Tuesday, July 26, 2011

This doesn't feel like January 25th...

Egypt is panting, furrowing her brow, and throwing her hands up perplexedly.

Caricature by Waled Taher
Since July 8th, when tens of thousands citizens poured into Egypt's squares to protect their revolution, there has been an acute political tension mingling with the polluted Cairene air.  The performance that is Egyptian politics continues with thrill and bated breath.  Front and center stage, you have the myriad of liberal groups staging sit-ins nationwide, regularly issuing demands, sometimes clashing with security forces.  Itching to remain in the spotlight are the Muslim Brotherhood, flip-flopping daily on who they support, trying to appease the revolutionary masses but stay on the military's good side.  Behind the curtains, you have the "transitional government", composed of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF), the Ministry of the Interior, the Cabinet, and Prime Minister Essam Sharif.  Every day, one thespian performs a scene, another cuts in on his lines, and another pulls the curtain down on it all.

Last weekend, it finally came to the crescendo the audience was waiting for.  I can't be sure of the order of events, but it had something to do with SCAF accusing a popular movement, April 6th, of inflaming public feelings against SCAF, then the army forcibly dispersing protesters in Alexandria, then protesters in Tahrir reacting to that by starting a march toward SCAF headquarters, which was stopped by an army cordon.  In the late afternoon of Saturday, July 23rd, a peaceful protest set out from Tahrir Square back to SCAF headquarters, chanting against the army's untrustworthy and underhanded rule: they met the same blockade of army tanks and guns.  What unraveled in the following hours was a miniature war-zone: thugs attacking the protesters with swords (were they paid by SCAF to do so?), the hated police showing up to fire tear gas, and ultimately, around 250 injured protesters surrounded by enemies, the army mocking them from behind their barbed wire.  Read one protester's account here.

March to MOD by Gigi Ibrahim
March to MOD, a photo by Gigi Ibrahim on Flickr
The bruised and battered returned to Tahrir, and the sit-in goes on, as does the political drama.  The liberals seem exhausted, still disorganized politically, and maybe less unified after the latest April 6th scandals.  The Muslim Brotherhood has called for a million-man protest this Friday, but that's liberal territory, right?  The masses just need to get to work and feed their kids.  Ramadan starts next week, and I wonder if this means the protests will abate some, or regain their vigor (in the evening, after breaking fast).  Trials for Mubarak & Adly (the former Interior Minister) start August 3rd, and could be cause for aggravation, but Ramadan is also a time of reflection and forgiveness.  Whatever the case, I sense very little is moving forward, and I think many in this political sphere agree.

Of two things, I am sure.  First, SCAF is criminal, and they will get away with it.  Military trials for bloggers and activists number in the thousands since the revolution, more than in Mubarak's era.  Trials for the real villains of the fallen regime are postponed without reason.  Virginity tests were conducted on women protesters.  No, the army has not yet fired directly on protesters, but they do not stop the Central Security Forces (CSF) or hired thugs from doing so.  It is clear they have an interest in maintaining the former system, as it guarantees their significant economic holdings and military toys from abroad (mainly the U.S.)  SCAF is continuing Mubarak's nefarious legacy, but the Egyptian public adores the army for what they perceive as its excellence in previous wars (they think they won '73), as well as because it is a draft army made up of the people.

On a more optimistic note, the second thing I am sure of is that this is only the beginning.  Political parties do not spring from the ashes, rather, they need tending that was forbidden in Egypt's previous system.  The masses do not jump up from their couches, rather, they need to first be given some bread, then coaxed into civic society.  As a friend recently reminded me, the path to democracy is full of blunders, and for all we know, Egyptians and Arabs may be on the verge of creating a form of governance we've never seen before.  Yes, patience is a virtue, so I will walk as the Egyptians do, or do their notorious hand motion for, "wait a minute". 

I'm off to Turkey tomorrow, to explore for almost a month a country that has reached a fascinating blend of Islam, military, and democracy.  Many praise it as a model for the Arab world.  I will be curious to see what Turks think of the recent uprising in their neighborhood, and I am salivating to travel a new land with some friends, an empty stomach, and an open mind.  It will be hard to be away from the Egyptian revolution, which has become dear to my heart.  Part of me hopes they can save the juicy stuff for when I return, so that I can continue to be witness to the earthquake that is rocking the Middle East.

