Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Update on Tahrir Clashes

Sabah al-eshtebaakaat! Good morning of the clashes!

My classes have been cancelled for the day, since clashes between protesters and the police are still going on, and their focal point is right outside the gate to the American University of Cairo, where I take classes.  Last night, Egyptians came out throwing rocks and chanting anti-police slogans - numbers are hard to peg, but I'd say they probably got to 3000, although no more than 4-5000.  As morning crept in, protesters slugged home, leave perhaps a few hundred in the corner of the square by AUC.  There seems to be a sort of a stalemate at the moment, with protesters unable to do more than hurl sidewalk tiles, and the police defending the Ministry of the Interior, but not advancing.  They police have been given orders by the SCAF (Supreme Council of the Armed Forces) to stop, so perhaps that explains their halt, or they just don't have the manpower to take all of Tahrir.  Either way, that is where things stand as of this morning, with clouds of tear gas billowing around Tahrir as the rest of Cairo goes on its daily hustle & bustle.

I gathered some of this from my friend Chris, who bravely/foolishly went to Tahrir this morning, as well as Twitter (#Tahrir) and some other bloggers.  Part of me - the part that painted peace signs and bussed down to DC to protest the invasion of Iraq and did cartwheels in front of Westover Air Force Base - is dying to go down there, just to be witness.  The revolutionary spirit gives me the jitters, raises the hair on my arms, brings tears to my eyes.  I want Egypt to succeed so badly, to flourish into whatever peaceful and providing country Egyptians want it to be.  But I know it is not my fight, and I know I would not feel safe or comfortable being there right now - Chris said he got some critical looks, perhaps as a result of all the expired tear gas canisters with "Made in the USA" written on them.  Plus I want to respect the wishes of my friends and family to stay away.

Power to the people, yes, but I don't see the utility in these spontaneous clashes, in and of themselves, since no unified message is being broadcasted and violence is reigning.  I see the reasons behind them: people angry about the martyrs' postponed trials, frustrated with SCAF's lack of progress or transparency and their crackdown on dissenters, and fearful of the revolution and the constitution being hijacked.  Their value will be apparent in coming weeks, I hope, in re-rallying the populace to make noise about the stagnation.  Those extremely active in the hopping Egyptian left and those doing the most rabble-rousing are a small segment of Egypt's 80 million.  I hope these protests serve to mobilize other Egyptians to come out to protests July 8th in Tahrir and around the country and keep the pressure on SCAF, politicians from the old system, and nascent political representatives, too.

I would just like to emphasize that Cairo is huge, and in my neighborhood, life continues without sign of police or tear gas.  My program will likely air on the side of caution, so I don't expect to be in Tahrir any time soon.  I am being careful.  Check out the links I've included here: I would read them over any Western sources any day!

Keep Egypt in your thoughts,


Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Tahrir Round 2

It's 2am, but Egyptians won't let me sleep.  My eyes are tired, but all this information being thrown at me won't let my brain and heart shut down.  I think the second wave of the revolution is here.  Protests have been happening at the sites of various trials that are attempting to hold accountable those responsible for the death of hundreds of protesters/martyrs during the days of the revolution.  Many of the trials keep getting postponed, why I do not know, but it is infuriating to their families and the millions of Egyptians who want justice.  It seems to me that protests erupted at these sites throughout the day and little by little have spread back to the home of freedom, Midan Tahrir.  Since the late hours of June 28th, protesters have been clashing with the Central Security Forces (CSF), aka the police.  This includes lots of tear gas being thrown, lights partially out in the square, and rocks being thrown.  The various Tweeters and live feeds I'm looking at guestimate a couple-few thousand in the square, so although more people could be drawn to it, it seems likely it will be dispersed by morning.  Interesting that it is exactly 5 months to the day after one of the most violent days of the revolution, January 28th, known as the day of rage.  This Friday, July 1st, there has been a call for Salafi Muslims to protest for the imposition of Sharia law - there will now undoubtedly be large counterprotests.  Next Friday, July 8th, a large swath of activists from different parties under the banner of the Freedom Front for Peaceful Change (FFPC) have called for a million-man march to reclaim the spirit of the revolution and all the demands it called for.  Among those are calls for the fundamental human rights that have been lacking for so long in Egypt as well as the writing of the constitution first before elections.  Could this be the surge that reclaims the revolution?  It's too early to tell, but there is certainly a tense feeling to the air, as all wait with breaths held for the next uprising and transformation...

I am fine, in my apartment relatively far from Tahrir.  But my classes are right on the square, so I am assuming I will hear from my program in the morning as to whether or not classes will be held.  Thought I would share this exciting news with you all.  Check here for more random videos of tonight's clashes.

Thoughts & hearts with Egypt!!


