Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Review of Ahdaf Soueif's new memoir Cairo: My City, Our Revolution

I did not fully appreciate novelist Ahdaf Soueif’s new memoir Cairo: My City, Our Revolution until I read portions of the text out loud. Some of Souief’s longer sentences are scarcely readable in one breath, and only when you try to squeeze them into a single gust of air and run out halfway through you see the ambition of her undertaking. Souief wants to capture the breathless passion of the events that brought down Mubarak just over a year ago. At the same time, she wants to pack in an ode to her city, filled with memories of personal and political history and their intersections. If that were not enough, Souief admits that she only had a few months to write and edit the entire book, where some of her novels benefited from years of revision.

Cairo: My City, Our Revolution is part of what will one day be called the first wave of revolution memorial literature, rushed out by publishers to take advantage of the Arab Spring’s hold on the Western imagination. Souief, whose celebrated fiction has dealt subtly with time and memory, admits to readers that they will encounter the book with knowledge of what has happened since.

Her ambivalence over how quickly her writing might date itself manifests as a crafted flutter between tenses. “I could not write what was fast becoming the past without writing the present,” she explains, “This book is not a record of an event that’s over; it’s an attempt to welcome you into, to make you part of, an event that we’re still living.” 

Friday, February 24, 2012

Ismailia and the Suez Canal Part 2: "The People Who Dug, Who Died"

We climbed aboard a bus and headed to the home of Ferdinand De Lesseps, the man who is credited as the creator of the Suez Canal. “This building,” explained our tour guide Khaled, from the Suez Canal Authority public relations department, “is a historical building.”

I passed the kitchen and saw some lettuce on the counter and some men about to chop it. Several Qur’anic verses were posted on the wall above an old short wave radio. We entered De Lesseps’ living room and admired the old furniture, the old books, and the old antiques. “This is the horn of an animal,” he said, “Maybe to hold something?” He motioned to a tiny bed in the corner of the bedroom. “I think at this time,” he speculated, “they were very small, these people.”

A few students took down volumes from Napoleon’s Description de l’Egypte from a shelf and leafed through. Khaled gestured towards a small hole in the wall. “This,” he announced, “is a bullet hole.”

 “Which war is it from?” I asked him.

“There were many wars…1967 or 1973.” Then he squinted and leaned in. “Nope! It says 1941! It must be World War II!”

Back on the bus, to a compound labeled “Suez Canal Authority Maritime Training and Simulation.” Khaled led us up a stairway smelling of stale cigarettes and/or fresh paint to a sort of classroom with a big white dais and new cerulean movie seats. He wore a four button brown suit and spoke very, very confidently about the history of the canal. This is the room, he told us, where pilots spend a week learning about how to guide ships through the notoriously difficult waterways as they widen, narrow, and turn. “We have capable pilots,” he said, “to transit the canal firmly, and effectively.”

Khaled had a big, domineering voice. I have heard many public speakers pause for emphasis and repeat for clarity, but he did both to a sort of glorious excess. Examples:

“The Suez Canal was started in eighteen fifty-nine. Eighteen. Fifty. Nine.”

“Four million lived in Egypt during the digging of the canal. One point five million people participated in the digging of the canal. Four million. Four million lived in Egypt during the digging of the canal. And one hundred twenty thousand died during the digging of such a canal. One hundred twenty. Thousand.”

To Khaled’s credit, the facts are scarcely believable. The canal is over a hundred miles long and peasants dug much of it by hand before dredgers imported from France finished the job. Before the peasants could begin digging the canal proper, they had to dig a second, smaller canal to supply water. Forced labor led to cholera and the Frenchmen barely made their deadline, ten years after they had begun.

Egypt’s rulers originally owned much of the shares in the Canal company, but had to sell them to pay off national debts. Then came Nasser, who in 1956 nationalized the Suez, in what Khaled called a “brave decision.” Egyptians pulled down a statue of De Lesseps, leaving only a lonely plinth. After all, Khaled reminded us, “we, the Egyptians, are the people who dug, who died.”

I am consistently surprised by how many Egyptians I meet with limited English know how to pronounce, with near perfection, the phrase “tripartite aggression,” referring to Israel, France, and England’s joint attack months after the nationalization. It would be as if I could rattle off the Arabic for “Emancipation Proclamation.” Khaled told us about the tripartite aggression, which was “in vain,” because “it is our canal, whatever will happen.”

Now, he explained, “the canal is completely run by Egyptians.” Before nationalization, much of the canal was only 200 meters wide, but now it ranges from 300 to 350.

“There is no canal that is a rival with the Suez Canal,” he announced, although nobody suggested otherwise. “The Panama Canal is not a rival. We give them expertise when they need it.”

The unprompted competition gathered steam. “They have five locks. We have no locks. They depend on rainwater. We do not rely on rainwater. We are cheaper. We are unique in our potentialities. The biggest container ship in Panama,” he said, “is 500 containers. Here it is 20,000.”

Then, seeing us nod, he added a resounding “Yeah.”

The canal company employs 13,000 workers in three cities in expertise ranging from economics to engineering to technicians to pilots. Khaled told us a story. “A Chinese Ambassador told me that in China they study the history of the canal in primary school. Why is that?”

Nobody knew, so he told us the ambassador’s punch line: “Because it is the bottleneck of our goods to Europe!”

We left the bright room and boarded the bus again, this time to look out at the canal from the Beach Club, a sort of country club for employees. “It is forbidden,” read the sign at the entrance, “to wear pajamas or a galabiya [the robe associated with lower class Egyptians].”

Walking up to the water and looking across the several hundred meters to Asia, the power of the canal as both a reality and an idea hits you with a similar power to the Pyramids. The building of the canal was accompanied by grand speeches about the merging of East and West, the ideals of progress, and the inevitability of a more interconnected world. Numerous monarchs of Europe attended the opening. De Lesseps announced: “The names of the Egyptian sovereigns who erected the Pyramids, those useless monuments of human pride, will be ignored. The name of the Prince who will have opened the grand canal through Suez will be blessed century after century for posterity.”

