Tuesday, March 15, 2011
The military keeps telling us that life should return to normal, but it maintains this curfew, and I am honestly baffled as to why. Cairo is a late-night town, always has been. I'm not the only expat who was charmed by the realization that a huge fraction of businesses are still open at three or four in the morning, and just in case I'm feeling lazy, they deliver. Never have I been happier than when I found out I could have cold medicine, cupcakes, even booze brought to my door in the middle of the night. I have to imagine that businesses are losing money from this curfew. Considering that everyone's so worried about economic recovery, keeping the city under lockdown is bizarre. What, exactly, is the army worried about people doing after midnight?
Perhaps this is a case of institutional inertia – the army is supposedly a slow-moving bureaucracy, and reversing the curfew may take time. Or perhaps it's because the army thinks like, well, an army. How do you restore order? Treat the city like a battlefield, control the space. And the best way to do that is keep it clear as possible. Thanks to the curfew, fewer people will go out late, and for those who do, merely being outside is at least technically a pretext to stop, question and/or disperse them. This is a fantastic tool for controlling an area.
But that's just a guess. Ultimately, I don't know the army's intentions and I don't know why they're doing this. What I do know is that there's a real danger of inertia setting in. For most people who don't live right next to a despised ministry, it's not such an inconvenience. You could definitely get used to it. The curfew isn't strictly enforced, and I haven't (yet) heard any stories of individuals getting arrested because of it. Even in ultra-fortified downtown, life under a not-harshly-enforced curfew is inconvenient and frustrating, but not oppressive.
But that opens the door to something insidious. If the curfew is not often enforced, and plenty of people are outside after midnight, technically, they could be stopped and questioned at any time because they are, technically, breaking the rules. If you wanted arbitrary power to harass people, you couldn't ask for a better tool than to have a common practice – being out late – be illegal but not usually punished. It turns a huge swath of the population into criminals, and it lets you, the army, choose when to enforce the rules and when to let people 'get away with it'. A selectively-enforced rule gives the person deciding when to enforce it a lot of power. Especially a selectively enforced rule governing freedom of movement. Egyptians have plenty of experience with the insidious terror of arbitrary authority, with having your fate rest on whether some policeman is having a bad day or not. “Sovereign is he who decides on the exception”, as Carl Schmitt put it.
I want to be clear: I have not heard of this being abused yet, to my knowledge. This scenario of the curfew being used selectively to harass dissidents or marginal elements of society is, as far as I know, hypothetical. But so long as there's a curfew, there is the possibility, the opportunity, and the temptation to use it as a tool of arbitrary power, should the military, state security, or the police feel pressure mounting against them. It requires us to trust that an institution that has already resorted to Mubarak-esque tactics – using plainclothes thugs to break up demonstrations, arresting dissidents, torturing them, and then having state media say they're thugs and criminals and foreign agents – will not succumb to that temptation.
Perhaps I'm overly pessimistic, but I do worry about these things, late at night in my locked-down apartment, when I have nothing else to do and nowhere else to go.
Like I mentioned a few posts back, I work out at a gym in Garden City, a neighborhood of twisting tree-lined streets and embassies. My gym happens to be near the US embassy, which is a fortress even under normal circumstances. Now, on top of everything else, there's a tank installation guarding the entrance to its street. The tanks are right along my path when I walk to the gym, and I'd even started to recognize some of the soldiers manning them.
A couple days ago, one of them recognized me. He smiled and said hello, nothing more, and nothing menacing. But I do not want to have a cordial relationship with my friendly neighborhood tank sentry. I do not want this to be part of my daily routine. What bothers me so much isn't that there is an army presence, but that it's becoming so routinized. The soldiers aren't on high-alert. They spend most of their time hanging around, sometimes texting. They're blending into the urban landscape, like the corner store owner, the barber, or the obnoxious souvenir shop tout who keeps trying to get me to buy fake papyrus. For me, that's just a little bit too normal.
So, no guilt trips from me about the world abandoning Egypt. But, the story did not end when Mubarak stepped down and the cameras went elsewhere. After the big protests stopped, it's been a collection of smaller things that are hard to fit into a coherent narrative of What is Going On, but that's what I want to do. I'm trying to figure out what's going on politically, and the answer isn't clear, at least to me. I'm not sure if we're looking at a revolution, a counter-revolution, a military coup, or something else entirely. That question – what exactly is it we're looking at? - isn't trivial, and if the answer is obvious to you, it isn't to me. So, I'm going to think it through via blogpost, in the hope that a picture will emerge piece by piece.