Thursday, June 23, 2011

Spirit of the Revolution

The wind swept the summer away as I stepped off the train, whisking me to what felt like springtime.  I was undoubtedly in Alexandria, the pearl of the Mediterranean and my true Egyptian love, having narrowly escaped Cairo’s zahma wa dawsha (congestion & noise).  Don’t get me wrong, Cairo is growing on me by the day with its disorderly streets spanning millennia and its somewhat cooled evenings brimming with cultural events.  But Alexandria will always hold a place in my heart: maybe I fell too easily for my first abroad experience or the flawless sunsets over the Mediterranean, or maybe she just wooed me with her silent charm.  Alex may seem to wane in Cairo’s shadow, but she just warrants a second look, and then her distinctive beauty becomes clear.

After visiting our favorite juice stand and sucking up the textured sugar with glee, my friends and I made our way out toward the Corniche, the deadly road running along the heavenly ocean.  As the street fell away behind us, I felt like we were nearing paradise, and the view only affirmed this.  We strolled silently along the Mediterranean’s curves, and I felt at ease in the company of the ocean’s strength, a sentiment cultivated in summers in Puerto Rico.  We arrived at Silsila Cafe, an old seashore haunt of our semester abroad, and settled in to drink mint tea and talk revolution with our Egyptian friend Mohammad Wahaba.

Wahaba told us how different the revolution had been in Alexandria.  Mainly, there is no central square in Alex like Cairo’s Midan Tahrir, which can easily fit a million people, so protestors resorted to winding through the streets chanting their demands, zig-zagging every now and then to avoid police blockades.  Activist organized sit-ins, different marches coordinated in order to meet and reignite the energy, and bystanders were encouraged to join.  Since then, activists continue to organize around certain causes and events; this article chronicles the weeks immediately following Mubarak’s fall, when the West thought the revolution was over, but it was really just getting started.  When I asked Wahaba, a sharp and educated young doctor, about his take on the upcoming elections, I was struck by his optimism that there would be little violence or protests during the elections and that they would be fair and their outcome positive for Egypt.  It was evident that he recognized democracy’s learning curve and was thus not expecting immediate change.

Later that evening, I reunited with one of my professors, Heba, a powerhouse Coptic woman who heads up the English department at Alexandria University.  With her loving and enunciating voice slipping between English and Arabic (and even a bit of French), she described to me the way in which Egyptians, not Muslims or Christians, came together during the height of the uprising.  For at least five days, there were no police in Alex, and Heba beamed as she proudly told me how youth protected their neighborhoods from any looters.  As we looked out over the Alexandrian harbor twinkling in the cool night, her patriotism was infectious, and I wished more than ever I had been in Egypt (and Egyptian!) during that time.

My gracious Egyptian friend Asmaa hosted my roommate and I that evening, and she, too, had tales to tell of the tumultuous days of the January 25th movement (in addition to stories about having just gotten engaged!)  She is doing her residency at one of the hospitals in the city, and she regaled us with horror stories of people coming in with injured comrades and fighting one another for access to the hospital, and even threatening doctors.  For her, the resounding sentiment was fear and apprehension, although when she spoke to of us of her country’s future, her tone eased and I could hear the hope filtering through.

I share with you these vignettes of my trip not only to highlight how great it was to rekindle my romance with Alexandria, but to introduce you to Egyptians.  This week in class we used the theme “The Egyptian Personality” to explore vocabulary and expressions and culture.  Many of the articles we read pointed to the patience and faith Egyptians possess, and these were on colorful display in Alexandria this weekend.  Egyptians understand that democracy is a process that does not just appear on your doorstep overnight, that it must be worked for.  I have asked many an Egyptian which candidate or party platform they support and though their nuanced political answers often seem daunting, they’ll usually end with, “But that’s democracy!”  It is this patient spirit, sabr, that is so noteworthy in Egyptians’ attitude toward their ongoing revolution.  It is this unwavering faith in their nation that leaves me so impressed.  On the other hand, it seems to me that there is a fine line between patience and apathy.  When does waiting become lackadaisical?  I think, that after this massive shaking of Egyptian society, I need not fear that things will revert to the political indifference of the Mubarak era.  I will borrow some of the hope that Egyptians plow through their every day with.

In other news, my istikshaaf (exploration) of Cairo continues with vigor!  I had the most fun this week grocery shopping, believe it or not.  In Egypt, this includes visiting the man who sells spices and dried goods out of drawers in his nook of a store, the veggie market in Wust al-Balad (downtown), the fruit stand across the street, the butcher, and the normal grocery store.  It’s great for building vocabulary, and it’s lovely chatting with Egyptians, who are thrilled to welcome me to their country.  I also paid a visit this week to Mohammad Ali’s citadel, whose Ottoman style minarets dominate the city’s skyline, where some CASA fellows and I enjoyed an outdoor concert.  Check out this video of Nassir Shamm, the famous Iraqi ‘oud player whose music took me across Arabia all the way to Papi playing his guitarra in the living room.  I have also recently hung out with mummies, read 120 pages of Arabic in 2 days, and had impromptu meetings with Iraqi politicians and businessmen!

