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.


  1. Vivid details and such a well-told story. Thank you for yet another great piece!

  2. Hello, Yamila. I must say, I'm rather envious. It must be so incredible to be in Egypt in the middle of such an exciting time!

    Seeing all the links you post talking about the impropriety of the actions of the government make me understand that Egypt has a long way to go. However, it also makes me wonder what exactly Egyptians are expecting their country to look like.

    The transition to a liberal democracy takes quite a long time. If one recalls America's journey to where it is today, we had all sorts of missteps, from the Alien and Sedition Acts to slavery, from Jim Crow to Boss Tweed. Looking at the more recent wave of liberal democratic revolutions in Eastern Europe, we see that even almost 20 years after the fall of the Soviet Union, former Communist Bloc countries still don't resemble how Americans, British, French, German, or Japanese people would expect their political society to run. Countries like Poland, the Czech Republic, Hungary, and the Baltic states have made significant progress, but one of the most valuable assets they had in liberalising was the promise and the aid of integration into the Euro-Atlantic political sphere (most notably represented by membership in NATO). Countries like Ukraine and Georgia, which, when they had the Orange and Velvet Revolutions, respectively, were portrayed immediately in the American media as success stories for Westernisation and liberal democracies. However, Ukraine has undergone great political turmoil and economic hardship. Georgia has similar economic struggles, and also has a history of dealing with its minority peoples with great brutality (part of the catalyst for the war with Russia in 2008). Both countries undergo corruption which people like me, who are spoiled by the relative integrity of the voting process and civil society in the US, would find outrageous and unacceptable. The point is, a functioning political process and reliable civil society does not come easily, and it does not come quickly. Bearing this in mind, the protesters and reform advocates seem to be rather impatient.

    It is admirable to be impatient for freedom and a respect for human dignity, and if a people become complacent with anything less, then they risk never reaching the political and civil freedom they should have. However, it seems rather unlikely that the current Egyptian government, or the government which will come into office, will be able to meet these peoples' demands, however basic they may seem to people who expect a liberal democracy.

    I guess my question is this; 6 months after the new government takes office, what does the best Egypt which people can realistically envision look like?