Revolutions, protests, coups, and transitions are very far from my specific expertise. But I'm going to write what I see and what I make of it until I run out of things to say. Hopefully someone, somewhere will find the result informative, or at least interesting. And if I do my tiny part in attracting more attention to what I think is a very troubling situation, all the better.
Sunday, February 13, 2011
I actually disagree. Any reasonable notion of justice calls for these guys to be punished, but here I'm thinking of future movements in other countries. I'd be very nervous about setting a precedent that says that toppled Arab dictators will face the wrath of their people if they step down, simply because this will make dictators less likely to step down. They'll cling to power more tenaciously, and a lot more innocent people will get hurt, disappeared, or killed trying to get rid of them. I think there's real benefit to letting the world's dictators feel secure that they can step down safely and life a quiet life in the Gulf, or Paris, or in whatever country chooses to take them.
So too for letting Mubarak stay comfortably in Sharm el Sheikh. Let him. He can enjoy the sea and spend the rest of his days telling himself, and anyone else who will listen, that the world never understood him and that everything he did, he did for Egypt. I hope that all the region's despots come to believe that they, too, could have such a retirement, and I hope it inspires them to shuffle off the world stage all the more quickly and quietly.
If true, it would have been the first moment when that most banal of dictators did anything remotely interesting. In times of crisis, people often try to step into dramatic roles and archetypes. They start playing roles and sometimes the gripping events that follow can even succeed at imbuing small men with the pathos of something greater than themselves.
But no matter now. He left before he got to have his Greek tragedy, and we're the better for it. Good riddance, and here's hoping Egypt gets something better than him.
Wednesday, February 9, 2011
Charles Hirschkind's short piece on SF Gate put words to something that I've been struggling to articulate ever since I came to Egypt: Egypt's government is very bad in terms of sheer oppression, violence, persecution of minorities, silencing of dissent, and so on, but they're not the worst in the world. They don't have Syria's paranoia-inducing atmosphere of surveillance, for instance, or Burma's willingness to slaughter its citizens wholesale. It's more that they're a specific kind of bad. When I search for how to describe the Egyptian regime and the society it has built, words like "vicious", "oppressive", and "cruel", are true, but they're not what first come to mind. The word that always rushes unbidden into my head is "depressing".
I'm not talking about Mubarak's lack of charisma. That's not the problem. As an analyst on al-Jazeera tartly put it, "Egypt doesn't need a bellydancer". I mean more the odd combination of brutality and bland visionlessness that characterized the regime's modus operandi, of which Mubarak's speech is a fine example. It was full of empty phrases about necessary reforms, vague accusations against foreign interference - this is an old trope in Mubarak's repertoire; any criticism of the government represents 'foreign interests' trying to damage Egypt's reputation and stability - and tone-deaf jargon. It had shockingly little content, considering how long he went on.
Before the protests started, the conventional wisdom on Egypt was that people were too hopeless, tired, and fatalistic to rise up. They had simply lost hope. Hirschkind put it well:
The regime's most brutal act has been its consistent refusal to allow any aspiration for a better life to take root - the aspiration of the law student who knows that he will waste away his life sweeping streets because his family can never afford the bribes required to become an accredited lawyer; the university professor who watches his enthusiasm for teaching evaporate daily as he addresses a class of 3,000 students who worry how they will ever find employment; the father who knows that his son's future is sealed by an injury that could easily be overcome with a simple, inexpensive treatment available in any upscale hospital.
Insofar as Mubarak's regime ever offered a an aspirational vision, a positive image of what kind of country he was trying to build, it was basically about economic development of a particular kind, which we pointy-headed academics like to call 'neoliberal'. He promised an Egypt that was connected to the rest of the world economy, where you could buy international brands, live a global lifestyle. But even that vision was little more than a series of payouts and sweetheart deals for his and his son's friends. For the vast majority of people, there was no effort to include them in the economic gains of the last couple decades, and, unsurprisingly, they got the impression that those global-market dreams were not intended for them. Why aspire to what you can't have?