Upcoming posts will focus on the challenges of the parliamentary and presidential elections this fall, as well as the role of art in realizing the Egyptian peoples’ revolution.  Love to you all!!


Friday, June 10, 2011

First Words from Egypt

Greetings from Um a-Duniyya, the mother of the world, as they call this gracefully chaotic city.  It feels like almost an eternity that I’ve been here in Cairo; I don’t know if that has to do with already having been here, the ancientness of the city, or the mere amount of stimulation I’ve absorbed in 9 days.  Whatever the case, there is much to share.

“I’m surrounded by concrete slabs, windows and porches etched into them.  Blankets and hijabs wave at me from neighboring balconies, and way off in the southeast distance, my eyes barely make out the pyramids, standing silent watch.  Two crows caw at one another across the way, while the streets below them beep and hiss and haggle.”
This is Doqqi, a neighborhood across the Nile from downtown Cairo where I live.  It is thankfully dotted with shade-lending trees that provide an imaginary respite from the choking car fumes that the city is rank with.  Negotiating our apartment and signing the contract was an amusing and relatively painless ordeal that introduced us to a gruff broker and his bigmouth wife, who now regularly pops by to bring us curtains and drink tea.  My two Tufts roommates and I have a balcony from which you can dimly make out the pyramids’ in the distance, and on which we have already enjoyed dominos and cards with friends.  Our entire apartment is incredibly gaudy; the headboard to my bed is extravagantly and absurdly wonderful.  I have meandered the neighborhood some, encountering a number of produce stands, kufta and other meat sandwich shops, as well as the Yemeni and Bulgarian embassies.  It seems to be a middle class neighborhood with a little bit of everything.

My first 10 days seem to have both flown and crawled.  The sweltering days are quickly filled here, but I also feel I have been giving my body - lungs and mind, legs and heart - time to adjust to this journey.  I have certainly been seizing the day: I have seen two of my close Egyptian friends from Alexandria, met my classmates at various rooftop bars and hole in the wall eateries, seen two movies in Spanish with Arabic subtitles (culture meshing!), and have walked all over the city looking up and down and all around and talking to anyone I can.  My to do/see list is endless, as this city is a culture hub; I plan on doing Islamic and Coptic Cairo, going to a Libyan festival at al-Azhar park, visiting many museums and galleries, and going salsa-ing.  But I have a whole year here, so I am not rushing to see this and that.  Time is the friend of simplicity, calmness, and peace, all forces I want to guide my life, particularly in a city as overwhelming as this one.

I have started classes with CASA, the Center for Arabic Study Abroad, which is housed at the American University at Cairo (AUC), right in Tahrir Square.  Our facilities are very nice, and on top of that, we have access to their swank and modern campus, although it is an hour outside of the city.  My peers seem nice enough, and many of them at higher Arabic levels, so that has been daunting when it comes to vocabulary in Fus-Ha, or the Modern Standard Arabic classes we take.  Our only other class for the summer semester is Amiyya Masriyya, Egyptian Colloquial.  Our teachers seem top-rate, as do the language materials, and this academic year will undoubtedly challenge my Arabic skills.

I know, I know, you all just really want to hear about the revolution.  Are things different?  What do Egyptians want?  Was the revolution successful?  These thoughts consume me daily, and I am trying to gobble up as much as I can about the situation here.  The streets and their faces don’t necessarily reveal the fact that a massive political change just shook the country, but there is a hopeful atmosphere about that I can’t really describe.  I went to a conference at AUC last weekend entitled “From Tahrir: Revolution or Democratic Transition?”, where Egyptians and foreigners alike discussed topics such as the vibrant youth movements and the role of the judiciary in the “New Egypt”.  From that, my perusing of numerous Egyptian blogs, and my conversations with Egyptians, I have gathered the following:

