Tuesday, November 29, 2011


After the icy rains of Sunday night, Election day brought sunshine and an almost tranquil atmosphere in the Sadat metro station under Tahrir, which just a week before had been emptied of workers suffering from tear gas inhalation. I walked to a press conference with the head of the High Elections Commission, Abdel Moezz Ibrahim. “Today, we start a new and fresh phase, he said “with unprecedented security circumstances.”

Even to get into this conference, I had to leave my passport at a front desk and show another ID to several suited men on the way to the conference room. I’m beginning to suspect that Egyptian officials like holding press conferences in rooms they know will be too small, either to keep out latecomers and limit coverage, or else to give them the satisfaction of a standing-room only crowd.

After a few celebratory remarks, Ibrahim proceeded to deal with question after question, which mostly took the form of “I heard about” or “I saw this violation” followed by “What will you do about it?” or “Is this a violation?” They mentioned “provocative propaganda” given to voters in line by the Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party and the Salafi Nour (Light) Party. “I didn’t receive any complaints in such matters,” Ibrahim responded. “I got this message on my cell phone asking me to vote for this party. Is this a violation?” The room murmured with snickers and gasps. “Do we need to prosecute the people who send the message or…” now a bit sarcastic, “the people who receive the message?”

Ibrahim stood firm. “We are going to study and analyze the problem” was his only response.

After five or six more questions, which Ibrahim answered by explaining that a few isolated incidents do not speak for the nearly two thousand polling stations, he finally got fed up when someone said, “I heard about rigging.”

“Rigging? Really?” Ibrahim was now very annoyed. The conference ended and several journalists cornered the only other interview subjects in the room, two women and a man in Carter Center T-shirts. They were resolute, too. “I’m sorry, we can’t say anything right now,” they told a young reporter.

Most people believe the elections are, if not perfect, at least relatively fair and non-violent, with self-reporting stations claiming roughly 50% turnout. More importantly, they have been fuel for the perspective pushed in most Western and Egyptian newspapers right now, that Tahrir square is marginal in the minds of most Egyptians. It is incredible how fast the press moves in Egypt these days, and how short memory has become. Only last week, correspondents were flocking to a war zone, and now they are at polling stations. It is almost as if the violence last week never happened.

That night, I took a walk with several friends through Al-Gamaliya, just north of Islamic Cairo. Known now as a heavily-Muslim and heavily-Muslim Brotherhood area, Al-Gamaliya once represented the Cairo of novelist Naguib Mahfouz, who as an 8-year-old watched the 1919 revolution from his family’s window. This is where all social classes of 1920s and 30s Cairene society commingled, before the rich moved to nice new areas and left Al-Gamaliya to the destitute but charming characters of later Mahfouz novels.

As the well-known cliché goes, the lower classes of Egypt have been well served by the Muslim Brotherhood’s social services, and most expect them to pay the organization back in votes (some call this indirect vote-buying, though the argument never is very convincing). As we approached the polling station around 6pm, a mass of people crowded at the door, trying to get in while others waited in a line that hardly could be said to exist. Two Brotherhood guys with short beards, clean newly pressed suits  and knitted prayer caps handed me fliers and flashed wide smiles. “It’s been a very good day,” they told me.

Another, very-similarly dressed man saw us and gave me fliers for the Salafi Nour Party (a more conservative religious party than the Brotherhood), on much cheaper paper but nevertheless printed by the thousands. “Can you tell us how to get to…” I began to ask him, before he cut me off: “No, I don’t live here, I’m sorry,” he said. “This morning I asked the shopkeeper if I could stand here, and he gave me permission.”

It was not hard to see how he got permission. The shopkeeper himself, a man with a long, grey beard in the Salafi style, with the mustache shaved off, waved me over and gave me yet another flier. “Islam! Islam!” he announced, as if giving a speech. “This is the year of the Party of Light and Islam, Godwilling.”

Pretty much every news piece I read over the last week described an assuredness by voters that they were resolute in their choice, and hopeful that their parties would be successful. Even revolution-generation activists, who surely know they will not get large numbers, say things like “The Brotherhood talks big game, but we’ll see.”

On Monday, I also talked to Zakariyya, a singer and veteran leftist activist from the days of Sadat. He gave an account of how President Sadat funded Islamic groups in the 1970s to marginalize communists and socialists. Now, decades later, the results of that decision might only really be seen for the first time if they sweep the polls.

Zakariyya was also open about his own dilemma on who to vote for. A few days ago, voters were told they had to choose one worker and one farmer to vote for, or else risk invalidating their ballot (this is a holdover from the socialism of Nasser- historical layers are endless here). Zakariyya’s brother, a former police officer, is running against his friend, a “Christian, who is with the revolution.” Neither is a worker or farmer. Zakariyya said he supports his friend, but cannot afford to face his brother if he doesn’t vote for him.

Then, on Monday, Zakariyya found out he could vote for whichever two candidates he wanted. The government said they would deal with the worker/farmer issue in their own way. This decision resolved Zakariyya’s dilemma, but only added a new layer to my attempts to understand the mind-boggling process.

Sunday, November 27, 2011

The Swan Song of Tahrir on the Eve of the Elections

Tonight, I took a walk around Tahrir square, where protests were continuing on the eve of Egypt’s first elections since Mubarak stepped down from power over ten months ago. In front of the square, two large groups of young men huddled around two leaders with two megaphones and chanted “We will stay until the regime falls!" 

Since January, the weekly Friday demonstrations have mostly taken the form of family-friendly carnivals. “The summer was like a rock concert,” one Egyptian journalist told me.

Then, this past week, violent clashes with Central Security Forces resulted in a large number of deaths, lost eyes, and the effects of a mysterious form of tear gas which may take years to manifest. On the square tonight, a more somber tone had taken over. Field hospitals hastily erected over the past week sat empty, with rows of neatly labeled medical supplies sitting on tables. A large banner overlooked the street where most of the clashes had taken place. It read “Street of the Eyes of Freedom” in neon paint on a black background, referencing the protesters who had lost their eyes.