Mind you, most of the people I knew were sold on the idea of a global lifestyle in a different sense: They were virtually all trying to find a way to emigrate to somewhere else. Egypt had too few opportunities for those without the connections. You could get all the education you wanted, but it didn't matter. The regime was and is fundamentally a machine for distributing goodies to insiders, and disposing of anyone who threatens that arrangement. That's it. All governments resemble protection rackets to a certain degree, but this one was distinguished by how little it provided, materially or otherwise, to its 'clients'.
What I'm saying here is that the regime offered very little for people to identify with, something that at least made people feel that the hardships in their lives were part of a greater goal, or at least that they had a reasonable chance of improving their lot (or their children's lot) if they worked hard. Instead, Mubrark's circle set up a system in which the thing you're supposed to aspire to - a globalized consumer lifestyle - is something that the vast majority of people have no chance to get anywhere near, no matter how hard they work.
The results could only be called depressing. Regime insiders ripped off their own people, beat and disappeared anyone who objected, made incredibly boring speeches full of transparent lies and banalities about 'slow progress' and the need for stability every time they rigged a vote or murdered their own citizens, and for what? So Gamal Mubarak's buddies could have exclusive contracts to distribute widgets? Even their neoliberalism was visionless. It had none of the hubris of some of the Gulf states, or the anything-is-possible entrepreneurial energy of some other emerging economies. It was all just a series of sweetheart deals for kleptocrats. I really believe that the banality, visionlessness, and mediocrity of Mubarak's Egypt ground people down just as much as the more flagrant oppressions.
The corruption was brazen, even ostentatious. There was no avoiding it in your daily life. Omnipresent unfairness, periodic brutality, and no hope it could get better, no other vision except for nostalgia. It all added up to this feeling that nobody was accountable, nobody was looking out for anyone, the social contract had broken down, and there was no way to make it better in any systematic sense. Most people were too busy just trying to make it through the end of the month. I can think of situations more violent, but that are few more dispiriting.
That's why, at least to me, it's a miracle that people came together and demanded something better, even if they're not sure exactly what it is. When I hear interviews with people who say they finally feel like they can accomplish something, I can feel that depressing, stagnant haze I associate with Egyptian politics clear from my mind. I suspect I'm not the only one who feels that way.
Monday, February 7, 2011
It looks like the battle for the Interior Ministry is over, for now, and the ministry held. Protesters were trying to storm it for the last two nights, and the news tells me that a number of them were killed trying. This would be maybe two hundred meters from my apartment.
It's funny how my sense of danger dilated. I have friends in quieter parts of town whose families are terrified for them. "You're in Cairo, right next to the protests!" the discussion went. "Don't worry, mom. I'm in Dokki. All the fighting's practically a mile away". Those same people, though, are in turn worried for me because I live so much closer to the action than them, and I found myself saying even more lamely, "oh, don't worry. All the shooting's a whole two blocks from me. And my apartment faces the opposite direction. And I'm on the seventh floor. I'm fine."
Getting to the building is the only hard part. There are roadblocks everywhere, some run by neighborhood watch, and, once you get onto my street, others by the military. Last night I stayed out too late, and there was no going home. There was active fighting on the block, and they weren't letting anyone near it. I had to go to a friend in a different part of the neighborhood, though he was having his own problems: he lives on the second floor, and before I showed up he had been yelling at a policeman who was beating an unarmed protester right in front of the building. "You are an Egyptian! Why are you doing this?" The cop responded by throwing a rock up onto his balcony, which whacked my friend on the head. He had to go to the hospital, which he said was a disaster area. By the time I got there, my friend was bandaged, sleep-deprived, and already lighting up his hash pipe to try to calm down. He's a glass-blower, by the way. He makes beautiful hash pipes.
After that, I spent an intensely boring evening watching Jazeera and waiting to hear if the fighting had stopped, so I knew when I could go home.
Nobody covered the battle for the Ministry, to my knowledge. Reporters couldn't go near it, nor could I, not if I valued my safety. What I know is that protesters tried to storm it, and tried to convince the army tanks to join the attack. The tanks followed the protesters to the ministry, but didn't participate. They just watched.
