Egypt's New Year's Eve did not have the usual mix of cheer and nostalgia we've given it in the states. It’s not normally an important holiday, and is commonly celebrated by the Coptic minority more than the Muslim majority. Last year, on New Year’s Eve, a church in Alexandria was bombed, killing 20 and wounding over a hundred. The failure of the government to investigate the attack was one of many strands that twisted together to bring people into the streets in late January.
This year, the press covered memorials for last year’s violence side by side with the small celebrations at Tahrir to ring in the new year. A small stage sat next to the square, and people shot off fireworks, held small white candles, and watched some very old Coptic men with black robes and long beards struggle to hold a tune over a live band playing nationalist songs. Many shouted apolitical chants- “freedom,” “Blessed be Egypt!” mixed with the more pointed “Down with the military regime!” Threading through the crowd young men in kufiyehs handed out stickers calling for the release of Maikel Nabil, who has been in prison for about nine months since suggesting that the army never should have been trusted to guide the transition. Many spread their fingers into peace signs.
The political chants and protest elements of New Year’s Eve were tentative and tepid. Since that evening, I’ve come to feel as though activists are waiting for the anniversary of January 25th, hoping that the memorializing will take a forward-looking, and, perhaps for the most optimistic among them, an angrily populist turn.
“Naturally political movements, parties and groups are planning to celebrate the first anniversary of the uprising on Jan. 25, possibly through calls for million man marches against military rule,” wrote my editor Rania Al Malky in an editorial published last week. “But over the past two weeks, SCAF has turned this cause for celebration to a potential apocalypse, casting a dark shadow of fear and horror over the memory of the resurrection of Egypt’s spirit of freedom in a way that reflects their true take on the colossal events that have uprooted their very legitimacy.”
“The countdown to January 25 has started,” she concluded.
Last night while walking home I ran into S, a friend from my time at the American University in Cairo who now works for a public relations firm. I had run into her several times around Tahrir in the past few months, and she is a lot like Mustafa (who I wrote about last week), a young, committed anti-regime activist unaffiliated with any movement but always ready to show up and shout.
S is short, speaks quickly, wears a lot of black, and often posts impassioned, pithy political statements on her Facebook. I walked her towards a posh café near the iconic statue of Um Kulthum, Egypt’s most famous singer, and she told me that during the recent elections she had taken her PR skills and worked for the campaign of Mahmoud Salem.
Salem, who is better known by his blog nickname Sandmonkey, and who I have quoted at length here, was one of the only revolutionary youth activists to run for office. When he lost, he became campaign manager for his party in another district. He has since written a long, disgusted blog post and given several public addresses about how demoralizing, violent, and dishonest he found the whole experience. He believes that the army was helping radical Salafi candidates win to scare the rest of the public into the military’s arms.
I asked S what that was like to work for Salem, and she responded, almost reflexively, “It was hard to keep it clean.” “What do you mean?” I pressed, and she explained her conviction that most of the other campaigns spread false rumors about each other and even resorted to violent harassment on a regular basis.
Trying to put some hope back into the awkward silence that often follows such dour political assessments, I asked her about January 25th, 2011, which is fast approaching. She perked back up and explained that the 25th will mean a lot of different things to a lot of different people.
First, January 25th is still Police Day. This was one of the reasons so many people came out last year (because they have work off and because they don’t like the police), and it is likely that the lack of reform in the police forces will lead the same people angry about it last year to return. Second, there are the families and more apolitical segments of Egyptian society who will come out simply for the anniversary of the revolution’s beginning. Only third, in her list, came the real diehard anti-military council activists calling for the council to step down just as Mubarak did nearly a year ago.
As she crossed the street and I waved goodbye, I felt a disconnect: Her thoughts on the 25th were wary and worried, her tone was full of excitement.