Sunday, January 29, 2012

The Split Screen and the Trapped Americans

In a taxi this morning, I overheard the driver mouthing to himself the words “Down, down with military rule.” The phrase has a memorable cadence in Arabic, and I’ve noticed a lot of people on the metro, in buses, and on the street forming their lips into the weekend’s chants. Like a catchy song from a party the night before, it feels more like an after effect, a trace of a memory that lingers on the lips but fades with the day.

I stepped into the office, where a big television on the far wall showed a split screen. Usually split screens are utilized when there are two important events going on that both need to be monitored: anti-regime protesters in Tahrir and pro-regime protesters in Abbasiya, street battles in Syria and elections in Egypt, a live interview and a tense sit-in. Last year, the most dramatic split screens showed a composed Mubarak next to raging throngs of protesters.

Today, however, the split screen seemed like it was trying to double up on the visual stimulation in the absence of any real stories. On one side, Tahrir square was totally empty save for a few tattered tents. Traffic filled the spaces where thousands had chanted on Friday. On the other side of the screen, the camera panned through polling stations, as today is the first election day for the Shura Council (the upper house of parliament). The channel’s producers jumped between rooms, pictures of boxes and booths in a quick, fidgety rhythm, because the sad fact is that nobody had come out to vote. Voters are exhausted from numerous rounds, runoffs, and reruns, while parties campaign less because they feel the results are pretty much preordained. Some polling stations had as few as five voters throughout the entire morning. Judges and poll workers looked bored, drinking their tea and gazing around the empty classrooms.

I turned on the computer and logged onto Twitter. I found a brief exchange from the night before:

Amiralx: Oh so tomorrow starts shoura council elections, anyone actually voting?

CarterTroy: I think everyone but the Ikhwan and salafi said, "fuck it."

Amiralx: hmm..i think i'll do the same.

Amira (who I have written about here) was voicing a common perspective among anti-military protesters, who failed to win many seats in the People’s Assembly elections, failed to turn the revolution’s anniversary into its renewal, and now are trying to figure out what comes next.

The official transition, with new elections and a parliament that met for the first time last week, trudges along like a train that left to cheers but now has hit the lonely open track of politics,where change, unlike at Tahrir, happens very slowly and without much fanfare. 

This split screen has been developing over the course of the year, but it never felt as normalized and lackluster as it did today. 

Americans I’ve talked to in Cairo are all talking about the recent news that the Egyptian government is barring several Americans who work for U.S. NGO’s from leaving. The most famous of the trapped Americans is Sam LaHood, whose father is the U.S. Secretary of Transportation and the highest-ranking Republican in the Obama administration. The SCAF is sending a delegation to Washington, while articles high on speculation and short on information keep coming out about it. 

The issue really is about the lack of any mechanisms for anyone, particularly journalists, to find anything out about what happens in the black box of Egyptian bureaucracy. The New Yorker’s Wendell Steavenson took a broad, unassuming view. “Several times in Egypt, digging into a story that doesn’t seem to make any sense, I have become quickly enmeshed in a web,” she wrote. “It is impossible to separate the strands of corruption and government fiefdom from subsidy and bureaucracy, personal relationships, inefficiency, and the theory of fuck-up.”

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