Sunday, February 13, 2011

Go Gently

When Ben Ali fell, I heard arguments calling for him to be refused safe haven in other countries, and that he should be dragged before the Hague, or maybe a Tunisian court, and tried for his crimes. Now I'm hearing similar things said about Mubarak.

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.


Mubarak is actually gone. I have to admit that right until it happened, I was sure that he wouldn't. My theory, which may still not be that far from the truth, was that he was trying to write and star in his own little Greek tragedy. I thought he was too stubborn, or proud, or delusional to step down, and that the endgame was that he would hold on until things had gotten so bad that it effectively forced someone in the military to assassinate him. I have this feeling, one I can never prove, that he had an image of himself as an embattled and misunderstood man who would never compromise a in matters of his dignity, and the thought of an assassin's bullet actually appealed to him as an honorable way out. Rather than stepping down in disgrace, he would get to say that he held to his principles, such as they were, until the very end.

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

Nothing to Believe In

I just saw Mubarak/Mubarnacle's non-resignation speech, in English and then Arabic, to make sure it wasn't suffering from a bad translation. It wasn't. The speech was exasperating, shocking, and, not least, profoundly boring.

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

The Interior Ministry

[From January 30th. I think this is the last of what I had written down, aside from some scribblings that never went anywhere. That said, I'm going to keep posting, new stuff that I'm writing as we speak, until I run out of things to say. So, please do keep reading]

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.

So you want to be a journalist

[From January 29th]

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

Out of the Cradle, Now!

[Another post written today]

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.

Slow is the Enemy

[This is not something that I wrote in Egypt. It is something I wrote right now, from Istanbul, watching the news coverage with increasing frustration and panic]

If what I'm seeing in the news continues on its current course, the Egyptian revolution is about to fail. I don't have words for how obscene it would be, after Egyptians finally rose up and demanded something better, after several hundred of them died trying, for a military-backed thug like Mubarak to be replaced by... another military-backed thug. But that seems to be what is happening, and for those of you from the US or Europe's great powers, your governments aren't just standing idly by and letting it happen. They're actively contributing.

What I think is happening is this: the 'orderly transition' that Hillary Clinton has been talking of seems to consist of having Omar Suleiman, Egypt's former spymaster and current Vice President, manage Mubarak's exit from politics (probably waiting until the promised date in September, or maybe even making up a reason for it to happen later, or not at all until the old man finally dies). Supposedly, there's going to be negotiation with the opposition, and a broad-based coalition for a raft of legal, political and economic reforms, over the course of months, to usher in a new Egyptian regime.

It sounds good, but I don't think that that's what's actually happening. What seems far more likely is that we are going to wind up with the same military regime we always had, maybe with a new face at its head, and they'll quietly never get around to making those reforms. The negotiations will never go anywhere - they'll bog down, and America will let them bog down, for fears about stability - and we'll be basically at the status quo, except that a lot of opposition activists are going to be silenced, horribly, as soon as the world stops paying attention. The first alarm bell for me came when the diplomats, most of all Clinton, started speaking in that weird denatured, content-less language about the transition being carried out in an "orderly, deliberate way", and so on. It's all talk about process, but there's no specifics whatsoever. It sounds exactly like what the US government has been saying about Egypt for as long as I have been alive. Meanwhile, the Egyptian government is telling citizens to go back to their normal lives, banks are opening back up, police are supposedly being released back onto the street, all co-ordinated to restore as much of a feeling of normalcy as possible.

But what, aside from a state of crisis, would actually pressure the government to negotiate in good faith with the opposition and actually begin reforming the political system? I have access to zero evidence, currently, that the military is interested in giving up any control whatsoever, or that the US is anything other than in favor of keeping the current system intact, though they hope that they can use this crisis to pressure it to open up somewhat more. As of this writing, representatives of the Muslim Brotherhood are apparently going to meet with Omar Suleiman sometime today, so perhaps we'll know more soon about how serious these negotiations are.