This view across the water, to which had recently been added a large statue of a bayonet, a mural of battle scenes, and the words “WELCOME TO EGYPT” in big green letters, is still stunning, despite the kitsch. This, I remembered, is what the assembled royalty of Europe had seen when they attended the opening in 1869, what the French and English engineers who worked at the canal saw for decades over lunches of grilled fish and eggplant, eaten with engraved knives under lace curtains, what Egyptian soldiers saw facing Israelis during several wars, and what De Lesseps saw when his bombastic speeches about parting the two continents in order to bring them together finally became a reality. The tankers passed at a processional, almost stately pace, puffing yellow-black smoke and making the little tugboats and ferries look like toys and the giant containers stacked on the decks by the hundreds look like lego blocks: the romance and the sheer drama of world commerce. 

Eric, a professional sculptor who is setting up a bronze foundry at a local university, started talking about the Statue of Liberty. Originally, Frederic August Bartholdi had hoped to make a similarly grand statue for the opening of the canal. His original sketches showed an Egyptian peasant woman holding aloft a lamp, the “Light of Asia,” to entering ships.

“Why didn’t they accept it?” I asked.

“Probably because it was not as good an idea,” he answered, chuckling. "I mean, a peasant woman holding a lamp? It doesn’t make sense. They probably thought it was Christian, and maybe it was a little Christian."

“I just wonder,” pondered Natalia, an anthropologist, “Why we’re looking at it, the canal, at all?”

“Because it’s important,” Eric started to answer, before she interrupted, “No, it’s a rhetorical question.”

She gave a brief history of Napoleon’s invasion of Egypt, and the colonial impulse that guided De Lesseps as he had penetrated the isthmus of Suez to make it the center of world trade for at least a hundred years. “I guess,” Natalia said, remembering Khaled’s proud remarks earlier that day, “this whole genre of ‘we got it back’ redeems it.”

Ismailia and the Suez Canal Part 1: Homeland Security

The wind in Ismailia, halfway down the west bank of the Suez Canal, sounded like the tornado in The Wizard of Oz, or else like those plastic tubes one twirls to make an airy hum, as it bounced off the windows of our hotel.

I had arrived with a bus full of American scholars and students, the ‘Fulbrighters,’ and after a long morning of conferences and nine-month research projects condensed into ten minute gusts we decided to take a walk around the city. It felt appropriate to visit Ismailia, named after the man who tried to make Egypt look like Europe, with American scholars, all of whom struggle in their own way with the legacy of colonialism and its relationship to knowledge in one of the most colonized and studied countries in the world.

As a group of Americans on an official trip, someone had decided that we were in danger, or at least needed a bevy of security. In the past month, Bedouins in the Sinai had been kidnapping Americans, Koreans, and even several Egyptian soldiers. Although this all happened about eight hours from Ismailia, and there are no Bedouins for miles, the security alert, were such a thing to be color coded here, would have been a light red.

Whether this directive to protect us came from the Egyptian government, the U.S. government, the hotel, or the grey space of bureaucracy in between these big, complicated entities I did not know. What I did learn was a security personnel would be coming with us, backed up by a local plainclothes police officer, who was backed up by four more uniformed officers squeezed into a police truck: Eight students, six cops, and pretty much no one else in the streets. As we began to walk, Michael, who studies Egyptian poetry, joked with Badr, our guard, “Don’t worry. Obama is still at the hotel!”

The wind been joined by low temperatures and light rain, which meant that the many security personnel, themselves not in charge of their assignment to follow us, were unenthused. They hinted with questions like “What do you want to see here? There’s nothing in the city to see.” When we would answer that we had heard of a café or a historic church or a park and they would shake their heads and “It’s boring. There’s nothing interesting.” Security guards, of course, are judged by how little happens on their watch, not how much, so they make the worst tourism promoters. They did, once we cajoled a little bit, make great tour guides.

Ismailia was named after Khedive Ismail, the leader who, flush with cash after cotton prices boomed during the American Civil War, aspired to turn Cairo into a European capital, after a trip to Haussmann’s Paris. The downtown areas of Ismailia feels like a “skin graft,” Michael observed, as we traversed the wide European boulevards, parks, and traffic circles that have transformed over a century into another tourist-less hub of contemporary Egyptian life.  Some of the buildings reminded us both of New Orleans. At the time I thought this was because of the colonial French architecture, though reflecting later the comparison felt deeper, like Hurricane Katrina’s destructive force had slowly accrued in this city over the course of thirty years of corruption and municipal negligence.

The security guards continued to look bored, so we tried to make conversation. Ghazzal, who studies 9th century literature, explained to Badr why she wanted to walk through the city at such a leisurely place. “I spend so much time reading,” she said, “but there is a different between the reading about a place and seeing and experiencing it. I want to see the details that I read about.”

We discovered a Coptic Catholic Church, where strains of My Heart Will Go On came from an unseen organ. An old priest in Catholic collar, Coptic robe, and thin white beard, emerged (certainly the appropriate word) and squinted as he told us that the French founded this massive cathedral in the 1920’s to commemorate Ferdinand De Lesseps, who had overseen construction of the canal fifty years before. “After 1973,” the priest told us, “nobody European lived in Ismailia, so it became a cathedral for us.”

The iconographies, languages, and decorations of the church melded these two seemingly incompatible Christianities. Outside in the courtyard, a statue of a San Padre Pio raised his arms to bless whoever might walk up the tile steps towards him, his figure framed by Christmas lights and fake Hawaiian flowers.

Back to the hotel. A few hours later, we tried to leave the hotel again to eat dinner back in town. This was a cause for concern and again the security guards halted us in the driveway, looking both annoyed and understanding that this whole game was a little ridiculous. They were “sorry, sorry, sorry,” and didn’t mean to make us feel “like prisoners,” but we simply could not go without an escort. They assigned a security guard to our cohort of four, a big, burly man with a shaved head and piercing eyes, and a penchant for techno music and Thailand named Islam. He figured that rather than follow our taxi, he might as well just take us. After dinner, he offered a personal tour of the city, with commentary, and because the city is not very big, this involved a lot of repeated routes and personal stories.

Islam is a tourism police officer who once busted drug and prostitution rings. He supported the revolution, he told me, but he did not like any of the groups claiming power in Egypt a year later, whether the revolutionaries or the Brotherhood or the military council. He works in Ismailia, but lives in Cairo, meaning that every week he splits his time between two homes. He is not married, he told me, turning up the house music on his car stereo, so he is able to get by on about a hundred dollars a month. “And after three weeks,” he told me, “I’m going to visit Thailand.” He showed us a bombed out police lorry that has rusted on the side of the road since it was tipped over and lit aflame by protesters last January.