When the violence started, many Western journalists rushed to Tahrir and reported as if from a war zone, leading many in the U.S. to get the impression that all of Egypt was on fire while in reality daily life proceeded normally outside Tahrir. Then, in the past few days, the layer of activists, their journalist friends, and general anti-regime Egyptians began to realize (or refused to believe) that the army leadership is unlikely to relinquish power because a few thousand of them had screamed their heads off and a few hundred had been injured. An American journalist reported that she overheard an Egyptian journalist crying in the bathroom at an army press conference. "This is a nightmare," she wrote.

The plot became “Tahrir vs. the Silent Majority,” in which the desperate pleas of the revolutionary movement struggled to capture the imagination of the majority of Egyptians, who were dubbed “The Party of the Couch.” The “Silent Majority” is not so much an invention as an assumed presence, and how they will vote tomorrow is still a total mystery, though nobody believes they will favor the revolutionary youth parties (one poll gave those parties 1%, down from 17% in August).

Everyone has an example of interacting with the Silent Majority. On Thursday, I climbed into a cab and spoke with the driver. “Mubarak would be better than this instability,” he told me, pretty much without prompting. “I would rather have wealth than Tahrir.”

Tonight, the square felt like a swan song. The only people left, pitching tents and warming themselves near bonfires, are the hardcore revolutionaries, a few supporters, and the many vendors selling a few sweet potatoes to both. More callous observers accuse the revolutionary movements, who led the protests in January, of fighting the electoral process because they will surely lose at the polls. In the meantime, the Muslim Brotherhood had been accused of clinging to the elections even as the deaths at Tahrir mounted as a cynical bid for power.

Tomorrow’s polling begins a process that even seasoned political commentators and journalists are struggling to understand. In the past few weeks, television stations, newspapers, and NGO’s have offered explanations for voters of party positions, locations of voting centers, and the thick web of confusing laws surrounding the electoral process.

I cannot imagine the experience of the average citizen in making sense of the morass. 7,000 candidates are running for 498 seats. One third of those seats are for individual candidates, and the rest are for party lists, but the districts for individuals and parties do not always overlap. Half of the parliament must be composed of “workers” and “farmers,” though journalists I spoke with did not know how the profession of the candidate is verified.

Voting will be conducted in three stages, ending in mid-January. On Friday, the electoral commission announced via Facebook that each stage will take two days instead of one, but it is unclear how many Egyptians without Facebook heard about it. The Muslim Brotherhood announced it would help guard ballot boxes overnight. If an eligible voter fails to vote, they can be fined 500 pounds (80 dollars, more than many make in a month here).

Throughout social media, some young Egyptians are desperately trying to explain the system, to convince one another to vote and to share phone numbers for reporting violations. Joseph Fahim, one of my editors at the Daily News Egypt, described it: "Elections remind me of my high-school physics exam. You properly study, aim to get all of the answers right, but ultimately, no matter how hard you try to understand this incomprehensible process, you'll definitely, surely fuck it up."

Around 7pm, it started to rain at Tahrir. Among many vendors of food, trinkets, and flags, two men had set up a stand selling umbrella-style hats with the name of a popular soccer team emblazoned on the side. As the small icy drops of rain began to come down in gusts, they started to dance and shout “5 pounds, 5 pounds!” One grabbed my friend's arm and strapped a hat to his head, and they posed for a photograph. 

Since Cairo experiences rain only a few times a year, there is no infrastructure for dealing with the water. Large moats formed around the small chanting crowds, and mud began to collect every few feet in the road. Nobody had worn proper coats, so they huddled together and bought a few more roasted nuts. They continued to chant, but more and more meekly.

The metaphor for the political situation was so obvious, so over the top in its melodrama, that I now feel a bit tactless describing the scene, which was, with no melodrama intended, heartbreaking to watch. Deciding whether or not the Egyptian revolution is on the brink of failure is one of those moments where reporting and analysis have to converge, and I often go back and forth about what to say when people ask my opinion. Activists have a stake in saying the revolution has not foundered. Journalists, though they may not always admit it, have a stake in selling a story of triumph.

Many activists are saying that they will return to Tahrir after voting tomorrow, to demand a handover of power to civilian authorities, but it is unclear who, other than a few hundred approving Westerners and an as-of-yet mysterious segment of that Silent Majority, is listening. 

Friday, November 25, 2011

An Evening With Coptic Christians

On Wednesday night, I accompanied a journalist friend to conduct interviews with a group of Christian men in Shubra. A vast neighborhood on the Nile, Shubra is where  a march on October 9th began before it was met with violence in front of the famous Maspero building downtown. That violence had been the worst since January, but now it looks like a tragic precursor to this week’s battles.

Most of the time, however, Shubra is a quiet lower class area, roughly 40% Coptic Christian (as opposed to Egypt, which is 10%), and in many ways indistinguishable from any other tightly packed popular area. Long streets of brick apartment buildings give way to bright fluorescent commercial blocks, where men drink tea, smoke shisha, and play dominoes and backgammon.

On one of those blocks, we entered a cafe cheekily called “Casino Choubra.” I cannot repeat enough how identical these cafes appear to an outsider; the same wooden chairs with the same stain patterns, the same faux marble tabletops clanking as they’re dragged across the tile floor, the same harsh white light, and the same busy young man placing coals from a swinging brazier on each shisha pipe.

At 10pm, in the back corner of Casino Choubra, we met the group of men, who would have seamlessly blended in had we not been introduced. They smiled and rose and shook our hands, Sherif, Ashraf, Maged…They took turns playing a game of backgammon, ordering sahleb (a milky, warm drink made from orchid root) and anise tea, and teasing one another, with surprising but charming immaturity.