Personally, I think the strategy is this: Move slowly. Move as slowly as possible, to diminish momentum, and so that the international media gets bored, moves on to something else, and relieves most of the pressure. Then, negotiate, slowly, with the elements of the opposition that the government chooses, and use a mix of repression and tolerance to break the protest movement. Keep it confined to Tahrir square, restore normalcy elsewhere, and don't do anything so flagrantly violent - like opening fire indiscriminately - to attract global attention and sympathy. Instead, quietly harass protesters with hard-to-confirm small-scale thuggery, arrest them here and there, and let the people in Tahrir get frustrated by the lack of progress until they dwindle down to a smaller core of activists. try to divide the opposition by dealing with some elements (the ones who will get forever bogged down in bad-faith negotiations) while labeling the remainder dangerous Islamist radicals. Thus isolated, they can then be repressed brutally.

It doesn't have to be this bleak. As Larry Diamond pointed out, lots of transitions to democracy have happened despite the men at the top being autocrats and con-men who acted in bad faith. Representatives of the opposition can still fight for an inclusive coalition to negotiate for a re-engineering of the system, but they can't do so from a position of powerlessness. They need something to convince the old order, or at least a faction of it, that something bad will happen if the rules are not actually re-written. I frankly don't believe that that something will be American pressure. The Americans seem terrified of the current regime falling apart, and it can be safely assumed that they'll keep bolstering it and hoping it can reform in an orderly (read: stable, with no danger of Islamists coming anywhere near the levers of power) way.

As long as there were protests all over the country, that something was the fact that the country was in a state of shut-down. Given that the military has not fragmented, and that the people at the top seem to have shown no signs of splintering (it is often internal fissures in the face of pressure that cause a regime to fall apart and force them to make broad concessions, or collapse entirely), street protests seem to be the sole source of leverage the opposition has. To the extent they diminish, I think it's more likely that my most pessimistic predictions will come true. To the extent that the protests continue, and to the extent that they keep life from returning to normal, the opposition has more leverage to get real concessions, doubly so if, as often happens, the government tries too brutally to contain them, or doesn't contain them well enough, and regime elements may panic and splinter. This is why I look at reports from Tahrir square, and hope against hope that they keep protesting and keep pushing. Do not let things slow down, and do not let the world's attention wander. They are the opposition's best leverage, and a lot is riding on them.

I have a more specific thing to say about how this might be done, but I think that's for another post.

Friday, February 4, 2011

Thug Life

This is one of the first things I wrote on Friday afternoon, when the internet had been out for about 12 hours:

It took me about thirty seconds to realize that the men in vans were the famous baltagiya, whose best translation would be 'thugs', or 'gangsters'. Leading up to the protests, I saw vans parked in side-streets. They were full of young men in plain clothes, sitting and staring, not talking to each other, not doing anything, just waiting. When given the word, these young men were ready to come out of the vans and beat, intimidate, vandalize, and do whatever was asked of them, while providing the government with a smokescreen of plausible deniability.

They never threatened me, those men in vans, or even seemed to notice I was there, but the sight of them silently waiting was the most ominous and chilling thing I saw, scarier than the actual clashes now going on down my street. There they were, right there in the open. The government wasn't even trying to pretend it didn't employ these people, though I'm sure that they're releasing public statements that the thugs are just concerned citizens. But if you so much as walk down any street, you could see what was really happening, and how brazen it was.

The men looked bored. Some of them were napping, a few munching on pumpkin or sunflower seeds. If I didn't know what those men were for, the sight would be quaint, like whenever I walk late at night and the streets are dotted with ministry guards who have fallen asleep. But I know what the baltagiya represent, and I think seeing them in repose, in a moment of quiet preparation, is going to give me bad dreams.

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

The Inevitable Political Speculation Post

From January 29:

I spend an incredible amount of my time and mental bandwidth speculating, obsessively, about what's happening and what's going to happen politically. I watch al-Jazeera, English and Arabic, switching to other networks when the coverage gets repetitive. And I ponder. And ruminate. And stress. And puzzle. If there were a pie chart of how I spent my time, I think the largest slice would be taken up by "wondering what the hell the big politicos, Mubarak and Obama and so on, are thinking". The next biggest slice would be sleeping.