The Interior Ministry is one of the most hated parts of the government, home to the universally-loathed police forces. There was some rumor that the cops had all fled, or that their command structure had broken down and it was chaos inside the ministry, but I never knew what to make of it. Whatever the case, that building is a fortress. Even under normal circumstances it's hard to walk near the ministry because of all of its defenses. In a siege, the protesters never had a chance.
I never saw it directly. As I said, my apartment faces the other way. What I saw were the boys attacking from the east with Fanta bottles and eventually molotovs, not the main assault coming from the north, from Bab al-Louq, a square that in quieter times is known among expats primarily as the home of an excellent juice stand and a scummy bar called Horeyya [freedom]. They made it as far as my building, but never farther. They were repelled easily. People in the buildings were not supporting the assault. They seemed angry about the property damage, and blamed the protesters. Little old ladies on upper floors were calling out information and advice to the ministry's defenders. "They're in the alley! They're hiding behind the car!", that sort of thing.
But, it looks like it's pretty much over now. I don't hear stories about them trying again soon; too many casualties, and in any case it loses them the moral high ground of being peaceful protesters. The main action is back at Tahrir, and with the makeshift neighborhood watches that popped up everywhere to prevent looting. This means a quieter night for me, no more gunshots, and no more clouds of teargas wafting past my balcony, no more wondering if anyone is dying on my street right now. But I still wish they'd sacked that evil place.
Even under normal circumstances, Cairo is full of foreign journalists and would-be journalists. It's considered an easy and comfortable place to base out of while covering the Middle East: rent is cheap, winters are gentle, the city's full of other expats, and, until recently, it was supposed to be the most stable place in the region. You could go cover bloody civil conflict in Lebanon, Iraq, or Algeria, and be sure that your favorite scummy expat bar in Cairo was exactly where you left it. The result is that Cairo is crawling with major reporters you may have heard of, stringers you probably haven't heard of, and an uncounted multitude of wannabes who fancy themselves journalists because it sounds better than saying you're bumming around and writing occasionally.
Cairo's surplus of reporters means that I've felt relatively little need to play journalist once protests broke out. If I were someplace more remote, and there was a real lack of people who could get the story out in clear English, I might feel differently. But in Cairo, I'm reasonably sure that insofar as anyone can get any word out, it's being done, and it's being done by people with more experience than me.
But today I was confronted with temptation. I have a colleague from my University who's here in Egypt with me, also researching his dissertation. Unlike me, he has a background writing for journalistic outlets. While we were walking around the Tahrir protests together, he taught me a trick: just carry a pad of paper, and people will come up to you to be interviewed. It will be assumed that you are a journalist, and there will be more than enough people who want to make a comment, often in English. My colleague is collecting interviews for journalistic pieces [several of them now published - ed], and he was encouraging me to be the same, because my knowledge of Arabic could get me access to better stuff than the average reporter.
I didn't have a pad, but I don't look remotely Egyptian, and eventually someone made an educated guess. A man in a skullcap approached me through the crowd, tapped me on the shoulder politely and asked me in English if I was a journalist. I froze and stuttered, before answering lamely in Arabic, "no, I'm not any kind of reporter. But my colleague over there is. I'm sure he'd like to talk to you". The man obligingly went and gave his statement, my friend asked his questions, and we moved on.
Things are moving fast here, and that creates opportunities. Even more so than usual, anyone can be a journalist. It's hard to get pictures of anything without getting your camera confiscated by cops or thugs, but the protesters can still tell their stories to anyone who'll listen. I think, whenever the hell the internet comes back on, there's going to be a flood of stories. I hope especially we start to hear from people outside of Tahrir square, because after all the foreigners with notepads I saw today, the square itself looks very well-covered. It's the areas that are out of sight, areas where the cops will not humor foreigners with notepads, that I worry about.
Sunday, February 6, 2011
In my scholarly life, when I'm not frantically reading the news and worrying about my friends in Egypt, I research the politics behind building up and planning cities, and the use of urban space. This doesn't make me an expert in how to run a revolution, but it does give me a particular way of looking at these things, and a specific piece of advice for the protesters: Don't stay in Tahrir square. Move!