They meet here after work many days to pass the time. Each has different stories and a different sense of humor, but all have both in spades. Some have worked as “pizza guys” in the U.S. and others professed to have seen the Virgin Mary.

I spoke with Maged, a quick-witted but goofy English teacher who told me that it’s not polite to ask about personal subjects, and then offered that all of his friends, and he, were unmarried. “Well I can’t ask why!,” I joked, and he slapped my hand jovially. “We are all still looking,” he said. “We have a lot of criteria, and it is very hard to find the right woman.” He detailed to me how she cannot be from too rich a family, too poor a family, how she must be educated. “Maybe we are too picky,” he concluded, as if quoting Seinfeld.

Eventually, or inevitably, we were talking about the protests. These men had not been to Tahrir square during the recent demonstrations, and Maged was critical of Egyptians he says show up at the square for five minutes, have their picture taken, and leave. “They are showy. Everybody wants to have his chance to be a hero,” Maged told me. “They don’t have any maxims, any values.”

But that did not mean he had any kind words for the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces. He thinks they won’t relinquish power, in part, because it means they will be prosecuted. But more than that, he argues it has to do with their training. “It’s that army arrogance that forbids them from stepping down,” he told me. “They’re taught to have this arrogance. It’s part of their job.”

He explained that military men have to be decisive and confident in order to succeed in battle, but when this skill is transferred to civilian leadership, it forms the basis for a dangerous intransigence. Maged compared their current position to his own work as a teacher. “If my students all demanded I step down, I definitely would.” I was a bit skeptical. “Really?” “Yes. Absolutely. And there are only twenty of them. Here there are thousands.”

As for the elections, Maged told me he had planned to vote for the liberal ‘Free Egyptians’ party, founded by telecommunications billionaire Naguib Sawiris. But, he said, “I won’t go if the polling places are violent. It’s better to abstain than to get killed.”

More than the possibility of violence, he was nervous about the possible electoral sweep of the Muslim Brotherhood, or even worse, the Salafi parties. Numerous news stories have described Christians in Egypt as “living in fear.” Many have found their churches attacked, and wealthier Christians are leaving the country.

Both the Muslim Brotherhood and the Salafis have made massive publicity efforts in the last year to be seen as moderate, friendly, and practical, but have clearly had no effect on Maged. “They will put curtains on the ancient monuments,” he told me, “and this will lead to a drop in tourism. They will close all the beaches.” And of course, “they will threaten Christians.” He considered the Brotherhood’s now well-known efforts at providing social services as bribery for votes, the Salafis as men who “want to take Egypt back one hundred years.”

He then relished telling me a story about a recent television show, in which Gameela Ismail, a famous anti-Mubarak activist now running for parliament, whose poster seems to be everywhere these days, debated her Salafi contender. At the end of the interview, according to Maged, she held out her hand, on national television, knowing that the Salafi man would refuse to shake it. “What, you won’t greet me?” she implored, pulling her sleeve over her hand to highlight just how socially conservative, and in her supporters’ eyes, radical, the man facing her must be (skip to the end of this video to see it). Maged beamed proudly, as if talking about his own sister when he recounted the moment.

Our interview had by this point begun to feel formal, and I wanted to go out on a limb. “If they win,” I said, “do you think Christians like you will start to miss the days of Mubarak?” He tapped my knee. “You know, I was just feeling that this morning.”

A little after midnight, they invited us to come eat liver at a restaurant call The Prince. We declined, and they told us to come back to the café anytime. I climbed in a cab and watched the five of them drift, laughing, down an alley.

Photo From Getty Images

Thursday, November 24, 2011

Tahrir Square, Seen from the Rest of Cairo pt. 2

This a refurbished version of the similarly titled post below.

A little before 4 p.m. on Tuesday I sat on a ledge across the Nile from downtown and watched a steady trickle become a rush of protesters towards Tahrir Square. A constant remark among foreigners (though an unfazing reality to most Egyptians) is how close you can be to the "action" without feeling like it. Men drank tea in front of pristinely-kept gardens and watched as protestors, including a family of four with gas masks around their necks, walked past. "Are you going to Tahrir?" I asked one of them. "God willing," he responded with a smile, "after tea."

Read the rest here

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Photos from Libya

By Amr Abdallah/Reuters

On Sunday, in a small white box of a room, stark images of the recent revolutionary battles in Libya hung on panels surrounding a large Libyan flag with gold fringe. A TV replayed major news stories from the last year, and students gazed at photos from the Libyan revolution depicting scenes of both horrible violence and celebrations of triumph.

Monday, November 21, 2011

Tahrir As Seen from the Rest of Cairo

I arrived at the office of the newspaper where I write early this afternoon. I expected the buzzing, chaotic scene where you’d find Clark Kent, a newsroom scrambling to get out the daily stories amongst the slippery, unceasing reality.

But as I walked in, three editors unhurriedly tapped out stories and edits on their computers. Every ten minutes or so, one would get a call, give directions to a reporter along the lines of “write the story, then go to the morgue,” and go back to her work. Occasionally someone would begin to speak, “did you hear that…?” and everyone would nod. The mood, overall, was somber.

A TV displayed live images from Tahrir of fires, wounds, broken glass and rocks, and an anchorwoman composed but struggling to keep up. The TV, small and grey, sits against a window, so every glance at the marches or gory hospital scenes is accompanied by a look at the skyline, full of laundry hanging from balconies, satellite dishes, the sound of wafting car horns and occasional call to prayer.

The newsroom is about two miles from Tahrir, and the neighborhood is like most of Cairo and Egypt. Save the “war zone” around Tahrir and the downtown areas of Aswan, Alexandria, Mansoura, and a few other cities, much of Egypt is tranquil. Twitter makes the violence and chaos painfully close (“How many dead…three friends have confirmed dead bodies. One died in her hands, one on camera. Other eyes.”) and at the same time far away (“I feel so helpless, what can we do other than tweet?”).

