and a misguided mixture of religion and politics that will leave both the Mosque and the Government worse off.  Others see the Brotherhood as a noble and virtuous group that will help to correct the corruption and misdeeds of the past fifty years.

Sammir warns me to be sure not to be videoed, as there are some there who might try to misuse or manipulate the material (take some quote out of context to show who ignorant or anti-Muslim Americans are or something).  Point well taken.  One of the smiling young men I speak with, shows me his cell phone screen saver—a picture of Osama bin Laden.  He is a fan.  Sammir and I move on.

The chants from the crowd and various groups marching in call for justice for the martyrs slain in the revolution.  Shafiq had said he supported the revolution, and the crowd chants, “Shafiq if you support the revolution, why don’t you come down to Tahrir?!”  An older woman with full face veil, and who travelled six hours to get there, holds a sign that roughly translates as:  Greetings to the judge who as “dumped” on us and we are now swimming in it—a play on words from a common and much more respectful salutation.  
The caption of her sign was a witty slam on the ruling from the judge in the Mubarek trial.  Not what I expected from someone dressed like that, but that just goes to show you.

In Tahrir the air of the place is very energetic.  There is a kind of restlessness and anomie that is not typical of most social settings I’ve been in.  There are people of all ages there, from young kids to grandparents, and various levels of religious conservatism.  In the evening, the largest demographic was clearly the young men, and I don’t think I saw any women under forty there at that hour.  Some of them are there for the politics, some for crowd or spectacle, and social scene.  During the day, there are many more women, often congregating in groups together, as harassment is still a problem for women here (both locals and foreigners).  When there on Tuesday afternoon, an Egyptian woman with an English accent strongly urged one of the women in our group to cover herself more thoroughly and stay out of the middle of the square. 

Sammir does a video interview with a young man who says they are not waiting for the election, or waiting for anyone else, but that they are taking action now.  The latest posts from the April 6 movement reflect a similar tension between the desire for democracy and an unwillingness to accept the results of the election.  Their challenge now is to try to build a cohesive anti-Shafiq coalition with real commitment to tolerance, equity, and social justice.  Elections themselves are no guarantee of justice (as has been often pointed out, Hitler was elected, as was Stalin).  Fear-mongering, fraud, bribery, propaganda, smear campaigns, and intimidation can easily bring corrupt politicians to elected office.  The latest move by Shafiq now is to somehow blame the MB and Salafis for deaths that occurred during the battle of the camels—a preposterous claim by a desperate man.

What is clearly most troubling and dangerous about the current situation is that the military rulers and the super-rich (two groups with substantial overlap) are on the ropes, and they have a lot to lose.  The SCAF cannot like where things might head should Morsy be elected (as is expected).  More trials, seizing of assets, loss of jobs, or worse.  They will not go down without a fight, and it will take a great deal of political and diplomatic skill from all quarters to keep this from getting truly nasty.  The next two months will be crucial, and maybe better that we aren’t traveling here then.
Another great NGO--staffed almost exclusively by women (such as Nahda, in the white shirt).

On Tuesday morning we visited with Nahdet el Mahrousa (the “Egyptian Renaissance”) an NGO doing great work on social entrepreneurship and educational reform.  Afterward, our host Nahda graciously showed us around the neighborhood, taking us to the CafĂ© Riche, where such luminaries as Naguib Mafouz would meet to talk politics, and where some of the planning for the 1922 revolution took place.  The son’s owner offered to take us to the bar in the basement, where there was a printing press used to print anti-British pamphlets (the Facebook and Twitter of its day), and two trap doors in the walls, behind which the revolutionaries would hide when the British police came.  It was fascinating for us, as we excitedly snapped photos, but this was the first time Nahda had ever been down there, and it was only because she was with Americans.  “Why” she asked with a tone of genuine frustration, “are Egyptians always treated like second class citizens?”  It is a good question, and a sentiment we have heard expressed in various ways throughout our trip.  A teacher we met later that day, who is a dual Egyptian-American citizen lamented the fact that, simply because she has an Egyptian passport, she gets paid a fraction of her foreign colleagues.  She notes as well that most of the wealthy families here focus on teaching their kids English or German, at the expense of their Arabic.  My previous blog post on the tourist enclaves likewise reflects this two-tiered system.
The printing press used by early nationalist and Wafd activists to print pamphlets in opposition to British rule prior to the 1922 revolution (in the basement of the Cafe Riche).

Egypt is such a mix of tremendous national pride and at the same time, a sense of some inferiority and envy in regard to the West.  This seems to have started with the arrival of Napoleon, and was reflected initially in Mohamed Ali’s attempts to modernize and Westernize Egypt.  He traded one of Hatshepsut’s obelisks for a big French-made clock that promptly broke and now sits in the Citadel, a monument to misplaced priorities.  In Tahrir the pride is palpable and ebullient, and in so many of the youth we have met, but outside the square we are constantly confronted with a two-tiered society—the “modern” western elite and tourists on the one hand, and the marginalized and subaltern communities and voices on the other.  On some level, this division is really at the heart of the revolution, and I think I hear it behind the questions I get in the square.  The Brotherhood is a response to this tension, and Islam and Egyptian nationalism are counters to the gap between the pride and resentment.  In the U.S., I am repeatedly struck by the ongoing and insidious legacy of the conquest and slavery that were part of the country’s beginnings;  in Egypt the impact of colonialism and neo-colonialism likewise continue to profoundly shape self-conceptions and political divisions here.  The main anger in the square is against the Mubarek regime, but that regime, in large part, was both a manifestation and a reflection of a deeply divided society that is the product of a long history of authoritarian and colonial rule.

Whither the revolution?  No one really knows.

In our meetings with the NGOs and young people there is clearly great optimism, promise, and an alternative vision—genuinely Egyptian, capable, proud, Muslim, and cosmopolitan.   This is where the future lies, and we need to do whatever we can to support and collaborate with this generation of Egyptians.  We cannot expect these problems to ever go away.  We can wish for it, but if we do, we will be disappointed.  But we can hope to see some improvement—some lives made better, some people empowered, some jobs created, some dignity restored.  The contingency of political outcomes, and role of human agency in shaping that future, along with the whole raft of factors that we only partially understand, are all very real here in Egypt today.

1 comment:

  1. Joe,
    Thanks so much for posting this--it helps a lot to have your first-hand impressions. I was distressed about the outcome of the election (no moderate candidate), but this more gracious view of the MB and your conversations with Egyptians make me hopeful.
    Safe travels!!