Monday, July 25, 2011

The Truth Is Out There

Media is one of the thickest cogs in the wheel of democracy, a constant energy field disseminating the news to every axel and spoke so that communication between the masses and leaders rolls smoothly.  In a participatory system that by definition is supposed to be of the whole population, there must be an effective mode of accumulating and imparting information.  This will subsequently serve to promote national unity.  This is particularly true in this age of digital wizardry, where an interconnected global citizenry is able to feel part of something continents away.  In Egypt’s case, we’re talking about a country of about 85 million, from the farmers sand dunes away from Cairo in Upper Egypt, to the Bedouins running the tourism a canal away in the Sinai peninsula.  It is easy to think that Egypt is Cairo, but a geography as vast as this antique land, traversed by the Nile and the Sahara, and a peoples as assorted as Egyptians, some still without access to modern technology, makes the task of sharing information within a nation that much more challenging.

Fathy Abou Hatab, the Managing Editor of Al-Masry Al-Youm’s website, understands these tests to Egypt’s unity, and he is innovating to find solutions.  Al-Masry Al-Youm is Egypt’s most widely read newspaper, an independent publication that defends liberal values, as opposed to state-run media outlets.  My program’s journalism club, of which I am a member, had the privilege to meet with him a few weeks ago, during which he detailed the reforms that he feels need to take place in the Egyptian media in order for it to align with the values of the January 25th revolution.

One of the most formidable obstacles to an Egyptian free press is access to information.  Hatab told us that there have always been red lines between the truth and what the public can be privy to; for example, Mubarak’s health was always off limits, as were the army’s inner workings and business ventures (those still are).  This line of defense has been strengthened by MASPERO, Egypt’s state television, whose “legacy has become one of distortion of the truth, spreading misinformation, and enforcing its regime-mandated ideals on a public with little or no access to alternative outlets”.  By way of the Minister of the Media, a position reserved only for authoritarian societies, news has been stripped of meaning and stuffed into a jeweled box sealed with a kiss by Mubarak and his National Democratic Party. 

In revolutionary Egypt, the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) guards this giant box of state secrets.  They decide whether or not to publicly air the trials of the criminals responsible for Egypt’s dire poverty and murdered protesters (link).  While those trials are inexplicably delayed, bloggers and journalists and activists are tried in military courts for exercising their right to free speech.  SCAF dictates the fate of media personalities brave enough to criticize them, as recently happened when Dina Abdel Rahman lost her job after reading on air a letter by an activist openly denouncing the military council.  A general had a word with her boss, and fear and censorship once again clapped its hand over information’s mouth.  SCAF’s announcements are heard by most, so the way it decides to distort the picture is often taken at face value by much of the populace.

In addition to state controls, Hatab also detailed how the newspaper has, over decades of adapting to a corrupt system, created boundaries for itself in a variety of ways.  For example, each area of focus is assigned a particular person who alone is responsible for covering the people and events related to it; this seems to me to inhibit journalists from branching out and obtaining that much-needed general knowledge about their society.  It also encourages cronyism and creates more corners for information-seekers to cut around.

Hatab was full of ideas for his country’s media that seemed aching to burst out the building’s walls: how could Al-Masry Al-Youm incorporate more of Egyptian society into the sphere of knowledge?  How could they encourage readership?  How could they bring more Egyptians into the conversation about the nation’s future?  He lamented that there is only one edition of the newspaper for the entire country, as opposed to regionally focused editions as found in many US newspapers.  This would encourage readership, although Egypt’s astonishing 40% illiteracy rate will complicate this.  He also spoke of integrating “citizen journalists” into mainstream media, ie. making space for bloggers and users of new social media.  The day we spoke to him, he was launching another imaginative idea called “Conversation with the Square”, an attempt to facilitate dialogue between those conducting a sit-in in Tahrir Square and those average citizens removed from the square.

Like many facets of Egyptian society in wake of the revolution, the flow of information now has an opportunity to move through society as it should, facilitating exchange of ideas for the new Egypt, promoting education, and championing a national dialogue.  SCAF needs to get out of the way of the turning motion of this wheel.