Even at the scene, the serious and the strange are pressed together. Cotton candy sellers are photographed in front of plumes of thick black smoke. Many of the clothing stores lining downtown streets stayed open through last night as vendors watched waves of people go back and forth from the battles.

On the abstract plain of politics, the buzz of perspectives from Western and Egyptian commentators rushing to the scene, either literally or intellectually, is about as hectic as the streets of downtown.  Everyone wants to make sense of what is happening, but as political parties and embassies wait to comment and support the current demonstrations, it is hard to make sense of reality past the immediate bloodshed. On Twitter, journalists went back and forth trying to figure out the official response of the Muslim Brotherhood to the events, which seemed to constantly be changing. First it sounded like they were suspending political campaigns (for elections from which, we are invariably reminded, they have the most to gain). Then it seemed they were just canceling this evening’s events.

“All this back and forth over FJP's [The Muslim Brotherhood’s party] campaign position, Joshua Hersh of the Huffington Post admitted on Twitter., “is wreaking havoc on my about-to-be-published story about the MB's political dilemma.” Thanassis Cambanis, in The Atlantic, began an article with an open question: “The spasm of state violence here over the weekend marks one of two things: either an entrenchment of military dictatorship, or the long-deferred resumption of the January 25 uprising.” Marc Lynch, a well-respected professor of political science and blogger for Foreign Policy, tempered his analysis: “I don't expect that the Tahrir fighting is going to spark a second popular revolution, but I could easily be wrong.”

At one point, reporters and activists at Tahrir claimed to have seen security forces and protest leaders negotiating. “This is quite unusual. Police and protesters are now mingling,” tweeted Ian Lee. Then, minutes later, he wrote “The kumbaya ended in spit, rocks, tear gas and rubber bullets. Protesters and police are scrambling.”

The goals of the protesters have coalesced around a demand to topple the military leadership. It’s been nearly sixty hours, and whether people will really take to the streets is still impossible to figure out, because most Egyptians are going about their lives as normal. Callers into local radio shows are saying they’re against the protests, but still blame the military leadership for them. According to journalist Lauren Bohm, residents of the poorer neighborhood of Imbaba say the protests are an “attempt to drive Egypt into chaos.”

For the first time since I’ve been in Egypt, nobody can confidently give an assessment of what is going on, what will happen, and what it means, which is probably the closest parallel yet to January. 

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Tea and Tear Gas

I’ve spent the last few hours reading the news from Tahrir square, and obviously nothing I can say here will be more informative than what you can see in the major press, though I highly recommend the analysis of The Arabist

One of the main comments that keeps popping up is that today’s violence is the worst since several particular moments during the January uprisings (generally activists are shirking away from the word “revolution” to describe those days, and now their actions are explaining why).

I sat and drank tea tonight with two new friends. One is a musicologist who has fought to preserve traditional Bedouin and Nubian styles of music from extinction (Here is some of the music he books at his theater). The other is a journalist who has written about him in the past. Now she is trying to write longer magazine stories about how Christians are dealing with the political situation, as well as profiles of some novelists, but she’s been roped into the short bursts of “on the ground” updates every outlet needs. He offered to put her in touch with some Christian activists for her longer project. “I know one, he’ll meet you at Tahrir now if you want,” he told her.

He told me that one of the major differences between what is happening now and January was that back then much of the fighting was a battle between revolutionaries and plainclothes “thugs” affiliated with the Mubarak regime. Now the primary battle is simply the protesters and the military. In January, they chanted “the people and the army are one hand!,” but tonight, they are chanting instead “the people and the people are one hand,” and “the army and the police are a dirty hand.”

Another major difference is that the revolution spread all over the country and throughout neighborhoods, as small groups of porters and young men banded together to protect their streets. This time, while protests have broken out in Alexandria, Suez, and Aswan, they have yet to spread throughout Cairo’s many neighborhoods.

It is truly bizarre just how quiet and ordinary the scenes of life are in streets even close to the protests. A few kilometers from the clashes, the scene was post-apocalyptic. Some red-cross workers were drifting through the calm haze of shisha smoke like moon men. Crowds of young activists in tight sweaters, surgical masks draped under their chins, walked away wearily from Tahrir. A man and woman wore matching bright blue hard hats with lights affixed to front.

Protests on Friday had largely dispersed by Saturday, when the military leadership ordered police to clear the square of a very small number of remaining demonstrators. The ensuing fights brought thousands back, including many who declare loudly that they are willing to “die” for the revolution. It is unclear whether real masses, including the religious groups, which stand to gain from the planned elections, will come out tomorrow. A group of liberal intellectuals is calling for a transitional national unity government to take power from the military.

Jack Shenker’s newest piece in the Guardian suggests the craziest possibility I’ve seen yet, which would involve “two rival political entities [the military leadership and a liberal coalition] potentially declaring themselves to be the country’s legitimate government.”

As I got on the subway and headed home, the journalist went back to write her story for the day and the musicologist drifted towards the crowds, which are likely spending the night. Deaths have been reported, and anyone can guess which direction the events will take.

Saturday, November 19, 2011

Twitter and Tahrir

Today, protests broke out in Tahrir square and led to a level of violence that many are calling the most intense since January.

I live about two miles away, and I’ve been watching the events on television, on Twitter, and through various publications. Twitter, as is well advertised and well known, is the best way to get instant information, but it is also deeply uncomfortable to actually get information as it happens.

I had never used Twitter in the U.S., except as a promotional tool for my band. I associated it primarily with silly, somewhat trivial attempts to bestow a bit of celebrity on everyone. Whenever I would imitate its contents, I would be sure to raise my voice to a squeal and jeer "OMG, I've baked a chocolate cake!."