There are lots of living rooms like mine in Egypt, with people pacing around trying to guess at a puzzle they don't have all the pieces for. Why hasn't Mubarak stepped down? What's his strategy here? What's going on, and when will we know already, so this waiting game will stop? By all rights, the president should be on a plane by now, or in the Hague. What does it take to get rid of this guy? The man is clinging to power like a barnacle. In fact, for the rest of this entry, I'm going to call him Mubarnacle.

The best way I know how to phrase the question that's been echoing around my head is this: what would actually force Mubarnacle to step down in a situation like this?

It's not clear. I mean, people can protest and make an amazing show of presence and unity, as they have. But so what? That doesn't directly force anyone to do anything. It creates pressure, but that's not the same as force. So what would have to happen to get rid of Mubarnacle? I'm at least theoretically a political scientist, and people have written on this question. It's far from my area of expertise, but my understanding is that if the president has the backing of his coalition and the army, with no major players defecting, he can hold on for a long time.

Everyone else is speculating, so my speculation is this: I remember on Friday night, Mubarnacle was supposed to give a speech, but it kept getting delayed. In the end, he didn't speak until after the army had secured Cairo and Alexandria. Only then did he give that mustache-twirling "I'm not going anywhere" speech. So my interpretation is that he is reasonably confident that the army is behind him, and once the army had secured the streets, what he wants to do is let people protest, buy himself time to maneuver, and hope that, if people go to Tahrir square for days on end and nothing happens, the army lets them be but doesn't turn on the regime, eventually they'll lose their enthusiasm. It's not a great strategy, but it's probably the best one he has. And at at least as of when he's writing this, it's working. Nobody seems to be forcing him to step down; no coup is forthcoming. The protesters don't seem to be losing their enthusiasm - they really, really hate this guy, and everyone tells me they've gone past the point where they can back down - but I guess the hope is that with time they can be infiltrated and broken, or will have to go back to work.

So if I'm right, the protesters need to peel people away from Mubarnacle's coalition, convince some of those powerful higher-ups, the ones in backrooms having conversations I'd kill to hear, that it's no longer in their best interests to keep the current president around. I think the best way the protesters can do that is to keep the country in a state of shut-down. Keep protesting, keep the country closed for business, and hope that someone with the power to do so finally decides that Egypt will implode if some normalcy isn't restored, and scrape Mubarnacle off of Egypt's keel. The idea is to make keeping him around more costly than ditching him - keeping in mind that a lot of these people know the president personally, and may be inclined to back him for reasons of familiarity and old ties as much as cold interest.

It'll be a hard thing. It will require constant presence in the streets, a laser-focused message that doesn't waver in the face of the many smokescreens Mubarnacle will use, and, likely, real hardship, since it will require keeping the country shut down, maybe for a while. There are a lot of poor people in Egypt, and it could be harder on them in the short term than on the regime. And even after all that, if it works, there's a good chance the military, which will almost certainly have been involved in finally pushing Mubarnacle off stage, will try to put in someone who's 'one of them', as Mubarnacle was. Whether that succeeds is anyone's guess - there are a lot of ifs, and thinking it through will have to come another day.

This is a very internal-dynamics way of looking at things, which I guess is my bias. Notably absent from all this is international pressure. It's not that I think international pressure is useless. I just don't think much of it is coming in this particular case. Maybe some backroom wrangling, I don't know, but I just don't think that the Americans or Europeans are going to apply enough pressure to meaningfully alter anyone's interests or behavior. They're playing it careful, which is nice in that they'll probably be able to deal on good terms with whoever comes out on top, but I think that those people who want the US to take the lead are going to be disappointed.

So, for what it's worth, I hope people keep protesting and don't give an inch until Mubarnacle's gone and they are able to take part in constituting the new government. Because if my speculation is right, it probably is their best shot to avoid staying stuck with Mubarnacle, or, possibly more disappointingly, another military-picked establishment strongman.

