Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Patsy Cline is a Menace to Public Order

Cairo is still under a midnight curfew, and while I'm told that in many parts of the city it's observed halfheartedly if at all, my neighborhood, downtown, with its sensitive government buildings and proximity to Tahrir square, takes it relatively seriously. My particular block is so close to the interior ministry that it has a permanent checkpoint set up, and I have to show my passport to be allowed in late at night. Once, on a particularly tense night before the Tahrir sit-in was broken up, I couldn't get in at all and had to stay with a friend for the night. People do still wander the streets after midnight, but virtually all businesses shut down promptly – only a few brave, or enterprising, corner stores stay open.

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.

Friendly Neighborhood APC

The tanks on my street are starting to blend into the background, and that sense of normalcy worries me. I still see kids and teenagers climbing onto them to take souvenir pictures, but less frequently than when I got back to Cairo a few weeks ago. The novelty is wearing off. I know that it's been just over a month since Mubarak left, and that on the scale of revolutions (or whatever this is), that's not a long time. But we're effectively under martial law, and I don't like the notion that everyone's getting used to it.

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.

The Colorless, Umm, Something

Egypt is yesterday's news. Even the transnational Arab press is more interested in Bahrain, Yemen, Libya and so on. It's a useful reminder that international attention is fickle. I'm frustrated, because I care about Egypt and what becomes of it, but I'm not especially outraged – what's happening in Egypt right now is hard to frame as a gripping, nailbiting story that can dominate a news cycle in the same way as, say, Japan. I like criticizing media shallowness as much as anyone, but as a practical matter I simply take it as a basic rule of the game that most people will only pay fitful attention to things happening thousands of miles away, and the world will probably lose interest in any given struggle before that struggle is over. Activists and writers and so on have to deal with that, for better or worse.

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.