When numerous articles appeared in the U.S. press about the role of Twitter in the January uprisings, I usually skipped over them. I chalked them up to a preoccupation with hip, easy answers, over a real analysis of what led to the revolution. Twitter feels particularly remote when you see how campaign materials for candidates feature symbols, one for each candidate, including a mango, a tank, a palm tree, and a motorcycle, in order to reach illiterate voters.

Today, however, I looked on and read the short bursts of writing with an obsessive concentration. Twitter throws at you in a constant mix of the simple and documentary (“Man parading police cuffs and shouting allahu akbar”), the cynical (“Egyptians talk about varieties of tear gas like Californians talk about wine”), the analytical and the predictive (“Needless to say, the Egyptian elections are in serious peril right now.”).

Then there’s the bemused (“Every few mins, a bunch of ppl start jetting in one direction and everyone panics and follows. Then ppl calm down and have a good laugh.”), the slightly self-important (“Molotov rocks glass you name it and I'm in the middle of it”), and finally the practical (“Just saw 6 CSF [Central Security Forces] trucks driving thru side streets by Sayyida Zeinab metro heading 2 #Tahrir. Be careful”).

But often in a single sentence you find a mixture of the banal, the silly, and the horrifying that shirks away adjectives and crosses your emotional wires. Throughout the evening, posts reported that several well-known activists and bloggers had lost an eye in the gunfire.

It is difficult to convey emotions through text on the Internet, but people found personal methods. “Malek lost his eye…my friend. Why?” posted a popular blogger who goes by the name The Big Pharaoh. Another blogger, Sandmonkey who is now running for President under his real name, Mahmoud Salem, registered shock through capitalizing letters (which can be done in English, but not in Arabic): “What? Malek LOST HIS EYE?”

Nagla Rik tweeted “Painful beyond words” in response to Amr Gharbeia, who wrote “In transit to hospital with my long time friend and comrade Malek. He lost his right eye today in #Tahrir.”

Some responded with corrections to other misinformed Twitter users: “Malek Mustafa lost his right eye, Not the left one :(”

I winced when I saw a sad face emoticon in response to someone losing an eye, but then I saw this message:

“Omg. Graphic> VIDEO: Egyptian activist Malek Moustafa loses his right eye from CSF rubber bullets”

The author, Hadear Kandil, has a simple, one line biography above her tweets: “I exist in real life too.”

Friday, November 18, 2011

Photos from "Friday of Protecting Democracy"

Thousands of demonstrators filled Tahrir square today. Primarily, they were demanding that the cabinet refuse to approve a constitutional amendment giving sweeping powers to the military even after the transition to civilian rule. You can find a lot of commentary on their demands from various press sources. I've posted a mess of photos on Facebook. I was particularly struck by a set of political cartoons posted on a wall between the American University campus and Hardee's. Here are two of them:

Mubarak operates Field Marshall Tantawy (current de facto leader of Egypt) who in turn operates the "parties," "police," and "thugs."

"The [Military] Council strongly supports 'Freedom of Opinion'"

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Debating Press Freedom in Egypt, and Everywhere Else

Freedom House, the organization that rates the level of "freedom" in countries around the world and assigns scores, rated Egypt "not free" last year. America, was of course, rated "free." This year the verdict is still out, and more than ever the idea of rating such things seems farcical.
Because what I've been learning in Egypt is that freedom is not condensible. It's a complex mixture of history and the personal experiences of journalists themselves, who in countries both "free" and "not free" exercise varying degrees of self-censorship for varying reasons.
Egypt's state-owned newspapers once exercised a self-censorship under the Mubarak government, when all the editors were appointed. Now, editors in charge of these publications are trying to work out their relationship to the military leaders. Ibrahim Eissa, editor of the independent paper Al-Tahrir, thinks it's an issue of culture. He described the situation at state-owned papers to the Guardian earlier this year as one of "journalists who lived and worked under the 30-year regime. There was only one ideology and opinion. They know only loyalty and hypocrisy."
Nevertheless, journalists have started to take to the streets like every other professional group. Manar Ammar of Bikya Masr reported a little over a month ago on journalists holding demonstrations against the military leadership's new censorship impositions. Columnists have left their columns blank, and last week talk-show host Yosri Fouda pulled his show from the air for three weeks to protest pressure he had been receiving from the military leadership.
On Sunday, I attended a seminar called "Media in Transition" at the headquarters of the national newspaper Al-Ahram. About a hundred people sat in Muhammad Hassan Heikal Hall, named for the first editor in chief of Al-Ahram after it was nationalized in the 1950s. He was a close friend of Gamal Abdel Nasser and he instituted a culture of self-censorship that many feel has lasted to this day. "This is a guy who has never met a conspiracy theory he doesn't like," wrote an anonymous commenter on The Arabist blog.
As the talks began, editors of Al-Ahram made vague statements about the problems that must be addressed. "Under authoritarian rule," said Abdel-Fattah El-Gebaly, Al-Ahram board chairman, "Egypt was better in terms of journalism than China, because of its deeply rooted ethics and values." Mohamed Sabreen, Deputy Editor in Chief said his paper was "hijacked" by the Mubarak regime, but is now "for the people."
Once the floor opened up, Al Ahram journalists railed against the buck-passing of their leaders. After the revolution, journalist Karem Yehia said, "we found advertisements on behalf of SCAF," the ruling military council. "What is that? A political bribe? What about the military trials of civilians? Not a word was published on that." The audience, composed largely of other Al-Ahram reporters, applauded.