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Observations #4

19. The Home of the Nation museum is the preserved house of Sa’ad Zaghlul, an anti-colonial activist whose exile was one of many sparks that caused the 1919 revolts against British rule. Today, his home is a dusty relic of early 20th-century Cairo, where dusty gramophone players and desks sit in dusty rooms practically untouched. Dusty taxidermy birds eerily watch over walls covered in photos and paintings of Zaghlul in his many poses: standing, sitting, orating, listening. Our tour guide is a young women who speaks at a bored, blazing pace and does not let anyone linger in the rooms, which are lighted when we enter and darkened when we leave. “This was his meeting room,” she says, “though he didn’t meet here a lot because he was exiled.” We enter the dining room: “They ate at 1:30PM here every day. They sat in these chairs. The food came from that door. Any questions?”

20. At the tomb and museum of colonial-era political agitator Mustafa Kamil, all of the paintings and sculptures were stolen during last year’s uprisings against Mubarak. All that’s left is Kamil’s immovable granite tomb. After a policeman guarding the entrance tries to tell us there’s nothing to see, an older tour guide takes us in. “Who was Mustafa Kamil?” he asks, before answering in an excited monologue about all of the man’s achievements agitating for freedom from British rule in various European capitals. He concludes with a brief video about Kamil, displayed proudly on his Blackberry at a size of one inch by one inch.

21. In our neighborhood, they’re running out of gas. Today, about fifty older women clustered around the gas cylinder distributor trying to get refills. Kids rolled them down the street, making the familiar sound of empty canisters scraping the rocky dirt roads. An old woman saw us trying to make our way through the clogged alley. “Foreigners!” she shouted to us,  “Don’t be afraid!”

22. At the Cairo International Book Fair, Dr. Phil translated into Arabic is a big seller.

23. The first thing a young diplomat tells me when I mention an interest in journalism: “Don’t try to be a hero!”

24. Judges in charge of the investigation and prosecution of American NGO’s suggested that one of these NGO’s, the International Republican Institute (headed Sam LaHood, son of U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood), is trying to break up Egypt into multiple states. One judge said that evidence against the NGO included “maps taken from IRI’s office that had English writing on them and divided Egypt up into provinces. That seemed an attempt to link the organization to the widely propagated conspiracy theory that the US and other Western powers are seeking to carve post-Mubarak Egypt into four separate countries.”

Monday, February 20, 2012

The Ahwagy and the Intellectuals


The Zahrat al Bustan Café is one of Cairo’s old literary haunts. The acerbic novelist Sonallah Ibrahim counted this cafe as one of three downtown points in the “Triangle of Horror,” where literary scandals and gossip would swirl among intellectuals and socialites in the 1970’s over tea, shisha, and sahleb (a warm creamy drink made from orchid root). Although there is a proper indoor room of smoke-grey walls and a few laconic old men playing dominoes, the real bustle happens in the open-air alleyway, where turquoise plastic chairs sit under a flickering string of lights curved into the shape of a candle, like a left over and kind of pathetic Christmas decoration.

In November, when the year’s constant mist of rallies, demonstration, sit-ins, and marches became a whirlpool of tear-gas, rubber bullets, and rushed political compromises, Bustan was a popular place to take a break from Tahrir and the war zone of Mohamed Mahmoud Street. It was far enough away to feel safely distanced, but close enough so that the journalists and the activists trading their stories could, if the chanting that wafted over the buildings was enticing enough, run out and seek some new ones.

It was here in late November, that I sat with several friends smoking shisha and people watching. A young man with a thick scruff of beard seamlessly joined to his head of curly hair zipped around the alley with a long-handled bowl in one hand and a pair of tongs in the other, replacing the coals on shisha pipes when they turned to ash. He would wipe the remains into the bowl, and then lift the tobacco holder and blow a quick puff of air to clean out the top and get rid of the unpleasant flavor of charcoal. Swinging the bowl casually from side to side to air the coals, he would pick out small crumbled chunks and arrange them with a slightly over-performed care on the circle of tin foil and tobacco.

He watched me watch him. “The shisha’s good?” he asked proudly, already knowing the answer. I nodded and smiled. I pronounced “Moo-rees,” the Arabization of my name, and he reached out his hand for a shake I’d learned well by then, a combination of a slap and a grab. “If the shisha’s good now,” he told me, “then a good tip later.” He said his name was Ali, and taught me the word for his job, ahwagy, which combines the Egyptian word for coffee or café, ahwa, with the Turkish/Ottoman suffix –agy, which refers to occupations.

I would go to Bustan once or twice a week, pulled by the space’s balance of relaxation and excitement. A street magician pulls rabbits out of a hat, and vendors go from table to table. Usually they sell tissues or newspapers, but one night a man was clearly selling guns and I did not get the courage to ask if they were real or not.

On Valentine’s day, months later, Bustan was unusually quiet. We had not been by for several weeks, and Ali had to stare at us and shake his head in a cartoonish way before recognizing me. He walked over and leaned in for a greeting you do when you’re a friend, rather than an acquaintance, where you kiss the air next to each others cheeks, right and then left. His three-day scruff brushed my three-day scruff, though I suspected the reasons for our lack of a clean shave might be different.

He spotted an Arabic newspaper I had just bought because Muhammad Hassenein Heikal’s face took up a massive portion of the cover. Heikal was one of Nasser’s closest friends and advisors in the 1960’s, and worked as Editor in Chief of Al Ahram throughout much of his rule. His weekly columns were widely seen as Nasser’s thoughts and policies translated into in polished prose, and were translated instantly into English and French for diplomats to interpret as code from the conspiratorial President. After a falling out with Sadat, Heikal continued to write and speak widely about his former glory days, publishing numerous books about the major events of the latter half of Egypt’s twentieth century. Recently, he had been issuing a new account of Mubarak’s rule in daily installments.

Ali recognized him immediately, and challenged me to read the headline, correcting my pronunciation while skimming the article. “He’s very well-known,” Ali said of Heikal, “very famous,” holding his hand at an angle towards himself and sticking out his chest. “Heikal is like [Naguib] Mahfouz or Chahine [a famous film director] and so he can write his opinion every day about politics and people read it and take it seriously.”

I asked Ali if he ever wrote down his opinions or told them to others. He shook his head. “I don’t have opinions about these things. I just work at a café.”

“But you’re right by Tahrir,” I reminded him. “You must hear what everybody here says about politics.”