[Note: there are still a few more of these, but I'm to bed for the night - ed]

[And I see that these speculations are already wrong. Mubarnacle didn't just wait them out. He sent thugs in and is trying to end this with violence. The good news is that this means he's probably desperate. But the bad news is, well, he's willing to smash his own country rather than step down. Here's hoping he goes away soon - ed]

Pedaling While Rome Burns

From January 30:

Against all odds, the gym is open today. A while back, I got sick of the AUC Falaki gym's irregular hours, so I joined the gym at one of the hotels in Garden City. Even in the best of times, it's a little deserted. It's one of my favorite parts of the daily ritual, walking past the security guards at the hotel, through the overdecorated cafe with ladies eating cake, up to the empty gym, which is improbably decorated with mashrabiyas and orientalist arches. It's meditative, except when the gym staff get bored and antsy and interrupt my workout to chat.

Going to the gym probably wasn't a good idea: Garden City is an un-navigable mess of checkpoints and closed roads under normal circumstances, thanks to all the embassies. Today it was a catastrophe, but I was just so restless after sitting around doing nothing. Besides, it gave me an excuse to walk by Tahrir Square. People there are still festive and friendly. Things get heated after curfew falls, but by day it's been laid-back, full of people running errands before the sun sets, and taking pictures of burned out cars (there's one car, I can't figure out if it was destroyed during the protests, or it always looked beaten and gutted. You never know in Cairo). Tanks are tagged with slogans, and of course there's debris everywhere. I never did like Hardees, but I still don't think it deserved to be smashed and burned. The McDonald's is in similar shape but Cilantro, the aggravating and uncomfortably air-conditioned Starbucks knock0ff, looks fine. It's hard to tell, though: the metal outer door is pulled down. The scene behind it might be ugly.

The lights were off in the hotel, and at first I didn't think I could even get in, but sure enough, the doors were open, the security guards were as pro-forma as ever, the power was on, the machines were running, and there was the gym attendant, bored and lifting weights and watching music videos. He told me he was glad to see me, and was at pains to reassure me that the Egyptian people like Americans very much, that we're very good people. Normally I don't know how to respond to stuff like that - it's a common thing I hear, by the way - but today I appreciated the attempt to reassure me.

The workout felt fantastic. Not only for its physical effects, but for the re-establishment of routine. I put clothes into my usual locker, got onto the same bike I always use, lifted the same weights, and showered in my usual stall. The shower in my apartment is temperamental, often scalding or freezing, so I always like a good shower at the gym. I scurried home so as not to get caught in any clashes, and I felt restored. It's a privilege to be able to do these things, so I'd best enjoy it.

Window shopping

From Thursday the 27th. This went into one of the last emails I sent out before the internet went down. Someone suggested I put it up because it's related to the last post, so I am:

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.

The anti-Lawrence

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.

The things that aren't happening are just as important as the things that are

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.

Hearth and Home

From January 30:

I hear rumors of impending food and water shortages, but right now, I've never eaten so well. For better or for worse, this is not my revolution [about which more in a forthcoming post - ed], so I'm not out all night with the protesters. Nor am I a proper journalist. So basically, I don't have a lot to do. I've been cooking these incredibly elaborate meals, just to pass the time. I've been substituting cooking steps unnecessarily just because they're more time consuming. Tonight was a ginger-scallion-carrot-spicy sausage thing, easy to execute but involving lots of chopping and grinding, very sensual. I got the balance of spices just right, and the apartment smells wonderful. Drove that burned-tire smell right out.

I wish I could share these dishes with my friends, but I live on one of the most guarded streets in Cairo. I don't know they could make it to the building after dark, and I wouldn't want to ask. A pity - I don't think this dish will do well as leftovers.

The Egyptian Revolution, not the Twitter Revolution

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.

I (Don't) Want to Believe

From January 30th:

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?

Deck Chairs and Airline Seats

When Mubarak appointed Shafiq, the former aviation head, as prime minister, I wanted to throw something at the TV, because the cabinet reshuffling was such an insulting non-sequitur. It's like a CEO dealing with a shareholder complaints by firing his masseuse. But what I really wanted to say was this:

What a good idea, appointing the former aviation head as PM! Mubarak's going to need a plane soon. Maybe Shafiq can help him with that.


From the 29th, when kids were throwing Fanta bottles, then eventually molotovs, at the cops guarding the Interior ministry right outside my window:

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.

The Colorless Revolution

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.