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.

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