Tuesday, February 1, 2011

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.

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