Thursday, December 22, 2011

Disillusionment in Tahrir

Disillusionment has been creeping over the protest movement throughout the past week. It started on the streets, where battle on several side streets near Tahrir led to the building of mass stone barricades, large square stones of differing sizes with rounded edges that sit one on top of the other, to allow bits of light to peer through.

The disillusionment continued to bubble up as elections grinded through the run-offs of the second phase (the fourth of six distinct pairs of election days and runoffs- how un-cathartic), with low turn-out as the Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party and the more conservative Salafi Nour party compete for a few scattered seats.

Over ten protesters have been killed, Sheikh Emad Effat of Al Azhar has been shot, an anonymous woman has been very publicly stripped and beaten, and hundreds have been injured as outrage continued to flow online and throughout downtown streets as mini-marches wove through the major arteries amongst brightly-lit clothing stores and cafes that used to close for violence but now stay open. Every week, you hear that big numbers will return “this Friday...,” but they never do. The Supreme Council of the Armed Forces continues to blame instability on a conspiratorial “plot.”

“What is perhaps most disturbing is that the weekend's battle,” wrote Steven Cook in Foreign Policy, “didn’t seem to have a point.”

One can see disillusionment soaking through the normally snappy tone of Western journalists and commentators. For unsurprising reasons, most American reporters side with the protest movement, or at least have a deeply seeded desire to see the little guy win. This week they could not keep that feeling out of their writing, even if they wanted to. Cook is both critical of the protesters and disappointed in them. “With all the creativity and energy that went into bringing Mubarak down and is currently going into plans to transform Egyptian society, there has also been much narcissism and revolutionary navel-gazing,” he writes. “The instigators of Mubarak's fall have seemed to be more focused on burnishing their revolutionary cred on Twitter and Facebook -- which are not accessible to the vast majority of Egyptians -- than doing the hard work of political organizing.”

The revolutionaries themselves produce the darkest prose. Novelist and public intellectual Alaa Al Aswany told Robert Fisk this week “The biggest mistake of the revolution was that overthrowing Mubarak was too good to be true.” A blogger who goes by Zeinobia wrote caustically: “We do not plan. We only react and do not accept criticism and everybody has its own agenda over the country’s best interest.” “We are repeating our mistakes and unfortunately we are paying huge price from blood and souls by repeating these he mistakes we commit over and over in these battles or rather traps.”

It certainly felt like a trap when I took a walk near the barricades a few nights ago. Bits of light shot through the stones stacked up as several hundred protesters milled and waited. A few teenagers jumped in rhythm, bouncing a flag and singing chants as if at a soccer game. A gaggle of even younger kids were throwing stones over the wall, some speeding up as others grew bored. Behind barbed wire, next to the wall, military policemen in oversized helmets stood and watched, letting the rocks flutter over their heads.   “This is stupid,” my friend said, as if chastising. “Someone should stop them.” Everyone seemed to be waiting for a provocation, an act demanding a reaction, and a statement blaming the other side.

The most painful soliloquy came from a blogger, Sandmonkey, whose real name is Mahmoud Salem. He was the best example of a seasoned activist turned green politician. After participating as a major figure in January and February, he decided to run for parliament. He lost (“fair and square,” he admits) and then went to run a campaign for someone in Suez, where he described sobering violations and violence. He came to believe that the poll workers were helping the ultra-conservative Nour party. At one point, he sent one of his own men into a vote-counting station dressed as a Salafi.  The fake Salafi was told by Army personnel that “they hooked them up with two seats, while winking.”
Salem is convinced that the military is aiding the Salafi’s as a repeat of 2005, when Mubarak held a “free” election, in which he allowed Muslim Brotherhood members to win a modest, but large number of seats. He hoped to show Egypt’s liberals and a Bush-administration high on the democracy-promotion message after failures in Iraq, that without Mubarak, they’d get Saudi-style theocracy.
Egyptian liberals are consistent in telling this story, so they see the same thing going on now. Only now, the Brotherhood, Salem writes, “are not scary enough for the general population. But the Salafis? Terrifying shit.”
Salem, when not dissecting the backstage movements of political powers, spins pity. “We clashed with the military,” he says “and we forgot the people, and we let that small window that shows up maybe every 100 years where a nation is willing to change, to evolve, to go to waste.”

“There is a disconnect between the revolutionaries and the people,” he continues “and that disconnect exists in regards of priorities. Our priorities are a civilian government, the end of corruption, the reform of the police, judiciary, state media and the military, while their priorities are living in peace and putting food on the table. And we ignore that, or belittle it, telling them that if they want this they should support what we want, and deriding their economic fears by telling them that things will be rough for the next 3 to 5 years, but afterwards things will get better on the long run. Newsflash, the majority of people can’t afford having it even rougher for 3 to 5 years.”
Salem closes: “There is no solution. It’s the unstoppable force meeting the immovable object. There must be a way out, but I can’t seem to find one without more blood getting spilled. There is no panacea here, no exit strategy. Just helplessness, and waiting for whatever it is that will happen next, even though we can rest assured it won’t be good news. I am sorry that I cannot comfort you, but maybe, just maybe, this is not the time to be comforted.”
My own embassy looked a little naive when they shared the post on Twitter. “Provocative/engaging analysis,” they wrote. “What do others think?” I felt naive, too. 

I often find myself frustrated with the way so many young American writers pretend to the neutral tone of their favorite newspapers, while shamelessly siding with the protest movement. In the meantime, analysts like those at Stratfor or the Council on Foreign Relations, pride themselves on not getting involved in the messiness of solidarity. When I think and write, I am trying to personally weave a path between the two trends, because after all I cannot deny a certain wistful hopefulness that the eager protesters come out on top, but I also cannot deny the occasional glib reaction to that hopefulness. In such moments, writing about Egypt as an innocent abroad  proves nearly impossible. 

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