“I get so confused,” he answered. “First they say ‘this’ about the Muslim Brotherhood and then they say ‘that’ about the Salafis or the SCAF or the liberals, and I just do not agree. I don’t disagree either. I just stay out of it.”

“But really the problem is money. Every day you get paid, but then it goes to food and clothing and my son and daughter.”

I had no idea Ali was a father. He looked no more than twenty-five years old. It turns out he is thirty. He’s been working at this same café downtown for seventeen years, which means he started at thirteen. He works here from 3pm to 3am every day.

Another waiter shouted “Hey Ali, Muhammad is here!”

“Muhammad who?”

“Muhammad al hag [an honorific]”

Ali skittered off. He apologized later and explained that Muhammad was the café owner’s son.

When he returned, he started as if in mid-sentence.

“My son, Ahmed, is very sick. He has anemia, because he only ate fava beans for so long and he has been back and forth to the hospital for four months. Everybody said he was going to die.”

“It costs seventy pounds [about eleven dollars] every day,” he explained, to keep Ahmed at the hospital, “and so we have to get money from his mother’s family and my brother and father and a neighbor.”

“But then,” he told me, “my brother’s son got sick too.” He mentioned the name of the illness and I didn’t recognize it, though he motioned to his chest. I nodded and felt very uncomfortable. My mind flashed to all the accounts you hear of cabdrivers giving trumped up tales of woe for a big tip, but of course I was too far in not to believe him.

“But then, the doctor; he took his own blood and gave it to Ahmed, and now he is feeling much better. Tomorrow, I will wake up early because I’m going to see him at the hospital.”

Some customers arrived and Ali sprinted off again, waving the coals in the wind to make them glow. 

Friday, February 17, 2012

In the Press Archives: The State of the Tsar’s Health is Entirely Satisfactory

I met Hugh, the crime journalist, as the workday was winding down and a new issue of The Egyptian Gazette, Egypt’s state-owned English newspaper, was going to press. He works in the building of Al Gumhoria (The Republic), the publishing magnate which rises like a monolith of 1960’s glass and steel amongst the decayed colonial grandeur of its shorter neighbors. If you crane your neck up, you’ll read the names of the publisher’s products, slanted in unlit neon logos across the side of the granite edifice: Al Messa, Le Progres Egyptien, Shashaty, The Egyptian Gazette.

When I arrived, Hugh was busy editing the next day’s front page, scribbling small notes where a space between columns was too wide or an unnoticed misspelling marred an otherwise fluid read. One of three native speakers among a staff of forty, he is clearly a resource relied upon desperately, and stayed late to get the paper as close to perfection as possible.

A hundred and thirty years ago, several British men founded the Gazette shortly before several more British men invaded and occupied the country for seventy years. One of the paper’s first editors eventually rose to the managing editor position at the Times of London.

In 1954, Nasser, Egypt’s first Egyptian president, forced the paper to become purely Egyptian and the Gazette was the English-reader’s only daily option until after 2000, when the Daily News Egypt, where I’ve been writing, started publishing and multiple online news outlets sprouted. The Gazette now caters to a few businessmen, a few more diplomats, and others scattered around Egypt who do not read in Arabic.

While chatting with Hugh’s Egyptian colleagues and watching several older men with big mustaches fill the room with cigarette smoke, I noticed massive stacks of huge bound books on the wall. Sitting in the office, looking over the shoulder of the paper’s modern editors, are collections of every issue of the paper going back to 1880. Everyone seemed too busy to peruse these tomes, but they were happy to let me look through them.

I grabbed the oldest one in my first glance, from 1900. Back then, I realized quickly, the idea of a newspaper was almost entirely different. The whole front page displayed small, neatly arranged advertisements. The Gazette’s offices were housed in Alexandria, the Egypt’s major port city, so these little boxes promoted steamer lines and shipping services. On page two, one could read the current prices of grain, cotton, and other commodities in Egypt, England, and Continental Europe. After that, the weather, and then “Legal Notes” (about current trials), and “Entertainments,” which were light, quick reviews of local theater. Then, in a strange editorial decision driven either by space constraints or a sick sense of humor, were the executions of convicted murderers and the details of their crimes.

Finally, one gets to “General News.” Brief articles on loans, trade, and infrastructure were spread out over a huge page in the middle, in both English and French. Politics were restricted to very short updates about world leaders. “The Tsar’s temperature rose to 103 ½,” we learn, next to news of a new train route.

The next day, the Gazette reported another one sentence article. It read: “The state of the Tsar’s health is entirely satisfactory.” I couldn’t help but think that some writer had a sense of humor, as the word “entirely” seemed a little added bit of purposeful snark.

Much about the Gazette changed drastically after 1954. Under Egyptian leadership, and later government ownership, the Gazette’s front page advertised no products but instead the nation, its leader, and his decisions. On April 23rd, 1969, a smiling picture of President Nasser tucked up into his own quote: “IF ISRAEL GETS ATOM BOMB, WE GET IT TOO --- NASSER,” next to an ad for a casino.

The writer explained that “Nasser, in an interview with the American commentator Clifton Daniel, taped in Cairo and televised in the U.S., has said that peace in the Middle East can only come through the UN, and only after Israel has given up her expansionist policy.” The purpose of the article was not only to relay Nasser’s statements, but to make English-readers in Egypt know that English-readers in the U.S. had gotten the message too. It was not enough to give them the news. They had to know, to be told, why they should take it seriously as news.

On closer look, it seemed as though every article on the front page of that late April paper had something to do with peace and war in the Middle East: Suez, cease fires, revolution, arms races. The only exception had the usual taste for odds and ends: “He does it first-first solo, non-stop round-world voyage,” an article about a man named Robin Knox-Johnston, who had recently sailed around the globe.

A week later, Nasser gave a speech to an assembly of factory workers, saying that Egypt, then called the United Arab Republic, was “PLANNING FOR ATTACK.” The Egyptian Gazette’s editors must have decided that assigning a writer to summarize Nasser’s comments would take too much time and not fill enough space, so they had the entire speech translated. They published it over several pages of endless block text, broken only by helpful subject headings.

But the paper could not only be a dry dispatch of official speeches. It retained its sense of humor. As Nasser trumped up war, the Gazette published a wire article about two police officers in London who went after some thieves, taking along their police dog. The crime hound turned on its owners and forced them to lock themselves into a bathroom, where they remained for the better part of a day before anyone realized what happened. “No thieves were found,” the article concluded.