Monday, July 18, 2011

The Egyptian Woodstock

“Do you want a tour around the square?” Mahmoud asks eagerly, draping an Egyptian flag around my shoulders.  I enthusiastically agree, and off we go, rounding the square and its guests, buying a cactus fruit from one of the many vendors, politely refusing the shabab (young men) offering to paint an Egyptian flag on our sweaty arms, not knowing where to turn for the five stages spouting different political tunes from all angles.  Mahmoud, doing duty on one of the popular committees securing the square, is our guide, allowing us to get away with fewer stares and more photographs.  “Taalou, let’s go into the campsites,” he gestures toward the canvas teepees littering the square’s rotary, swathed with massive posters and banners stating demands and clever commentary.  Before I know it, I am sitting on the doorstep of a few revolutionaries’ tent, being offered cigarettes, chitchatting about past and present, my heart pounding the whole time.  I meet a doctor who has been here from the beginning, January 25th and who treated many of the wounded after the pigs’ crackdown, and even though Mahmoud is just meeting him, too, he assures me that they are brothers, everyone is family here in Tahrir.  I am shown the square’s hospital, complete with a variety of drugs and emergency equipment.  I spot a satellite that some agile Egyptian has managed to attach to a pole to ensure that the square has wireless.  There is even a Tahrir barber (check out all those photos to get a vibe for the square's life).  “Like a 5-star hotel,” I comment.  “Not quite,” laughs Mahmoud, but the spirit of the people is as happy as if they were bathing in luxury.  No one can take Tahrir away from them.

Or can they?  Reports are that the army has forcibly dispersed protesters sitting in in Luxor and Suez (where clashes have erupted amidst fierce protests at the release of a number of policemen accused of killing martyrs).  Many are starting to wonder when the same will happen in Tahrir, when the pedestrian’s paradise blocked off to traffic will be broken up by the nefarious orders of the Ministry of Interior and its wicked police puppets.  Of late (summary of the latest political events), the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) and the Ministry of the Interior have appeared to make a number of concessions to the protesters, including dismissing hundreds of police officers (who they are remains debated), delaying parliamentary elections until November, and reshuffling cabinet positions (with possibly just more of the same old).  It remains to be seen whether these are merely empty promises, or if the military will actually follow through.  In some ways, continuing the process of this revolution is the steepest hill in this battle, because the army, entrenched both economically and politically, will be hard-pressed to budge.

Some nights later, I find myself in Tahrir again, waiting for the voice of the revolution, Ramy Esseim, to come and regail the crowd with his music.  Esseim became famous at the peak of the revolution when he performed a song in the square; he was subsequently arrested and beaten brutishly when police broke up the protests.  Before he performs, a plump woman takes the stage and vehemently begins denouncing the tazweer (rigging) of the bureaucratic system that is still imposing itself on the Egyptian people.  Her fervor snakes through the crowd, eliciting whistles and cheers.  Then Ramy Esseim… kulana yeed wahda (all of us are one hand, united.)

This is the Arab Woodstock, with a whole lot of politics thrown in.  Making the rounds of the square, I hear average citizens reading delicate Arabic poetry on stage, pronouncing every letter and accent, so far from Egyptian Arabic.  Activists from Twitter hold seminars to meet one another.  Artists delegate corners for their work, depicting cartoons berating politicians, the revolution’s martyrs, memories of January 25.  Every so often, an exodus leaves the square, heading toward the cabinet offices or the Ministry of the Interior with heads and voices raised high.  A movie of Gamal Abdul Nasser’s 1952 revolution echoes across the pavement.  Socialists hold mini conferences outside of their tent to discuss labor rights and Mubarak’s rampant privatization.  Angsty shabab boys with nothing better to do wonder the square, running into old men shouting at each other about elections and new ministers.  There is a tension to the square, in that no one is united or even sure of what they want to accomplish by being there.  There is a sense of both disappointment and renewed vigor, in that Egyptians left the streets too early, leaving the crooked system in place instead of replacing it with a revolutionary government.  But despite all this, there is a simultaneous cohesion, a desire to build something - the new Egypt.

Welcome to Tahrir.

Sunday, July 10, 2011

You cannot sleep without dreaming; you must dream so vivaciously and fiercely that it becomes your waking life

I have never gone through an efficient checkpoint in Egypt; rather, they tend to be jokes where a security guard will glance at your bag and ignore the metal detector that goes off.  Not at Tahrir on July 8th.  Average civilians had formed committees at every entrance to the square, splitting attendees into male and female lines.  Egyptians were protecting the revolution, refusing to let anyone in to corrupt their day of expression.  No bultagiya (government/army-hired thugs) here!