Saturday, November 12, 2011

An Egyptian in Texas, 1975

On Friday, Egyptian authorities closed down the Pyramids, citing “necessary maintenance.” The real reasons had been spreading for several days. Rumors and scattered articles had been saying that a New Age group from Poland wanted to hold a “meditation ‘ceremony of love’ to strengthen the power of the pyramid in that special day (11-11-2011) to save the earth from cosmic threats.” (This is according to a state-owned newspaper called, Al-Ahram, which means The Pyramids).

At the newspaper office where I have been writing, this story got a lot of laughs. Ancient Egypt and its mysteries, while they exert a hold on the fascination of many, have very little to do with contemporary Egypt. Sometimes modern leaders are called Pharaohs, and sometimes there is a heated political battle over antiquities. But in essence, the connection between modern daily life in Egypt and the great cultural associations the rest of the world has with Egypt is a thin one. Many Egyptians, maybe even most, have not visited the Pyramids, and they are as likely to don a headdress as I, a native-born Texan, am likely to pack my six-shooters and go rope cattle.

In this way, I think Egypt and Texas have something special in common. Both exist with a firm divide between their real history and the Hollywood version. Countless people I’ve met in the Middle East have heard of three places in the U.S.: New York, California, and Texas. Several times the name of my home state has elicited hands formed into guns and joking shouts of “bang-bang!” When I was young, my parents took me to Turkey, and the concierge at our hotel in Istanbul asked us to send him back a ten-gallon hat.

In 1975, Egyptian president Anwar Sadat was trying to curry favor with American leaders. Two years before, he had led the attack against Israel to retake the Sinai peninsula, but soon after his real goal became to open up Egypt to Western economic markets. He made a diplomatic trip with his wife Jehan to the U.S., which included 23 hours in Texas. The lead sentence from the New York Times article about the visit was not about policy or negotiations:

Nov. 1-- Texans showed President Anwar el-Sadat of Egypt here today how they used to rob banks. They introduced him to some make-believe "soiled doves," or prostitutes, of the Wild West, gave him a Colt .45 six-shooter and made him an honorary Texas Ranger.

The Associated Press had more details:

Egyptian President Anwar Sadat ended a 23-hour Texas visit filled with barbeque, banquets, space ships and cowboys Saturday and carried away with him a glimpse of the technological future and a rememberance [sic] of the more lycrical [sic] past.

Jehan Sadat
Sadat and his wife were guests of honor Saturday at a rodeo, horse show and mock shootout at the Glenlock Farms Arabian horse spread north of Houston. He also lunched on Texas barbeque.

Host Hugh Roy Marshall held the western show in his huge dirt-floored show barn and the Egyptian president and his wife seemed to enjoy immensely the ridin’, ropin’, and wrangling’.

This wonderful nugget is from Texas Monthly:

Marshall says the Secret Service found one live round while examining the blank cartridges to be used in the reenactment, which must have done little to reassure them. Even Sadat seemed ‘ a little bit jolted’ when both barrels of a double-barreled shotgun were fired simultaneously, recalls Marshall.

Of course, when American politicians visit Egypt, they see the Pyramids and the Egyptian Museum, which is filled with Ancient artifacts. Texans, apparently, wanted to give Sadat a full, light and sound depiction of the mythology associated with their state, as a place of bank robbers, cattle rustlers, and sharp shooters. But slipped in among the cultural pageantry, one could see the beginnings of the very serious, diplomatic exchanges that would pave the way for subsequent history:

“Marshall, in making a presentation to Sadat, deplored the disparity between the numbers of U.S. weapons supplied to Israel and to Egypt. He then gave Sadat a 100-year-old Texas Rangers pistol which he said was ‘an installment on the defensive arms that will be given to Egypt. Just as Texas Rangers used this pistol to put an end to lawlessness and injustice, so may it serve Egypt.”

Monday, November 7, 2011

Blood in the Streets

On Sunday morning, we took a walk around the neighborhood. Since 3 a.m. or so the night before, butchers all over the country had been busy. Every year at this time, the Holiday of the Sacrifice (Eid al-Adha), Muslim families who can afford to do so have a sheep or a cow slaughtered. They keep a third, give a third to family and neighbors, and give a third to the poor. This marks the end of the pilgrimage undertaken by over a million to Mecca each year.

A little after 7, the holiday prayers ended and the sacrifices proceeded. We woke up around 10 to total silence. For several days a sheep had been braying incessantly outside our window. “The Silence of the Lambs” was literal.

We stepped out of our apartment and walked towards a butcher shop down the street, just out on the main road. The twenty or thirty sheep crowded together the day before had disappeared, and a teenager was dismantling the makeshift wooden pen. We had to watch our feet carefully as we toed around the large pools of watered-down blood covering the tile. Two sheep remained. One had the family name "Ali" written on its side in red spray-paint. The same young boy led the two sheep over to a wall where several handprints had been made with blood, as if to mimic the set of a B-horror movie, or a children's art project. The wall was painted the colors of the Egyptian flag. Another boy emerged from the shop and proudly displayed a sheep's severed head.

A group of men were sitting around a shisha pipe. They saw Emily's camera and urged her to take their picture. "He's the king!" one shouted, pointing to a large, smiling man in a gallabiya who had the look of relaxation only possible after long hours of hard work. "The king of meat!"

Another man repeated it over and over again and everyone laughed a little too hard, doubling over, perhaps delirious from the lack of sleep.

Across the street and down an alley, where we usually buy vegetables, the same scene played on repeat. Men in white boots tirelessly carved the last sheep and cows, while women and children gathered around and watched. At first it seemed a little barbaric, and then I thought this may be preferable to the way we hide meat production in the U.S. Certainly this was cleaner, less nauseating; the slaughters were so fresh you hardly smelled anything.

Usually the adjective "surreal" feels like a cop out. Anything weird or hard to place about a mood is called "surreal." But this walk around the neighborhood merited the word: the smiles of kids on holiday next to the sheep scared out of their minds, the hazy exhaustion on everyone's faces combined with pure, momentary joy.