Sunday, February 12, 2012

What Alaa Al Aswany Had to Say

The walls of the cultural center’s main auditorium were lined with amateur paintings, drawings, and photographs. Most celebrated the revolution with the usual crowds and flags, while a few caricatured Mubarak and the military council with oversized heads and fleshy wrinkles.

The audience gathered in hundreds of chairs placed between the pictures and a few banners for Coca Cola and Vodaphone. What sounded oddly like American Christian praise music served as warm up while smartly dressed young men and women overflowed to several hundred. The curtain rose and I craned my neck to see the stage, trying to avoid falling backward into a pastel rendering of security troops kicking and dragging the now iconic girl in the blue bra.

Alaa Al Aswany, the author of novels The Yacoubian Building and Chicago, is one of Egypt’s best-known public intellectuals. He is treated in the press as the literary laureate of the Arab Spring, and Western articles about him inevitably focus on the same catchy details: that he still practices dentistry, that he has no political ambitions, that he was almost killed. It is unclear how many Egyptians have read his books, but nearly everyone mentions this one time when he trounced the Prime Minister on television, leading to his resignation a few days later.

Over the last year, Al Aswany has held weekly salons that have grown in attendance from a dozen to hundreds. The evening I attended last week, a screen of canvas barely protected the auditorium from the Nile’s drafts, so everyone had a cup of tea, coffee, and homos, chickpeas in hot tomato broth and lemon juice. According to the New Yorker’s Wendell Steavenson, Al Aswany usually begins these salons with the national anthem and a moment of silence for recent martyrs. He speaks unscripted, pausing only to accept a cup of tea or light a cigarette. In the past, he might talk literature and maybe introduce a new author. Recently, talk is always of politics.

After the curtain rose a half hour late, Al Aswany did not stop for tea or for a cigarette, and engaged in no fanfare. He wore a simple black suit, and two colleagues joined him at the unvarnished wooden dais to sort little slips of paper with questions from the audience. At any minute, he joked, state security could come in here and break up this salon. The audience laughed, but not too confidently.

The revolution for which Al Aswany is so often seen as a spokesman is now in need of more explicit guidance. A parliament is meeting regularly, meaning that action on the streets is no longer the only political story of the day. The tragedy in Port Said last week brought as much hand wringing as it did foot marches. Activists were closing in on the end of the anniversary of the eighteen days of 2011 that brought down Mubarak. They were calling for a general strike to demand that the military council leave power. The Muslim Brotherhood, which holds a majority of parliament and therefore the biggest stake in “official” politics, called upon Egyptians to go to work as normal.

Al Aswany narrated the last year briskly. He had been optimistic that the military council would oversee a transition to civilian rule, but their continuing authority is not constitutionally or legally acceptable. The “revolution,” a big and imprecise but very nostalgic term these days, should be the only source of what is and is not legitimate.

He darted between narration, education, and opinion.  He described in pedantic, but not patronizing terms, the meaning of a general strike. “It is a tool,” he explained, “to put pressure on the government to meet your demands…But it must be peaceful...The power of this revolution was that even though people were killed, we were still peaceful."

He went for the Muslim Brotherhood, explaining that when a new constitution is written (by a committee appointed by a Brotherhood-dominated parliament), the Egyptian people have a choice whether or not to approve it in a referendum. “You don’t have to do it,” he said. “They might tell you that if you don’t approve it then men will get married but that is not true.” The audience giggled quietly.

Al Aswany’s skill is in finding broad themes in fleeting moments. He is a novelist first and a political commentator second, but the rough stones he plucks from real life sound like a planned farce as he assembles them. It’s as if Egypt is caught in a bad political satire. The day before, parliament had received the Minister of the Interior in order to discuss security and the government’s response to protesters. Later that day, a Salafi member of parliament stood up and began reciting the call to prayer to stop the discussion. An Egyptian friend had been frustrated that the Western press saw this as evidence of a radical Islamist takeover. “Really, we all just thought it was funny and ridiculous,” she told me.

Al Aswany also saw the humor. “This man recited it a half hour late anyway,” he chuckled. “But anyway, real and true Islam is not standing up for the call to prayer. Rather, it is refusing to clap for the Interior Minister, who is killing protesters every day.”

Like many Egyptian public speakers, Al Aswany uses his hands a lot when he speaks, waving them to accentuate a point, motioning towards his chest when he says “in my opinion,” and counting on his fingers when an idea has several prongs. Unlike many Egyptian speakers, he has this one gesture where he places his elbow on the dais and splays his fingers to receive his tilted forehead. It is this pose that is pictured on the cover of his recent book of political commentary in Arabic, and it makes Al Aswany seem as though he is both thinking coolly and simmering with anger at the same time.

At one point, a woman ten rows from the front started shouting at Al Aswany, cursing him and telling him to leave. He could not hear what she was saying from the stage but sat calmly. Then, he smiled, and declared “iglis, iglis!” which means “be seated!” but is only used in parliament. This received more laughs and applause and the lone woman stormed out. Earlier Al Aswany had read a question printed on a card handed up to the front. The anonymous writer accused him of being “one-sided” and against Islam. Al Aswany, exasperated, answered him as he had the woman: “You did not listen to anything I said!”

He accused the judiciary of not being truly independent. He accused tea vendors in Tahrir square of being government informers. He accused the police of staging PR performances more than protecting Egyptians. He accused the army of wanting to make Egyptians miss Mubarak’s rule and hate the revolutionaries. He accused the state media of campaigning to smear the protest movements. “They say these groups are foreign funded,” he told the audience, “but they would not have revolted if they had money!”

“They tell us to calm down,” he said, his voice rising on “tell us” and falling to lengthen sarcastically the word “calm.” Then sliding back up to a punching cadence: “No revolution should ‘calm down’ before it has realized its goals!”

Quotes are thanks to spur of the moment translations by a friend, as well as my own understanding, so I cannot verify their accuracy.

I wrote a review of Al Aswany's most recent publication in English, a collection of newspaper columns from before the revolution. You can read it here.

Thursday, February 9, 2012

In the Press Archives: State Media and 'The People'

A lot has been made recently of the need to reform the state-owned press in Egypt. A sit-in of tattered tents and spray paint outside the Maspero building downtown demands a purge of Mubarak-era media officials who work inside. Activists have realized that real political change will come from a public awakening only possible without a pro-regime press. The photo above shows a now common stenciled graffiti that accuses state-owned media of being 'liars,' defending the regime against the will of the people. 