My last post focused on why I thought Egypt's revolution was in danger of failing, and what looked like hope for a new regime might turn out to be pretty much the old status quo, with Omar Suleiman at the top instead of Mubarak, with the US perpetually, but absent-mindedly, saying Serious Things about the need for reform. I said that at this point the opposition's best tool for preventing this was to keep the protests active, dynamic, and - yes - disruptive, or else there would be no pressure for the regime to make concessions. I'm not calling for anarchy and madness here, but as long as there's order and normalcy, the regime has no reason to budge. At present, I think they think the immediate threat to their survival has passed. They need to stop thinking that. So:
Every report I get from Tahrir square is that it's become a sort of impromptu community, a tent city that sings songs, chants, dreams of a better future, and is surrounded on all sides by tanks. I hear stories of harassment by thugs, especially at night, but by and large it looks like the regime is perfectly happy to let the Tahrir protest go on peacefully, at least for now: if it dwindles down to a small core, they may decide that it's worth sending in the thugs. Their goal is to restore order everywhere else, and hope that the international media, and the protesters themselves, get bored. Tahrir is rapidly becoming an enclosed space.
The regime perhaps thinks that in cordoning off Tahrir, they're enacting a kind of quarantine. Keep the Cairo-based opposition isolated in one place, and it's no longer a threat to daily life, stability, and the regime. But enclosed spaces are funny things. They can be prisons, but also nurseries. Things can grow in there - unintended things. A little culture seems to be forming in Tahrir square, or more precisely a spontaneous community of shared experience and hope. I think if they are to stay dynamic and meaningfully pressure the regime, they can't stay put. They have to leave the space where their impromptu community has incubated, and where their presence is tolerated and even (to a degree) protected by army tanks.
I suppose what I'm saying is that a space like Tahrir square may have been a blessing - something inspiring has emerged there, something I didn't believe I'd ever see. But to continue putting pressure on the regime, consider leaving the nest.
Even more straightforwardly: Go someplace you're not supposed to be.
I'm not talking about turning violent here. Just leave Tahrir, and go, non-violently, to someplace the government doesn't want you to be. March peacefully to one of the Presidential palaces, or a major ministry. Assert your ability to go anywhere, on any street. Claim not just one symbolic piece of the city - Tahrir square - but any and all of it. If that were to happen, I think we'd see the regime get worried for its survival again, and very quickly.
They are very likely to lash out, repress, pull every dirty trick in the book, but it's when those tricks come out that governments over-reach, or elements of the army decide they're not going to obey, and protesters win. Look: It's not my life on the line - I'm in a library in Istanbul right now - and I don't want to be glib in telling people in another country to go and face down armed thugs while I watch from a safe distance. But I think there's a real danger of the protests ceasing to be threatening to the regime, and I think the best way to keep up momentum this point is to move to new spaces, and make the government worried, once again, the the revolution cannot be contained, then split, then infiltrated, then broken.
Friday, February 4, 2011
Tuesday, February 1, 2011
Two days ago, right as the protests were getting serious, I was getting to know another PhD student who studies nationalism and midcentury architecture. He was being a good flaneur and taking me around bits of downtown that were pleasantly but eerily deserted thanks to the protests happening no more than a kilometer away. I saw some of his favorite spots, shisha cafes, buildings, urban fragments, odd shop window displays, abandoned cabarets, etc. It was good to stay out of trouble, but I'm not sure if I should be embarrassed that, if something major comes of these protests, I'll literally be able to say that when the revolution started, I was looking at mannequins.
I wrote this late at night/early in the morning, when I had decided to go. I'm not sure it's the most flattering portrait of my thought-processes, but it's honest:
I'm not exactly living through a revolution so much as living next to one. Most of the foreigners I know in Cairo, except the journalists and would-be journalists, are having a similar experience. Ultimately, this is why I'm going to leave Cairo. I don't think I'm in danger, but this isn't my revolution, my family and friends are worrying, and I don't really know what to do with myself here.
The thing that I don't know how to explain over the phone is the mixture of boredom and excitement. In one sense, it's really boring. I spend most of my time glued to al-Jazeera, or cooking to distract myself. Occasionally, I can hear gunfire coming from the Interior Ministry, a couple blocks away, but that's as scary as it gets (pro-tip: when searching for an apartment, consider whether you want to live next to the most hated ministry in the country. Location, location, location). Needless to say, I'm not getting dissertation research done. Libraries aren't open, and for some reason nobody wants to talk about houses...