Egypt is nearing its first technically democratic election, but excitement is tempered with confusion. Some parliamentary seats are proportional and based on party lists, and others are directly elected. Some are appointed. Some must be reserved for "workers or farmers" (a holdover from Nasser's socialist leanings in the 1960's). The polling will happen over the course of several months, with initial results held (by who? how?) until all the votes are in. The whole thing is relentlessly complicated, and that is before you consider the parties, coalitions, ideologies, and demographics, religious and secular, liberal and conservative, old and young, revolutionary and cautious.

The juxtaposition of joy and fear and hope and apprehension and life and death that floods your senses on the streets during the holiday gave me a concrete way of thinking about the abstractions of politics. An American friend in Cairo asked me the other day, "How do you describe the 'situation' in Egypt to people back home? I don't know how to do it. It just feels like everyone is waiting."

About a month ago, clashes led to the deaths of over twenty protestors (I wrote about the coverage here and here). Human rights groups are still releasing reports and holding press conferences, hashing out the degree of the military's responsibility. Last week, a prisoner named Essam Atta was reportedly tortured to death. A blogger is on a hunger strike. Outrage is all over Twitter and blogs and the independent press, but protest numbers remain small. The same revolutionaries who toured the world as heroes after February are struggling to bring real numbers back to Tahrir. It has been explained to me numerous times that most Egyptians, which the Western press has been dubbing the "Silent Majority," are too apprehensive about what would happen if they really stopped trusting the military leadership to risk it, even as the atrocities build up.

In the meantime, many Egyptian intellectuals, older ones mostly, do believe the military wants to step out of power and hold elections. At a lecture I attended last week, a newspaper editor repeated over and over that he treats the military as a "caretaker government."

After the holiday, everyone will go back to work and the real campaigning for the elections will begin. Today, I saw little more than a hoof or a bit of wool around the streets. As I walked to dinner at a fancy hotel restaurant (many local places are closed) a donkey cart passed by heaped with lambskins. The driver had a devious smile on his face. When he saw that I was staring absentmindedly at the pile, he took his whip and smacked the ground. The crack was so loud that I jumped and he laughed at me.

At dinner, another friend, who curates at an art gallery, told me that during the Mubarak days, a government agent would call every month and ask for a description of all of the gallery's programming. The director would describe the month's exhibits, having taken care to excise anything politically controversial. "Then, after the revolution," she said, "he just disappeared." The gallery staff felt like they could program anything, and though an exhibit criticizing the military leadership might be taboo, there was certainly a sense of freedom. Then, last week, he called for the first time since February: the same man, with the same job in the same bureaucracy.

“So now the army is watching?” I asked. She shrugged.

Photos by Emily Smith

Saturday, November 5, 2011

A Texan in Egypt, 1951

On days when I’m still getting over the sinus problems of the black cloud (caused by crop burning north of Cairo), I explore Google's recesses and type in pairs of search terms that I think might bear fruit. In 2008, Google began an ambitious effort to digitize newspaper archives around the world. What made the pages of the Milwaukee Sentinel one day in 1955 or 1976? The Austin American-Statesman? The Robesonian? (of Lumberton, North CarolinaLike I said, ambitious).

The project didn’t last long, but the results really get my imagination going. I’m sure one day they will spark a lengthy, if slightly frivolous, research project. Lately, the pair of search terms I’ve used are the two places I’ve recently called home: Texas and Egypt.

Less than a year before Egypt’s 1952 revolution, a Texan named Glenn McCarthy took a trip to Egypt. McCarthy was only famous among Texans, but soon he would be immortalized as the character named Jett Rink in the novel Giant, and played by James Dean in the movie version. 

He was an oil tycoon, a wildcatter (he was dubbed King of the Wildcatters), who lived out the distinctly Texan variety of the American rags to riches story. When he got married at age 23, he claimed he had $1.50 in his pocket. Just after his fortieth birthday, he spent 21 million dollars to build the lavish Shamrock Hotel in Houston. He was on the cover of Time magazine, and famous for getting drunk, getting into fights and making wild business deals.

“The stereotype of the raw, hard-living, bourbon-swilling, fistfighting, cash-tossing, damn-the-torpedoes Texas oil millionaire did not exist before Glenn McCarthy rocketed into the national imagination in the late 1940s,” explains Vanity Fair writer Bryan Burrough. “No other Texas oilman ever rose so high or fell so hard.”

But McCarthy knew that oil wouldn’t be an endless resource in Texas. So, like many of his contemporaries, he looked east, to the Middle East, as the new place the world would go for oil and the fortunes that would come with it.

In 1951, McCarthy went to Egypt, and attempted to buy a 51% share of the National Petroleum Company, which was mostly controlled by the British. Less than a year later, his oil fortunes would crumble, only in part because Gamal Abdel Nasser, leading a group of army officers, took over Egypt in a 1952 coup and nationalized the oil industry.

When I found that picture above, which is in Burrough’s history of Texas oil wealth, The Big Rich (a great read), I wanted to know what it was like for Glenn McCarthy when he came here. What did this once poor, now ostentatiously wealthy Texan think of Egypt? Of the Pyramids? Of the bustling streets of Cairo when he visited in 1951? How did the man who once had $1.50 to his name feel when he realized he could impact the entire economy of a country of millions? 

Photo from Vanity Fair

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Meeting the Man Behind the Nobel Prize

Naguib Mahfouz

About a month ago, the Swedish Academy awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature to Tomas Transtromer. Two weeks later, I met a man named Sture Allén, who for over a decade served as the Academy’s “permanent secretary.” His job, from 1986 to 1999 was to lead the Academy and announce the winner each year.

“Publishers and writers throughout the world sit with their radios on, waiting for the news,” he told the New Yorker’s Michael Specter in 1998. “It is the time of the highest glory, dignity, and achievement. And they are all waiting. They are all waiting for me.”

