Wednesday, October 5, 2011


On Friday, I went to Tahrir square again to see protests that would bring together a huge numbers for the purpose of "Reclaiming the Revolution." Unlike former protests, where thousands of average Egyptians mingle with tech-savvy activists, here the scene was dominated by distinct political movements, each with their own stage. Standing in the middle you could slowly twist your head 360 degrees and take in a large swath of the Egyptian political landscape.

There was the stage for presidential candidate Hazem Abou Ismail, affiliated but not a member of the Muslim Brotherhood. There was the Freedom and Justice movement, not to be confused with the Freedom and Justice party, and the Egypt’s future movement, next to the Youth Union of Upper Egypt. At another stage, set up by Al-Wasat party, which split from the Muslim Brotherhood over a decade ago, the head of yet another party, called Free Egypt, shouted, “Islamists, liberals and leftists are all united in our demands for bread, freedom and social justice.”

And despite the chaos, they did seem united, at least in terms of organization. They took turns making speeches, each politely quieting their scratchy P.A. system when another began to speak.

Earlier in the day Sean Penn had appeared, dominating much of the less critical press, to the chagrin of some activists. As the afternoon wore on, the turnout of roughly 10,000, which many considered weak, began to lull in the afternoon heat. 

By the evening, thousands remained, and after sunset prayers, the few remaining thousands stood riveted by images projected on a tall building overlooking the square. These were mostly aerial shots the protestors, as if to say Look how many of us there were! 

We watched the mouse, controlled by one of the activists onstage, select photos from Facebook and Twitter pages. The projection shook in the breeze and the crowd, like any crowd drawn by a giant light, looked a little bored, as if their friend was trying to show them something he couldn't find.

And then, finally, his search ended, and the boredom quickly turned to horror.

He played a YouTube video in which members of the police are interrogating arrested detainees, some electrocuting and slapping them while others laugh and take videos with their phones. A man on stage, in front of the disturbing videos, shouted furiously. Some in the crowd shouted at him in support, others stood silent, not sure how to deal with the shocking images.

Homemade videos of police brutality, Citizen-Journalism as they’ve been dubbed, have been used in the past to bring people out to the square. Now, however, those same tools were being used to galvanize the people in the square themselves, as if the injustices bringing everyone to the streets could not just be described, but had to be seen, on the spot, taking us all to an emotional peak together. 

We ducked into a cafe, packed with older men smoking shisha pipes and sipping hot drinks and juice. They sat back to back with protestors taking a break from the streets. As I order tea, a man notices I speak Arabic and is eager to chat, to communicate, as is customary and unavoidable, in a tangled bilingual jumble. 

Khaled (not his real name) is 40, unmarried, a dealer of spare auto parts in a working class neighborhood. He had participated in the protests of January and February that ousted President Mubarak, but had not returned since, and was here to see, six months later, the legacy of the work he had a small part in. 

"We don't understand how to do politics," he told me, sort of in both languages. A boy handed us each a poster of Gamel Abdel Nasser, the first president of modern Egypt. Next to his image a decree of a political movement looking to his ideas for inspiration was laid out. Khaled did not read the words, but looked at the image, smiled, and said, "He loved the Egyptian people," exclusively in Arabic now that he was excited and wanting to speak quickly, "but he was a military man. He didn't have a mind for politics." 

I nod, and then almost burn myself on the tea as he continues his history lesson. "And Sadat?,” I ask. "He was the same, but he also understood some economics." "And Mubarak?" "He didn't understand anything, and he didn’t love the Egyptian people."

But more importantly than who runs the country, Khaled feels, his people must "learn to do politics" (what’s the English verb for this?) and they will, he says, because they have "pride," a word he makes me repeat many, many times above the din of the cafe.

We hop in a cab, and go to a theater in Zamalek, a well-kept upper-class neighborhood on an island in the middle of the Nile. We've been hearing about these puppet shows, "concerts" in which marionettes of the Beatles or a famous Arab singer lip-synch to a live recording.

This evening, the puppet is Abdel Halim Hafez, sort of the Frank Sinatra of Egypt, whose rich, honey tenor made him one of the first acceptable male sex symbols in the 1960’s and 70’s. The day he died, I have been told by numerous Egyptians, 4 or 14 young women (I've heard both) committed suicide.

The cultural center presents these puppet shows every month. Roughly two hundred Egyptians, mostly in families, are there singing along, awash in nostalgia for a time some of them remember, and others are encouraged by their parents to take pride in even if they were not born yet.

The marionette of Abdel Halim conducts the stiff-jointed wooden musicians. The puppeteers are quite talented, and every movement looks authentic. When he hits a long note, he closes his puppet eyes, lifts his hands, and holds the audience in his puppet spell. When the audience in the recording cheers, the real audience joins in.

In the 60’s, the real Abdel Halim Hafez acted in cheesy movie musicals, which now make wonderful artifacts of the days when Egypt was on the center of the world stage politically. Socially a liberal, mini-skirt wearing society, Egypt produced popular culture for the whole Arab world. Egyptian national radio played everywhere in the Middle East. Nasser led the non-aligned movement on a platform of anti-imperialism. Abdel Halim sang extolling political songs, like Al-Watan Al-Akbar (The Greatest Nation), which have, as one might expect, uncritical, sentimental lyrics like “It’s triumphs fills its existence/ Each day its glories grow/ My nation grows and is liberated.”

Abdel Halim was known as the “son of the revolution,” referring of course to the 1952 revolution that ended the British-backed monarchy and created a great hope that Egypt would lead the region politically, economically, and culturally.

And so, while thousands look towards the future, a few hundred, a few miles away, look towards the past. 

And what a past it was:

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