1.) The revolution has only just begun.  Although its most symbolic success to date was obviously the fall of Mubarak, his demise does not mean Egypt is now free of oppression.  Many of the activists and average citizens involved in the January 25th movement fear that their revolution will be hijacked by the military (its Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, SCAF, is running the country) or by status quo political powers still lurking, such as the Muslim Brotherhood and Mubarak’s old party, the National Democratic Party (NDP). So there is still an old and faulty system to overthrow, and then there is so much to build!
2.) Yes, the revolution will be tweeted/blogged/Facebooked, but the forces of the internet were not and are not causal in the revolution.  I was really frustrated back when the revolution was first blossoming by everyone’s claims that this political change was because of Twitter and Facebook.  No.  These internet sites were merely tools used by activists, but the demands and actions were concrete and acted upon by real people.  In fact, for much of the revolution, there was a telecommunications shutdown that prevented the use of Facebook, Twitter, etc.  Many of the protestors instead tuned into Al Jazeera to find out where their fellow countrymen had been staging protests and to know where to go the next day.  Additionally, many of the labor strikes that have been going on for years now are led by folks without access to the cyber community.
3.) This didn’t come out of nowhere.  Although the west was blind to the grassroots activism that had been taking place for years before the Arab Spring, it was undoubtedly laying the foundations for this sweeping transformation.  Its roots are found outside of formal institutions, in Kefaya, the April 6th youth movement, and the We Are Khalid Said movement.  Kefaya (meaning “enough”) was formed around the time of the second Palestinian Intifada in 2000, and it subsequently staged actions to oppose the U.S. invasion of Iraq and then in 2005 around parliamentary elections.  In 2008, activists formed the April 6th movement and called for labor strikes nationwide.  In summer of 2010, two plainclothes policemen brutally murdered a young Alexandrian named Khalid Said, setting off a series of protests focused on police abuse, long rampant under Mubarak.
4.) The above descriptions of Egypt’s activists lead me to realize that there is true activism happening here.  Much of it is tied to labor.  I have walked by a couple strikes at the subway station at Tahrir Square, where I take classes, and others happen daily in factories, the airport, and government.  Protests are called for almost every Friday in Tahrir, and although they are too small, they are important because they keep SCAF on its toes and provide a necessary forum for Egyptians to gather and share their latest political musings. 

Some of the issues Egyptians are concerned with are:
1.) A-Dastour awlan, ow al-entekhabat?  The Constitution first, or elections?  In a referendum on March 19th, Egyptians voted on a package of constitutional amendments.  They passed overwhelmingly with record voter turnout, and 77% of voters decided that elections should be held in the fall, after which a council of experts would be organized by the new parliament in order to write the constitution.  But many are calling for the constitution to first be revised.  Check out one of my favorite bloggers, The Arabist’s, post about this issue.
2.) The Egyptian army has long been extolled as “being one with the people”, and its actions reflected that during the January 25th uprising, as it refused orders to fire on citizens (if any were given) and in fact appears to have convinced Mubarak to go.  Not only are they strong in terms of military acquisitions, but they wield a great deal of economic might within Egypt, as they own large plots of land and are now making a big for Egypt’s lucrative gas fields.  But now many Egyptians are worried that SCAF will be the new authoritarians in town.  The SCAF has made protests or strikes illegal in Egypt, continues to arrest journalists and activists and try them in military courts, and could even field a candidate for the presidential elections later this year.
3.) Trying Mubarak and all his NDP cronies.  One of the panels I went to was on the role of the judiciary, which is now expected to monitor elections in the fall, and try Mubarak in August, in addition to many involved in the state apparatus responsible for the torture, disappearance, and death of many.  While justice seems the logical path to follow, can the country economically and emotionally undergo a series of intense trials as such?  Will they be fair, or is SCAF just trying to appease protesters by saying Mubarak will be tried?  What if Egypt tried something like South Africa did, where politicians were given immunity from prosecution if they came forward about their crimes?  Check out this article by a Middlebury student who spent time in Syria's jails.

I’ve linked to a number of good blogs and articles above, and you can find a list of the blogs I read to the right of this one.  Jadaliyya chronicles events awesomely in the region, and has a great interview here with Hossam Hamalawy, long an activist in Egypt.  Hossam’s blog is Arabawy, and although it carries specific details about protests and people that might be hard to follow, it is worth taking a look to witness the workings of a true Arab revolutionary.  I heard this man speak at the AUC conference after having followed his blog for a while: he is a labor activist and has been imprisoned and tortured by Mubarak’s thugs.  At the conference, he spoke of Che and Lenin, saying that the Egyptian revolution was not peaceful because the protestors needed to defend themselves (as in most revolutions), and stating that "every Egyptian institution now has to purge itself of the mini-Mubaraks".  He is my Egyptian idol.  Also check out Egyptian Chronicles, very detailed and specific, but enlightening.  This NYT Magazine piece is stellar.

I’m sorry to have gone on so long, but as you can see, I am quite ecstatic to be here.  Despite the discomforts life in Egypt can present, and the constant homesickness I feel, I know I am very fortunate.  What better moment for an Orientalist such as myself to be in Egypt?  I hope to share it all with you along the way.  Please comment and banter and disprove me!

Besos pa' todos,

Yamila جميلة