Sture Allén came to Cairo to give a lecture on the Nobel Prize in general, and on Naguib Mahfouz, the most famous Egyptian writer of the 20th century, who achieved worldwide fame partially due to the fact that he won the prize in 1988. (This blog is named after one of his novels).

When I arrived, a crowd of older intellectuals and a few young literature students chatted as light jazz was piped in by hidden speakers. This room, the Oriental Hall, looks like a museum to a colonial fantasy of the Arab world, with elaborate latticework and hanging lantern lights. Mahfouz’s wife and two daughters sat in the front row. Above the stage, a large photo of Mahfouz loomed over the scene.

Sture Allen
Allén is now well into his eighties, with a full head of white hair that he combs to the side. He was wearing a grey, wool suit and blue tie with gold stripes that looked a little like prize ribbons. When he speaks, everyone around him quiets down, due to both his poised, powerful gravitas, as well as the fact that he speaks very quietly.

Naguib Mahfouz, who would have turned 100 this year, grew up in a lower middle-class family in Cairo. Throughout his long literary career, he wrote by night and worked by day as a civil servant, first in the Ministry of Religious affairs, and then, when many came to believe he was an atheist, in the Ministry of Culture. He remained single until age 43. His novels were banned in many Arab countries in 1978, when he supported the Camp David peace talks between Egypt and Israel.

In 1989, he defended Salman Rushdie against a fatwa calling for his death, while also saying Rushdie’s book, The Satanic Verses, was “insulting” to Muslims. Mahfouz himself had written a book in 1959, Children of Gebelawi, that brought him death threats from Omar Abdul-Rahman, a sheikh later blamed for influencing the 1993 World Trade Center bombing. In 1994, when Mahfouz was 82, a follower of Abdul-Rahman stabbed him in the neck. Mahfouz survived.  

In 1988, Mahfouz won the Nobel Prize in Literature. In his acceptance, he credited the Arab language as “the real winner of the prize.” Then he declared:

“I am the son of two civilizations that at a certain age in history have formed a happy marriage. The first of these, seven thousand years old, is the Pharaonic civilization; the second, one thousand four hundred years old, is the Islamic one.”

Sture Allén went to Cairo in 1988 to meet Mahfouz. The author gave the linguist a copy of Adrift on the Nile, a story about indolent youth hanging out on a houseboat during Nasser’s rule. 

Over the course of an hour lecture, Allén managed, through the sheer lethargy of his speech, to leak the mystery out of the Nobel Prize like a balloon while simultaneously preserving the award’s stately majesty. A computational linguist by profession, Allén began by giving a linguistic history of the name “Nobel,” a very dry account in which he seemed to take great joy.

He then analyzed the linguistics of the Swedish adjectives Alfred Nobel had used in his instructions for who should win the award. He explained how the King of Sweden wanted the Academy to have twenty members, but the Swedish word for twenty was not  “sonorous” enough, so he instead made it eighteen members, because eighteen, arton, is apparently “very sonorous” in Swedish. “Interesting, but stuffy,” I scribbled down in my notebook.

After a ceremonial ribbon cutting of an exhibition in Mahfouz’s honor, journalists waited in line for brief interviews with Allén. The dynamic between us was awkward. The reporters for state-owned newspapers sort of snickered at me, the American, decades younger, from an independent paper. 

Flustered, I made rookie mistakes left and right. The press representative, a brusque woman with thick makeup and a screechy voice told me to have a seat in the interview room. I took a brief walk through the exhibition, and then returned, to find Allén in the room with a reporter. I crept in and took a seat quietly.

The press woman came back and waved for me to come out, though not before interrupting the interview to chastise me. “You cannot be in there!” she shouted. “She [the other reporter] has to feel free to ask him anything without you listening!”

I said I was sorry and rushed out. The focus on secrecy was totally perplexing, and reminded me of the red tape that Mahfouz writes about in many of his accounts of Egyptian bureaucracy.

Finally, I was allowed to enter. I apologized to Allén for disrupting him, and he just sort of looked at me without much expression on his face. We sat side by side, uncomfortably close on a small couch, and I pulled out my recorder. I stumbled through some questions I had written, eventually ending up on one about how in 1989, several members of the Academy had quit when Allén kept the organization from publicly supporting Salman Rushdie. “Rooshdie,” he corrected me, a little brazenly. “There is no Ruh-shdie.”

“Oh,” I said. “I didn’t know.”

Allén’s antipathy against using the weight of the Academy’s name towards anything even remotely political is sharp. He recognizes how long it took for writers from non-Western countries to win, but says that’s only a matter of translation. He admits that in order to win an author must be translated into English, French, or Swedish, but won’t go any farther to say there is a political dimension to it. He proudly reiterated the Academy’s autonomy from the Swedish government. “Don’t call the government and tell them who should win,” he says. “They won’t tell us.” Then he waits for silence and pronounces: “Good. You understand.”

“But why is it all so secretive?,” I asked, admittedly showing on my face that I was unconvinced. Allén looked a little offended. “There have been stories,” he said, “of people committing suicide when they did not win. But let’s not talk about these things. Do you have anything else?”

Allén only let down his guard twice the entire evening. The first time was when he quoted Mahfouz’s lecture in acceptance of the award. Allén became teary as he recounted Mahfouz’s insistence that Arabic really won the award, and he was just the language’s fortunate representative. 

During our interview, Allén became almost boyish as he described the awe he still feels for the award, the way everyone in the world literary community waits for the news that for so many years he was privileged to announce.

No matter how controversial, how ideological the award becomes, Allén clings, with a soberness that masks the youthful awe underneath, to this idea of a literary power that rises above all things. Although this can breed skepticism, we all want to believe that too, as we cluster around our radios and wait.