But there's another sense in which it's really exciting. This feels vain, but it's true. It's intoxicating. All around me, people are coming together with remarkable discipline to bring down a regime whose combination of thuggishness and banality was making me depressed, to say nothing of the people it was actually hurting. It's exciting. I feel like I'm in the realest place in the world.
But it's not actually my revolution. I haven't been protesting or covering it like a journalist, or doing anything else to bask in the reflected glory of Egypt's uprising, to feel like I'm a part of it. It's tempting to join in the protests, but it would feel to me like a case of Lawrence of Arabia syndrome. I'm a nerdy little scholar who often finds life back home boring. Planting myself in someone else's protest to feel like I'm involved in Something would be, I don't know how else to put it, deeply self-indulgent. It's not my country, and if I don't like the new or the old regime, I can leave; the stakes for me are not the same as for Egyptians here.
I don't think I'm the only one, either in Cairo or at a keyboard back in America, who feels the urge to be a part of someone else's revolution because of that thrill. Even if I'm not participating, just being here is exciting. I won't lie and pretend there's no vicarious thrill to this. Bumming around Cairo, hunting for fresh vegetables, hanging out with neighborhood watch guys, speculating about when Mubarak will give up and go away, passing the time with other nervous expats while the streets take on a carnival atmosphere – ok, a carnival with tanks, but still, it's an adventure. I have front row seats for history.
But there are people back home who are worried about me, and the excitement isn't worth the possibility that the phones could go down again and they'd have no way to contact me. I'm a selfish only child, but not that selfish. So I'm going. I hope I can come back soon, under a new and better regime.
From my last night in Cairo, right before I decided to go:
I get the impression that people back home are worried for me. What I've been dying to say is how little danger I'm actually in, and how much this surprises even me. Nobody saw the revolution coming, including me. I'm not on the record saying so, but I should say up front that right until Friday, I still thought the government was going to come down like a ton of bricks on everyone, and eventually it would end.
So take anything I say with some salt, but also please be willing to be surprised. Everyone's expectations were dashed once. Why not twice?
The thing I most want to say to friends and family back home – not Mideast experts, who already have their own opinions, but the ones who are watching this all unfold and trying to figure out what to make of it – is about the things that are not happening. When you hear about a revolution, in the Middle East or elsewhere, some assumptions and images pop automatically to mind. You probably imagine gangs roaming the streets, people using the anarchy to take personal grudges out on each other, or steal some stuff, or beat people up just because they're sixteen and drunk on power. You expect the movement factions to start maneuvering for to turn on each other as soon as the tyrant is gone. You expect scenes out of Hobbes. And around here, you expect people to start targeting Westerners. Introspect a little. Does this resemble the images that pop unbidden into your mind? It's okay. I'm not judging. They pop into my mind too – I grew up in the same media environment as other middle class Americans, after all.
The images fit so naturally together because they're from a script, one that's been developed and elaborated in reportage over decades, in several countries. It's an extremely polished, high-resolution image, backed by decades of examples, tastefully aggregated into a narrative so that details of actual countries and events fall away, and what's left is a sort of higher-amplitude Truth.
But so far it just isn't so. No “death to America”, no-one calling on anyone to hurt foreigners, and nobody actually doing it. There's looting – half of which I still think is being orchestrated by the government to scare people – but people organized neighborhood watches out of nowhere to prevent it. I admit I'm a little creeped out when teenagers with furniture fragments offer to walk me home, but I also have to admit that my neighborhood is quiet and safe.
For a spontaneous movement that, as far as anyone can tell, emerged without any direct effort by any of the organized traditional opposition, everyone has been amazingly unified in their behavior, but also in their message. It's been entirely about Mubarak and his regime, consistently. Not foreigners, nor the country's well-connected rich, though people would have plenty of reasons to be resentful of both. This takes discipline, and it's amazing to watch. Every day, I go out to buy groceries, and yes, I see burned out cars and shop fronts and, especially near the interior ministry, signs of fighting. But I also walk around and try to make myself appreciate the sight of all the things that aren't happening. I go by Tahrir square where the army isn't firing on demonstrators. I walk by foreigners who have no reason to fear, and I greet neighborhood watch boys who have not decided to make themselves into mafiosi. So far, Egypt has not been following the script, and it looks beautiful.
