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. 

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