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. 

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