All this can change, I know that. The newness and solidarity can wear off, especially if they actually push Mubarak out and have to start making choices. The movement can fragment and turn on itself, neighborhood watches can decide they like feeling like big men (a colleague of mine, who was with me in Cairo and who probably knows more about Egypt than I do, was much more alarmed by these guys than I was), the oh-so-dreaded Islamists can decide that, representing something like a third of the country, they should be involved in running it and don't appreciate American and European hand-wringing.
But for now, it's peaceful – friendly, even – and against everyone's expectations, a whole lot of people without much formal organization are speaking in an incredibly clear voice: Mubarak's regime has to go. That's it. But just as remarkable are the things they're not saying, and that aren't happening. I try not to kid myself about how dangerous it can get – and how quickly it can all go wrong – but right now I don't feel like I'm living in a war zone. I think I'm going to leave, but not because of the danger [the post on why I left is forthcoming - ed]. I don't know what exactly this is. Nobody does, and I wouldn't presume to tell the Egyptians what it all means - that's their job. But at the very least, I hope the viewers back home put away their scripts recycled from Lebanon, Iran and elsewhere. So far, that just doesn't seem to be the story.
Written right before I left for the airport:
It's amazing to me that despite the fact that the internet blackout here is near-total, people on the news are still asking if this, too, is a Twitter Revolution ™ , leading me to wonder if there's anything talking heads and e-literati do not think is a Twitter Revolution. In the early stages, sure, lots of people were communicating by facebook, but the major action happened after the internet went out. Much of the protesting was organized the old-fashioned way, by word of mouth, and, once service came back on, by phone. I'm not sure if it's an irony, or a straightforward rebuttal to the people who think that technology is an agent rather than a tool, that Egypt, among the most social media-savvy of Arab countries, finally rose up after the internet went dark.
When I heard yesterday that thousands of people had escaped from prison, I didn't believe it at first, nor did I believe initial reports that people were roaming the city vandalizing property. And when I found out that some prisoners had escaped, and people were vandalizing the city, my first response was that the government was behind it all, sending thugs to vandalize and loot in an attempt to discredit the protesters and raise fears of anarchy.
“So you're getting into the conspiracy theory spirit?” a friend said, in response to my doubts.
People look for all sorts of pathologies in Arab Culture ™ to explain conspiracy theories – powerlessness, disconnectedness from reality, obsession with appearances, extreme pride, and every other stereotype in the book. But consider the possibility that people also just have good reason to be skeptical of what they hear. That's been on my mind a lot, for a simple reason: the government lies. All the time. Brazenly. Why should I trust them when they say that thugs are roaming the streets? Why should I believe anything they say whatsoever?
These are the same people who said that every last person who was shot by the police during protests, was a looter. Including the seven year-old. These are the same people who, when cops pulled a twenty eight year-old man out of a cybercafe this summer, and beat him to death, went on to tell the press that the man did not die of being beaten up, but died choking on a bag of weed he was trying to swallow before the cops found it. And they kept saying this after the coroner leaked pictures of his broken body.
That young man, by the way, was named Khaled Said. Before the internet went down, one of the biggest groups organizing the protests was called “we are all Khaled Said”, and it's perfectly true. All Egyptians under the Mubarak regime are, or could at any moment become, Khalid Said. Any Egyptian could be pulled off the street and killed by some cop having a bad day, or because (as was rumored in Said's case) they witnessed policemen committing a crime, or for no reason at all, and they can be sure that the government would lie and lie and lie to cover it up. And that despite the shamelessness and obvious cynicism of the lies, they would almost certainly get away with it. For decades. For those of you, like me, who grew up under gentler circumstances: imagine for a moment what it's like to know, every day, that you could be killed and nothing would happen. Word may not even get out, and even if it did, human rights groups would complain, but it would all be pro-forma, one step in a dance nobody really expects to stop. Think on that, I don't think you'll be surprised by how angry Egyptians are. I think you'll be surprised by how restrained and peaceful their protests are, relative to what they've been put through.