In 1960, President Gamal Abdel Nasser nationalized the Egyptian press. Calling it a “reorganization,” he transferred ownership of the four major publishing houses into the hands of the National Union, an organization meant to “the will and the authority of the people” and realize a “socialist revolution.” Since the revolution in 1952, the relationship between the press and Nasser’s ruling cadre had been tepid, with censorship and relative freedom waxing and waning with Nasser’s quixotic whims.

Quixotic, perhaps, but not insincere. Reading Nasser’s statements recently, I’ve been seeing a surprising, disarming candor about the aims of censorship. Opposed to what one might expect from a censoring dictator, Nasser often directed anger at sensational tabloids, rather than political investigations. “The social interest of the press did not reflect our new reality,” he once said, explaining a crackdown in the late 50’s.  “The new reality in our society is that of the village, the peasant and the workers, and not the Hilton Hotel.”

A few years later, Nasser spoke at the Third International Conference of Journalists in Cairo. He rattled off statistics that gave an impression of government transparency; “the budget this year reached LE 1,100 million, LE 350 million of which go to services, LE 150 million to the Army and internal security and the rest to production and development in industry…”

The delegation from Ceylon (now Sri Lanka), perhaps seeking the kind of bombshell that makes press conferences more than a dreary PR performance, stood up and confronted the President: “You are welcoming us here as journalists. Why do you prevent freedom of expression in your country?”

“Freedom of expression in our country is a long subject,” Nasser began, before forcing the journalists to sit through the long explanation. Before the revolution, he explained, the press had been a trade, and therefore beholden to the interests of capital. The cost of starting a paper was so high that only rich businessmen and political parties could afford to do it, meaning that coverage was dictated by the interests of the elite, rather than the interests of the people. “The parties supported the press and these parties had certain contacts with foreign countries which interfered under the veil of advertisements and the need of the papers to be financed,” he argued. “Thus the press was influenced by foreigners.”

Nasser, perhaps naïve and certainly romantic, thought that bringing the news under the authority of the state would actually make it more responsible to the people, because for him the revolutionary state was nothing more than the people’s will. Nasser’s own well-publicized asceticism (he refused to eat fancy foods and lived in a middle class house) certainly made this a believable, if impractical vision.

In 2006, many years after Nasser gave that answer to the reporters from Ceylon, a well-known Egyptian publisher named Hisham Kassem arrived at the World Association of Newspapers conference in Moscow. He had spent several years as CEO of Al Masry Al Youm, one of the first Egyptian newspapers beholden to no political party or Mubarak’s regime.

Kassem was idealistic too. He only hired young university graduates unfettered with employment experience at one of the other papers. Al Masry Al Youm, Kassem’s Editor-in-Chief Magdy Al Galed had written, "believes in the right of the reader to receive a great deal of objective and balanced information…thus leaving it up to the reader to take sides and form opinions."

But Kassem had reservations about how Al Masry Al Youm would be funded by “big businessmen.” “They have interests in markets,” he told me and a group of Fulbright students one evening this Fall, “and they’re going to start to commandeer content or to block content,”

In Moscow, Kassem sat and watched as Gavin O’Reilly, the president of the World Association of Newspapers gave a speech to open the conference. Putin was in attendance, and, in Kassem’s words, O’Reilly “trashed” him “for his track record with media.”

In that speech, O’Reilly spoke brusquely to Putin, channeling in a way the Ceylon reporters speaking to Nasser forty-three years earlier. “Mr. President, you and your government are on record as having clearly expressed your attachment to freedom of the press and have repeatedly articulated its importance to your fledgling democracy,” he began.

“Why is it,” he then asked, “that the State is still accused of promoting an atmosphere of caution and self-censorship among journalists, fearful for their livelihoods if they step very visibly out of line?”

Putin channeled Nasser in his response. “The 1990s was a period that saw capital from all sources arrive on the emerging Russian media market,” he said. “Sometimes this capital came from sources that hardly qualify as transparent. And the owners of this capital often had their own interests to pursue, interests far removed from the public’s demands.”

The moment of challenge passed, much as it had in 1963. But Putin’s retort had a big effect on Kassem, the Egyptian newspaper CEO. He remembers the whole thing a little differently. In his version, Putin was much more biting. “You don’t know what you’re talking about,” Kassem remembered Putin as saying. “Our media was owned by the Communist party. It collapsed. Before we knew it, five or six oligarchs bought up all the media in Russia and they were making public opinion.”

“My big fear now,” Kassem said of himself, “is that the media is going to be owned by the oligarchs here in Egypt and like Mr. Putin said that is much more dangerous than a single state entity owning them.”

“This was the first time,” he explained, “that somebody’s oppressed media made sense to me.”

From that moment on, Kassem felt guilty about his work. He felt that his paper was controlled by “oligarchs.” At one point, a businessman on the board of Al Masry Al Youm said to Kassem “My really good buddy, he’s running for treasurer on the board of Ahly club [a well-known sporting and social club] and we want to give him status.”

Kassem did not like this sort of thing, and would explain that helping out the friend of the board member would only impugn the credibility of the paper. The guilt finally built to the point where Kassem resigned from the paper.

“And if you look now,” Kassem said, “there isn’t a single paper or TV station that’s not owned by an individual.”

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

In the Press Archives: Nasser and the New Yorkers

In the late 1950’s and early 1960’s, the Information Department of the United Arab Republic (the UAR, a short-lived union of Syria and Egypt), published a yearly collection of President Gamal Abdel Nasser’s speeches and press interviews. A brilliant public relations move with an eye towards future scholars, each volume began with a somewhat campy proclamation:

“In this volume, President Gamal Abdel Nasser, world-acclaimed father of arab [sic] Nationalism and maker of the UAR, tells yet once more, in his simple, straight-from-the-heart way, the story of the past, present, and future of the Arab World, revealing as he speaks, truths that have been for so long either maliciously distorted or buried deep to suit some foreign interest.”
The titles of many of these speeches add in the phrase “to cheering crowds,” or “to the huge crowds who cheered him,” so that we know that we’re not reading some minor oration. Most of the speeches are filled with sweeping statements about workers and farmers and anti-imperialism that read years later as pomp, but at the time addressed Egyptians in an informal tone not unlike that of U.S. President FDR’s fireside chats a few decades before.