The atmosphere inside the square was a mixture of apprehension and eagerness, no one knowing quite what they were waiting for, everyone expecting something momentous nonetheless.  Graceful and poignant Arabic script billowed across the square on banners raised high, the wind moving the heavy heat and pollution across the faces of the banner bearers.  Children decorated with Egyptian flag paraphernalia posed for patriotic pictures, and young men leaned against one another chain-smoking incessantly.  A series of stages encircled the main square, reeling people in with Allahu Akbar and chants of freedom.  Back toward the Egyptian Museum, the road crawled and swarmed with the masses, bulging toward the square with the force of the River Nile.  Here it came, they were coming, it was happening, I was there. 

After the noon prayer, the energy surged and people lurched forward demanding the fall of Field Marshall Tantawi, the “purification” of the putrid system still festering in Egypt’s new political order, and the transparent hurrying of the trials to punish the former regime’s old bullies.  I was merely standing witness.  It was hard to comprehend all the nuanced political and social interactions taking place on the ground.  First of all, my guard is always up as a foreign woman in a potentially tense environment, and that necessity sometimes prevents me from fully appreciating or experiencing something.  Second are the mere logistical barriers of language and physical space.  It is a testament to the power of the internet that I get more information by sitting at home on my laptop.  But the persistent spirit of the revolution does not get transferred through wires across miles; the aura reigning in the square was unique only to the cloisters of people circulating that political and patriotic energy, only to the activists’ tents standing guard, “sitting in”, only to the relentless sun blaring over Tahrir.

I was most struck by the importance of this process to the Egyptian people.  No, not everyone supports these protests.  Yes, over 100 parties had come with no unified request.  Yes, it must ultimately be about the result - social justice, bread, dignity, and a few ginea to pocket - but it is just as much about this rich undertaking they call democracy, this up and down, step by step chaos that has people in the throes of debate and argument at all times.  It may not be perfect, and it may not ever reach an ideal anywhere, but I truly believe it is what we must all keep stumbling toward as a global society.  It can only be better than the alternative, the oppressive laziness that Egypt suffered under for so long.  You cannot sleep without dreaming; you must dream so vivaciously and fiercely that it becomes your waking life.

I am living and breathing this revolution.  I wake up and wonder how the activists in Tahrir slept in their tents.  My classes revolve, even ever so tenuously, around the revolution; they even take place based on what happens in Tahrir Square.  Every single Egyptian measures time in “before, or after” the revolution.  My social outings consist of at least stopping by the square to witness the happenings, or more likely, to wonder around for hours talking to people, to catch whatever I can understand of the political sloganeering.  Down time is spent obsessively and somewhat guiltily gobbling up whatever news I can gather from my various blogs and newspapers.  Before I shut my eyes at night, my thoughts wonder to the next step, the next incident, my next run-in with this machine they call the Egyptian Revolution.

I claim to not want to participate, but a growing chunk of my heart yearns to feel the pride and emotion Egyptians are feeling for their homeland.  A muffled part of my voice wants to cry out in unison against the system like I did so long ago in the streets of DC and New York against the Bush administration.  I am so eager to sink myself into this inspiring dilemma that it is beginning to consume me. 

Tonight was overwhelming, and never have I felt so tossed and turned by the mélange of politics and emotion around me.  It started as many afternoons and evenings have in Tahrir, with my foreign friends and I being approached by Egyptians every so often, curious as to what we could possibly think of their revolution.  There have been people conducting a sit-in in Tahrir for some time now, certainly since July 8th.  Dusk grew thicker, and so did the crowd around us, more and more men drawn to the cluster against the backdrop of the somewhat empty square.  Once they saw a tall white man and gold locks (my friends), they were tantalized enough to stay and find out what these people speaking Arabic in strange accents had to say.  Trendy young Egyptian men hovered around me, grandfathers shoved their way to my side.  I grew frustrated with the same questions haranguing us: why did America support Israel, how did she feel now that she had lost her longtime ally Hosni Mubarak?  I was expected to not only speak for the American government’s foreign policy, but for the entire assumedly homogenous and unified American public.  I bit my tongue, struggling not to sarcastically comment that if they waited a moment, I would call Obama and ask why American did this or didn't do that.  I tried to speak as only one American, a Puerto Rican, an activist, a liberal interested in their language, culture, revolution.   But the constant bombardment was not sustainable.  That is not to say I felt in danger - most of the Egyptians around me were engaging in productive conversation and protecting me from the few that harassed or criticized - but I was not comfortable.  We extracted ourselves from the crowd around us that had swelled to perhaps 40-50.  We thanked Tahrir for an exhilarating evening, and with a couple Egyptian friends accompanying us, we left the revolution in the square for the evening.