I mean, it's not the worst regime in the world. We're not talking about the wholesale slaughter of dissidents or unpopular minorities. But what they did do was a different kind of galling: it was daily viciousness and venality, the slow-bore grinding down of a people until, everyone thought, they were too tired and scared to do anything about it, all thinly covered by a layer of lies and speeches about 'slow progress', which somehow never seemed to happen.
I'm always amazed that they feel the need to tell these lies. Their response to everything threatening is to just deny reality, and just to be sure, accuse anyone who speaks out against them of being a drug dealer, an Islamist, or both. Even when nobody believes them, the government keeps saying these things, perhaps because it can, perhaps because they're sociopaths, or perhaps because they know that their foreign patrons – the constituency that really matters – will not openly contradict the lies. Doing so, apparently, is too diplomatically thorny. You wouldn't want to destabilize an important ally, the thinking went. So when Khaled Said was murdered, the US knew perfectly well what had really happened, but spoke in the oddly denatured language of diplomacy, about the need for human rights and reform and civil society and so on. The government, in the face of angry protests and lukewarm reproach from the Americans, did what it always does, and what it is still trying to do right now, when by all rights it should be over and Mubarak should be on a plane: They responded with some nice words – not admitting anything, of course – and said that reform was important, steps are being taken, committees are being formed, so go home. Or else the Islamists will take over.
No wonder people are inclined to see a hidden side to any political story: there usually is one. That's the norm with these people. And for the record – I still think the government is behind much of the looting and vandalism. Call me a conspiracy theorist if you're so inclined. Why would I not assume the worst of these monsters?
The kids throwing molotovs at the interior ministry guards were chanting slogans about freedom, and the unity of the Egyptian people. I think there's a script people follow, partially from movies, partially from the news, when they stand up to a government. They strike poses like you see in the movies, chant defiant slogans, speak in a certain prescribed tone. This isn't just aping or mimicry – the whole point of these archetypes is that it lets you call up images of past action and invoke something greater than yourself. It makes you brave and it gives you an idea of what role you're stepping into.
But there's stuff the scripts leave out. The kids weren't just shouting 'down with the regime'. They were also shouting obscenities, mean ones. Like, “your mom's pussy”. I'll love them forever for that, because it was so honest, and because otherwise I might have thought I wasn't at a real event at all, but rather in some surrealist production of Les Miserables.
Nobody has, to my knowledge, named this uprising after a color or a plant. No cedar or green or jasmine here, so far. I find something glib about jumping to name revolutions like that, to weave them into a story that they may not rightfully be a part of. It's basically branding, this string of color revolutions, and setting up your revolution as a franchise in that brand conjures up exactly the same advantages and drawbacks of branding. It makes a movement more legible and recognizable, but also ties it to a brand identity that may not suit the, err, product.
So far, the revolution – if I may call it that – has shown an incredible lack of branding. I can't think of any particular colors that have dominated the palette at Tahrir square – save for the Egyptian flag. The slogans are straightforward, “down with the regime,”, “down with Mubarak,” “the people and the army are one hand”, and so on. It hasn't been particularly secular, particularly leftist, particularly Islamist, or particularly anything. These things can change, of course, along ideological and sectarian and other lines, but right now, the protesters are inspiringly, incredibly, united. They always refer to themselves simply as “the Egyptian people”.
So what should that be called? My friends and I used to joke about what the revolution here would be called: perhaps the Lotus Revolution or the Papyrus Revolution, a reference to the two flowers associated with ancient Egypt. Although: the lotus seems like a drug reference, and 'papyrus revolution' sounds awkward. And anyway, people spend far too much time thinking about ancient Egypt, and seem to think of actual Egyptians as inconvenient. I'd hate to perpetuate that. Someone suggested the Koshary Revolution, after Egypt's ubiquitous starchy comfort food, but that that just makes me want to put down my bullhorn and get some koshary. Maybe the Brown Revolution, since Cairo's color palette is dominated by browns and faded yellows, sandstone and concrete and dust and smog. Accurate, but not very inspiring.
As of this writing, it looks like the revolution still has no name. No jasmine petals, no cedar boxes, no rainbow colors for Egypt. So, for lack of access to flashy international brands and color-schemes, I have a humble suggestion for what to call it: the Egyptian Revolution.