At the end of each annual volume, the Information Department compiled transcripts of Nasser’s press conferences. These texts are fascinating in part because they put Nasser into dialogue with the questions of journalists, turning the leader’s oratory into a conversation that he clearly leads but cannot totally control. Reading the archival material decades later, it’s jarring to get to the press conferences, where you see an invincible leader become human.

Every once in a while, the journalists were Americans, and asked questions that primarily Americans would ask. At one conference, a journalist (they are unnamed in the record) posed, “Mr. President, we can’t find Newsweek magazine at the hotel. I wonder why Newsweek isn’t allowed.”

Nasser, showing his impressive memory, did not struggle to remember why. His response: "Yes, it contained an article in which it was asserted that Mr. Dag Hammarskjoeld [then Secretary-General of the U.N.] talked harshly to the President of the UAR [Nasser]. This of course was an insulting attitude, because nobody could speak harshly to the President of the UAR… such an article is not polite, and we cannot accept that; we really cannot permit such a magazine to be distributed in our country.”

Nasser, it seems, wanted to explain censorship not as a matter of political maneuver, but rather as a response to a perceived personal slight. If the newspapers of the U.S. are going to be mean to me, then I’ll fight back by not letting them sell here. 

Nasser explained this even more frankly in another conference with “American Editors and Commentators” in 1958. Here’s what he told them:

“Reading newspapers is a favorite hobby of mine, and I read almost all the newspapers of the world, which naturally include those of the U.S. A. The main point is that your press is not fair, particularly the New York newspapers. What disappointed me most was that after meeting many American newspapermen and spending long hours with them, their reports were still not fair. For instance, I once spent three hours in an interview with the representative of one of your leading broadcasting and television companies during which I answered about 80 questions without any preparation beforehand. Then I learned that the whole programme was omitted and was replaced by an old film of me in which I appeared in military uniform delivering a fiery speech in Arabic.”
Nasser appears to have been hurt personally by the way he was represented to the American people. He even mentions that the “fiery” speech is “in Arabic,” a seemingly obvious detail, suggesting that he knows how such an image will come off in the U.S. He will seem like an angry dictator, whose military uniform is a symbol of strong-armed autocracy rather than a symbol of resistance to colonialism, which is what the uniform means for him and his Egyptian audience.

What Nasser was giving away in this press conference was the fact that he did not understand the role of journalists in the U.S., who see themselves as catering to the egos of the powerful only to call them to task in public. He refused to play this game, because he found it petty and insulting. He interpreted the standard procedures of the Western press to be affronts to both to his person and to the nation of Egypt, which had so recently thrown off the shackles of humiliating foreign domination. He simply didn’t get it, and wouldn’t take it.

Nasser then tried to impress upon the American opinion makers that their audiences wouldn’t be fooled either. He knew, he argued, because the audience had told him. “I receive about 35,000 letters every month, in which the writers express their own personal viewpoints,” Nasser said to the gathered journalists. “Naturally, it isn’t possible for me to read all these letters, but those which I read are full of warmth and genuine feelings."

Having been to a handful of press conferences with American politicians in Egypt this past year (Kerry, Panetta, and Carter), I can say that this kind of anecdote would absolutely never come up. Every word is carefully considered, and emotions other than the scripted "joy" and "pride" never, ever make an appearance in the record (though they might in the tone of voice used). 

Nasser, though he may have aspired to be a statesman, was in the estimation of many not really a politician. Egyptian writer and public intellectual Tawfiq al-Hakim once said of the man: “He never thought an effective thought about war. He was a man of feeling, of excitation and anger, of imagination…Abdel Nasser had more of the nature of a dreamy, emotional, artistic writer.”

So Nasser told the American journalists about all the letters he was getting from ordinary Americans. “Practically all those letters from the U.S.A. were filled to overflowing with noble sentiments,” he said, “that could not be traced in newspapers or felt in diplomatic circles…So striking was the contrast between these letters and the attitude  of the U.S. press that one simply could never believe they came from one and the same country. We are a sentimental people and I must say I was very deeply touched by these letters.”

Later on in the same press conference, a journalist asked Nasser about the High Dam, for which the U.S. government had offered to loan the necessary funds but then pulled out support with a public letter that cast doubt on Egypt’s ability to pay them back. “The withdrawal of the offer was meant to humiliate Egypt,” Nasser told them, “and this, the USA does not have the right to do. A kind word means more to me than 10 million dollars.”

Sunday, February 5, 2012

Observations #3

13. These are the Abul Gheit Dervishes. Their name comes from an island in the Nile Delta where a queen used to live. She enslaved the island's inhabitants, angering an old pious man named Hassan. One night, Hassan found a dead body floating in the canal. He buried the body, and then fell asleep, to be awakened by a "messenger of God" who made him a saint, capable of performing miracles. The queen tried many times to kill Hassan, but he always survived, which led people to believe that he had in fact received a special kind of blessing. His son started the group of chanters and singers to perform a kind of exorcism of malicious spirits. The descendants, above, now perform to tourists and don't talk a lot about exorcisms or special powers, though the music is great.

14. An Egyptian friend who spends time in Tahrir square told me that a lot of the teenage protesters lie to their parents about where they are. More than once, she said, someone will ask her for a quick idea, a believable story, for when they get home. One boy told his parents he was spending three days on the Mediterranean beach, when in fact he was running from tear gas and sleeping under tents shaking in the freezing wind.

15. Roughly twenty young men hijacked a police lorry and took it for a joy ride through the streets of downtown last Sunday, to the confusion of shopkeepers and café goers.

16. Amazingly, there are no rats in the Cairo subway. You can, however, buy remote controlled toy rats that glow and wag their little plastic tails.

17. Cairo’s best Chinese food can be found off a small side street in the working class neighborhood of Abbaseya, where emigrants of northwest China’s Uyghur minority cook to support their studies at Al Azhar University. We ate soups of homemade noodles and endless dishes of tofu, seaweed, and cabbage. The owner speaks no Arabic, the menu is all pictures, and the chefs are Sudanese.

18. A hookah and dessert stop-in downtown called Jungle Land is the Rainforest Café with an added dose of camp. Fake foliage covers the low ceilings, faux taxidermy tigers and monkeys stand with their mouths agape, and waiters cross a bridge over a little fake stream to deliver your drinks. One night in the winter, the waiters brought out wispy bunt (the kind used for spider webs in haunted houses) and covered the trees in a white haze. I asked one what they were doing. “It’s winter, so we have snow,” he said, with absolutely no irony.  