I must find balance, as in every facet of life.  This is not my revolution, and I must take solace in being a mere witness to history.  Even if I want to spend my free time buried in newspapers and political conversations trying to decipher the latest, I must make time for the other things that brought me here, including my language studies, my search for my ambition, and the exploration of the world.  I must make space in my lungs for the wind that doesn’t blow only through Tahrir.  It’s all about balance.

Thursday, July 7, 2011

The Revolution Will Be Graffitied/Hummed/Acted

Artistic expression in the Middle East has always found its innovation in the dark alleys of despotism, with literary geniuses and artists ducking around corners to avoid the harsh hand of authoritarians trying to wrench away their freedom of expression.  Novels have told of Arabs trudging through a life void of jobs and bread, always stagnant, never progressing.  Poems have railed against the Israeli occupation and the acquiescence of every Arab regime to foreign powers, lamenting the lack of revolt among the populace.

And now?  Now, the revolutions will be spray-painted, sung, monologued, stanza-ed, brush-stroked, exposed in the dark room.  Naturally, art is one of the most meaningful ways to record and process the outpourings of expression that have bubbled over in this so-called Arab Spring (quite a long spring.)  In Egypt, art has been the constant camera throughout the revolution, faithfully recording Egyptians’ pride, persistence, and passion.

It has functioned simply to document what happened, to ensure no one in Egypt or the world ever forgets the Feb. 2nd battle between government-hired thugs on camels and protesters trying to enter Tahrir Square, or the unity on display between Copts and Muslims, or the hundreds of martyrs that fell during the bloodiest days. 
The Revolution Artists Union has made sure of that.  The group formed during the revolution, often creating work directly from Tahrir, and since then, they have had multiple exhibits, one of which is in the metro station at the square.  Egyptians gather around the paintings daily to stare in awe at their revolutionary handiwork; I have seen many a mother holding her child up to a painting and explaining lovingly explaining its salience.  No one will easily forget the spirit of unity pervasive throughout the square, thanks to “Sout al-Hurriya”.  The song is actually made up of a number of slogans shouted and held up on signs during the height of the uprising, and every single Egyptian knows the words, and I guarantee you every single Egyptian gets goose bumps and tears in their eyes when they hear it.  In the streets of my country, the voice of freedom is calling...

But I think the most important role the paintbrush, the pen, and the guitar can take up is that of the teacher.  The Revolution Artists Union states that among its goals are to teach the morals and principals of the revolution: social justice, freedom, and dignity.  A revolution must not merely fell the corrupt system, rather, it must rebuild, and that restoration of an entire society begins with the individual.  I recently read an op-ed of Alaa al-Aswaany’s (in Arabic!), author of the Yacoubian Building  (and whom I saw speak the other day!), in which he wrote of a lull during the height of protests in Tahrir, when he threw a cigarette box on the ground; a woman admonished him to pick it up.  He then realized, "We are building a new Egypt... it must be clean."  It is changing the way you live - picking up trash, not driving as to endanger others, not trying to rip others off - that paves the way for a society that will not stand for another dictator.  Art serves to remind Egyptians, and all of us, of the innate goodness we all carry within.  Art's raw beauty, its truth, its reflection of humanity, bring out the best.  Call me an idealist, but I think that this sort of integrity will save the revolution, and maybe start another one.

Graffiti has become a common sight on just about every block, chronicling the revolution and its sentiments.
Tear-gas poems, by Kareem Abdul Salam.
A tribute to all the literary artists of the Arab Spring, courtesy of Words Without Borders.
Tahrir Monologues, a performance of revolutionary testimonies.

Tomorrow is July 8th, another day of rage/persistence, a day to speed up trials of murderers, to demand a new constitution, to expose the police for their abuse, to tell the military and the still criminal system that the Egyptian people are still in the midst of their revolution, and that neither their voices nor their paintbrushes will rest until justice is achieved.  Please keep Egypt in your thoughts and prayers - may it be a peaceful and successful protest.  Please take a minute to also think of places like Syria, Libya, Yemen, and Bahrain, where people are filling the streets with their cries for freedom and their blood.