Thursday, February 2, 2012

Thoughts on the Tragedy in Port Said

The figures coming out in most of the press are saying that over seventy died and over three hundred were injured in riots that broke out last night at a soccer match in Port Said between the most famous Cairo team, Al Ahly, and the home team Al Masry. Fans stormed the field, crowds spooked and stampeded towards steel doors bolted shut, flares caused a column of fire to explode behind the stands, and riot police neglected to prevent the situation from spiraling, either because they were overwhelmed or because…well, everyone is speculating. Politicians are blaming the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces for the thin security presence (as many police have refused to work since the revolution). Forensic details have not been released, and the fact is that when thousands of people are involved in scenes of chaos, the lines between centrally-planned decisions and spontaneous cascades of reactions are hard, if even possible, to draw.

Three years ago, when Mubarak was still in power, I went to a qualifying match for the World Cup between Zambia and Egypt at Cairo Stadium. During the Mubarak years, intense soccer rivalries became an outlet for strangled political anger, and at the time hundreds of police in full riot gear formed a ring around the front row of the stands, as well as a human border for the sliver of seating given to visiting Zambian fans. It felt as though every precaution was taken to avoid chaos: Besides the security, the match, unlike pretty much any other event in Egypt, started on time to the minute. Several plainclothes police kept an eye on the American women sitting near me for their protection. At the match’s conclusion, tens of thousands of Egyptian fans were whisked out of the stadium in an expert display of crowd control before any Zambians were allowed to leave.

The security was extraordinarily well organized, which leads me to agree with the instant analysis coming out that suggests that someone made a decision to let the security apparatus fail and the violence to spiral. Others have pointed out that local authorities who usually attend these matches, the governor and head of security in Port Said, did not show up. The April 6 Youth Movement announced that “what happened yesterday does not have an explanation expect as part of a plan by the military council and the interior ministry to push the country into chaos and force us to embrace military rule.”

Last night and this morning, instant analysis has been streaming out of the press. While living in Egypt, I've often noticed that events seem to come out of nowhere, and then a bunch of writers who are apparently experts on soccer in Egypt, or whatever other fairly specific topic, appear to explain that the events were in fact not so surprising. James Dorsey, who writes a blog called The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer, wrote in Foreign Policy that the riots were possibly a payback by the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces against Ultras, Egypt’s hardcore soccer fans, who have taken a big role in Tahrir square protests over the last year. A year ago today, they had a big role in defending other protesters from pro-Mubarak forces who stormed Tahrir on camel and horse and caused numerous deaths. In a television interview, Nasserist presidential candidate Hamdeen Sabbahi said simply “this is a planned ambush on the Ahly Ultras group for their prominent role in the 25 January Revolution.”

Letting the violence spiral would make the Ultras look like the instigators, even though the relationship between the actual organized, decision-making bodies of Ultras and the thousands of rambunctious, unemployed youth who affiliate with them is unclear and permeable. “The stakes are high for the ultras,” Dorsey thinks, “with leaders effectively having lost control of a rank and file that has swelled in recent years with thousands of disaffected, unemployed, and often uneducated youth who believe it is payback time against a police force that is widely despised.”

Dorsey thinks this will lead most Egyptians to blame them and side with the SCAF because they want stability. Such was the dynamic during the November and December violence, when the SCAF allowed violence to spiral so they could be seen as the only protectors of economic and social stabilization post-revolution, both in the eyes of most Egyptians and the U.S.

The Muslim Brotherhood’s official statement about the events suggests the events are “the handiwork of domestic parties and dubious forces that still have strong ties with the former regime,” as well as  “foreign fingers that failed to take control of the Egyptian revolution, but never gave up attempts to distort, distract and disrupt the march of the revolution” They then “call upon the Egyptian people…to be vigilant, to thwart these plots, and to expose these groups and movements that want to drag Egypt into an abyss of organized chaos so as to prevent this homeland from enjoying stability, security, development and prosperity.”

They are, primarily, blaming people connected to the Mubarak regime in “the cells of Tora prison.” Then they refer to “foreign fingers” attempting to impede the “march of the revolution.” The Brotherhood often says what it believes the majority of Egyptians will say, and it looks a lot like how most average Americans would respond to violence they don’t understand, essentially saying we don’t care how this happened, but just get it together and make sure it doesn’t happen again and we’ll keep trusting you. The Brotherhood is tapping into a populist desire to look the other way. Almost on cue, Field Marshall Tantawi, said “Normal people did this, so normal people must move to stop them.” This is part of a continuing effort to widen the gap between anti-regime and pro-regime Egyptians, so they will fight each other instead of demanding political change. Looking back from last night, a rash of local crime in the past few days now seems like a slowly building argument to reinvigorate the Emergency Law debated by the People's Assembly earlier this week. 

The fact is that there were lots of TV cameras, but very few journalists at the game, or even in Port Said, which slowed the speed of coverage. Port Said is several hours from Cairo, and journalism in Egypt, especially of the Twittery, instant variety, is oriented to a fault towards the capital city. Every time even the slightest scuffle breaks out in Tahrir or nearby (October, November, December) it sends instant waves of information through the Internet, causing hundreds or even thousands of young activists to show up and escalate the violence through the sheer force of crowd presence. Security forces, under the authority but maybe not the direction of the SCAF, are stuck. If they fire, they get blamed by the protesters, and if they don’t, they get blamed by Egyptians who want an ever elusive “stability.”

On January 25th, the first anniversary of the revolution, some people certainly expected violence, but nothing happened. Tom Gara, of The National, wrote on the 29th that the “Egyptian army has discovered the secret to getting protesters to go home after a couple of days: don't attack them.”

There was a moment of stalemate. SCAF could not respond to protesters, of which the Ultras are often a committed segment, in Tahrir, because this has happened too many times and uninvolved spectators, the ever-mysterious “Silent Majority,” might start to think they are as guilty of instigating violence as the protesters.

The SCAF needed a new tactic, somewhere other than downtown Cairo to let violence that would not immediately be blamed on them spiral out of control. So, they left it to happen somewhere else, in a soccer stadium in Port Said. Perhaps they did not plan for what happened, but when you run a country, you still get the blame, and the real question will be if they get it or if they'll be able to place it again on the heads of the powerless.